Violence marked post-Civil war Reconstruction

By Wesley Harris
Journal Correspondent

The 1870s were arguably the most violent and lawless decade in north Louisiana history. The so-called Reconstruction of Louisiana after the Civil War was painful and deadly. Republican officeholders faced harassment and even political assassination.

The Nightriders, a gang that terrorized north central Louisiana, killed and robbed with impunity. Cole Younger and others of the James-Younger gang frequented the northeast corner of the state.

The economic conditions brought on by the loss of the war turned many men to robbery and theft and the chaos of the political situation fostered the lawless environment.

Described as a "horse thief, incendiary, and murderer," Ira D. Robbins, alias Commodore D. Lattineer, was a violent and dangerous criminal accused of killings in Mississippi and Texas, including an unspecified number of women. Among his victims were Peterson M. Dickerson of Simpson County, Mississippi. Robbins was arrested for robbing Dickerson of a large amount of money and a gold watch. Released upon posting bond, Robbins supposedly burned down the county courthouse to destroy the indictment against him. Then Dickerson was murdered on November 14, 1873, by a shotgun blast that also wounded his brother and a younger sister. A hefty reward of $1,500 was offered for the killer's arrest and conviction.

On November 14, 1876, exactly three years after the Dickerson murder, a crowd of country men, including Robbins, at a house of ill-fame on Front Street in Texarkana, Texas became so boisterous that City Marshal William T. Flint had to be called. Flint told the men they had to settle down or he would be compelled to arrest them. Robbins boasted no officer could take him, and if Flint did not leave, proposed to throw him from the window. Marshal Flint told Robbins to consider himself under arrest.

No sooner had the words passed his lips than Robbins drew his revolver and fired three shots into Flint, who fell dead on the spot. The shooter hastily mounted his horse and fled into the canebrake of Red River's bottoms. A posse was unable to locate him. Newspapers expressed great confusion over the murderer's name, referring to him as Commodore D. Lattimere, Ira D. Lattimer, Lattimar, Latiner and Lattineer, with the alias of Robinson or Robins

The killer was described as "six feet high, 27 years old, slim build, dark eyes and light curly hair." A $500 reward was offered for his capture.

On the run from Texas, in February 1877, Robbins sought refuge in Union Parish's D'Arbonne Swamp. Texas authorities telegraphed the Union Parish Sheriff Benjamin Franklin Pleasant that they believed Robbins was in the vicinity. The reason Robbins chose Union Parish as a hiding place is not revealed in the documents of the day. It is possible he had family or friends in the area.

Thirty-four year old Pleasant, whose son Ruffin would one day be governor of the state, formed a posse to search the swamp, then frozen due to the frigid February weather.

Newspapers of the era reported several occasions when Bayou D'arbonne froze over to the point paddle wheelers approaching from Monroe could not proceed due to the thickness of the ice. The swamp around Bayou D'arbonne is nearly impenetrable today, the home of bobcats, water moccasins, alligators, and other hazardous life. Sleeping in the swamp, wondering if that rustling sound was an armadillo or possum rooting around or something deadlier, had to be nightmarish. It was hardly a hospitable sanctuary from the law in 1877.

Hiding in D'arbonne's frozen waters, Robbins's feet became "so badly frostbitten as to render locomotion exceedingly painful and difficult." Since Robbins could not run, the posse tracked him down and took him into custody without incident. Sheriff Pleasant installed Robbins in the Farmerville jail and obtained medical treatment for his prisoner. To save Robbins's life, physicians amputated portions of both feet, perhaps to stem the spread of gangrene.

The editor of Farmerville's newspaper, The Union Record, wrote that due to Robbins's shocking condition, the sheriff moved him to the residence of A. J. Mashaw, a popular jeweler and entrepreneur, "where he receives all necessary attention. Truly, the way of the transgressor is hard."

Robbins remained in Farmerville during his recovery from the amputations, giving the locals a chance to interact with him. The editor of the Record described him as "a genteel young man"of twenty-four years who was "respectably connected in Texas, with a wife residing near Texarkana. After Robbins recovered, Sheriff Pleasant sent her back to Texas. Meanwhile, the surgeon wrote up the case for a medical journal.

Dr. William M. Weathersby, brother-in-law of the murdered Peter Dickerson, saw the article and suspected Robbins of the 1873 Simpson County, Mississippi murder.

He corresponded with Sheriff Pleasant for more information. Despite the loss of his feet, Robbins escaped from the Texas jail after a few days, and returned to Union Parish's D'Arbonne Swamp. Sheriff Pleasant received an arrest warrant from Mississippi charging Robbins with the Dickerson murder.

Learning of the posse, Robbins stole a buggy and escaped into Arkansas. One of Pleasant's deputies captured Robbins in El Dorado and lodged him in the Farmerville jail awaiting extradition papers from Mississippi.

With second incarceration in Farmerville, a newspaper editor wrote of Robbins, "A plucky man this without any legs." A Mississippi bounty hunter named Glasson demanded the reward for Robbins's capture, but Sheriff Pleasant disputed him, claiming the reward for he and his deputies deserved it.

Dr. Weathersby traveled to Farmerville to help Sheriff Pleasant transport Robbins to Mississippi for trial. The men decided to spend the night in Monroe, planning to catch the train to Jackson the next morning. Overnight in the Monroe jail, Robbins found matches and started a fire, hoping to create sufficient confusion to mask an escape. His ruse failed, and the next morning, the group departed on the Vicksburg, Shreveport & Pacific Railroad for Mississippi as planned.

Once incarcerated in the Simpson County jail, Robbins sent a message to his mother, asking her to send a file and knife to help him escape. Before his mother could arrive, relatives and friends of his victims decided to take matters into their own hands. On the morning of August 10, 1877, more than 200 men gathered in Westville, Mississippi to discuss what to do with Robbins. By noon, the crowd had swelled to eight hundred.

Without concrete evidence of his guilt, the mob dragged Robbins out of jail and attempted to coerce a confession. He adamantly refused, pleading to receive "the prayers of some Christian man; but that was refused, unless he confessed."

The ringleaders finally tired of the stalemate. Setting Robbins upon a horse, they placed him "before the tribunal of One Almighty Judge, there to answer as to his guilt or innocence, and receive His decree He was swung (or rather dragged) into eternity without prayer, pity or remorse from those concerned in the hanging."

The mob bungled the hanging by tying the rope to Robbins's neck before securing it to the tree limb. Several men lifted Robbins up from the horse's back as others tied the rope to the tree. When he was let down, Robbins slid off the side of the horse and slowly strangled to death. Mortified observers wrote that his self-appointed executioners left Robbins's body hanging for several hours, while they returned to their homes to "partake of their daily meal for which the scene had given them such a complacent, longing appetite; others to return to their wives and children, feeling as innocent and secure as if they were just returning from the field and plow..."

After lunch, a few men returned to cut down Robbins's body for burial. At that moment, Robbins's mother rushed into town. Despite riding 36 miles in six hours to reach her son, she only managed to arrive to see his body making its way to the cemetery.

Union Parish Sheriff Pleasant expected to collect a reward of $1,500 for apprehending Robbins and returning him to Mississippi. However, the reward depended on Robbins's conviction, something the vigilantes made impossible by lynching him.

The Mississippi Legislature passed a resolution thanking Sheriff Pleasant for arresting Robbins in Arkansas and returning him to Mississippi, authorizing the sum of $400 as compensation for his time and trouble.

Wesley Harris is a native of Ruston who writes extensively on Reconstruction era crime. His books include Neither Fear nor Favor: Deputy United States Marshal John Tom Sisemore, and Greetings from Ruston, both available from amazon.com. He can be contacted a campruston@gmail.com

Back