By Michael F. Bradford
One of the more colorful and controversial characters to settle southern Louisiana, Irishman Martin Bagley, began accruing his legacy in 1864 once ashore in New Orleans at age 15.
Born in Ballickmoyler, West Meath, Ireland, March 14, 1849, the seventh and youngest son of tenant farmers, John Bagley and Catherine Clonen, young Martin shared a Spartan environment, arriving in that austere world on the heels of the potato famine which came to an end in 1848.
Martin was baptized Roman Catholic, April 1, 1849, at the Kilbride Parish church in Clara, Offaly. Little is presently known about his adolescent period; however, the fact that he immigrated at the unfledged age of 15 through the port of New Orleans during blockade years of the American Civil War, and apparently without fixed destination, yet with a dream of planting in Louisiana, speaks of his precocity and compelling ambition. One or more of the eldest brothers may have already set the example of migration by departing Ireland for Canada, and perhaps Australia, during the midst of the famine.
Examining Martin Bagley's achievements, one discovers early entrepreneurial abilities. He was later shown to be the most impressive of the brothers. To be sure, he left a record of achievement in southern Louisiana—some may say a record of scandalous notoriety. The other six of the Bagley brothers apparently contributed less to Irish lore; however, Timothy Bagley, six years Martin's senior, followed to Louisiana in 1866, probably encouraged to immigrate by Martin's enthusiasm.
There are various reports that Martin was a strongly opinionated individual, a single-minded, impulsive Irishman. However headstrong he was, this resolution served him well in his determined acquisition of cane land over a period of years. It should be noted, and the record reflects, that poor timing and his irascible behavior probably cost him and his heirs a fortune.
Brothers Martin and Timothy went into sugar production five miles south of Abbeville with Ramsey Plantation as their central focus.
The immediate question springs to mind: how did the youth acquire funds to launch an aggressive campaign of sugar cane production and land acquisition? William Henry Perrin, in his Southwest Louisiana Historical & Biographical account of 1890, credits Martin Bagley as having been a contractor on the Rock Island & St. Louis Railroad, although no dates were supplied by Perrin for this occupation. The railroad may well have provided Martin's grubstake of early investment capital. Vermilion Parish conveyance records indicate that M. & T. Bagley (residents of St. Mary Parish) began acquiring land in Vermilion Parish in 1868 when Martin was nineteen years of age. Unfortunately, as of this writing, there is a ten year gap in detailed information (1864 to 1874) for the Bagley brothers before they began purchasing property in earnest in Vermilion Parish. The 1870 census in the area does not list them.
Supposedly they had planting activities in St. Mary Parish, again according to Perrin, however there is no record of land ownership yet found there. Between planting and construction the Bagleys began to make a name for themselves in Vermilion.
On September 10, 1874, at 2 A.M. Martin shot and killed Bob Gardner, a Negro burglar he discovered breaking into the store of Mr. Perot at Cypremort Landing. The event was reported by the New Iberia Sugar Bowl.
The Bagley Brothers appear to have gotten their first real break in sugar production in December, 1874, when they acquired a tract of land and sugar mill from Aborn Lyons, nephew of David Lyons, for $3,800. Martin was then only twenty-five, thus we might conclude that railroad construction contracting, outside the southern Louisiana district, provided his source of funds.
The Aborn Lyons property acquisition probably led indirectly to the marriage, four years later on March 11, 1878, of Martin to Rosa Lyons, daughter of David Merriman Lyons of Abbeville. Martin was then twenty-nine, Rosa nineteen. The marriage ultimately consolidated much of the Bagley-Lyons sugar operations in the Vermilion area.
M. & T. Bagley acquired the 700-plus acre Ramsey Plantation June 14, 1880, for $8,000 from Citizens Bank, $500 cash and seven mortgage notes at 8% interest. The Ramsey family had suffered financially as a result of the Civil War and lost the property to the bank in 1875.
On October 15, 1881, contractors from New Iberia finished laying the foundation for the Bagley Brothers' newest sugar house of the times. Their cane acreage had increased to the point where processing facilities required expansion to handle their product.
Martin's mother, Catherine Clonen Bagley, reportedly a tall, red-haired lady, had remained living alone for twenty-nine years in a quaint, very small cottage in Ballickmoyler (Clara), Offaly, Ireland, after the death of husband John in 1852. Martin and Timothy persuaded Catherine to join them in Louisiana in 1881. She was then seventy. The changes in lifestyle and stress of the long ocean voyage appear to have been her undoing. Six months after arrival on the Ramsey Plantation, she died on June 25, 1881.
Martin and Timothy conducted their planting and harvesting operations as a team, although Martin's strong personality surely overshadowed his brother's. We hear little of Timothy, and must assume that he was the man behind the scenes who supervised either the running of the sugar mill or the planting. He married later, in 1884, six years after Martin, one Anna Fitzsimons from his early neighborhood in Ireland.
They had seven children who were without issue, while Martin and Rosa had five. (See Vol. 1 for details of the offspring.) The Martin Bagley children were born every two years from 1881 to 1889. It was a very productive time, not only for children. Land was rapidly acquired and sugar mills were enlarged. The sugar business was good, prices were healthy. The Bagleys were well on their way to owning 1,800 acres (see Vol. 1) of the most fertile and productive cane farming land in the Vermilion area. The Assessment Roll of 1889 lists 1,318 acres for M. & T. Bagley (including 796 ac. Ramsey, and 350 ac. Lyons Plantations, plus 12 ac. Butard).
The year 1882 saw the Bagley Brothers make 600 hogsheads of sugar on the plantation, while 1883 produced 1000 hogsheads.
The Abbeville Meridional reported regularly on the Bagley Brothers' ascendancy in the world of sugar production. "Sugar made on the Vermilion … of cane from the Bagley plantation, has been pronounced by New Orleans merchants to be equal to any ever seen on the market," an article in the November 24, 1883, issue said of the Bagley production.
In 1883, a community of 1200-1500 people had sprung up five miles south of Abbeville around Martin's center of operations, then named Ramsey Plantation after James B. Ramsey, M.D., the well-respected rural doctor who attended birthing of Martin's children. The good Doctor Ramsey died in 1896 at Rice Cove and is buried at Ramsey Plantation. The graves are grown over and the house is long since gone.
Martin Bagley became the first postmaster of Ramsey on January 28, 1884, when he was thirty-five, and served until November 15, 1892. Paul Terrier was appointed and served to September 30, 1893, at which time Martin again took up the office until the facility was discontinued March 15, 1901. The closing may have been precipitated by a disastrous fire which destroyed Martin's nearby elegant home.
There is only a fleeting record of a third brother, John, who also immigrated from Ireland to the Vermilion area. Apparently he had no business dealings with Martin and Timothy. There is a record that on May 1, 1886, when Martin was thirty-seven, he sold John, then aged fifty-two, 220 arpents (187 acres) on the east bank of Vermilion Bayou with all buildings and improvements, which Martin had acquired from the heirs of M. O. Porter, wife of Nicholas Young, on April 16, 1881. John gave Martin as payment two promissory notes totaling $3,000. John died three years later on September 13, 1889, leaving Rose (Roasie) Grennan, four years his senior. They had married in Kilbride (Clara), Offaly, Ireland in May, 1870, and had a son, Thomas, born October 16, 1874, in the same Clara area. There is evidence which suggests that this young Thomas may have been named after another of Martin's brothers who never migrated to Louisiana. John, Roasie and Thomas are all buried behind St. Mary Magdalen Catholic church in Abbeville. Roasie died April 12, 1900, aged sixty, some seven months after her husband. Thomas died March 26, 1906, aged thirty-two years. The record shows that John Grennan traveled from Ireland and was responsible for erecting their cemetery monuments. Grennan remained in Louisiana and bought land and assets from the brothers in 1891.
The four years 1888 through 1891 when Martin reached the prime age of 42, were the apex of the Bagley Brothers' sugar operations. Martin had built a large three story plantation home with spiral staircases on the east bank of Bayou Vermilion, at Young's Coulee, to house his large family. As mentioned earlier, it was lost to fire around the turn of the century. In 1950 Sulie Broussard had a home on the site beside the original live oaks. It too was later demolished. A brick home now occupies the site.
The Abbeville Meridional reported on October 6, 1888, that Martin and Tim were erecting a soon-to-be-ready, extensive and complete sugar refinery on the Vermilion Bayou front at the Ramsey place. This necessary expansion burdened the brothers' resources in that they took on a calculated debt load to finance the big sugar facility. Ramsey plantation was mortgaged at 8% interest from 1880 to 1890 to provide such development capital. The timing was right in keeping with high sugar prices, apparently so good that on February 26, 1890, M. & T. Bagley Brothers were able to cancel three sets of promissory notes held by Whitney National Bank of New Orleans which had commenced in 1880 and then totaled $92,266.
On April 15, 1890, M & T Bagley purchased right-of-way for a narrow gauge railroad from Adrien Dubois in exchange for his use of the wagons to haul timber out of his swampland when the railway was not in use hauling cane.
The Brothers were producing about 200 barrels of sugar a day, up to 5,000 barrels a year. The new plant was erected at a cost of $30,000. Additionally, they now had a refinery erected at a cost of $10,000 for the manufacture of clarified sugar. The business was rapidly increasing, and Martin reported to William Perrin in his 1890 survey that they were poised for more "near-future expansion." The railroad was hauling cane to the mill. Many efficiencies were in place. The Lafayette Police Jury had given M & T Bagley permission to install locks in Vermilion Bayou near the Denis Long Plantation. The new steamboat line of Lyons, Simon and Bagley was to be formed to put a steamer into service to go both to Morgan City, and if the bayou were cleared, then also to Lafayette.
Martin and Rosa Lyons, in 1890, then had five children ranging from one through nine. Fate began taking a disastrous turn for the Bagleys with tragedy striking hard the next year on January 1, 1891. Rosa Lyons Bagley died at age 32, having been a patient sufferer from the painful illness, consumption. A strong Catholic, she had delivered her last child five months before her death. (See p. 70, Vol 1.) There is currently no record of where she was buried. Rosa's friend, Elizabeth Cluney of Alexandria, had come to stay at Ramsey Plantation to care for the invalid and the young children—undoubtedly a daunting task, even without the complications of living under the same roof with Martin, "widely known as a rough and difficult man." Nevertheless, and for whatever reasons, Elizabeth Cluney married Martin Bagley in Alexandria October 20, 1891, some nine months after Rosa's death. Elizabeth saw to the proper upbringing of the five children through professional tutoring provided at Ramsey plantation and boarding schools. She became a good mother to them all.
Fate continued to twist the two Irishmen, but now switched its grip to the business side of M & T Bagley Brothers. The company still maintained financial headway in early 1891; however, economic ill winds were blowing in the marketplace that year. Notwithstanding negative business signals, Martin acquired his steamboat operation, launched with the "Mary Rose" sternwheeler, which was berthed at Ramsey Plantation on Vermilion Bayou.
Neither was the climatic weather of 1891 any help to the Bagley interests. Heavy spring rains caused havoc in the fields for both the planting and the harvesting operations. Sugar prices during 1891 and 1892 plummeted. The M & T Bagley businesses became over-extended and were having difficulty meeting the financial obligations of the expanded mills. As creditors pressed, Martin began cashing assets to raise money. He began selling acreage to family members. John Grennan bought 160 acres for $1,200 on February 17, 1891, and Martin continued to liquidate well into 1892 whatever unencumbered assets remained, to stay afloat. Now, at only forty-two, he had reached the zenith of an ambitious career. The combination of personal and financial jolts undoubtedly had a debilitating effect on his drive, the clincher being the failure of James M. Walsh of New Orleans, as reported in the Meridional on January 16, 1892. "Quite a number of our cane planters will be embarrassed by the recent failure of Jas. M. Walsh of New Orleans. The Messrs Bagley and Uriah Stansbury will be the heaviest losers." This ultimate loss of income from the Walsh Account Receivable must have been sufficient to dash the brothers into the arms of creditors.
The stressful details of the brothers making-ends-meet during 1892 were not recorded. Martin sold his Ramsey Plantation store, fixtures, appurtenances and contents on Vermilion Bayou on January 11, 1892, to John Grennan and John Fitzsimons, together with 16 acres of land. He continued to liquidate unencumbered acreage to family and others through July, 1892. On 2 August, 1892, People's National Bank and Whitney National Bank, both of New Orleans, took back the mortgaged properties from M & T Bagley at sheriff's auction on the courthouse steps, the Lyons place for $7,500, and Ramsey Plantation for $24,000, respectively, in part settlement. It had to have been a devastating moment for big Martin Bagley. He was a young forty-three, with a new wife of less than a year, and five young children—trapped by financial circumstances beyond his control.
Although the proud Irishman was shamed and embarrassed by the loss of his assets at the foreclosure sale, Martin was well respected in the community as an individual who got things done. He did not give up. And although legally the banks were required to take the recovery actions, they had not lost faith in the Bagley Brothers' capabilities. Martin almost immediately devised a plan which made him agent for the two wives, Elizabeth and Anna, who in turn individually bought back the assets from the banks on November 14, 1892, for a series of notes payable over a few years. The banks had surely asked themselves, "Who better to operate the cane production and mills than the previous owners?" And of course, the new notes carried 8% interest.
Martin and Timothy had outstanding and ongoing personal legal judgments against them resulting from the fallout from their financial debacle. Not all of the bank debts were cleared by the foreclosures. Therefore, for some time Martin acted as agent while the wives held personal ownership of the re-acquired assets. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that the sugar operations ever surpassed their prior glory. Tragic events once again held Martin in check when he accelerated forward.
The ink had no sooner dried on the buy-back from the banks when Martin's eldest child, John Joseph, 12 years of age, home for Christmas from Jefferson Military Academy boarding school in Washington, Mississippi, was crushed by the cane railroad locomotive. The Meridional accounted the incident in December, 1892.
"About half an hour before sundown Monday, a very sad accident occurred on the Ramsey Plantation. The little locomotive which hauls cane over the tramway running from the refinery out into the prairie was making the return trip with a load of cane, when one of the stringers in the trestle crossing the swamp, gave away precipitating the locomotive and cars into the water. Mr. Bagley's little 12 year old boy, John [who] was riding on the engine with the engineer and fireman was the only one injured, and he was struck on the head in some unaccountable manner and terribly injured. His scalp, starting on a line with his left ear and running across the forehead and back to within a few inches of the nape of the neck, was torn from the skull, and a piece of the bone over the left eye, about one and three quarter inches in width by three in length, was fractured and driven below the level of the surrounding bone. Medical aid was immediately summoned and Drs. F. F. Young and C. J. Edwards decided that his removal to the Hotel Dieu, would afford the little sufferer the greatest number of chances for recovery. Accordingly he was placed on a litter and taken aboard the Mary Rose and conveyed to Abbeville, where he was placed on the train and under the care of Dr. F. F. Young, and accompanied by Mr. & Mrs. Martin Bagley and Cesaire Mouton, removed to New Orleans. At the depot they were met by the ambulance and the boy was taken directly to the Hotel Dieu where Dr. Miles operated upon him that night. When Dr. Young left the city next morning the little sufferer was doing well although the chances are slim so desperate are his injuries, it is to be hoped that his life may be spared."
John Joseph Bagley recovered after a year of hospital care. He graduated valedictorian from Bowling Green University, Kentucky, all the while carrying a metal plate in his head until his death in Alexandria on January 11, 1949, from post-operative peritonitis following a hernia procedure. He lived to sixty-eight and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Pineville.
The year 1893 must have been one of grinding frustration for a character such as Martin Bagley. The brothers were working hard to meet obligations on a timely basis. Unknown is whether then current sugar prices allowed any margin for profit. It was a season of planting and harvesting to make payments. There was no extra money for expansion or other development, much less new Bagley acquisitions. In fact, times were tough enough that the Bagleys seized the Hanchett plantation in foreclosure against J. C. Mouton on November 4, 1893, all in the name of Mrs. M. Bagley. The amount was $2,200. The sugar business was not providing the proper avenue to high achievement that Martin Bagley had envisioned for himself. He was forty-four, and stalled.
The frustrations of the moment—inclement weather, mosquitoes, pressing bills, broken mill equipment, and any number of weighty problems, pushed Martin Bagley beyond his patience in dealing with a hung-over Sunday-morning laborer who was working for him and had been in the parish a short ten days. An argument ensued in which the white man named John Ford "grossly" insulted Martin, while including the locals in his slurs. Martin ordered him to collect his belongings, then to vacate the premises after unpaid goods were returned and his account in the company store was settled. Subsequent testimony indicated that Ford was drinking that morning. In any event, Martin had little sympathy for the man's condition, and in a fit of shortened-temper, he foreshortened Ford's life. Ford allegedly came at Bagley with a straight-razor, and Bagley shot Ford in the head at close range with a .44 caliber pistol.
Actions during those few minutes would alter the course of the lives of families, strangers, and the Vermilion community in general. It is probably safe to say that the killing of John Ford drastically foreshortened Martin Bagley's life also. Martin lived for only eleven more years after the hellish stress and expense of defending himself against strong murder charges over a two-trial, two-year process. Martin's mental, and certainly his physical health were never again as robust. In the first local trial Martin missed conviction by one vote; in the second Lafayette trial, after two years of jail, expensive legal fees and bail, he was acquitted.
Martin Bagley's descendants have long heard vague accounts of the celebrated hundred-year-old Bagley case but it was just a few years ago, in 1995, that Ken Dupuy, the Vermilion historian, resurrected the "most famous (case) ever tried before the Lafayette bar." His well written two-part series of articles was published by the Abbeville Meridional on October 17th and 24th, 1995. Mr. Dupuy rekindled colorful scenes in the courtrooms and the public surrounds of the day. The details of the killing, repeated jailings, bail bonds, and courtroom accounts make spellbinding reading and offer an insight into the tribulations of those difficult and frustrating pioneer times.
Martin Bagley, only too well recognizing his plight after the first near-conviction, spared no expense in hiring a six-man team of the most illustrious defense lawyers in the State of Louisiana—a very wise decision which quite probably spared him the ultimate penalty.
The costs of such on-going legal defense had to have been immense and depleting. All the while Martin was in and out of jail on bail, and between trials he was trying to run a business. The uncertainties of his future must have eaten at his soul while he tried to raise money and hold his sugar operations together. He became seriously ill with a liver disease during one jailed period and was released on $20,000 bail after four persuasive sworn-to doctors' opinions that he lacked proper sanitary conditions. And considering their diagnosis, he required home treatment or most surely would die.
Black clouds followed Martin. On January 6, 1894, the Bagley place lost its sugar house, 1630 barrels of sugar, and a large quantity of syrup to fire. It had been pledged, "To payment of all wages due laborers, mechanics, overseers, sugar balers, etc., who have been employed during the current season in the raising and manufacture of the sugar of the present season ..." To make things worse, the year 1894 was a bad sugar year. The Meridional reported, "There will be 1000 or more acres of cane lost in our parish this year."
After Martin's acquittal in November, 1894, he was again struggling to survive financially. It was publicly recorded in January, 1895, that all the sugar produced and in the warehouse was "to be sold and each laborer to be paid their pro rata part as far as proceeds will go towards payment of said laborers."
Then there was then a series of years until 1898 for which there is no present accounting. The status quo appears to have been the case. The Ramsey and Lyons tracts remained intact in the respective families, with the two wives as owners and Martin apparently acting as agent until 1898. Sugar prices must not have been anything sensational during those times; however, the families managed. Martin was forty-nine, and his health may have bothered him. No mountains were now being scaled by him, in any event. The accumulated weight of a difficult passage was telling on him. Therefore, when the older son, John Joseph of railroad accident fame, reached eighteen in 1899, he was emancipated by decree in the lawsuit, John J. Bagley vs Martin Bagley, and conveyed the Ramsey Plantation of "764.07 acres or 894.26 arpents & buildings, improvements, mules, carts, wagons, farming implements" by his step-mother, Mrs. Eliz. C. Bagley. John Joseph (Johnny), then gave Power of Attorney to his father, Martin. This was later revoked April 8, 1903. Nevertheless, clear title to the principal plantation, Ramsey, resided with John Joseph around 1900. All this that was recorded to date, speaks of what took place on the Martin side of the equation where the action had normally been. The Fitzsimons Place (old Lyons Place), was now either operated independently by Anna Fitzsimons, or the sugarcane products were processed by Martin, as agent. Timothy may have had illnesses those last few years, since he died December 25, 1903, preceding brother Martin by almost three years.
The Meridional reported his death in the newspaper on January 2, 1904. "In the death of Timothy Bagley, which occurred Christmas day, after a short illness of pneumonia, there has passed away a man who by industry and frugality won a competency, and then lost it, through no fault of his own. He and his brother, Martin, at one time owned two of the finest sugar plantations—Ramsey and Lyons—in the parish. Tariff tinkering and unsettled prices brought on their ruin with that of hundreds of other sugar planters. Mr. Bagley leaves a wife and several children. His funeral took place Saturday in the Catholic cemetery."
Subsequent records have not been fully researched and analyzed at this time as to the sequence of events which then took place. The results, nevertheless, were forever indelibly irreversible for Martin, his family and descendants.
Very little was recorded or handed down about the character of Anna Fitzsimons, except that she was a tough and durable lady. Timothy had always allowed his brother to make the decisions, for better or for worse; he represented the quiet side of the Bagleys. Perhaps, as they say, "Still waters run deep." Who ran the Ramsey, and for that matter, the Lyons operations from 1899 when John J. was emancipated until the death of Timothy in 1903 is uncertain. Both Martin and Tim were not in the best of health shortly after the turn of the century. Poor health and some degree of following debt probably forced the sale of Ramsey Plantation to the Rose Hill Sugar Company on May 31, 1901. Mrs. Elizabeth Cluney Bagley effectuated the sale for $43,000. The Lyons Plantation, then held in the name of Mrs. Timothy (Anna Fitzsimons) Bagley, was not sold, for whatever reason, which was to the benefit of the Timothy heirs.
John J. married Mary Maud Fleming on August 3, 1902, in Vermilion Parish when he was twenty-one, she eighteen. It has been reported that Martin was so displeased that he would not attend the wedding and closed the shutters on the Ramsey home when the wedding group rode by en route to the Flemings' place. It has also been reported that John J. was not particularly interested in running sugar operations. He is said to have spent time working for Hibernia Bank in New Orleans. However, in defense of John J., the sugar business may not have presented that promising a career in the year 1902 to a man of twenty-one who was reportedly valedictorian of his graduating class at Bowling Green University.
It was a time of flux. Something propelled Martin and Elizabeth, with the remaining unfledged family members, to take up residence in Alexandria shortly after the time that John J. married. Martin had remaining only four years to live. The translocation may have been due to recurring liver problems, or likely the loss of the Ramsey Plantation home to fire. The latter possibility is more likely, since John J. and Mary Maud relocated to the Alexandria vicinity around that same time. Martin still had some money from the sale of Ramsey and an affinity for railroads. He purchased the site for the main rail line depot in Alexandria, and owned the centrally located railway station and its surrounds until his death, undoubtedly enjoying the rental income.
Nevertheless, his and his son's (John J.'s) timings were fatal—as bad as the Sunday morning killing of John Ford. It is hard to believe that neither Martin nor any members of his own immediate family had heard rumors of oil in the vicinity and specifically on Ramsey Plantation. Two years before Martin died, and less than one year after Timothy died, the Meridional reported on October 15, 1904 : "We have been informed that there are every indications of oil on the Ramsey [Plantation] near Rose Hill and preparations are being made to sink a shaft, a 170 foot derrick is already on the ground for the purpose."
Did the Martin Bagley family miss reading that October 15th Meridional article after they had already sold out and relocated to Alexandria—and thus missed out? Rose Hill Sugar Company gave the oil company permission to drill on Ramsey. Had John J., in need of cash, struck some deal with Anna Fitzsimons over an interest in the Lyons Plantation property, ignorant of the mineral resources contained beneath the surface? The petroleum wealth resulting from the Ramsey and Lyons tracts of land is well documented history since the 1905 drillings began.
Research of oil leases and conveyances has yet to provide the final answers. However, it is fair to say that neither Martin Bagley nor his own fraternal side of the Bagley family ever enjoyed the more important later fruits of his struggle out of Irish poverty at age fifteen. Martin died with old 1885 and 1898 Vermilion debts as judgments still on his personal 'books'. The assets of his succession realized the sum of $4,149.56. Elizabeth paid off and settled those old sugar debts at .0297 cents on the dollar.
"But the meek shall inherit the plantation; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of oil income." (The First Epistle of Timothy, and issue.)
Biography of Martin Bagley, by
Michael F. Bradford, Great-grandson of Martin Bagley,
Grandson of John Joseph Bagley
Son of Rose Mary Bagley
Michael F. Bradford
[See the related story of the trial resulting from the fatal shooting of John Ford.]