By Ken Dupuy, Maurice, Louisiana
On Sunday September 24, 1893, the tranquility of the Vermilion River's passage to the Gulf of Mexico was shattered by the firing of a .44 caliber pistol. One man died almost instantly, and another man spent two years in judicial limbo.
Dr. J. T. Abshire held an inquest on the death of John Ford. The accused was 43-year-old Martin Bagley, the owner of an 1,800 acre sugar cane plantation located on the Vermilion River. Did he shoot Mr. Ford, and if he did, why? Such questions were to be answered in a case that was concluded two years later. The judicial journey had all the attractions, delays, and detours of current murder cases—those of O. J. Simpson, of the Menendez brothers—and more.
The fatal shooting occurred on the Bagley plantation on a barge to which the steamboat, the Mary Rose, was tied. The Mary Rose, at the time, was more or less a has-been. It had had a starring role along the Vermilion River in 1890. It had been employed as a clean-up boat and had helped to clear the river of obstructions from Lafayette to Abbeville. The Mary Rose also had carried passengers and cargo to and from Morgan City.
This steamboat even had the dubious honor of being instrumental in bringing about a game between our Red Stockings baseball team and the Camellias of Lafayette. The Camellias had come down to Abbeville on this boat one summery day in June 1890. The steamboat had to bring the Camellias back to Lafayette when the game ended abruptly in the 7th inning. Abbeville's team had objected to a call by the umpire and had refused to continue the game. The score at the time was 12 to 10 in favor of the Camellias.
Now, three years later, here was the Mary Rose, a silent witness to a heinous act—the killing of a human being. It is ironic that this steamer had played a life-saving role for the Bagley family, only nine months earlier. About a half hour before sundown—between 4:30 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. by my calculations—on December 26, 1892, a near fatal accident occurred. As Bagley's train that hauled cane from the prairie to his refinery was passing over a trestle "crossing the swamp," one of the "stringers" gave way. A stringer, as far as I could learn, is the part of the trestle on which the cross ties are nailed. The locomotive, carrying the engineer, the fireman, and John Bagley, Martin's 12-year-old son, plunged into the waters below. Surprisingly, only John was injured. According to the account in the Meridional, "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 and three inches in length was fractured and driven below the level of the surrounding bone."
Obviously, John had sustained serious, probably life-threatening injuries. Medical help was summoned and Drs. F. F. Young and C. J. Edwards came as soon as they could get there. It was their opinion that John could best be helped if he was brought to the Hotel Dieu in New Orleans. John was placed in a "litter" and was taken to the Mary Rose which transported him to the railroad depot. John was then carried by train to New Orleans. A Dr. Miles operated on him that very night. Again by my calculations, the operation surely occurred in the early morning hours of December 27th. At any rate, little hope was held for his recovery. However, later that week, J. C. Mouton returned from New Orleans with the news that John's "chances of recovery are favorable." Thanks to one of John's grandsons, we learn that John had had a silver plate placed in his head and that John had lived until 1949, at which time he died from surgery complications that were unrelated to that near-fatal accident in 1892.
It was reported, in an unrelated story in the Meridional, that on the night of the accident the temperature had dropped to 20 degrees. Had the freezing temperatures helped to save this child's life as sometimes happens with near-drowning victims? John had to have been exposed to the cold while medical help was being sought and until the doctors arrived. This injured boy then had to be transported to the Mary Rose by stretcher, which surely took considerable time. Were there stoves on board the steamboat and on the train?
John's grandson also told me that John had named this grandson's mother, "Mary Rose." Had John given her that name in honor of the steamboat that had helped to save his life, or was the name unrelated to this boat?
At any rate, according to the account in the Meridional, on October 6, 1893, Judge Allen listened to the testimony of several witnesses at the courthouse about the shooting of John Ford. Dr. Abshire was the first witness and testified to his findings. He declared that Mr. Ford's death was caused by a pistol shot wound, which entered the brain "in front and ranging downwards." The body had been found on the barge, and "one leg extended in the direction of the steamboat." Mr. Ford had been carrying several items at the time of the shooting and these were found under his body. They included "a bundle of clothing, a mosquito bar, a box of soap and a closed razor; in pocket were found a razor case and strop." Dr. Abshire concluded that Mr. Ford had been shot "while in the act of stepping from the boat to the barge."
By the time that all testimony had been taken, 100 pages of "closely written legal cap" had been recorded. The judge didn't finish hearing all the witnesses until 1 a.m. Sunday October 8th! Imagine a trial, much less a hearing, lasting that late into the night today.
Judge Allen ruled on October 14, 1893, that the evidence produced showed "great presumption of guilt." He added, "I am forced to a conclusion... circumstances... show no justification, excuse, or legal provocation for the deed... bail is impossible." So, Mr. Bagley remained in the parish jail.
It wasn't long before rumors were spreading across the countryside that Mr. Bagley was being allowed to go to the Ramsey Plantation every night. The insinuation that Sheriff Alphonse LeBlanc would allow such a privilege to a prisoner, infuriated the sheriff, who at this time was seriously ill with malaria and a liver ailment. The extent of his anger can be measured by his offering of a $50 reward for the identification of the person who had started such a lie. That was a large sum of money in those days.
Interestingly, Martin Bagley himself came down with a liver ailment. In December 1893, shortly before Sheriff LeBlanc was brought to New Orleans by Dr. Robert J. Young for medical treatment, Mr. Bagley was being examined by a panel of local physicians. The panel consisted of Drs. W. D. White, J. T. Abshire, Robert J. Young, and F. F. Young. Bagley had applied for bail on the grounds that he was "dangerously ill and might die or have his health permanently impaired if he were to remain in jail." Dr. F. F. Young stated in a sworn certificate that Bagley was seriously ill with "acute inflammation of the liver and perityphlitis." He added that death was possible without proper care and more sanitary surroundings.
Two days later, the other physicians concurred with Dr. Young's findings and recommended more "hygienic surroundings." Judge Allen interviewed each of these doctors individually, after which time he allowed Bagley to be released on $20,000 bail. Mr. Bagley went home to his family. At a later date, he had to be jailed again, but was released once more on January 13, 1894 on another $20,000 bail.
The trial finally took place and the case was presented to the jury for deliberation in late March or early April 1894. After 60 hours of deliberation, the jury "agreed to disagree," and a mistrial was declared. The jury had been 11 for conviction and one for acquittal. Who says one person's vote doesn't count!
The judge released Bagley again, on another $20,000 bail, in April 1894. A new trial was set for December 13, 1894. Even back then, a change of venue was a legal maneuver. One was granted in this case, and this allowed Mr. Bagley just enough time to finish grinding his crop by January 26, 1895. Bagley then turned over his mill to the other parish planters who had been unable to dispose of their cane "to derive some benefit from their crop."
Once more Bagley was delivered by some of his bondsmen to the authorities, on February 10, 1895. Once more he was released, sometime later that month. In April the trial, which would be held in Lafayette, was postponed until the Fall because of the "absence of some witnesses." Finally, the case went to trial in Lafayette. Before we look at the evidence and the verdict, let's imagine this trial in Lafayette.
First of all, there weren't daily trips from Abbeville to Lafayette that would be possible today. So, witnesses, Abbevillians interested in the case, the defendant, and his lawyers had to travel to Lafayette where they would have to remain for an indeterminate period of time.
Hotel rooms must have been at a premium for this "most famous (case) ever tried before a Lafayette Bar," as the trial was characterized by the Lafayette Advertiser. There was no indoor plumbing, so bathing was probably not a daily ritual. Instead, the ubiquitous lavaboes and pitchers that adorned all those hotel rooms in Hollywood Westerns were the weapons of choice to fight the dirt, the heat, and the whiskers. The latter also were challenged by those straight-edge razors that were essential items in all men's traveling bags many years ago.
And what about sleep for these participants in and spectators of the Bagley trial? We all know how difficult it is to sleep in beds other than our own. The walls of those wooden hotels would contract and expand causing an added distraction to the traveler even though they lived in wooden houses. There were different temperature-generated moans and groans in the night than they were accustomed to at home.
Assuming that the nights were warm or hot, then the windows had to remain open. Even this late in the year, surely there were a few pesky mosquitoes around that entered stealthily into the rooms only to announce their presence by their signature whining, as though doomed by nature to forewarn their victims of their predatory presence. If our travelers were lucky, they hadn't forgotten to pack their mosquito bars which acted like screens to keep mosquitoes out of the beds. Perhaps the hotels furnished these devises, one of which was found at the murder scene.
Other noises broke the silence of the night. Stray dogs in search of food and fun would bark argumentatively with other dogs even though they were blocks apart. Horses in nearby livery stables would whinny and snort as though complaining about how tired and sore they were from carrying insensitive, spur-happy cowboys. Cats were not to be outdone by these other animals and added to this discordant nocturnal serenade. Sleep at that time, no matter where one slept, could not have been dependent on the virtual silence we expect today!
What about the beds? Absent were the firm box spring mattresses and waterbeds to which we are accustomed. Instead, floppy, quicksand-like mattresses called for extraordinary skills to find a comfortable position. If the night was hot, pillows had to be turned over frequently to keep the cool side next to one's face.
Sleep finally swallowed the person, but it must have been in irregular stretches of time as noises and the bed itself prevented a sound, uninterrupted sleep. Just about the time REM sleep was entered into and dreams started to entertain, the roosters awoke. Unfortunately, these proud males always seem to have something to crow about!
If the weather was anything like it is today, the lawyers in the courtroom had to fight the heat as well as one another in that two-story wooden courthouse. The courtroom had several windows, but no ceiling fans—electricity wouldn't come to Lafayette until 1898. So, there were probably many of those old-time, hand-held fans-on-a-stick flailing the air in futile attempts to dispel the heat and reduce the down-right sweating from the stress and the temperature.
The trial ended sooner than it takes some juries to be selected today. In any event, those who came to Lafayette for the trial had to contend with a few idle hours at the end of each day's session. There were their rooms, saloons, and perhaps locally-produced forms of entertainment, or an out-of-town troupe with which to pass away those evenings. Some of the men may have brought books, but they, and the lawyers who had to plan strategy for the next day, had only lamps and lanterns to read by. These dim light sources probably produced light no brighter than the glow from the screens of our larger televisions.
The saloons in Lafayette, if anything like Abbeville's in those days, probably didn't have those "dance-hall girls" that are always seen in Western movies. There was probably a billiard table in some of those saloons, where one's knowledge of geometry and the laws of physics, learned outside of the classroom, could earn a man "fees" from others with less knowledge and experience. Since I have no direct knowledge of prices in saloons at that time—1895—I'll use a bill owed by E. I. Guegnon, the founder of the Meridional. He ran up this bill in a Vermilionville "coffee house" in the early 1850s. Inflation was much more limited, so I believe that the bar prices were virtually the same in 1895. A shot of liquor or cognac, and a cigar each cost five cents; a billiards game cost 20 cents. I can almost see the lawyers, jurors, and spectators standing at the bar, or did each group go to separate saloons?
Now, back to the trial that stirred up so much newspaper coverage. Martin Bagley had at his defense table his own "dream team," one hundred years ago. Seated in their suits and solemn faces were six defense lawyers: Judge John Clegg of New Orleans; Judge C. Debaillon, and Joseph Chargois of Lafayette; Charles Fontelieu of New Iberia; R. P. O'Bryan of Calcasieu; and Mr. Southon of Houma. A poorer defendant could not have afforded such a phalanx of pleaders.
District Attorney Minos T. Gordy stood toe to toe with these men as they slugged it out litigiously. The total number of witnesses, however, were surely few. Absent in that trial were the expert and rebuttal witnesses that clog trials today.
Before going further with the trial, let's look at the crime scene. The corpse lay on the barge, eternally still with blood oozing from the head wound. One of the legs was "extended in the direction of the steamboat." The ball or bullet had entered the brain in front and had traveled downward. Beneath him were items that Mr. Ford must have been carrying at the time he was shot. Included in the list of items, which may have been introduced individually in a trial today, was a "bundle of clothing." There was a mosquito bar even though the shooting occurred in late September. Its presence on the scene adds to the probability that these protectors were used during the nights during the trial. A box of soap, and a closed (straight) razor were also found underneath the body. A razor case and strop were found later in one of Ford's pockets.
I have no way of knowing for sure, but I'll assume that the sheriff accompanied the coroner to the murder scene. It must have taken some time for them to ride there on horseback from Abbeville. Possibly there was a phone at the plantation. If not, someone was sent to Sheriff LeBlanc's office in Abbeville. He and Dr. J. T. Abshire probably arrived at the crime scene some hours later. Until these men rode up on their horses, Mr. Bagley might have paced back and forth and replayed the fatal event over and over in his bewildered mind as he waited for the authorities. The sound of that fatal shot must have reverberated like rolling thunder within the confines of the minds of those who had heard the pistol fire.
Flies, the insect version of vultures, arrived slowly and circled the body that was covered to protect it from the elements and from buzzing flies.
The waters of the Vermilion River lapped in hushed tones against the barge and the Mary Rose causing them to cradle Mr. Ford's body ever so tenderly. These same waters seemingly slowed down as they approached this site, like modern traffic approaching an accident. It was as though Mother Nature's tears flowed past on the way to the Gulf.
Several curious townsmen may have accompanied Sheriff A. L. LeBlanc and the coroner on that slow, unhurried ride to Bagley's. There was no rush; the crime was over; the victim would wait.
Investigating the crime was done simply and quickly. There weren't any crime-scene experts with vacuum cleaners, tweezers, plastic gloves and bags, or fingerprint kits. Surely the current obligatory chalking around the victim's body wasn't on the barge once the body was removed. Dr. Abshire made a cursory examination of the body and pronounced Mr. Ford dead. That was about it; forensic investigations were years away in the future. Dr. Abshire held an inquest, so statements were taken from Martin Bagley and those who may have witnessed the shooting and the events that led up to this tragedy.
Mr. Ford's body was put in a wagon or a buckboard for the trip to Abbeville and eventually to his last resting place. Mr. Bagley's horse was saddled by one of his laborers; Bagley mounted his horse and was led, in all probability, by Sheriff LeBlanc back to town and to jail. This single story, soft-brick building had been built in 1882. By 1893, it had long lost its youthful bloom and no longer provided any civic pride. Before its replacement by the jail built in 1903 on the southeast corner of the courthouse square, it would be condemned by several grand juries as well as by other groups.
If Mr. Bagley had been so inclined and had he been placed in the misdemeanor room, he might have broken out simply by punching a hole in the soft brick wall with two sticks. One prisoner would escape in just that manner in 1899. While this jail was unsanitary, and a "disgrace to civilization," at least it didn't house bats as had the previous one.
When this jail, to which Bagley was brought, was turned over to Sheriff G. B. Shaw in January 1882, it was modern and provided maximum security. It was so secure that Lafayette parish Sheriff Mouton brought four prisoners to be incarcerated in it in April 1882. In May 1882, a man accused of murder in Lafayette parish was also brought to our jail. So modern in design was this jail, it boasted natural lighting, good ventilation, and water tanks and water pipes.
There was a jailer's room, a room for females, and a misdemeanor room. In the main part of the jail were two "Panley's cages." These cages arrived in Abbeville aboard the steamboat Fuller in January 1882. They were large enough to house four inmates each. Martin Bagley probably wound up in one of these cages because they were "for the confinement of unruly prisoners and those charged with the commission of grave offenses."
There was even an exercise corridor for the prisoners. Finally, this jail was so modern, the jailer could stand outside this main part of the jail and still have complete control of the corridor and both cells. Such control was possible because of "an admirable arrangement of locks, levers, etc." Whatever its physical condition, Bagley's cell could not have come close to the accommodations at his plantation. Did he have some initial vision of the possibility of years of incarceration in such dismal circumstances? His answer to such a possibility would be two years away from that fateful Sunday in 1893. Until this trial in 1895, almost one hundred years ago to the day that I am writing this article, Bagley would be in and out of jail on bail several times.
This "most famous (case) ever tried before a Lafayette bar" began on October 17, 1895 and ended just two days later, on October 19, 1895. The defense attorneys immediately asked for a continuance, based on the fact that two of defense team were ill. Judge Allen was willing to postpone the case until October 22nd, so that the defense could secure local representation, but District Attorney Gordy objected, and the case "was ordered to trial." The defense then sought a "bill of exceptions." They requested another bill of exceptions when they learned that several of those called to jury duty "had been excused without notice to the defense." In selecting the jury, the state exhausted all of its "challenges," while the defense had used only nine on that first day. Because the pool of those called to jury duty was exhausted and because there were still two jurors to be selected, Judge Allen ordered the sheriff to summon ten additional prospective jurors, so that the remaining jurors could be selected.
The reporter from the New Orleans Picayune—the case was that significant that this newspaper, and the New Orleans Times Democrat sent reporters to cover it—described Martin Bagley as manifesting "very little, if any, apprehension for a man whose life hangs on the scales of justice." In fact, this reporter went on to say that Bagley was "so unconcerned in his general demeanor," that it was impossible to know by looking that he was the defendant in this murder trial. This reporter went on to portray Bagley as "a man of fine figure and portly proportions," and added that Bagley commanded "considerable attention." His "unconcerned," calm demeanor was certainly in counterpoint to the emotions he displayed on the day of the fatal shooting. However, although his life was possibly in jeopardy now, Bagley now had his powerful lawyers to defend it; he felt confident in their legal abilities.
After two days of testimony, it was time for the summations. As usual, District Attorney M. T. Gordy presented the case from the prosecution's point of view. Thanks to the coverage of this trial by the Lafayette Advertiser, we are able to know his summation. According to Mr. Gordy, this is how the shooting came about. According to Gordy, Bagley had "willfully and premeditatedly slaughtered his unoffending victim." District Attorney Gordy said that Ford had been an employee at Bagley's plantation. After some sort of disagreement, Bagley ordered Ford to leave the plantation. Ford then went to the company store to settle his account and to return items for which he could not pay. Apparently Bagley was still angry; he followed Ford to the store where he ordered the manager, Mr. Ament, not to extend additional credit to Mr. Ford. Inside the store the argument must have rekindled. Further words of anger and hatred were then exchanged.
Mr. Ford then left the store and headed toward the barge and the Mary Rose. Before following, Bagley took a .44 caliber pistol from the back of the store. At the boat, the final confrontation between these two men took place. It was the D.A.'s contention that "Ford was passing upon the deck of a steamer to which the barge was attached..." Bagley, on the other hand, was standing on the bank of the river some 15 to 20 feet away. After Ford refused to put down the disputed mosquito bar as Bagley had ordered him to do, the fatal shot was fired. (As you will recall a mosquito bar had been one of several items found under Ford's body.) The prosecution rested.
It was now time for the defense to give its summation. Judge John Clegg rose and proceeded to argue that his was a case of self defense, pure and simple. He reminded the jury that a razor had been found near the body of the victim. Actually, the report in 1893 indicated that a closed razor had been found under the body of Mr. Ford, and that a razor case had been found in one of the victim's pockets. Anyway, the defense argued that "Ford was about to make an assault upon Bagley" with said razor, that the parties were in very close proximity to each other, and that Bagley's life was in imminent danger when he fired the shot. The defense also argued that Ford had "grossly insulted, and threatened the life of the accused, that Bagley acted solely and purely in protection of his life."
Please recall that Bagley had his "dream team" [my quotation marks] of five lawyers. It was Mr. Southon, alone, who spoke for two hours and presented "a strong masterly case."
The jury found Martin Bagley "not guilty," after deliberating for only "a very short time." So, after two years of what I've called "judicial limbo," Martin Bagley was a free man. While fate was kind to him in this instance, it had not always been so, nor would it be so in his future. Sheriff Alphonse L. LeBlanc, who had jailed Bagley after the shooting, was not there to learn the outcome of this trial. Sheriff LeBlanc died in his 30th year, on May 3, 1895, of Bright's disease—a kidney disorder.
We are all sentenced to our own fates, it seems.
[See related story on the life of Martin Bagley.]