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Burned Alive at the Stake

While doing research for an upcoming bio-anthology—which will be hitting the shelves of The Forlorn Press soon—I stumbled upon an interesting article. I was browsing through newspaper stories for the Tensas Parish region of Louisiana from the 1890s when a title caught my eye, Burned Alive at the Stake. The article was completely unrelated to what I was searching for, but with a header like that I just had to read it anyway. Did I mention I’m a huge fan of True Crime and criminal history?

The article turned out to be fairly short—I’ve transcribed it in full at the end of this post—but I was not disappointed. The gist of it was this: a local woman was sent out on an errand by her employer and never returned. A search ensued, and her mutilated body was found; a “tramp” was suspected of murdering her and summarily hunted down. Upon confessing, as the headline states, the tramp was burned alive while tied to a tree.

I found a few things interesting about this newspaper article. The first thing that came immediately to my mind was the juxtaposition of how much society has changed in the last century (the article was from 1896). It made me contemplate the role of mob justice in society and question the role of our current justice system. It is important for there to be a system in place to determine that the accused is guilty of the crime before punishment is carried out. However, there are always flaws in such systems, and loopholes are exploited, resulting in criminals being released on technicalities. Also, even if one is convicted of murder and sentenced to death, in our time that generally means that they will sit on death row for decades awaiting their appeals to be exhausted before the sentence is carried out. The appeal of mob justice is that criminals, at least perceived criminals, are punished immediately and usually brutally. There is an undeniable sense of justice when the perpetrator meets such an end—so long as they actually are guilty. This also sends a very real message to other would-be perpetrators.

I enjoy the little snippets of daily life I encounter when doing research; this particular article is unique as these types of things didn’t happen too frequently. Perhaps because savage murders didn’t occur very often, and before mass communication most murders of this sort would not be known outside of the immediate area that they took place in, explains why people reacted so passionately to this crime. Maybe we are so accustomed to brutal crimes nowadays that it simply takes much more to disturb us.

This story also made me nostalgic, for lack of a better word. What was it like that day? This event took place in August, in a small town close to the Mississippi River, in Louisiana. It was most likely hot and humid; there was no A/C, and the only thing to combat the heat would have been a handheld fan. It was a Wednesday. Did the tramp plan on killing the woman, or was it a crime of opportunity? Was this a random act, or did the tramp (or the real killer if he wasn’t) know the woman? Was this a forced confession of a man in the wrong place at the wrong time, or did the town catch a possible serial killer that may have done the same to other women in different towns? We will never know.

I only realized while writing this post that the date of this crime, August 5, is my son’s birthday. He will be one this year, which will be exactly 118 years after this fateful day so long ago. Weird.

The following is the complete news article as originally published on page 1 of The Washington Post on Aug. 6 1896:

White Tramp Quickly Punished After Assaulting a Louisiana Woman

St. Joseph, La., Aug 5.— Some days ago a respectable white woman, employed as a domestic in a prominent family on the boarder of Franklin Parish, was sent across Tensas River on an errand, and failing to return in proper time, the family became alarmed, and sent parties in search of her. The searching party, after several hours, found the dead and horribly mutilated body of the woman in the woods partially concealed by brush.

The most intense excitement followed the discovery, and in a short while the whole section was aroused and in the saddle. Suspicion pointed to a white tramp, who had been seen near there. Dogs were used, and in a few hours the tramp was run down. He confessed that he had outraged the woman and then murdered her. The crowd bound the wretch, staked him to the nearest tree, and, after burning his body and riddling it with bullets, quietly dispersed.