Election fights turn deadly
Ouachita Sheriff slain in Reconstruction retaliation

By Wesley Harris
Journal Correspondent

After the Civil War, many Northerners journeyed south to take advantage of the defeated Confederacy in one way or another. Some wanted to get rich and others had political inclinations. Some might even have had pure motives, such as aiding the thousands of homeless and destitute freedmen.

One of the few north Louisiana lawmen to arrest local citizens for political crimes during Reconstruction was Ouachita Parish Sheriff John Wisner. Little is known of Wisner. Born in Indiana, he migrated to Monroe in 1865 after the Civil War and engaged in farming. Elected sheriff in mid-1868, he soon found the job was not going to be easy.

In November 1868, Louisianans voted in the first major election since the end of the Civil War. A riot broke out in Ouachita Parish when freedmen attempted to vote Republican at a polling place. It is unclear who started the shooting but several gunfights broke out in the neighborhood. Several freedmen were corralled by a group of white men who took them into the woods. Two or three freedmen were shot down but one, Anthony Johnson, fled into the swamps as bullets whizzed by his head. He finally made it to Texas where he hid out to avoid being murdered.

Two years later in 1870, Wisner was serving simultaneously as Ouachita sheriff and Monroe’s police chief. While not common, this arrangement occurred occasionally when citizens found someone competent in enforcing the law and gave them authority over several jurisdictions. He was still working on the 1868 Election Day murders. He tracked down Johnson in Texas. Johnson had recognized at least some of the killers. Wisner returned him to Monroe to be held as a material witness, and arrested a man named Beavers for the murders. The other suspects had apparently escaped to parts unknown.

In March 1869, the case was presented to a grand jury which apparently ignored it rather than voting whether to indict Beavers for murder. Without an indictment, the defense expected that was the end of the case against Beavers. But in early October, a judge issued an arrest warrant for Beavers and Wisner installed his prisoner in a Ouachita Parish jail cell near the key witness against him, Anthony Johnson.

The arrest of Beavers after a grand jury had failed to indict him raised the ire of the editor of the Ouachita Telegraph, the local Democrat-leaning weekly. He churned out lengthy editorials for several weeks. One declared the judge had “knowingly shown contempt for the Grand Jury of the parish and having deprived a citizen of his liberty in violation of the laws of the land.” It was no coincidence that Judge Ray was a Republican.

The newspaper editor was not the only one outraged by Beavers’s arrest. On March 30, 1870, between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m., 15 to 20 men mounted on horses rode up to the sheriff’s office.

Either Wisner heard the riders or someone called to him. He stepped to the door. Both barrels of a shotgun blasted through the door into the sheriff’s chest, killing him instantly.

Hearing the commotion, Judge R. W. Richardson stepped out of his nearby office. A gruff voice ordered him back inside. The mob demanded curious storekeepers go back inside their shops. The gang blocked streets around the jail and forcibly held anyone who walked up out of the dark night.

As the attackers attempted to knock down the jail door, Johnson screamed out, “Murder!” and someone from outside shot into the jail, striking him in the face. The gang forced open the door and Johnson was shot a second time.
Beavers’s cell was opened and he fled into the night, never to be seen by authorities again.

Forcing their way into jails to lynch prisoners was a common strategy during Reconstruction days when local citizens concluded that the system had not administered justice. Usually the lawman on duty was given the opportunity to step aside and avoid injury. Perhaps because Wisner was not a local but a Northerner, he was not given a similar opportunity. Or it could be that animosity over his support of the rights of freedmen and his tenacity in pursuing the Election Day killers sealed his fate.

Wisner was also a fireman with Monroe Hook and Ladder Company #1 which took charge of his body and conducted his funeral with honors befitting a public servant killed in the line of duty. Monroe’s brass band played as a large group of citizens paid their respects. Governor Warmoth offered a $5,000 reward on behalf of the state but the sheriff’s killers were never brought to justice.

Two years later, newspapers and politicians were still debating whether Wisner’s death was a “political” murder. His estate sued the town of Monroe for back pay. The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled the town erred in appointing Wisner to what should have been an elective position.

By contracting with Wisner to serve as Monroe’s chief law officer, state law had been violated.

The location of Wisner’s grave is unknown. Most of the burials of that time occurred at Monroe’s City Cemetery but no marker for the sheriff appears in Ouachita Parish. Perhaps there was no one to pay for a marker there is no mention of a local family in the news accounts, or his body may have been disinterred and returned to Indiana at some point.