Thomas Kelly, Not Guilty

By Tom Kelly
Editor and Publisher

Recently while thumbing through "Looking Back: Winn Parish, Louisiana 1852-1968," the history compiled and published by Dhale and Eugene F. Love of Winnfield, I was intrigued to find a small Post-It-like note about two inches square stuck between pages 124 and 125. In a handwriting which I did not recognize, were inscribed four words in ink, as follows: "Thomas Kelly, Not Guilty." I found that prospect irresistible, for what should be obvious reasons, and began skimming the chapter in which that note was lodged.

Pursuing the text, I discovered the meaning of the note, and I remain glad that it referred to events of a shade over 120 years ago. I congratulate my unknown namesake on his innocence, and I would like even now to claim the verdict for myself for many things that have happened more recently in my own lifetime. Here's the story:

The Burning of the Courthouses

Arsonists burned the (Winn Parish) courthouse the first time in 1868. Those responsible were never brought to trial on the charge. The district attorney was investigating the criminal act and he was murdered. Others in and around the courthouse were warned that they too might meet a similar fate. The officials could not find anyone who would testify. Many residents had seen the West-Kimbrell gang riding horses around town that afternoon about dark.

On the night of November 23, 1886, the fire alarm (the shooting of shotguns and pistols) awoke the town to see their third courthouse and all the new official records destroyed for the second time.

Sheriff J.R. Sowers and his deputies worked throughout the night trying to gather evidence left by the arsonist and to determine the motive for burning the courthouse. Several men had recently been indicted by the Winn Parish Grand Jury.

In 1886, criminal investigators had very little professional materials to work with as compared to 1986. One of the deputies reported finding a place behind the Methodist Church, in a pine thicket, where horses had been tied during the night. Sheriff Sowers knew that John Warner was the best tracker, by using foot prints, in Winn Parish. The Sheriff sent for Warner, who lived across Dugdemona on the Buckskin Road northeast of Gorham's Ferry.

John Warner arrived on the scene about daylight. He examined the several hoof prints and made some rough notes and a mental impression of each. The sheriff had the posse waiting. John Warner took the lead horse. The posse followed the foot prints north, crossing Dugdemona River near Luke-Wyatt Crossing. They continued northwest, crossing several creeks and again crossing Dugdemona and going into Ward 8. (Winn Parish had only eight wards in 1886.) They soon came to a farm where they found horses in the lot, wet with sweat and showing signs of a hard night's riding. The posse soon rounded up several for investigation and later to be charged with arson.

On December 9, 1886, a bench warrant was issued for the arrest of several men, with bonds set at $1,000 each, according to official notes by J.M. Abel, Deputy Clerk.

Judge R.D. Bridges of the 4th Judicial District, presided at the court hearings, with District Attorney George Wear presenting charges. Attorneys Ben P. Edwards and J.A Dorman represented the defendants, Quincy Travis, Richard Travis, W.E. Pratt, Alexander Stringer, Thomas Kelly, and H.E. Butler.

Upon a trial by jury, defendants W.E. Pratt, Quincy Travis, and Richard Travis, were found guilty as charged, and Thomas Kelly, H.E. Butler, and Alexander Stringer, not guilty.

Judge Bridges sentenced the three guilty to seven years hard labor at the state penitentiary at Baton Rouge. A motion was filed on their behalf to arrest the judgment, on the basis of a technicality in the language of the grand jury's bill of information, that is, the omission of the legal phrase ". . . contrary to the form of the Statute of the State of Louisiana in such case made and provided, and against the peace and dignity of the same."

Pending an appeal to the State Supreme Court, the three convicted defendants were transferred to the jail in Natchitoches Parish. On March 21, 1887, the Louisiana Supreme Court overruled their objection and affirmed the sentence, stating, "The ruling was proper, there was no force or even pertinency in the objection."

The Supreme Court ruling also stated, "Against Butler and Pratt, it was offered to show that their indictments pending and on file in the courthouse at the time it was burned, offered for the purpose of proving a motive for the arson charged and a circumstance tending to show their guilt. It was objected to on the ground that there had been no conspiracy proved and that motive could not be proved until a conspiracy had been established. The objection was overruled and the proof admitted."

(And let it be noted again for the record: Thomas Kelly, Not Guilty!)