terrorized North Louisiana
Post-Civil War outlaw band's reign detailed in re-issue of Richard Briley's 1963 book
There was a haunted desperation in the Irishman's voice which indicated he was grasping at a final straw in making this sudden appeal to a total stranger. It was Farmer's Teagle's turn to stir uneasily. Tales of John West and his nightriders, and the crimes committed by his gang, were constantly whispered about the countryside . . . In the 'no-man's land' between Winnfield and the Arroyo Hondo just then a man had to be careful . . . ''
Thus begins the opening chapter of ``Nightriders: Inside Story of the West and Kimbrell Clan,'' by Richard Briley III, first published in 1963, and recently reissued by Dogwood Press, Hemphill, Texas.
John West and Laws Kimbrell were Confederate Army veterans who returned after the Civil War to their homes in a ``no-man's land'' of Central Louisiana, the remains of the old buffer strip between French and Spanish colonial interests which was ``traditionally lawless from the days of St. Denis, Bienville, and Cadillac,'' according to ``Nightriders.''
Returning from the War, West settled on a rise overlooking Little Hill Bayou, five miles south of Atlanta, and two miles east of Iatt Creek . . . north of the Natchez trace. He owned or controlled two cotton gins and grist mills, and ``it was at these two gins less than a mile apart that some of the Clan's most hideous murders and robberies were subsequently perpetrated,'' Briley writes.
The book, a 100-page softcover edition, was researched and written during the 1950s by Briley, a resident of Montgomery in Grant Parish, Louisiana. In a commentary P.C. Lang of Montgomery writes, ``There can be no doubt, John West and Laws Kimbrell were greater in outlawry than Frank and Jesse James. They killed more, robbed more, and terrorized more people. They were bolder, meaner, and more irritable, altogether more dangerous. Because of the confusion in the deep South and the difference in methods used, West and Kimbrell failed to get the publicity the James brothers received. Where Frank and Jesse, with Cole Younger and their gang, rode into towns, robbed banks in daylight, and shot it out with officers and posses on the spot, West and Kimbrell, with the Clan, moved about at night, robbing travelers and wagon trains, killing everyone they contacted in secrecy, under the cover of darkness. When the James boys struck, the newspapers told their story in great headlines; when West and Kimbrell robbed or killed, no newspaperman knew anything about it, or if one picked up such news he was afraid to say anything even to his friends, let alone run such material in his newspaper.
``It seems incredible such a gang could have existed here for seven years doing greater work in their field of crime than Frank and Jesse James, killing more people and getting more money, and still not have a thing published abut them in the contemporary press. But such was the case. Though Jesse James, born in 1847, was only 25 when the West and Kimbrell gang was destroyed, the James boys were well acquainted with West and Laws Kimbrell and when things got a little warm for them in their early days they slipped into this country and hid out, sometimes drinking whiskey with the Clan at Kimbrell's store in the Wheeling settlement. They may even have ridden with the Clan in its latter days. No one knows for sure.''
The story, according to the author's preface, ``is not a history, but a reconstructed legend or fable. Every care has been taken to present the story exactly as it was, but after nearly a century of change and development, records are defaced, voices of the past are confused. Logic and imagination had to be used.''
A contemporary of the late Harley B. Bozeman of Winnfield, who wrote much area history including tales of the West/Kimbrell Clan, Briley used dozens of interviews with old-timbers and relatives of the gang, its victims and contemporaries, as well as numerous published works, to construct a breathtaking narrative, naming names and incidents which could form the basis for a major screen epic.
The ending of the West Clan finally came when local citizens appealed to the Governor, who issued blank pardons for anyone involved in killing the members of the criminal gang.
Hero of the story is young Dan Dean, the Atlanta, Louisiana gun-fighter, who exposed the Clan and led the fight in its destruction.
The re-published book is available for $10 plus $2
shipping and handling, from Dogwood Press, H.C. 53 Box
345, Hemphill TX 75948. Telephone 407-579-2184, and on
the internet at http://dogwoodpress.myriad.net/