Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: The Legend of the Nightriders

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, October 16, 2011

The old couple arose in excellent spirits the next morning and prepared to hitch their wagon and resume their travel westward. However, when Uncle Dan and the old man went to the barn, just after daylight, Dan bashed in the old man’s head with an axe and left him there to die. Meanwhile the affable Aunt Polly, inviting the old lady to her garden to admire her vegetables, slashed the woman’s throat with a knife as the woman bent over to examine a radish.

Hundreds of people dead, and almost no records, in rural Louisiana following the Civil War. Truth? Legend? Or something in between? Jack Peebles takes newly-discovered newspaper articles and shows us the possibility of truth in old stories about the Harrisonburg Road.

RecommendationSpecial Interests
AuthorJack Peebles
Length296 pages
Book Rating6
Dan Kimbrel’s grave: The gravestone of “Uncle Dan” Kimbrel of Louisiana.; Louisiana; graveyards; cemetaries

“D.S. Kimbrel, born Feb. 19 1803; Died June 16, 1869.”

I was in Louisiana a few months ago and visited a ghost town named Rochelle. You can still find a few people reminiscing about it on lost web forums, and, with help from the local police department, I found two of the town’s cemeteries nearby. What I did not expect to find was a story of a mass murder I’d never heard of, a story of a group of people who murdered hundreds of travelers over a period of at least five years, between 1866 to 1870.

It began much earlier than 1866 with Dan and Polly Kimbrel, who lured travelers to their farm and then murdered them. As their children grew older, their sons and daughters assisted, catching blood in a pan when necessary, for example. During the Civil War their son Lawson fought for the Confederacy. When he returned, he began to recruit soldiers returning from the war to take what he learned from his parents and step it up into an organization. The nightriders started, perhaps, with the murder of Union paymaster Lieutenant Simeon G. Butts in the summer of 1866. Lt. Butts carried—alone—$2,700 from Natchitoches to Vernon, Louisiana. That’s a lot of money to be carrying alone today; it was a fortune in 1866.

After killing Butts, the group started searching out more travelers who had property worth stealing. The West-Kimbrel clan killed so many people that they ended up digging wells all over the area, all along the road (but off of the roads enough to avoid suspicion), to dump bodies into. They used Chickasaw Indian tree marks to communicate. They managed to avoid being caught despite the many people they killed by only killing people from far away:

Aunt Polly and Uncle Dan [Kimbrel] limited their assaults to travelers migrating to Texas from far-away states, usually from the Southeast along the Harrisonburg road.

It was Uncle Dan’s death—you can still see his gravestone in the Kimbrel cemetery—that set in motion their capture; Dan and Polly were very careful. It was only in his old age, according to the legend, that he began to be careless: according to the stories, Uncle Dan was killed by a victim who survived and who “came back to hunt down and kill the old man who had shot his father.”

After Uncle Dan’s death, the nightriders grew more reckless, and the rest of the community began first to suspect, then to know and fear the nightriders, and finally to fear inaction more than they feared the murderers. As people began to suspect, the night riders began threatening and even killing locals, which, as any student of revolution knows, only hastened the nightriders’ fall as they made more and more enemies. The Sheriff would do nothing, for reasons unexplained in the book. Several citizens banded together to stop the nightriders once a critical mass of people willing to act formed.

The three main outlaws were Uncle Dan Kimbrel, Laws Kimbrel, and John West. “Outlaw” doesn’t really describe them, though, because they tried to stay under cover of respectability during the day. West organized the Kimbrel clan into the nightriders, but also:

…sought political power and community respectability. He was elected Justice of the Peace of Ward Six in Winn Parish, and his close associate in crime, Lec Ingram, was selected constable.

The legends don’t say whether the stolen money helped, but it probably did. West also looked to the business community for assistance laundering their ill-gotten gains, building their own businesses where possible and drawing in a local merchant/banker to launder gains that couldn’t be run through the mill.

This is a confusing narrative. I can’t see when the authors think it began; this is partly because it’s really a story about the nightriders, but the murders started well before the nightriders formed—if I’m reading the book correctly. It’s also partly because the stories are literally that: stories told later by descendants of the victims, murderers, and other townsfolk. Few of the murder stories have dates.

The nightrider stories reiterate and reinterpret accounts from various sources. I do not claim these narratives as my original writing. They are, after all, the contents of a legend I did not create. My contribution has been to update the legend, correct errors based on the newly discovered material, and put the new information in narrative form…

The persistence of this legend—we are now in the fifth generation after the nightriders—suggests a common memory. If the legend does not rise to the level of history it is nonetheless a valid part of the oral and written tradition of the community.

The legends themselves are pretty scrambled. The Haunted History Tour in Natchitoches includes a visit by “The Front Street Ghost – U.S. General Napoleon McLaughlin returns to seek his revenge after his murder by Laws Kimbrel of the notorious West-Kimbrel Klan.” And the Southern Spirit Guide mentions a ghost who appears in Natchitoches: “The best candidate for the identity of this ghost may be Brevet Brigadier General Napoleon McLaughlin who was part of the Union occupation forces. He was gunned down by outlaws on Front Street in 1872”.

General McLaughlin had been involved in investigating Butts’s murder. In 1868 he killed Laws’s brother William while interviewing suspects. But McLaughlin survived that encounter1 and lived until 1887, where he died in New York. These references probably refer to the murder of Lieutenant (and Brevet Captain) Butts in 1866—one of the few murders for which records still exist.2 There is no record of federal authorities on hand for the 1870 uprising against the West-Kimbrel clan, either. That the federal authorities didn’t want to get involved was part of the problem.

The work is heavily footnoted, but few of the footnotes are original records: they’re interviews with descendants. The courthouse and all its records were destroyed “around 1868” according to the legends, burned by the West-Kimbrel clan. The courthouse burned again in 1885, fifteen years after the uprising. This means that any records of unsolved murders or disappearances are gone. It is likely that even in 1870 there were few records: the recently-discovered articles from the Ouachita Telegraph provide anecdotes but neither dates nor names for the victims.

Most of the period records all deal with one case: that of Lieutenant Butts. As a federal soldier, his records were in the National Archives and the story of his disappearance made small news items as far away as New York City.

This is also a buried treasure legend: besides burying bodies all over the Parish, they also supposedly had treasure caches, and people continued looking for the clan’s treasure for decades.3

Peebles borrows heavily (with full thanks and acknowledgement) from an earlier work by Richard Briley III, Nightriders: Inside story of the West and Kimbrell Clan. Both books are difficult to find: I was loaned my copy of Jack Peebles’s work by a Georgetown native, which I had to return. That said, if mass murderers who get away with it for years—and even operate partially under the cover of authority—fascinate you, I recommend finding this book or another book about the nightriders of Harrisonburg Road.

January 28, 2014: Trevor Fry’s Natchez Trace photo

This comes from Trevor Fry.

My son, Adam, is doing research with the hopes of installing a historical marker regarding the Nightriders and the old wagon road they haunted, the El Camino Real/Harrisonburg Road.

Last summer we traveled with Dr. Frank Mobley from the ferry crossing at Little River all the way to the ferry crossing at Red River, and soaked up all of the Nightrider sights we could along the way. Last week we took a photo of the old wagon road after a snow fall which really shows the contours of the sunken trace.

Part of the above is from his email, and part from his comment in the original Nightriders book review.

I think a historical marker along the trace is a great idea.

  1. McLaughlin was arrested and charged with murder in Winn Parish, but the Ninth Judicial District of the State of Louisiana took jurisdiction from Winn, and McLaughlin was found not guilty.

  2. What 1872 has to do with it I have no idea. If General McLaughlin continued to pursue Laws Kimbrel over the Butts murder, it was mostly through correspondence. Laws—supposedly—was eventually hanged in Texas for an unrelated murder. Again, though, no records are cited and some legends say Laws, living under an alias, outlived his younger brother Tom.

  3. Other parts of the legend say that the treasure was probably appropriated by their banker, who kept records for the nightriders and so would have known where the treasure was. And other legends say that Uncle Dan’s son Tom knew where it was and regularly dug it up when needed. Tom was born in 1854; he was the youngest of the boys and barely shows up in any of the narratives.

The Legend of the Nightriders

Jack Peebles

Recommendation: Special Interests

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