1933 La. lynching receiving new scrutiny

The corpse of 16-year-old Freddie Moore, his face showing signs of a severe beating, hands bound, remained hanging for at least 24 hours from a metal girder on the old, hand-cranked swing bridge spanning Bayou Lafourche.

Hanged by the neck the night of Oct. 11, 1933, in a mob lynching, the black youth had been accused in the death of a neighbor, a white girl.

On the 80th anniversary, law students in Boston and a daughter of Moore’s cousin who lives in New Orleans are trying to clear his name.

Arrested Oct. 10, 1933, in the slaying days earlier of Anna Mae LaRose, a 15-year-old girl who was his friend, Moore was pulled from the parish jail in Napoleonville the next night by an angry mob of 50 to 200 armed and unmasked people who had the prison keys.

Some accounts say the lynchers were unknown and from out of town, as far away as New Orleans, while others say the mob was known to authorities. A coroner’s jury, impaneled by then-parish Coroner Dr. T.B. Pugh, said Moore “met death by a mob of unknown persons,” according to news accounts.

After being hauled from the jail, Moore was brought to the field where LaRose’s body was found, according to an Oct. 14, 1933, account in the black-owned New Orleans newspaper, The Louisiana Weekly. With a rope around his neck and clothes stripped to his waist, the teen was then marched, while being beaten, from the murder scene to the bridge and subjected to a branding iron whenever he fell.

Hanging from his body, a sign offered the final indignity: “Niggers Let This Be An Example. Do-Not-Touch-In 24 Hr. Mean it.”

As white people reviewed the scene on the bridge and black residents were warned to stay away, Moore’s body remained within sight of a school and the venerable St. Philomena Catholic Church, its spire above the fray.

Assumption Parish Sheriff Lezin H. Himel, who was at home in Napoleonville the night Moore was taken, later told various news organizations he regretted the lynching but Moore was about to be charged in LaRose’s slaying.

“ ‘I really believe the negro was guilty,’ ” he told The Times-Picayune in the days afterward.

“ ‘I’m sorry it happened as it gives the parish a bad name, but what is a man to do when 100 men demand the keys?’ ”

Death sparks racial tensions

LaRose, the child of a farm worker living on a nearby sugar cane plantation, had been found stabbed in the neck and throat in a cane field outside Labadieville on Monday, Oct. 9, 1933, according to her death certificate.

She had been missing after walking from her home on Saturday, Oct. 7, 1933, for a dance. The coroner said she was not raped — or “criminally attacked,” in the euphemism of the day — though talk of such a violation initially swirled around the community.

Though lynchings were on the wane in the early 1930s as activists pushed federal anti-lynching legislation, the LaRose slaying happened during an apparent period of tension in Labadieville. Two other murders of white residents in years past had allegedly involved black suspects but were unsolved, according to an Oct. 12, 1933, account in The Lafourche Comet.

“So this last occurrence infuriated the Labadieville citizens to such an extent that they took the law into their own hands,” the newspaper reported.

At the time, The Louisiana Weekly, Moore’s family and two witnesses of the lynching who later testified in a federal civil trial over the incident claimed Moore was innocent. Family and witnesses said two Assumption Parish sheriff’s deputies helped and even led the lynch mob, and that the girl’s stepfather later confessed and was arrested.

Distant relations to LaRose dispute any confession or arrest ever happened involving Anna Mae’s father or stepfather. Sheriff Himel disputed the allegation at the time.

But a six-man, all-white federal jury in New Orleans in May 1936 held Himel liable for his deputies’ actions and for not protecting Moore. Moore’s parents, who raised claims in their suit about the stepfather’s confession and the deputies’ participation in the mob, won a $2,500 judgment in what was believed to be a first for a lynching at the time.

Though an investigation into the lynching was promised, no one was brought to justice for Moore’s extra-judicial slaying.

Guilt still hangs over his name.

‘It’s time to make it right’

The main witnesses to the lynching, the law enforcement officials and the immediate family members of the victims are long since dead.

Key records have been disposed of or never existed.

Memory has faded.

But a law clinic at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston has tried to revive that history, digging up old newspaper accounts and the Moore family’s civil lawsuit.

Northeastern’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Law Clinic investigates cold Civil Rights-era cases and earlier to determine what really happened, bring anyone to justice who may have been involved and, in the cases of the wrongly accused, clear their names.

Margaret Burnham, an NU law professor and founder of the project, said several months of research conducted by one of her third-year law students, Robert Black, points to Moore’s innocence.

Burnham said the clinic — which shared its research with The Advocate — intends to seek a state court judgment declaring the arrest of Moore a violation of his rights because, based on available evidence, the sheriff lacked probable cause to detain him and search his house.

“The arrest was unlawful, the failure to protect Moore violated his right to be protected in custody, and the failure to pursue the real perpetrator (if indeed one was known at the time) also violated Moore’s right not to be charged with another man’s crime,” Burnham wrote in an email Wednesday.

“These harms have weighed on (Moore’s) family for eight decades, and it is time to make it right.”

Estimates vary on the number of lynchings in the South between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the mid-1940s.

Michael Pfeifer, associate history professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said about 2,500 occurred from 1880 to 1946, though thousands more occurred during the earlier Reconstruction period.

Examples of lynchings involving other races did happen — in 1891, 11 Sicilians accused in the assassination of New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy were lynched — but most lynchings in Louisiana involved black men who ran afoul of the white power structure.

Pfeifer has documented 422 lynching victims in Louisiana between 1878 and 1946 in his 2004 book “Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874 to 1947.”

While most were in Louisiana’s northern cotton belt, many were in the southern sugar cane regions. Three are documented in Assumption Parish.

“While southern whites often said that they lynched in response to black men’s rape of white women, only 25 percent or so of lynchings in Louisiana and other states actually followed allegations of rape,” Pfeifer wrote in an email. “Rather lynching became a way for southern whites to seek to impose racial hierarchy/white supremacy.”

Mob rule, then two saviors

Fitting what academic researchers say was a pattern of official involvement in many lynchings of the period, the elderly deputy guarding Moore in jail in Napoleonville the night of Oct. 11, 1933 — Abel Landry, who was the former sheriff — offered meek resistance, handing over the keys to the mob following him from the courthouse to his house.

One of the federal suit witnesses, Norman Thibodeaux, a 19-year-old black man almost lynched on the bridge next to Moore’s body that night, also accused then-Deputy Sheriff Fernand Richard of leading the mob, pulling him from his grandmother’s house in Labadieville and beating him with his gun under the belief he also was involved in LaRose’s slaying.

Thibodeaux told newspapers in the months after the lynching that Moore, who initially proclaimed his innocence, had apparently confessed under intense beatings and said a man named Norman Jackson helped him kill LaRose.

“They said they’d show me my pal hanging an’ they said, ‘Nigger, you went after a white woman,’ an’ I said I didn’t know nothin’ ‘bout it,” Thibodeaux was quoted in a December 1933 article by the now-defunct New York World-Telegram.

“They took me down to the bridge in a car an’ sixty or seventy mens yanked me out an’ they was beating me with guns an’ their fists.”

“They say if Ah tell ’em I did it they let me go, but I just say Ah is innocent an’ Ah didn’t plead nor nothin’. They said Ah helped Freddy (sic) Moore kill this woman, an’ Freddy Moore was hanging there, tortured. He was dead.”

Thibodeaux testified in the 1936 trial he saw Richard hold Moore’s dead body while the “irate mob” beat it unmercifully.

Some in the crowd eventually spoke up for Thibodeaux’s innocence after he was strung up from the bridge girders. While accounts vary, several note that the bridge tender, likely a man named Louis Coddou, and a planter named Raoul Robichaux, convinced the crowd to cut down Thibodeaux.

Thibodeaux’s grandmother worked for Robichaux.

Once off the bridge, some men attempted to shoot Thibodeaux in a remote cane field, but he was able to escape to New Orleans.

Three years later in the federal trial, deputies Richard and Landry disputed any role in the lynch mob, though Landry acknowledged he never called Sheriff Himel after the mob left with Moore.

Whatever Richard’s role in the lynching, he received accolades for his work.

An anonymous Nov. 1, 1933, item in the The Lafourche Comet, signed “A Friend,” expressed the appreciation of the “Citizens of Labadieville.”

A few weeks after the lynching, Richard was given a solid-gold monogrammed belt buckle with the inscription: “In Appreciation Of Duty Well Performed In The Annie Mae LaRose Murder Case 10-9-33.”

Who killed Anna Mae?

Ernest J. LaRose, 69, of Chackbay, said he always remembers seeing his aunt Anna Mae’s picture in an old-time oval frame alongside a photo of her older sister’s on a wall of his grandmother’s house in Thibodaux.

“In fact, I was maybe about 11 years old when I saw her picture hanging on the wall next to my godmother, Marie, and they said, ‘That’s the one that got killed.’ ”

LaRose said the adults rarely spoke of such things in front of children but reminders of Anna Mae remained.

Second-hand stories Ernest LaRose and his sister, Clara Guillot, 70, of Thibodaux, said they heard pointed to Moore’s guilt, they said. Family history claims to know the spot where Anna Mae LaRose’s body was found on Oct. 9, 1933.

Local newspapers that bore the shocking details of Anna Mae’s death and Moore’s lynching 80 years ago also reflected the agrarian rhythms still in effect in this sugar cane farming community.

The grinding season was just getting into full swing in early October 1933, when the cane was starting to be cut and brought to the mills. After months of growing, the sugar cane that isn’t yet at the mill is tall enough to hide a body.

Driving among such stalks of cane Thursday, Ernest LaRose showed where Anna Mae and her family lived in the cane fields, about a half-mile east of La. 308 and a few miles north of the Labadieville bridge.

Only a grove of oak trees, planted when houses were on the site, remain.

LaRose says his aunt’s body was found in the cane rows, about half-way between that grove and La. 308, along a cut-through between the stalks of cane.

LaRose said family lore alleged Moore stabbed Anna Mae with a metal file while he hid near a graveyard along La. 1014 near a former railroad line.

Accounts from The Louisiana Weekly suggested that Anna Mae LaRose’s body may have been moved to the site where she was found. But Ernest LaRose said he believes the murder happened near where her body was found, between her house and La. 308 and along a likely path to town and the dance to which she was reportedly headed.

LaRose’s sister, Guillot, said the Moores lived next door to Anna Mae’s family. An account from The Louisiana Weekly on Nov. 4, 1933, says Anna Mae was often at the Moore house, borrowing “household necessities” and clothes.

Guillot said she has been told that Moore arrived home Oct. 7, 1933, with blood on his clothes after Anna Mae had left the house. Moore reportedly told Anna Mae’s mother he was slaughtering a pig.

News accounts say Moore also had asked the LaRose family what time Anna Mae was heading to the dance.

Louisiana Weekly reporters said in a Nov. 11, 1933, account that sheriff’s investigators reported they had bloody clothes from Moore, but the reporters later spoke with Moore’s mother, Lilly Moore. She said she turned over a blue work shirt that was not bloody but dirty from her son’s work in a family garden after he finished working in the cane fields that morning.

The law clinic’s research speculated that Ernest LaRose, Guillot’s and Ernest J. LaRose’s biological grandfather, may be the stepfather referenced in the Moores’ litigation and in news accounts of the day.

Guillot and LaRose also dispute that.

“I think my grandpa was dead when Anna Mae died, so he couldn’t do it,” Guillot said.

Census records from 1930 identify Ernest LaRose’s biological grandfather, also named Ernest Larose as Anna Mae’s and her siblings’ father, not stepfather. Ernest LaRose’s death certificate and obituary could not be found. A review of Assumption graveyard listings were unsuccessful in finding his grave or date of death.

Ernest LaRose, the grandson, said his grandfather was buried in a pauper’s grave.

Thursday, LaRose also disputed their stepgrandfather, David Himel, was involved.

News accounts claiming the stepfather confessed don’t identify the man, with the exception of one story in which he is called “Darvie.”

Court records that might show if there were an arrest or conviction are gone, parish officials said, and what is left does not point to the guilt of Himel or Ernest LaRose.

A family’s haunting history

Janet Hébert Johnson, 63, of Algiers, says her father often recounted for her and her nine brothers and sisters the story of Freddie Moore, their father’s first cousin.

The death affected her father greatly, she said. He was about the same age as Moore and often visited him as a child on trips from his home in New Orleans.

“I was told as a young child my father came home from school one day and was told his cousin was lynched on the bayou,” she said.

She said her grandfather, a Baptist minister in New Orleans, drove up the following night with a gun in the car to cut down Moore’s body and protect his mother and sister.

They rode back with Johnson’s grandfather that night and lived with them in New Orleans for a few years afterward, Johnson said.

After her father, John Hébert Jr., returned from military service in World War II in the mid-1940s, he moved to Albuquerque, N.M. He never returned to live in Louisiana because of the lynching and other racism he faced, Johnson said.

“He knew it wasn’t where he wanted to rear his children,” she said.

Johnson returned to New Orleans in the late 1970s, but the story of her distant cousin’s death always nagged at her. She decided to research the history in the late 1990s. A family reunion then included a visit to a bridge now crossing the bayou in the same spot in Labadieville.

Convinced of his innocence, Johnson petitioned then-Gov. Mike Foster and then-President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s to clear Moore’s name, with no success. Johnson’s efforts have been collected in a small archive at the parish library in Napoleonville.

The Advocate came across the archive after being notified by the law clinic about the coming anniversary, and put Johnson in touch with Burnham, the professor.

Johnson said she and clinic are now working together. She said “we cannot pick and chose what we want to be in history” but said greater understanding of this part of Assumption’s history will help the community as well.

“I think as far as Assumption Parish, they will know now. Some of them that never heard about it or didn’t know whether it was true or not, they will know now that this did indeed occur,” Johnson said.

“I think there is going to be some good that comes out of it.”