The early days of crime
An almost non-existent police force in Southwest Louisiana had its hands full with the lawlessness of an increasingly immoral majority
BY ROBERT BENOIT (1995 Jul 09)
Almost anywhere you go nowadays, people are talking about crime. It has become a major concern in Southwest Louisiana, around the state and across the nation.
Was the crime situation any better many years ago when Lake Charles had dirt streets and the American Press was just getting started?
Microfilmed copies of the Daily American, Daily Press, and Lake Charles American-Press provide memorable stories and lots of food for thought on this question.
Almost from the time Imperial Calcasieu Parish was organized back in 1840, it was a magnet to boisterous, hard-working frontiersmen. The attractions were jobs and possible fortunes in the area's forests, minerals, agriculture and shipping.
Imperial Calcasieu's workmen toiled long hours under difficult conditions for very little pay. And when they relaxed, what many of them wanted most was town where they could spend their money, have a good time, and not be bothered very much by tight law enforcement.
Ironically, it was Lake Charles the town often remembered for its forward-looking businesses, progressive schools and Sunday School picnics in Walnut Grove that provided fun-loving frontiersmen with the saloons, gambling halls, bordellos, and traveling shows they enjoyed so much.
The following stories tell of law enforcement and its efforts to control the seamy side of life in Lake Charles prior to 1910. They are just a few of the hundreds of similar stories that can be found in early editions of the newspapers that eventually became the Lake Charles American Press.
Lake Charles citizens unite in vigilante group
In August 1860, when Calcasieu Parish was only 20 years old and Lake Charles was still an unincorporated village, lawlessness became so bad that a number of residents decided to organize a vigilante committee. They named it the Law and Order Company of Lake Charles.
Their organization had four purposes: to quell rowdyism, protect property, stop violence and stop breaches of the peace.
Its members were Jacob Ryan, David Goos, Joseph Bilbo, William Haskell, E.A. King, Asa Ryan, Michel Mithon, Joseph Pujo, W.H. Kirkman, Joseph Sallier, Victor Touchy and Michel Benoit.
(Based on a entry in “Leaves from the Diary of Louise,” American-Press, Aug. 22, 1925)
Sheriff Lyons faces badman
About 20 years later Lake Charles had a functioning law officer and no longer needed vigilantes, but it was still very much a part of the western frontier. At this time a notorious badman got unexpected results when he challenged the Calcasieu parish sheriff to a street duel.
This story began on April 15, 1877, when Matt Woodlief, a notorious Louisiana felon, took part in a famous shoot-out in Houston with Alexander Erichson, that town's city marshal.
According to an account published years later, the two men squared off, drew their pistols, fired, knocked each other to the ground and then continued firing and crawling toward each other until their pistols were empty. Both men ended up with severe wounds, but they recovered and Woodlief went back to Louisiana. Two years later Woodlief showed up in Lake Charles as mean as ever and issued a challenge to Sheriff D.H. Lyons.
Woodlief boasted publicly that he was going to get his friend, who had been arrested for murdering a soldier, our of the Calcasieu Parish jail in spite of anything Sheriff Lyons cared to say or do to the contrary.
Lyons sent word back to Woodlief that he wasn't about to let him have his friend, and then he quietly began barricading the parish's log jail, then located where the courthouse now stands.
Before long Woodlief came strolling down Ryan Street armed, dangerous and determined to fulfill his treat think no doubt that Lyons would be another Marshal Erichson.
But Lyons' response was not the one Woodlief had in mind. When Woodlief came within range, instead of stepping into the street and participating in a western-style duel, Lyons simply took aim and picked Woodlief off with one shot...in this way demonstrating quite convincingly that lawmen operated by different rules on the east side of the Sabine river.
(Based on an article in the Daily American, Nov. 16, 1900)