While doing genealogical research in the Archives and Library Division of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson a few years ago, I came across a book that attracted my attention for reasons other than my interest in personal family history. The title of the book is A BOY IN RURAL MISSISSIPPI & Other Stories, by Samuel Grady Thigpen. It was published in 1966, and it is a collection of short stories told to Mr. Thigpen by other people throughout the years, and some of his original tales.
I remember Mr. Thigpen well as I was growing up as he was the owner of Thigpen's Hardware Store located on Highway 11 in the heart of Picayune, Mississippi. I particularly remember the times when he would allow his customers, and anyone else who just went into the store, like me, to enjoy peanuts as he would make barrels of them available to anyone who wanted them . He really meant for everyone to have a good time as visitors to the store were encouraged to eat the peanuts and drop the hulls on the floor. I remember many times seeing hulls nearly covering the entire floor of what appeared to me at the time to be a big store. I remember Mr.Thigpen as being a good man.
The book contains several stories that interest me, but one is of particular interest to me because it deals with an incident that occurred in the the African-American Community of Picayune in 1913. That, or course, was long before I moved there in January 1955 and started calling Picayune, the "Tung Oil Capitol of The World" as it called then, my hometown; and running up and down Rosa Street doing a little of about everything. The story is entitled, "Murder in Honey Island".
Because the story had its beginings on Rosa Street on the Westside of Picayune and ended several miles south of the Southern Mississippi town in Honey Island Swamp, I choose to call this account of the incident "Rosa Street and Honey Island Swamp". Although I do plan to research the story more whenever the opportunity presents itself, this account of it is simply a retelling of Mr. Thigpen's original tale with a few changes and additions to reflect my style.
An African-American sawmill worker named Jim Mills apparently shot and killed William Donaldson by accident in 1913. Donaldson was nightwatchman and quarter boss at the Honey Island Sawmill which was located on the N O & N E Railroad three miles south of Nicholson about midway between the East Pearl and West Pearl rivers in Louisiana.
During those days, every sawmill had what was known as a quarter boss. The duties of the quarter boss was to keep order among the mill workers, collect rent on company houses, keep the houses and the area around them in good repair, and do anything else required of him by the mill owner. In addition to those duties, the quarter boss was usually deputized and he performed the duties of deputy sherriff.
Sawmills and logging camps were generally rough places. They were rough in the accommodations provided for the men and rough in the characters of many of the men who followed that type work. Picayune was no exception.
Things usually went along smoothly during the week when everyone was at work, but on weekends there would often be drinking, fighting, gambling and other breaches of good order, even an occasional murder. In the old "Tanic", short for Titanic, on Rosa Street where Saturday night entertainment was held for African-American who choose to participate in those activities, more than twenty people lost their life in slayings during the twenty year the big mills operated in Picayune.
Jim Mills was a hardworking , respected and dependable man who attended to his own business and stayed away from the weekend activities enjoyed by some other African-Americans at the Tanic in Picayune. One Saturday night in 1913, there was an unusual shouting and noise coming from the Tanic. Jim's wife was in bed that night seriously ill.
The noise from the dance hall disturbed Mills' wife, so he went over and asked the people to be less noisy as not to disturb his sick wife. They all knew Mills and listened to his request respectfully, except one man. He was drunk and cursed Mills and advised him to go back home and attend to his own business. Mills warned the drunk and others that he would not tolerate so much unreasonable noise any longer. Saying that, he turned and went back home to his wife. The angered drunk went out and shot into Mills' home.
Mills jumped up and hurried out to find the person who had shot, as his wife screamed in panic and fear for him as well as for herself. When Mills was sure his wife had not been injured, he rushed out of the house. The members of the crowd knew Jim Mills to be a dangerous man when angered, and they fled into the darkness when they realized what had happened. They knew Mills would not put up anything like that. Mills found no one at the Tanic, so he returned home until he was sure the angry drunk who had cursed him was responsible for shooting into his house.
Mills did not own a gun. He tried unsuccessfully to borrow one from the other men in the area, but none would let him have one in his condition. They hid their guns and made excuses. They knew Mills would kill the man who shot into his house.
Failing to find a gun, Mills returned home to care for his wife. Early the next morning before daybreak, he left to go to the logging camp to get a gun from a good friend of his. Shortly after sunrise, he was seen coming back with the gun and going in the direction of the home of the man he was hunting.
Somehow, Donaldson was informed of what was happening and in his capacity as peace officer, he was on the lookout for Mills. When he saw Mills coming up the trail from the logging camp with the gun on the shoulder, he went to meet him. He demanded that Mills give him the gun. Mills responded by saying "Mr. Donaldson, you stay out of this, This is a personal and a family affair and I am going to kill that nigger for what he has done."
Donaldson kept trying to get Mills to drop the matter and let the courts take care of it. Mills continued repeating, "Mr. Donaldson, I am going to kill that nigger and neither you or anyone else can stop me." As they talked, Donaldson kept edging towards the angry Mills with the intention of grabbing the gun. He got so close that Mills began to back away. As Donaldson made his move to get the gun, it went off striking him in the face. He died instantly.
J.M. Smith lived in Picayune at the time and was an eye witness to the shooting. He said, "I don't think Jim meant to shoot Mr. Donaldson but shot in the excitement when the gun was grabbed". Smith continued by saying, "Jim Mills was a good man and Mr. Donaldson was a good man. They had nothing against each other."
When Mills realized what had happened, he turned and ran for the thickly wooded swamp nearby. He knew he was in serious trouble. The mill was shut down because of the disturbance of the previous night and most of the mill crew had been nearby and witnessed the shooting. A posse was quickly formed and the hunt for Mills started almost within minutes of the shooting.
Word of what had happened was sent to Nicholson, a community just to the south of Picayune. The people there knew Donaldson well and liked and respected him. Several men at Nicholson immediately formed a group to watch East Pearl River to capture Mills if he came in that direction.
Two men were left to watch the bridge, the place a fugiture would most likely try to cross the river. But since the river was low and could be waded, the other men watched up and down the river in case Mills tried to cross at other points. The telegraph operator at Nicholson notified the operator at Pearl River station in Louisiana so that West Pearl River could be watched if Mills attempted to go that way.
A telegram was immediately sent to Sherriff Jim A. Moody at Poplarville. There were no passenger trains going south for several hours so the sherriff caught a freight train and arrived in Nicholson to join the men watching on the Mississippi side of the river.
Around noon while watching the bridge, Jim Davis and Elmont Holcomb saw a man running out of the swamp to cross the bridge. Both men threw up their gun and ordered him to halt. It was Mills. At first he acted as if he was going to stop but suddenly, he threw up his gun loaded with buckshots and fired at the two men. The shot knocked off Davis' hat . Both men fired at Mills about the same time he shot at them. He jumped the railroad trestle and sped down the river and was out of sight in the nearby swamp before they could get their guns reloaded. By the way Mills ran, the men assumed that their attempt to hit him had failed.
The other searchers up and down the river heard the shooting and ran to the bridge. All the men started in the direction in which Mills had disappeared. They soon came upon a trail of blood showing the hunted man had been hit. They carefull and cautiously followed the trail of blood so as not be ambushed by the wounded Mills.
After the posse followed the trail for about two hours to where the Cedar Grove Church was located, Ellis Ganim saw a gun barrell from inside of a hollow tree. Ganim shouted out to the others as he fell to the ground for protection while shooting at the spot where he saw the gun barrell. A fusillade of shots immediately rang out from other members of the posse.
Mills fell from his hiding place face forward to the ground. According to Barney Whitfield, another member of the posse, every man present stood waiting expectantly to see if Mills would shoot again. They then went over to where he had fallen and found him dead. The sherriff gave Jim Davis $5.00 to bury Mills. He was buried there near the spot where he had died.
It was said that another man in the group noticed a newly wrapped package in the shirt pocket of the dead man. He pulled it out and unwrapped it to find a plug of Brown Mule Chewing Tobacco. According to a witness, the man said, "I'll keep this tobacco as he can't use it where he has gone."
I appreciate Mr. Thigpen's writing this story, and the fact that I was able to find it. For years while living in Picayune, I travelled the area where Mills was killed and buried many times, usually while going to and from Slidell and New Orleans in Louisiana. Occassionally, I travel in the area even now while visiting Picayune.
Although I first travelled the area in the 1950s on Highway 11, Interstate 59 is the route to travel there now. Whenever I am near the swamp from now on, I will know that somewhere not far from a church, the remains of a once hardworking, respected and dependable man were buried without a proper funeral. Maybe I will also think of something even alot worse, that could have happened to Jim Mills that 1913 day in Honey Island Swamp.
This page is developed and maintained by Willie L. Robinson.
Last Update: April 24, 2012
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