Dennis Coleman – Around The Town Contributor
Early in the 20th Century, the weary travelers throughout our state and region sought food, shelter and refreshment at the many small establishments along the roads and trails that criss-crossed Natchitoches Parish. The roads then were, for the most part, unpaved. Into the 1940’s, though there were numerous automobiles, many people continued to ride horseback or travel in wagons. Time seemed to move slower then. Some of the rest stops along the way were “watering holes” and often have a game of chance break out in the back room. One such place was said to have been located just outside and northwest of Natchitoches. In those days, it was far enough out that local law enforcement didn’t pay too much attention to what went on there and no one seemed to care.
Strong drink could be had even during the period covered by the Volstead Act (1919-1933) thanks to the bootleggers and moonshiners of the area, and after prohibition the alcohol was moved back to the top shelf. Most of the more seedy places had no sign or other post giving them a name; they were simply identified by the owner’s name such as “Smith’s” or perhaps “Smith’s Crossing.”
It was a place such as this that provides the backdrop for this story. It was a cool fall day when Pop saddled his bay gelding for the ride into town. The year was 1935 and, like many other pre war years, not particularly prosperous throughout the rural South. It was a special day for Pop. He had had a good year and with the sale of two bales of cotton and a cow and with the few dollars he’d saved from day-work, he had close to one hundred dollars in his pocket.
As he rode, he thought of being robbed of his money. Being careful not to be seen, he transferred all but two $10 bills and some coins to his sock. He then rode on toward Natchitoches. As he rode, he encountered few other travelers, but he encounter one old acquaintance and they rode on together to a place called “Frenchies.” Frenchies was well known at the time for selling liquor and having a “perpetual” card game in a back room.
Pop was known for being a skilled poker player and before long he was seated at the table with four other men. As night fell, the group took a break to relieve themselves and Pop and another traveler took the time see to their horses. Back at the game, Pop began to win and by midnight had over $200 stacked in front of him. When he played cards, Pop had a habit of rolling quarters in his hand. He’d roll a quarter from one side of the stack to the other while using just the fingertips of one hand. People always seemed to notice that. As the evening wore on, one by one the players began to drop out and leave. When the last player declared he had had enough, it was obvious Pop was the big winner.
Though he had played fairly, three of the other players had conspired that Pop was not leaving with “their” money. The next morning, Pop’s horse was found grazing along the dirt road and Pop’s body could easily be seen lying dead in the shallow ditch.
Pop had been badly beaten and, obviously, it was fatal. Except for the old Walking Liberty quarter he wore around his neck, no money was found on him. The authorities “inquired” but nothing “concrete” ever proved up; within a month it had all but been forgotten. Except for a 17 year old grandson, that is. Frank Latham was a strapping young man and was built like a linebacker. Pop was the only father he’d ever known and he wasn’t going to let this pass. He would have justice.
How he came to know what he knew is unsure, but by the following January the three card players had completely run out of luck. The first man was known to drink heavily and had, mysteriously, fallen into a small farm pond near Marthaville. About 10 days later, the second death resulted from what appeared to be a logging “accident” while the victim was loading out a load of hardwood. It was suspected that a chain broke, though no evidence of that was present.
As knowledge of these two deaths spread throughout the area, the remaining member of the trio seemed to become somewhat of a recluse and was rarely seen at his old haunts, except for one. Though no longer considered a regular, he would show up at Frenchies from time to time and it was on one of these times that a newcomer was sitting at the card table playing solitaire. The young stranger had a kind of “hard” look about him and he never seemed to look up from the cards. It was noticed that he had a way of rolling quarters in his hand just as someone else had done before.
Call it fate, bad luck or serendipity, but that night the third and final of the deadly trio met his maker. A commercial fisherman, it seemed he fell from his boat and drowned in a rain swollen Red River. His boat was found floating capsized the next morning and his body was found floating three days later. He had no money on him, but strangely, just like his two card playing friends, he was wearing a silver quarter around his neck.
Shortly after this, Frank Latham moved to Beaumont, Texas to work in the oilfield until his untimely death in a gas well blowout in the early 70’s.
In 1974, while working on an offshore rig out of Sabine Pass, Texas, I was introduced to a toolpusher named Red Odum. During our introduction, in the part where we recounted where we were from, I mentioned I was from Natchitoches Parish. “Really,” he asked? It seemed that Odum had worked extensively in Natchitoches Parish during the mid 50’s. Being intrigued by mysteries, he had learned of this tale from a couple of locals from the area.
I asked Odum if he’d ever met Latham. “Regretably, no,” said Odom, but he had known some of the guys working with him at the time of his death. Following the well blowout, there was a horrific fire and two men were burned beyond recognition. One was identified as Latham by the silver quarter that was around his neck.
I grew up hearing parts of this story from time to time from different people, but that day in the Gulf, I heard it from start to finish and it matched all the parts of the saga that I had heard before. Did Frank Latham avenge the death of his grandfather? Probably. No one really knows. There doesn’t appear to be a single bit of physical evidence and no witnesses. It’s been said there is no such thing as a perfect murder, but if this story is true, Frank Latham may have done that, times three.
Editors Note: Be sure to look for Dennis Coleman’s feature “The Declaration” in May’s issue of Around The Town
Categories: Special Feature