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COLUMN: Ku Klux Klan Trials and the arrest of L.Q.C. Lamar, Part 1

By Jack Mayfield

In several of my most recent columns, I have made mention of the Ku Klux Klan and the incident in which local attorney L.Q.C. Lamar dislocated the jaw of a U.S. Marshal in open court.

This is such an interesting event that I want to pass along some historical information concerning the event and I’ll do so in two installments.

Due to the fact the Yankees had burned the Lafayette County Courthouse and 34 other buildings on the Square, provisions had been made in 1866 for Federal Court in new buildings that had been constructed on the Square. President Andrew Johnson had appointed Judge R.A. Hill to the federal bench and Oxford became a Federal District Court site. The second floor of several buildings on the southwest corner of the Square — where City Grocery, Southside Gallery and Old Venice are located today — were used as the site.

Where the steps led to today’s Burgundy Room, a long hall separated two sections above the businesses. On one side was a federal courtroom and on the other were offices. L.Q.C. Lamar opened a law office, the city of Oxford had the Mayor’s office and county offices also were housed on the second floor.

On June 22, 1871, the Federal District Court in Oxford was the site of the incident that is the subject of this column. A number of prosecutions under the Ku Klux laws, which had been passed in the Mississippi Carpetbag Legislature and in Congressional Reconstruction Acts where being held. They would later be called the “Ku Klux Trials.”

Former University of Mississippi Chancellor Edward Mayes, in his 1896 biography of Lamar, who was his father-in-law, gives a description of the scene in June 1871. He writes, “… the town was filled with strangers: prisoners, witnesses, deputy marshals and soldiers. It was a time of great bustle and no little excitement. Many of the persons attracted thither were desperate and reckless men, disreputable, and altogether dangerous, who were turbulent and aggressive, calculating on their ‘backing’ by the United States authorities and the presence of the soldiery.”

Mayes continues, “One of these men was a witness for the government in one of the Ku Klux cases — Whistler by name — about 30 of age, illiterate, apparently addicted to liquor, and ill-looking.”

Lamar’s office was just across the hall from the District Court and his office opened onto the same hallway and steps, which went down to the Square.

On the morning of July 22, 1871, Lamar was making his way down the hall to his office. As he approached his office, “he found a scene of excitement and turbulence. Whistler was beating a citizen of the town named Kelly, an old man, poor, under the influence of liquor, and unable to defend himself.”

“So great was the commotion that the court, which was engaged in hearing a bankruptcy case, was disturbed, and the judge ordered a deputy marshal to arrest the parties and turn them over to the Mayor of the town, who had police powers,” Mayes goes on to state. “In the meantime Kelly had appealed to Col. Lamar for protection, to which Whistler replied by swearing at the Colonel. The latter applied to the Mayor, whose office was in the same passageway, to have the man arrested, and passed on; but the arrest was not made.”

When the deputy marshal came to the scene, Whistler had drawn his pistol and seemed to be in the process of shooting Kelly. The deputy marshal then arrested both Kelly and Whistler and proceeded to take them to the Mayor’s office. The deputy then returned to the courtroom but another commotion broke out between the two men. He saw Whistler violently struggling to draw his pistol again. The pistol was taken from Whistler and then he was consigned to a party of soldiers.

Lamar had made his way into the courtroom and asked the deputy the name of the man who had been arrested. He was told his name and that he had been delivered to the mayor’s office. He was told that he was a witness for the United States in the “Ku Klux Trials,” but that he had walked off before the mayor’s face with some soldiers.

Col. Lamar then said that the deputy should have held him in custody, for he had himself seen him insulting and threatening peaceable citizens. The deputy answered that he would arrest him again and give him up to the town marshal. Lamar then replied, “No, the town authorities seem powerless in the presence of the soldiers. I will speak to Judge Hill about it.”

At this time, Whistler made his way back into the courtroom and took a seat on the steps leading up to the dais occupied by the judge. This space was usually reserved for officers of the court, members of the bar and the jury. Col. Lamar and the Chief Deputy Marshal J.L. Pierce were engaged in “whispered jocular conversation.” When he saw Whistler enter the room and take his seat he the made a motion that the court should arrest him and place him under a peace bond.

Lamar also began to speak to give his reasons why Whistler should be arrested. He stated the facts in the case and was in the process of saying that Whistler was evidently a violent, turbulent man, who should be placed under restraint. Then Whistler arose from his seat on the steps of the dais and walked toward Lamar. Whistler was armed with a large pistol, which was in a scabbard attached to his belt, and as he approached Lamar he seemed to be drawing the pistol. Lamar was not armed.

The events then escalated. Lamar said to Judge Hill, “I ask your Honor to make this man take his seat and keep it until I finish my statement.” He then seized a chair and raised it saying, “If the court won’t make you, I will.” Whistler jumped backward, and Col. Lamar put down the chair. Judge Hill commanded order in the court and various officials scattered about the room shouted out, “Arrest Col. Lamar! Arrest Col. Lamar!”

Next week look for the end of the story. The consequences of this event would follow L.Q.C. Lamar forever.

Jack Lamar Mayfield is a local Oxford historian and can be reached at jlmayfield@dixie-net.com.