This is a great story written by a local historian, Lora Peppers, about a convict camp that was once located in Crew Lake. It ran in Louisiana Road Trips and was titled the Crew Lake Horror. Thanks Lora!
By Lora Peppers
Back in November, a friend named Marlon Eby posted on my Facebook page an article from an 1885 Louisiana Democrat newspaper out of Alexandria. What he showed me and what I found, if half of it was true, would make Cool Hand Luke look like a vacation documentary!
In the 1880’s a small body of water called Crew Lake (located at present day Start, LA) was a local day trip spot for most of Northeast Louisiana. Church groups, school groups and fishing parties would load up on the train in Monroe and head out to the lake. While the men fished, the women would set up the rest of the food while the children played nearby. The men folk would come back loaded down with fish they had caught from the lake and there would be a large fish fry and party. The happy group would usually arrive back in Monroe well after dark after a full day of festivities.
Somewhere near the lake the Louisiana State Penal System set up a convict camp. The only clue given to its location was found in an August, 1885 Louisiana Democrat article: “The camp is not nearer than half a mile to the nearest citizen settlement, and no road passing in a mile of the camp, except the railroad.”
In July of 1885 the Louisiana Democrat reported that an 18 year old Irishman named Phillip Riley was sentenced to the pen for stealing a box of tea. He vigorously proclaimed his innocence but was sent to Crew Lake. Not long after, four convicts were made to hold him down while he was whipped to death by “Joe the Butcher” McQuarters, a prison guard. Convict bosses wrote letters to the family, signing Riley’s name, stating he was well and they were treating him kindly. After accusations were made, Governor McEnery called District Attorney P.H. Toles to investigate. Toles asked witnesses to come forward and stated he had not heard from the Riley family. The problem was, convicts could not testify in court. They were deemed unreliable witnesses.
After accusations were raised, Monroe’s two newspapers, the Ouachita Telegraph and the Monroe Bulletin sent reporters on a surprise visit to the camps but found no evidence of abuse. By August, the Louisiana Democrat newspaper was leading the charge. It was reported that one of Philip Riley’s brothers and a family friend came to the camp in search of his brother’s body. The family friend, Frank Fisher, was approached by a convict, who whispered in his ear, “Don’t give me away. Don’t tell anybody I told you; they’d kill me if you did! Another convict told him, “When my time is out, God helping me, I intend to devote my life to visiting every community in the State to denounce their horrid crimes, far worse than slavery.”
Mr. Fisher timed the men’s work hours. At ten till five in the morning, the men were hard at work. Only one hour was allowed for dinner and they only stopped when it was too dark to work. He counted twenty-five newly dug graves in a row, seven more across the railroad track, and was told “the woods were full of them.”
Another witness came forward, named Captain Jack Groome of Alexandria. He was on a visit to Delta, LA when he saw two emaciated men lying prone on the floor of the depot. One man had both legs gone due to frostbite. They were convicts on their way to a hospital. The guard didn’t have enough money for the train fare and telegraphed the camp for funds. He was told to wait for a boat. They had been waiting for days but no boat would take them.
By September the Louisiana Democrat reported that two convicts, at two separate times were being transported to Crew Lake on board the steamboat Pargoud. James Doyle had been pardoned, but jumped overboard “in a fit of madness.” Mr. Furlough jumped from the same steamer. He preferred drowning to going to Crew Lake.
In May of 1886, another horror story came out of Crew Lake. A French speaking African-American convict named Theophile Cavalier was found crawling on all fours at a Baton Rouge train station. In broken English, sometimes using an interpreter, he told a reporter from the New Orleans Picayune that he had been convicted of larceny and sent to work at the North Louisiana camp. He had been forced to work outside without shoes in the winter and as a result lost both feet to frostbite. He told the reporter that eighteen months before, when he had been sent to the camp, he had loved to sing and dance. Later that month, a legislative committee of five men went to Hogden’s Camp at Crew Lake. They interviewed five convicts and two guards about Cavalier but no important evidence was found.
And here is where the newspapers seem to go silent. Nothing further was reported. Apparently, nothing was ever done. The camp must have eventually faded into history. Questions still remain. Just where was the convict camp on the lake? Where are the graves of all those men that Mr. Fisher saw? If anyone has ever heard of it and knows where it was, e-mail me at the address below!