On the late afternoon of December 13, 1922, fifty-two-year-old commercial fisherman Joe W. Johnson and thirty-four-year-old sheet-iron worker Louis J. Herboldsman crossed the Mississippi River to coon hunt about five miles above Mellwood, Arkansas on the Mississippi side.  A native of Helena, Johnson, had fished the river for years and thus knew the area well on both sides of the waterway.  On that day, the river measured a little over eleven feet at Helena, and with a flood stage of near forty feet, Johnson knew it was relatively safe to cross the slow-moving caramel brown water, or at least as safe as any moving body of water could be.  The Mississippi River was notorious for snags that might fatally stab through a light boat, causing it to sink in a few seconds.  Yet, Johnson knew the location of most of the underwater danger.  As the setting sun reflected off the water, the two men motored across, the whir of their two-stroke outboard causing resting birds to take flight and startled frogs to jump for safety from their hiding spots.  After they reached the Mississippi shore, Johnson killed the motor, the hunters tied their boat to a stout tree, took their guns, and disappeared into the tall twisted vines, cane, and cattails.  The full moon began to wane eight days beforehand.  On a clear night the woods remained light enough to see rather well, even without their lanterns.[1]

Soon afterward, while weaving their way through the heavy foliage broken with sandy flats, they heard men approaching.  The strangers called out to the two Arkansawyers.  When the group advanced, they explained to Johnson and Herboldsman that they were Mississippi deputies and asked the two coon hunters where they lived.  When the Arkansawyers replied that they were from across the river, the Mississippians asked for hunting licenses.  They did not have any.  The supposed lawmen informed Johnson and Herboldsman that they were violating the non-resident hunting law and were under arrest.  In 1922, non-residents were required to purchase a $20 license from the local sheriff to hunt game in Mississippi.  Neither Johnson nor Herboldsman, however, had bought one.[2]  Only one of the six Mississippians identified himself by name, Lindsay L. Cagle.  He was forty-three years old, tall with a medium build, steel grey eyes, and red hair.  He intimidated the Helena men and did the majority of the talking for the group.  Another man, with brown hair and brown eyes who looked about fifty years old, identified himself simply as the Assistant Chief of Police for Clarksdale, Mississippi but did not give his name.  Assistant Chief Frank Harris was actually the only law enforcement officer in the group.  But, neither Johnson nor Herboldsman knew that information.  As city law enforcement, Harris could neither issue nor enforce hunting and fishing licenses.  In Mississippi, these licenses fell under the purview of county officials.  But, Harris had as much authority over game laws as the other members of his group.  By trade, Lindsay L. Cagle was a dry goods salesman with no experience in law enforcement.  Clarence D. Calvert was a farmhand, while Frank Noland was a machinist.

Harris ordered the two hunters back to their boat, then they were supposed to motor downriver where they would meet the Mississippi party at their own boat, secured along the bank.  When Johnson and Herboldsman arrived a short time later, Cagle ordered them to tie their boat to his, not in the rear as to be under the deputies’ control, but to the front.  Cagle then ordered the fisherman to tow his boat upriver with his party on board.[3]   

Along the way, two events occurred that troubled Joe Johnson and Louis Herboldsman.  The Arkansawyers probably thought it odd that only a mile or two upriver, the Mississippians called a halt to their trip and ordered Johnson and Herboldsman to stay in the boat while some of them went off the river and hiked to a shack in the woods.  When they returned, these Mississippi River pirates had obtained bootleg whiskey and quickly became intoxicated.  As the group motored up the river, the Mississippians produced a rifle and began shooting at geese and duck, the second action that disturbed the Helena fishermen.  Both men later related to Federal Game Warden Ernest V. Visart that they saw “Lindsay Cagle fire a number of shots …at wild geese and wild duck from a … house boat which was being towed by a motor boat.”[4]

In addition to the Johnson and Herboldsman’s eyewitness accounts, Visart later tracked down Calvert and Noland to record interviews.  Passenger Calvert, from Millwood, Arkansas, attested that he was on the houseboat and swore that both Harris and Cagle shot at waterfowl with a rifle.  Noland from Murphysboro, Illinois, said the two were using “high powered rifles,” firing toward the Arkansas and the Mississippi sides of the river.[5]

After the boat ride ended nearly eight miles from where it had begun, the Mississippians ordered Johnson and Herboldsman into their automobile and drove the men to Clarksdale.  Eventually, the two men were set free.  They returned to their boat and went home.

It is unclear how Game Warden Visart learned of the Mississippi boat ride. By that January, however, he had recorded statements from the four witnesses.  Visart then charged Cagle and Harris with hunting wild ducks and geese “by means of a floating device towed by a power boat,” outside the parameters of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  Federal Judge Jacob Trieber set the bond at $100.  Ironically, the men were not charged with firing a rifle or using improper ammunition or endangering the lives of anyone on either shore.  The Federal court trial date in Helena for Cagle and Harris was docketed for October 14, 1924.[6]

As time passed between July and October, Visart became more worried about the case.  He expressed his concern in a letter, written on October 13th to Chief United States Game Warden George A. Lawyer in the Washington DC office of the Bureau of Biological Survey.  “I am afraid that we will loose [sic],” Visart admonished, “as our main witness was ambushed about two months ago.  I understand that Cagle and Harris will bring with them quite a few character witnesses, and the case will be hard fought.”  On August 21, someone had murdered Louis Herboldsman, one of the witnesses from Helena.  No party was ever arrested for the crime.  No witness to the murder, very little evidence, and no leads.  The death of a primary witness certainly might have caused other witnesses not to testify.  Could Harris lose his job as assistant chief of police if he were found guilty?  Was it worth murder to make sure he was not convicted? 

Assistant Chief Harris had access to the information about the case, including all the witness statements.  United States Marshal John H. Cook of the Clarksdale office sent a summons to Mississippian Newt Cartledge as a character witness for the defense.  As a common practice, the summons went to local authorities, along with a small process stipend, to serve the summons.  Local officials surely knew their people better than the marshal, in most cases, and a few dollars for the local police kept good relations.  Frank Harris returned the $1.05 to the federal authority, however, saying that he would provide for his witness. So, as law enforcement, Harris was very much involved in the development of his own case.  It seems logical that Harris might influence the witnesses in his party to change their testimony.  But, for the two men across the river, it was a bit more difficult for Harris to sway them.  He might have had to use a more direct approach, but there is no direct evidence that he or any of his friends were involved with Herboldman’s murder.  Yet, on the day of the trial, the case’s trajectory changed again.[7] 

The trial outcome surprised many of those involved with the case, especially Visart.  He expected a strong contest, but this did not happen.  By the day after the trial, an astonished Visart observed that “the principal witness being dead and two others not found leaving us with only one witness, it looked like we were bound to loose [sic], but with much assistance of Judge…we succeed in getting the attorney for the plaintiffs to enter a plea of guilty in each case.”  The court fined Lindsay Cagle and Frank Harris ten dollars.  The Mississippi men certainly wished to have the whole affair behind them.  No one was ever charged in connection to Herboldsman’s death.  Frank Harris remained in public service for the rest of his career.  After a brief stint as Coahoma County Tax Assessor, he eventually became Night Chief of Police in the late 1930s, passing away in 1937 at the age of sixty-two.[8]

About Dr. Buck Foster

Dr. Buck T. Foster, an avid waterfowl hunter for more than thirty years, is a lecturer in Old South, American Military History, American Civil War History, and Arkansas History at the University of Central Arkansas.  He is currently researching the end of market hunting and the rise of the sportsman in Arkansas from 1880-1925.

     [1] Joe W. Johnson Witness Affidavit, January 24, 1923, Biological Survey Records, National Archives, College Park, Maryland, RG22; US Census Records, 1930, Helena, Phillips, Arkansas, 6B;  US Army Corps of Engineers, Historical Data, https://rivergages.mvr.usace.army.mil/WaterControl/yearly_tables2.cfm?sid=MS133&from1=01/01/1913&to1=12/31/1914&dt=S&param=HG, accessed August 30, 2020; Louis J. Herboldsman, World War I Draft Card, June 5, 1917; Astroseek, “Moon Phase Calendar – December 1922,” https://mooncalendar.astro-seek.com/moon-phases-calendar-december-1922, accessed September 14, 2020.

[2] United States Department of Agriculture, Farmers’ Bulletin No. 1375, Game Laws for the Season 1923-1924, Washington, DC, September 1923, 24. 

[3] Joe W. Johnson Witness Affidavit, January 24, 1923, Biological Survey Records, RG 22; Lindsey Layfayette Cagle, World War I Registration Card, September 12, 1918. The other two men in the Mississippi party were never identified.

[4] Ernest V. Visart to George A. Lawyer, January 27, 1923, Biological Survey Records, RG 22; Ernest V. Visart Affidavit, January 27, 1923, Biological Survey Records, RG 22.

[5] Clarence Calvert Witness Affidavit, January 25, 1923, Biological Survey Records, RG 22; Frank Nolan Witness Affidavit, January 25, 1923, Biological Survey Records, RG 22.

[6] Charging Document, United States vs Lindsay Cagle, July 6, 1923, Biological Survey Records, RG 22; US v Cagle and Harris, Order for Capias, September 4, 1923, Case Files 1912-1950, Records of the District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, Jonesboro Division, RG21, Fort Worth Branch, National Archives.

[7] Frank Harris to Sid B. Redding, October 6, 1924, Case Files 1912-1950, Records of the District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, Jonesboro Division, RG21, Fort Worth Branch, National Archives.

[8] E. V. Visart to George A. Lawyer, October 13, 1924 and October 15, 1924, Biological Survey Records, RG 22.