John Thomas Horne: Examining a Murder Legend

This entry is part of the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks series.  This week’s prompt is Legend.  To see other posts in this series, view my 52 Ancestors in 2019 index


A legend is a traditional story regarded as historical but is unauthenticated. I have a family legend I’d love to prove — the supposed murder of my great-grandfather John Thomas Horne by his step-father William Silas Johnston.

John Thomas Horne was born in December 1865,¹ in Leake County, Mississippi, to parents Joshua Lawrence Horn and Harriett Johnston.² He was just two years old when his parents divorced on grounds of Joshua committing adultery and the fact he was also imprisoned in the Mississippi State Penitentiary for horse stealing.³ Harriett was awarded full “care, custody, and control” of John Thomas,⁴ and it is likely the boy never saw his father again.

John Thomas’s mother Harriett remarried in 1868, to her first cousin William Silas Johnston.⁵ The birth of three sons soon followed for the couple, and I wonder if John Thomas ever felt like an outsider in his own family. When the extended Johnston family migrated to Louisiana in the mid- to late-1870s, John Thomas stayed with his maternal grandparents John Johnston and Malinda McCauley Johnston in Winn Parish⁶ while his mother Harriett, step-father William Silas, and their children settled further north in Lincoln Parish.⁷ Was John Thomas abandoned by his mother in favor of her new family? Or was John Thomas needed by his aging grandparents on their new farm?

John Thomas seems to have remained close to his grandparents all his life, living with them for over 20 years. He appears on the 1880 census with them in Winn Parish, along with cousins Charley and Landrum Cheek Ryals.⁸ John Thomas was still living with his grandparents in 1888 when his mother Harriett died while traveling to visit them.⁹

After Harriett’s death, John Thomas’s step-family stayed in Winn Parish, and his step-father William Silas married Amarentha Rebecca Smart.¹⁰ Two years later, John Thomas married Georgia Smart,¹¹ a hypothetical (but undocumented) sister of Amarentha. John Thomas continued to stay close with his grandparents, and they seemed to have moved as a family unit to Belzoni, Sunflower County, Mississippi, after 1890. John Johnston died there in 1898,¹² and Malinda appears in John Thomas’s household on the 1900 census, along with John Thomas’s wife Georgia, their two sons, and cousin Charley Ryals.¹³

The family legend of John Thomas and his murder happens after this 1900 census record. Johnston family genealogist Agnes McWeeny Johnston recorded the facts she gathered in her 1992 research as follows:

Story has it that William [Silas] ran a saloon and peddled beef on the side while in Oak Ridge, Morehouse Parish. His son Andrew told of remembering how he and his brothers Frank, Jourdan, and Hardy used to climb under the saloon and look for coins that fell from the pockets of the patrons. Information also says that Tom Horne ran the plantation-owned store, which was in the other half of the building where the saloon was that William [Silas] ran.

[…]

In the fall of 1902 Tom was shot, leaving Georgia about seven months pregnant with Charlie…¹⁴

Agnes McWeeny Johnston. The Johnston Family Tree (Green Valley, Arizona: Mrs. Roy Johnston [378 Calle de Las Flores, Green Valley, AZ, 85614], 1992).

More of this legend was shared orally by descendants of William Silas Johnston. Edna Johnston Wood recounted her grandfather William Silas shot and killed John Thomas for beating Georgia while pregnant.¹⁵  Edna’s telling of the story indicated Georgia was often the victim of domestic violence, but John Thomas beating his wife during pregnancy was too much for William Silas to ignore.¹⁶ 

I have yet to find any documentation of these claims or any other records for John Thomas Horne after the 1900 census. A search of civil and criminal court records of Morehouse Parish yielded no results, and I have found no newspaper accounts of a shooting in Oak Ridge or the surrounding area involving either man. Georgia Smart Horne appears on the 1910 census in Drew County, Arkansas, as widowed,¹⁷ so something happened to John Thomas between 1900 and 1910 resulting in his death — I’m just not sure what.

If you like to watch murder mysteries or any of the popular forensic crime shows on television, you’ve likely heard the old adage of “means, motive, opportunity.” Maybe I should apply those thoughts to examining this family legend:

Means:

  • Did William Silas have access to a gun? Well, it was early 1900s Louisiana — he most definitely had a gun for hunting and self-defense, didn’t everybody? The inventory of William Silas’s estate after his death in 1908 lists two firearms: a Winchester shotgun valued at $5.00, and a single-barrel shotgun valued at $2.00.¹⁸ Could one of these two guns be the murder weapon?
  • Was William Silas physically able to fire a gun? He was approximately 57 years old in 1902, so I’d say he probably was capable — and more likely to use a weapon than beat up a man 20 years his junior.

Motive:

  • Did William Silas have a reason to kill John Thomas? If the domestic violence story is true, would William Silas take it upon himself to correct the behavior of his step-son by his deceased first wife? Or — if Amarentha and Georgia were sisters as hypothesized — would he kill the abuser of his sister-in-law?
  • Could William Silas have had another motive? If their businesses were beside one another, was it an argument over money or property? Since one business was supposedly a saloon, was alcohol involved? Was it an accident instead of a murder?

Opportunity:

  • Did William Silas and John Thomas really have businesses in the same building or close to one another? I have no records of either man in Morehouse Parish. This question is at least one I can approach with genealogical research. I should do a more careful study of land records and mortgages for Morehouse Parish for any records supporting this part of the legend. Other records to search are newspaper advertisements for these establishments and city directories (but Oak Ridge was small and may not have had such a directory).
  • Could William Silas have committed murder and there be no legal consequences? Was vigilante justice common in this area for the time period? I should look through the court records for this period and look for the presence or absence of other murder or wrongful death cases in Morehouse Parish. I could also read area history books for an idea of how crime was handled in this time period.

To prove a murder, one also needs a body — and that’s another fact I am missing for John Thomas. He has no known burial place. Was he a poor farmer who couldn’t afford a grave marker? Or was he such a despised scoundrel that his own family didn’t care to memorialize his final resting place? I also have not found an obituary.

John Thomas Horne and Georgia Smart had three sons:

  • John Thomas Horne, Jr., (1896-?) who died at a young age¹⁹
  • William George Dewey Horne (1899-1972),²⁰ my grandfather²⁰
  • James Charles “Charlie” Horne (1903-1979),²¹ born supposedly after his father’s death

It may never be possible to prove or disprove this family murder legend, but I’m not giving up yet on exploring records that could give more clues about my great-grandfather’s fate.


¹Birth month and year from 1900 census:

1900 U.S. Census, Sunflower County, MS, population schedule, Beat 1, enumeration district (ED) 48, p. 997 (penned), dwelling 239, family 244; John T Horn; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/7602/4120349_00098/36072954 : accessed 17 Aug 2018); citing NARA microfilm publication T623, roll 31077_4120349.

²Likely birth location determined from marriage place of parents:

“Mississippi Marriages, 1800-1911,” database, FamilySearch  (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:V2ZR-R61 : 6 December 2014), J. L. Horne and Harriet H. Johnson, 21 Jan 1864; citing Leake, Mississippi; FHL microfilm 891,454.

³Leake County, Mississippi, Chancery Court Records (1857-1870): Harriett H. Horne v. Joshua L. Horne, February 1868; digital images, “Leake County Court Records, 1842-1938,” FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org : accessed 15 Apr 2019), path: Court records, 1842-1938 > Court cases no 143 (cont.) – 190 1856-1870, images 1110-1123. 

Ibid.

⁵Mississippi Marriages, 1800-1911; William S. Johnston and Harriet H. Horne, 3 Apr 1868, Leake County, MS; database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:V2ZR-R61 : accessed 17 Aug 2018); citing FHL microfilm 891454.

⁶1880 U.S. Census, Winn Parish, Louisiana, population schedule, 3rd Ward, (1st enumeration), enumeration district (ED) 54, p. 53A (penned), p. 612 (stamped), dwelling 1, family 1, John Johnston household; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/6742/4241440-00731 : accessed 11 May 2019), citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 474.

⁷1880 U.S. Census, Lincoln Parish, Louisiana, population schedule, 4th Ward, (1st enumeration), enumeration district (ED) 39, p. 39A (stamped), p. 4-5 (penned), dwelling 36, William Johnston household; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/6742/4241372-00082  : accessed 11 May 2019), citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 456.

⁸1880 U.S. Census, Winn Parish, Louisiana, population schedule, 3rd Ward, (1st enumeration), enumeration district (ED) 54, p. 53A (penned), p. 612 (stamped), dwelling 1, family 1, John Johnston household; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/6742/4241440-00731 : accessed 11 May 2019), citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 474.

⁹Agnes McWeeny Johnston. The Johnston Family Tree (Green Valley, Arizona: Mrs. Roy Johnston [378 Calle de Las Flores, Green Valley, AZ, 85614], 1992).

¹⁰Marriages, 1886-1916; marriage index, 1886-1971, Winn Parish Clerk of Court, Winn Parish, LA, marriage license of William Silas Johnston and Amarentha Rebecca Smart, dated 22 Jun 1888, (pages not numbered), microfilm at Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research, Houston, TX, roll 870594.

¹¹Marriages, 1886-1916; marriage index, 1886-1971, Winn Parish Clerk of Court, Winn Parish, LA, marriage bond and license of John T. Horn and Georgia F. Smart, dated 29 Jun 1890, filed 15 Jul 1890 (pages not numbered), microfilm at Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research, Houston, TX, roll 870594.

¹²Malinda Johnston, 22 Jan 1906, Widow’s Application for Pension no. 5431; service of John Johnston (Pvt., Co. E, 24th Mississippi Inf., Civil War); “Louisiana Confederate Pensions, 1898-1950,” digital images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939F-VN99-L2?i=350&wc=M61M-TN5%3A165075701&cc=1838535 : accessed 11 May 2019), citing “Louisiana Confederate Pension Applications,” Louisiana State Archives, Baton Rouge; path: Johnson, Mine A-Neville – Jones, Sallie M > image 351-355. 

¹³1900 U.S. Census, Sunflower County, MS, population schedule, Beat 1, enumeration district (ED) 48, p. 997 (penned), dwelling 239, family 244; John T Horn household; digital image,  Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/7602/4120349_00098/36072954 : accessed 17 Aug 2018); citing NARA microfilm publication T623, roll 31077_4120349. 

¹⁴Agnes McWeeny Johnston. The Johnston Family Tree (Green Valley, Arizona: Mrs. Roy Johnston [378 Calle de Las Flores, Green Valley, AZ, 85614], 1992).

¹⁵Ibid.

¹⁶Ibid.

¹⁷1910 U.S. Census, Drew County, AR, population schedule, Veasey Township, enumeration district (ED) 55, p. 2A (penned and stamped), dwelling 34, family 24, Georgia Horn household; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/7884/31111_4327239-00796/181039048 : accessed 17 Aug 2018); citing NARA microfilm publication T624, roll 49.

¹⁸Louisiana, Franklin Parish, Succession Files, Box 89, unnumbered, Succession of W. S. Johnston, 7 Mar 1908; Franklin Parish Clerk of Court, Winnsboro.

¹⁹1900 U.S. Census, Sunflower County, MS, population schedule, Beat 1, enumeration district (ED) 48, p. 997 (penned), dwelling 239, family 244; John T Horn, Jr. in John T Horn household; digital image,  Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/7602/4120349_00098/36072954 : accessed 17 Aug 2018); citing NARA microfilm publication T623, roll 31077_4120349. 

²⁰Ancestry, Find A Grave, database with images (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/12950824 : accessed 24 Jan 2019), memorial 12950824, Dewey Horne (1899-1972), Ogden Cemetery, Liddieville, Franklin Parish, Louisiana.

²¹Ancestry, Find A Grave, database with images (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/13491799 : accessed 24 Jan 2019), memorial 13491799, James C. “Charlie” Horne (1903-1979), Ogden Cemetery, Liddieville, Franklin Parish, Louisiana.

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