Every family has its less-than-savory branches, and the Lyons (also spelled Lynes and Lines in the nineteenth century) of southeastern Mississippi were no exception. The Lyon family produced noteworthy political reformers in the 19th and 20th centuries, but in 1857, a father and son of that name (spelled Lynes in the published court transcripts) were convicted of murder.
It’s interesting to note the persistence of traditional customs of patriarchal kinship in the following story of that murder. I’m certain, for example, that the fact that Charles Landrum was married to Thomas Lynes’s daughter helped to fuel the rage that led to his murder. Landrum had testified against his father-in-law in a larceny case, an act that marked him as disloyal to family. Lynes also administered harsh punishment to the daughter who apparently stood by her husband over her father, while he treated another daughter as property to be bargained away when it served his interests. It’s also worth noting that Thomas’s son, Morgan, was only about 16 years old when he participated in the murder of Landrum. Clearly, Thomas Lynes relished the habit of command.
Vikki Bynum, moderator
The Lyons and the Landrums: A Tale of Kinship and Murder
“A more deliberate, cruel, cowardly assassination was never conceived or executed.” (1)
That’s how state attorney general T. J. Wharton described the murder of Charles Landrum of Jones County, Mississippi (2). Less than two weeks before Christmas, 1857, twenty-six-year-old Landrum was shot to death at his own home while playing an ordinary board game with his neighbor, Morgan Lynes (Lyons) (3). Charley had just got up from the game and walked over to the hearth of his one-room cabin to staunch a nosebleed when a bullet blasted through an unsealed crack near the cabin’s chimney. He died instantly.
Morgan, who had made a prescient move toward the door just before the shot rang out, turned to Charley’s horrified wife and exclaimed, “You cannot accuse us of it; we have been too good to you.” In addition to Morgan, “us” included Lemuel Lyons, perhaps a brother, James Hightower, and Morgan’s father, sixty-two-year-old Thomas Lyons. (Old Tom Lyons was the father-in-law of Charley Landrum, which would make “Mrs. Landrum” the sister of Morgan Lyons) (4). A witness who hurried to the Landrum cabin after hearing gunfire testified that all four men were close to the scene. She first encountered Lemuel, then Morgan. Nearby, she heard the voices of Thomas Lyons and James Hightower, although she saw neither man (5).
Poor Charley had surely known his life was in danger. Just days before the killing, his dogs died; one in a fit consistent with strychnine poisoning. Around the same time, his wife woke in the night to some sort of liquid being hurled on her; something so caustic it blistered her arms and hands by morning. But who was out to get the Landrums? And why?
Upon investigation, a motive for the intimidation and murder of Charley Landrum emerged, and it pointed directly at Charley’s father-in-law, Tom Lynes. Turns out that two months before the murder, in September, Tom, his son Morgan, and another likely son, Lemuel, had been indicted on charges of larceny. The principle witness against them was none other than Charley Landrum. After their arrest, both Tom and Morgan retaliated, accusing Charley of swearing a lie before the grand jury and launching threats against him. The killing of Charley’s dogs and abuse of his wife followed soon after.
Meanwhile, according to testimony, Tom Lynes soon deeded all his property to his daughter, Elizabeth. He then offered James Hightower a deal he couldn’t resist: Tom would “give” Elizabeth to him, with all her new wealth, in exchange for Hightower pulling the trigger on Charley Landrum. At least that’s what Hightower claimed. Tom Lynes, backed by his son Morgan, affirmed that Hightower had indeed murdered Landrum—he claimed he even watched him load his gun at the Lynes home—but Tom denied that he had hired Hightower to do the dirty work by promising him his newly-propertied daughter. (No one seemed to care what Elizabeth thought of this arrangement).
At their joint trial in October 1858, Thomas and Morgan Lynes were found guilty and sentenced to be hung. Under a writ of error won by the Lynes’s lawyer, however, the supreme court of Mississippi ruled that Hightower’s testimony regarding Tom and Morgan had been improperly admitted. In delivering the opinion of the court, Judge J. Harris wrote, “the confession of Hightower, so far as it was introduced to establish the fact that he was the perpetrator of the crime, was competent; but so far as it tended to implicate others, was incompetent, and should have been excluded from the jury.” The case was accordingly remanded, and a new jury impaneled to decide on the guilt of the Lyons, but without hearing the testimony provided by Hightower.
The new jury apparently convicted the Lynes anyway, but did not sentence them to die. The federal manuscript census of 1860 lists Thomas “Lines”, age 65, and his son, Morgan, age 18, as living in a household headed by A. M. Dozier, a doctor. Under the column reserved for idiots, paupers, convicts, etc., the census enumerator wrote “murder” beside both the father and son’s names (6).
It’s interesting that, while labeled as murderers, the Lynes were neither incarcerated in 1860 nor living among family. Perhaps they were found innocent by the second jury after all, and it was the census enumerator who decided to “convict” them for posterity. Maybe there’s a reader out there who can supply missing details.
- Thomas M. and Thomas Lynes v. The State, Cases Argued & Decided in the Supreme Court of Mississippi, Vol. 36, pp. 617-626. This case may be read online at http://books.google.com/books?id=5z84AAAAIAAJ&pg=PA1213&lpg=PA1213&dq=lynes+murder+hightower&source=bl&ots=g3xguESukQ&sig=cJAg1evhaQSR1-4HP39WYuBV5bI&hl=en&ei=wjcnTLiOL5WNnQe8mcW8Bg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CBoQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=lynes%20murder%20hightower&f=falseAccording to family genealogies, Thomas Lynes (Lyon) was the son of Thomas Lyon, b. 1780, originally from the Abbeville District of S.C., and Lucy Donald. He and his wife, Mary Watters (Walters) were the parents of Elizabeth, Samuel, Obediah, Morgan, Joanna, Naomi, and Bruce Simpson.
- The 1850 federal manuscript census for Jones County lists 19-year-old Charles Landrum in the household of Jesse and Jemima Landrum, ages 49 and 44.
- Morgan’s full name was Thomas Morgan Lynes (Lyons).
- Mrs. Landrum’s first name was not provided. It is possible that Thomas Lynes son, Samuel, is Lemuel. Supreme Court transcripts occasionally miss-reported or misspelled names.
- This witness is reported later in the transcript as Susan B. Landrum.
- The household of A.M. Dozier, age 27, included Mary R. and Richard Dozier, ages 17 and 10. Dozier appears to have run a boarding house of sorts, as its members also included two school teachers and another doctor in addition to the Lynes men.