by Vikki Bynum
Over the past few years, the following passage from the 1938 book, Mississippi: A Guide to the Magnolia State, has prompted several folks to write me at Renegade South:
On February 2, 1864, [B.J.] Rushton was shot through the door of his cabin by Babe White, a member of the Newt Knight band. (p. 448)
So, who was Babe White? His name does not appear on any rosters of Newt Knight’s band of Confederate army deserters that I’ve ever seen. Did he nonetheless run with the Knight Company? To try and answer that question, I’ve been researching this alleged outlaw and the crowd of thieves and rustlers he hung out with.
In 1936, the White family of the Myrick region of Jones County was remembered by at least two residents of that area —B. A. Boutwell and Jim Bingham Walters— as having comprised the core of a post-Civil War band of outlaws well known for its wide-ranging horse thieving and cattle rustling.
In separate interviews conducted by employees of the Federal Writers’ Project.* Boutwell and Walters told essentially the same story. On September 21, 1936, in an essay entitled “Early Horse Thieves and Cattle Rustlers,” an unnamed WPA interviewer wrote the following, based on what she or he had learned from Boutwell:
Jones County, like all other early settled counties of pioneer days, had its horse thieves and cattle rustlers. The most notorious and conspicuous of these and by far the most active in plying the nefarious traffic, were men by the name of Obe Lyons and Dorsen [Dawson] Holly, and also the White brothers, Bud and Babe, and a lady by the name of Sussie [Susie].
Boutwell’s memories open the door to historical verification. Both Obe Lyons (Lynes, Lines) and Dawson Holly appear in the federal manuscript censuses, and so also does the White family, though I have thus far been unable to find members named either “Bud,” or “Babe,” which were likely nicknames. Susie, however, appears in the 1860 census as the wife of Samuel W. White, identified in a WPA essay on the community of Myrick as a member of the same outlaw band.
In December, 1936, Jim Bingham Walters told interviewer Addie West that “the Dawson Holly ring was the most notorious in this section.” Holly’s “big swamp pasture in the Tallahalla Creek swamp” was used to “recondition” stolen stock before selling them off. Walters identified the “White brothers, Sam, Fate, and Van, . . . together with the wives of Sam and Van (Susie and Mandy, who were sisters)” as members of the Dawson Holly ring.
I was excited to discover both Susie and Mandy in the federal manuscript census of 1860, each one living with the brother they were reported as married to. Furthermore, the two White families lived in the same vicinity as B. J. Rushton, the man that “Babe” White allegedly murdered. In 1860, Rushton was a 45-year farmer who claimed $1000 in real estate and $14,275 in personal estate (mostly slaves). Five households away was O.E. Rushton, a 25-year-old “jug maker” who was likely the son of the elder Rushton. Only seven households from that of the younger Rushton was that of W. H. White, age 60, and his wife Mary. Their son, Martin Van, and his apparent wife, Amanda (Mandy) lived with them. Brother Sam, age 28, headed his own household, seventeen households away from B. J. Rushton’s. He lived with his 27-year-old wife, Susan (Susie), and their son, John C., age 8.
Given the proximity of the Rushton and White families, and the Whites’s reputation as outlaws, it’s not hard to imagine the circumstances in which the murder of B. J. Rushton probably occurred. According to Boutwell, the outlaws lived east of where the city of Laurel is today, on Boguehoma Creek. Around 1870, he said,
these people would visit over the county and surrounding counties and gather up horses, and cattle and drive them to an isolated pasture on upper Boguehoma where they would keep them and fatten them up and hold them until such time as they could drive them off to some distant market where they would dispose of them for cash.
Then, as now, organized crime activity created dangerous social conditions for all who lived nearby. “This band of rustlers,” Boutwell told his interviewer, “had a president who directed other members of the gang and sent them out on searches for stock.” Jim Walters provided Addie West with a similar description of the same band’s mode of operation. Identifying the gang’s leader as Dawson Holly, Walters described him as “glib of tongue, fleet of foot and pretty sharp.” Holly, he said “served as sort of a counselor” among the thieves. “His big swamp pasture in the Tallahala Creek swamp was used to recondition poor stock” before selling it.
According to Boutwell, citizens organized to protect themselves against this type of robbery. He described how “more active members” of the gangs were watched by “vigilant citizens” determined to protect themselves against the thieves. Perhaps the Rushtons were among those citizens who armed themselves for protection and struggled to bring down the rustlers by whatever means necessary.
It may have been during one such struggle that Babe White killed Bennet Rushton. Neither Boutwell not Walters mentions such a murder, but both claim that one of the outlaw sisters was killed, presumably by vigilantes. Boutwell’s words were vague; he commented only that “in a manner of which I am unable to ascertain, Sussie was killed.” Walters was much more specific and identified the murdered sister as Mandy rather than Susie. And Mandy, he made clear, was herself a full-fledged outlaw:
The men would bunch the horses and Mandy would run them through the swamps to some market.
Walters further emphasized to West that there was no honor among the thieves:
One time Mandy carried Dave Blackledge’s mare to Newton and sold her and at the same time she took a fine horse that belonged to Daws Holly’s daughter, Elizabeth, and it was a great joke to everybody.
We get a clear image of post-Civil War outlaw gangs from these WPA narratives. Although the facts are not always accurate, the scenes of theft and mayhem probably are, at least in a general sense. Still, narratives such as these—which were often memories passed from one generation to another—easily result in a mangling of the truth. Boutwell, for example, thought Susie had been killed; Walters said it was her sister Mandy. And what about that sentence in the quotation above, that “Mandy carried Dave Blackledge’s mare to Newton”? I believe that Jim Walters and Addie West were referring to the TOWN of Newton, Mississippi, but might someone else reading that sentence have concluded that they were referring to Newton Knight? With Newt Knight’s reputation as a Civil War outlaw, it would be all too easy to then conflate his band of men with the Dawson Holly Ring. And might that be how Babe White came to be described as a member of Newt Knight’s band of men?
Memories—and narratives about others’ memories—provide a rich source of information about the past. But memories should not be confused with facts, of which historians often have far fewer than even they would like to admit. And so it is that much of what actually happened in the past remains in dispute and ever will. Ironically, if we remember that we only rarely know exactly what happened in a long passed event, and that one person’s eye-witness memory may differ radically from another’s, we can move much closer to understanding the truths of the past—as distinct from the “facts.”
* During the 1930s, old folks’ memories about slavery, the Civil War, and the era of Reconstruction were collected in interviews carried out by the Federal Writers’ Project, a component of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), created during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. Many of those interviews have been published in various collections (most notably the ex-slave narratives), but most ended up as loose papers filed away in state archives. In Mississippi, these unpublished WPA records are organized by county and subdivided by topic. —vb