By Ed Payne
In 2010, Renegade South host Vikki Bynum told the story of Charles Landrum’s murder and the subsequent trial of Thomas Lyons (Lyon, Lynes, Lines) and his son Thomas Morgan Lyons for the crime. We are fortunate that this bit of Piney Woods history was preserved in the high court records, although circuit court documents for the two trials appear to have been lost.
Records from the Mississippi High Court of Errors and Appeals revealed the background for the murder: in September 1857, Charles Landrum appeared before a grand jury in Jones County, where his testimony resulted in Thomas Lyons and two of his sons being indicted for larceny. The infuriated Lyonses responded with harassment and threats against Landrum and his wife. Thomas Lyons then enticed one James A. Hightower to murder his nemesis, promising to him in return his financially well-endowed daughter Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. Hightower carried out his end of the grim bargain on the night of 14 December 1857, shooting Charles Landrum through an opening in his cabin wall. (Note 1)
An inquest into the murder took place the next day, during which Hightower and Thomas Landrum turned against one another and began trading accusations. Nine months later, Thomas and Morgan Lyons found themselves standing trial for complicity in the murder of Charles Landrum. A Jones County jury found the two men guilty and an execution was scheduled. However, the attorney representing the Lyonses appealed the case to the Mississippi High Court where it was heard during the April 1859 term. The court ruled that several significant errors had been made and ordered a new trial. By the time of the 1860 census, “Thomas Lines” and and son Morgan were out of jail—though still characterized on the census sheet by the word “murder.” The original article’s trail of information ended at this point. (Note 2)
In the intervening years much new archival newspaper content has become available on the internet.
While researching the Landrum family’s Civil War service, I revisited the murder of Charles Landrum and found several small but revealing news items that indicate what transpired afterwards. One discovery was a concise contemporary account of the first trial. An article in the 13 January 1858 Weekly Mississippian summarized some of the key points: three members of the Lyons family were said to have induced James Hightower to murder Charles Landrum. Those charged were father Thomas and sons Morgan and Lemuel (identified in family records as Samuel).
Missing from the newspaper article was the most extraordinary feature of this “extraordinary affair.” We learn from the arguments presented by Mississippi Attorney General Thomas Jesse Wharton that Elizabeth, the daughter that Lyons had promised to Hightower, was the wife of Charles Landrum! The plan thus called for Hightower to murder Thomas Lyons’s own son-in-law and be rewarded with the dead man’s widow and her property. Charles Landrum’s wife Elizabeth, who had already suffered abuse at the hands of her vengeful brothers, was promised to her husband’s murderer as though she was inert family property with no will of her own.
Furthermore, a proclamation authorized by Mississippi Governor William McWillie in summer 1858 offered a $200 reward for the capture and return of “Jas. A. Hytour” or “Lemuel Lynes,” revealing why Thomas and Morgan Lyons were the only two men brought to trial in the fall of 1858. James Hightower and Lemuel (i.e. Samuel) Lyons had escaped from the Jones County jail and had likely fled to parts unknown. (Note 3)
A final item from the Vicksburg Whig of 17 April 1861 provides what seems to the coda: that father and son stood trial a second time in Jasper County in late 1860. Even without the confession of Hightower as evidence, the verdict again was guilty and Thomas and Morgan Lyons were sentenced to be hanged on Friday, 3 May 1861. It seems likely that this time they went to the gallows.
The Lyonses would probably have faced more summary punishment if not for the skill of their lawyer.
Clearly sensing his peril, Thomas Lyons hired an attorney based in Jackson who advertised his services in the neighboring Jasper County Eastern Clarion. The appeal records list him as “W.P. Harris.” Further research identified him as Wiley Pope Harris (1818-1891). Harris, a native of Pike County, Mississippi, attended the University of Virginia and graduated from Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky. He served as a circuit judge from 1844-1850 and was a member of the state constitutional conventions of 1850, 1861, and 1890. Clearly he had legal skills far above those of the average rural lawyer.
The high court records demonstrate that W.P. Harris took full advantage of evidentiary errors made during the first trial. The skill of Harris and the outcome of the appeal may explain why Thomas and Morgan were not in custody when enumerated on the 1860 federal census. Instead, on 20 July, 1860, Thomas and Morgan “Lines” were living in the Ellisville, Mississippi, boarding house of A.M. Dozier. Perhaps attorney Harris, in the wake of his successful appeal, won them their release on bond. It’s uncertain whether Harris continued to represent the Lyonses at the second trial, when their luck ran out.
In the absence of trial records, we can only guess at some questions. What, for example, was the larceny of which the Lyons family was accused? The answer is probably livestock rustling. The raising of pigs, cattle, and horses comprised the greater portion of Jones County subsistence agriculture. Much of the county was considered “open range” and animals were left free to graze much of the year. Thus they were easy prey for those willing to take advantage of the opportunity. Horse thieves and cattle rustlers continued to plague yeoman herders throughout the South after the Civil War, including in Jones County, Mississippi.
Also, did Elizabeth Lyons Landrum take the stand as a witness against her own family, who had harassed her as well her husband? Did she ever reveal when she first learned of her father’s ploy to use her as a reward for the murder of her husband? In any case, it is likely that people in the community made their own judgments and some would surely have placed her in league with her family.
The case of “Lynes v The State” offers a rare glimpse into the intensity of feuds in the Piney Woods.
Such feuds lacked the veneer of civility that characterized duels undertaken by members of the Southern gentry—but grew out of the same intense preoccupation with “honor,” no matter how distorted that concept became. Charles Landrum had dared to publicly defy his father-in-law and suffered the ultimate punishment for his act. Thomas Lyons and his son were afforded the safeguards of a well-nuanced legal defense but in the end they, too, seem to have paid the price for their actions.
My thanks to Tommy Robinson for sharing with me information from his file on the Lyons family.
- Charles Landrum was the son of Jesse Marion Landrum Sr (1801 – 1851) and Jemima Ellender Smith Landrum (1805 – 1875). See “Landrums in Gray and Blue” Part 1 for background on Landrum settlers in the Piney Woods.
- The case of “Lynes v The State” appears in Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the High Court of Errors and Appeals for the State of Mississippi. James Z. George, Reporter to the court. Philadelphia: J.W. Johnson & Co, 1860. The appeal is in Vol 7, pg 617—626.
- The $200 reward proclamation for “Jas. A. Hytour” and “Lemuel Lynes” described the men as follows: “Said Hytour, is about 30 years old, dark complexion, dark curly hair, weight about 160 pounds, about 5 feet 10 inches high, low retreating forehead, very long straight nose, flat between the eyes, the middle finger of the left hand off at middle joint. . . .Said Lynes is about 19 years old, weighs about 125 pounds, 5 feet 8 inches high, light complexion and hair, high cheek bones, grey eyes, pouting mouth with dropping (sic) under lip, scar on nose below the eyes with dark spot on the scar.