I find many interesting stories in the archives, and it easy to stumble upon these narratives while doing research on my own or for a patron. Imagine my surprise when I came across a statement in the Dunn-Landry family papers from Pierre Caliste Landry that details what could have possibly been a murder. Landry led an extraordinary and prominent career as a businessman, preacher, and politician. On February 14, 1914, Landry made a statement to police regarding the suspicious death of a woman named Rossette Thomas. Landry recounted the dubious circumstances under which Thomas died and identified another preacher in his church as the possible suspect responsible for Thomas’ death.
During a preacher’s meeting at Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, Minister Valcour Chapman revealed that he had found Rosette Thomas dead in her house on February 12, 1913. Chapman did not offer details to his fellow preachers about why he had been visiting Thomas’ house on the day of her death. His confession caused a sensation among the ministers of the Methodist Episcopal Church as well as the wider community. Landry did not state directly why Chapmans’ reveal was so sensational, but he did imply that there had been rumors about Chapman’s possible participation in Thomas’ death before his confession.
Landry spoke with three of Thomas’ neighbors. One neighbor, Mrs. Samuel Johnson, accused Chapman of attempting to defraud her sister-in-law of property, and another, Mrs. Neely White, gave eye witness testimony that was perhaps the most damaging of all to Chapman. White stated that Chapman drove to Thomas’ house around 10 am the morning of her death and disappeared. About an hour later, two yard men working on a property adjacent to Thomas’ house discovered that it was on fire. The two men rushed over to her house followed by Mrs. White and found that Thomas’ door was locked from the inside. After they barreled through the door, they found Chapman inside with the “old woman dead on the floor with her clothes on fire.” After they fetched water to put out the fire, Chapman ordered all three to leave the premises. When the police arrived Chapman told them that he was visiting Thomas as her pastor and found her dead. The police turned Thomas’ body over to Chapman because he “claimed to be her agent.” Mrs. White said that afterwards, she was a witness to the sale or transfer of Thomas’ property to Chapman for $300. Chapman then demolished Thomas’ house and claimed it as his property.
There is another layer to this story that extends beyond Landry’s investigation and his statement regarding the incident. Landry and Chapman had a history that wouldn’t have necessarily endeared them to one another. Chapman and others had accused Landry of stealing money from the Old Folks home of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1913. Landry admitted that he had been convicted of this charge in an introduction that accompanied his written statement to police. Because of this previous acrimony that existed between the two men, Chapman told authorities that Landry’s statement against him was strictly retaliatory. It becomes clear that Landry’s statement to the police may not have been purely benevolent but influenced by a desire to exercise revenge on a man that he considered his enemy.
While there are sources that document the lives of Chapman and Landry, I was unable to unearth information regarding Rossette Thomas’s life. It’s unfortunate that we know nothing more about her and that her death will remain a contestation between two prominent men within the walls of the archives
Image from the Dunn-Landry Family papers. Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.