In 1902 six members of a farming family were murdered in Calcasieu Parish Louisiana. An itinerant farmhand who seemed to have no motive for the murders would be arrested and pay the ultimate price for the crime.
Lemuel and Mary Earl were native New Yorkers. The couple had met and married in 1872 and moved to Iowa where Lemuel worked as a merchant and farmer.
The Earls left Iowa in 1890 following a drought that plagued midwestern farmers. According to neighbors, the Earls were forced to relocate due to trouble Lemuel earl had stirred up with neighbors.
The Earls moved to Welsh, Louisiana, a small town in Calcasieu Parish that was made up of six and half miles and about 300 residents when it was incorporated in 1888.
Charles Dobson was a reporter who wrote extensively of the Earl family following the murders in 1902. He once wrote that the Earl’s neighbors would often be upset with them because Lemuel Earl was said to take his frustration out on cattle that ate his rice plants.Ranchers said they would find cattle injured from gunshot wounds and occasionally find tongues of the cattle had been cut out to make a point.
By 1902, the Earl’s oldest son, Fred, was farming and living back in Iowa. Their second son, Ward, had also followed in his father’s footsteps and operated a farm of his own about a mile north of his father’s place in Welsh. Most of the family lived in a rented home on Ward’s farm. At the time of the murders, Lemuel was living in a cottage on his farmland and the Earl’s 23 year old daughter Maude was living in town where she worked in a general store.
The Earls were isolated on their farm and rarely saw or spoke to neighbors. That’s why it took a while for anyone to notice they had not seen members of the family in over a week.
On February 24, 1902, a man named Mr. Downs called the general store where Maude Earl was working. He spoke with the owner and mentioned someone representing himself as ward Earl had come to the livery station to sell a pair of mules and horses. This seemed odd because it made Mr. Downs ask if Ward and the Earls were moving on or were having trouble of some kind.
When the store owner mentioned this to Maude, she worried that something must be wrong because there was no reason for her brother to dispose of any livestock.
Maude hired a driver to take her to her brother’s farm. The house was locked when Maude and the driver broke in to check on the family. They were immediately overcome by a foul smell and as they moved further into the front room of the house, they discovered the bodies of Mrs. Earl and her 19,17 and 12 year old sons. The body of Ward Earl was in an adjacent room.
Ward had been shot and his throat had been cut. Mrs Earl and her sons had been beaten and all of their throats had been cut as well. The scene was made all the more horrific because of the time that had passed since the murders.
When the authorities were notified of the Earl murders, search parties were organized to search for Lemuel Earl. His body was discovered early the next morning in a ditch about a half mile from Ward’s farm.
Six members of the Earll family were dead. Murdered in a horrific way. Nothing like this had ever happened in Welsh and people were scared. In a community as small as Welsh, everyone looked around and asked…which member of the community was the killer? Who had done this to the Earls?
One suspect was pursued. A man who worked for Ward Earl and was now missing. His name was Alfred Edwin Batson.
Alfred Batson was born and raised in Missouri in 1881. At 16 he left home and worked as an itinerant farmhand, riding the rails from town to town in search of work. One day when the train stopped in Welsh, Batson got off and decided to stick around. He found work at Ward Earl’s place. He was known as a nice man who worked hard and was well liked by the Earls and folks he met in town.
Authorities began to look into whether 22 year old Alfred Batson had posed as Ward Earl at the livery to sell the Earl livestock. Perhaps after he had murdered Ward and his family.
If Batson had murdered the Earl’s he had plenty of time to get far away from southwest Louisiana. Almost two weeks had passed since any of the Earls had been seen alive and their bodies were discovered on February 24th.
After the bodies of the Earl family were discovered, authorities found Ward Earls buggy at the livery stable in nearby Lake Charles. Inside a vest found in the buggy, they found a very bizarre letter that was signed by Alfred Batson.
The letter was full of details about where to find each of his family members and made it clear he assumed he would be dead by the time it was discovered. The letter concluded as follows:
“He that finds this will do the dead a justice by sending my mother or my sister word of my death and how it occurred. This is all I request dear friend, so a long and happy life do I wish to you all. Signed a farewell, Alfred Edwin Batson, friend to all. Ha! Ha! Bye, bye, I’m gone.”
Some folks thought Batson’s letter was a suicide note. Or maybe he had left it to try to make police believe he was dead and gone.
If that was the case, he failed. Authorities tracked Batson to Clinton, Missouri where he was arrested and extradited to Louisiana.
If Alfred Batson had carried out such a horrific crime against the Earls, what was his motive? Batson was known around Welsh as a nice guy who was never in trouble with the law. But authorities viewed the circumstantial evidence against him as strong enough evidence to pursue first degree murder charges against him when Batson stood trial in April 1902.
Their circumstantial evidence included the letter found at the livery station, which the prosecution claimed was a confession letter. Witnesses also swore it was Batson who posed as Ward Earl to sell his livestock.
Batson’s court appointed defense argued that it was improbable that a man would murder six people, just to get $45 from selling their livestock. The defense team laid the ground for reasonable doubt when they claimed two men who held a grudge against Lemuel Earll, had tracked the family to Welsh and murdered Lemuel and his family.
Remember, Lemuel was known for having upset neighbors in the past, which made this theory seem plausible. In fact, the defense team noted two strange men had been seen in Welsh just days before the murder. One of the men looked a lot like Alfred Batson and even had a scar on the side of his face that was similar to a scar on Batson’s. The defense said witnesses had identified the wrong man and Alfred Batson was innocent.
The prosecution challenged the defense to present these strangers in court. Give him the chance to question them. But the defense was never able to track the identity of those men.
Alfred Batson was found guilty and the presiding judge, E D Miller, sentenced Batson to death.
Batson’s defense would file and win their motion for a new trial, saying prosecutors introduced irrelevant documents as evidence, including the letter they alleged to written by Batson. There was no proof he had written it and the letter was not a confession.
Batson’s defense also filed for a change of venue based on their belief that Batson did not and could not get a fair trial in Calcasieu Parish.
Many of the jury members had known the Earls personally and some were said to have made public statements of Batson’s guilt before and during his trial. The defense got their new trial but the court ruled there was no evidence of prejudice against Batson and the change of venue was denied.
Alfred Batson’s second trial was held in Calcasieu Parish starting on March 3, 1903. His mother, Mrs. Joseph Payne, was in court each day to support her son, just as she had been during his first trial. Women crowded into the courtroom and held vigil outside of the court to support him as well.
In the end, Baton was once again, found guilty of first degree murder. This time, when the verdict was read, his mother fainted.
Batson’s defense team filed motions for a new trial and a change of venue but were denied. Some people with influence, stepped in to help. Multiple members of the State Pardon Board petitioned Louisiana Governor William Heard to commute Batson’s death sentence to life in prison, saying the evidence against him was completely circumstantial and did not rise to the level of proof. They warned the governor could be signing a death warrant for an innocent man.
The governor called a meeting with Judge Miller who presided over Batson’s 1st and 2nd trial. When asked his thoughts on the case, Judge Miller told the governor he was convinced Baton was guilty. He reasoned that two juries had found Batson guilty and the judge said his defense attorney’s refusal to let Batson take the stand didn’t help his case.
The governor made it clear he would not be commuting Batson’s sentence.
Alfred Batson’s execution date was set for Friday, August 14, 1903
As thousands of people sat vigil outside of his jail in Lake Charles, Batson spent time receiving visitors including his mother, Mrs. Payne.
Wearing a new black suit his mother had bought him, he wrote letters to his sister and brother, and in each letter he vowed he was innocent and offered his best wishes and love.
At 1:00pm the sheriff and his deputies walked Batson from his cell to the gallows. His death warrant was read aloud and Batson was asked if he had any final words. He said he’d like to thank the sheriff, his deputies and people who supported him, for their unending kindness to him.
He declared his innocence for the last time, saying he was about to meet a more just Judge than he had on earth.
At 1:30 pm, the drop fell, Batson struggled for a time, and by 2:00pm doctors declared Batson’s life extinct and his body was cut down.
Alfred Batson’s mother never wavered in support of her son’s innocence. After he was executed, she took his body home to Missouri for burial. Generations on, Alfred Batson’s family have maintained Louisiana executed an innocent man and someone else got away with murdering six members of the Earl family.
Which is not how the Earl’s surviving children saw it. Siblings Fred and Maud Earl agreed that justice had been carried out for their family. But they ended up feuding over what was left behind. The distribution of their family farms.
Fred Earl claimed the property saying he was the eldest and had every right to the farm land. Maude wanted her share so the siblings debate turned bitter with many rounds in court. By the end of 1904, an agreement was reached with Maude being granted 50% of the estate.
When it comes to the murder of the Earls, we’ll never know if the right man was executed for the crime.
Stephen Winick is a folklorist and writer for the Library of Congress. In a series he wrote about the murder and the ballad it inspired, Winick notes that there are still two rumors that crop up from time to time. The first is that a sheriff’s deputy overheard Alfred Batson confess to his mother that he had killed the Earls.
The second, is that someone made a deathbed confession after Batson was executed, saying he had killed the Earls. He wanted to confess before he met his maker.
No evidence has been found that would prove either of these rumors true.
It all comes down to what you believe and how the story has been re-imagined through the ballad known as “Batson.”
The first known recording of the ballad was recorded by Alan Lomax in 1934. Lomax travelled the world throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s, collecting materials to document traditional song and dance for the Library of Congress.
On a trip to Lafayette, Lousisana in 1934, Lomax recorded a Louisiana string band playing a ballad they called “Batson.” The band was led by Wilson Jones, who used the stage name “Stavin’ Chain”, with Octave Amos playing the fiddle.
Not much had been written about Alfred Batson and the Earl murders since Batson’s execution in 1903. Which is why Lomax was intrigued by the song when he heard Jones mention it was based on a real crime that had happened in Louisiana decades earlier. Jones said he had heard versions of the story and song from friends through the years which led him to imagine his own version of Batson.
This version of Batson featured 37 verses and was about 12 minutes long…a testament to how complicated the story of Batson and the Earls was. As Winick notes, the song reflects sympathy for the Earls and the man executed for the crime, but Batson’s mother is the hero of Jones’ version.
As musical historians have noted, that ambiguity shows that we’ll never know if Batson really did it. All we know is that the Earls surviving family members were torn apart by their deaths and Batson’s mother was left heartbroken and unconsolable over what she believed to be the execution of her innocent son.
“Batson” by Stavin Chain Part 1
“Batson” by Stavin Chain Part 2
Southern Spaces. (2015, November 30). “Batson,” Part 1, Wilson “Stavin’ Chain” Jones, Charles Gobert, and Octave Amos.
Southern Spaces. (2015, November 30). “Batson,” Part 2, Wilson “Stavin’ Chain” Jones, Charles Gobert, and Octave Amos.
Horrible & Gruesome Tragedy Near Welsh. Crowley Signal March 1, 1902. Acadia Parish
Batson Hanged. The Shreveport Times. 15 August 1903.
Batson Murder Trial Talk of Parish in 1902. The Lafayette Daily Advertiser. 28 October 1997.
Oh, Mama”: A Mother’s Love and the Murder Ballad “Batson. Library of Congress. 14 June 2017.
Claffery, Joshua Clegg. (2013). Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings. Louisiana State University Press.
Lightless Dawn, Resolution, Ambient, Long Note One, Long Note Four, Tranquility Base and Dark Times by Kevin MacLeod; Slow Hammers by The Mini Vandals; Falling Rain by Myuu Licensed under Creative Commons.
Batson by Stavin Chain. Alan Lomax Recording. (1934) Batson. Lafayette, Louisiana.