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|Frank Morris described as 'Human Torch' on night of shoe shop arson|
A retired FBI agent said Frank Morris was so consumed in flames when he exited the rear of his shoe shop in December 1964 that he was "generally described as like the Human Torch," a comic book character who through special powers could engulf himself in fire.
But Morris, made of flesh and blood, suffered third degree burns over 100% of his body and died Dec. 14, 1964, four days after the arson. So severe were his burns that questions remain over whether Morris' attackers poured gasoline on him in some manner or if Morris was standing in gasoline when the fuel was ignited.
There seems to be little question, however, that something exploded inside the shop around the time Morris confronted the two men he saw outside the front of the building.
FBI documents show that minutes after the blaze, Morris told a registered nurse inside the emergency room of the Concordia Parish Hospital (now Riverland Medical Center): "I have been burned. I think someone threw something in my shop and blowed it up."
The nurse, whose named is redacted in FBI records obtained by The Sentinel, told the bureau Morris was naked and burned "from the top of his head to his toes." She said he "smelled like gasoline," and that the tip of one his fingers was missing, "but the bone was there."
About four hours later, Morris was interviewed by local officials and by Paul Lancaster, the FBI's Senior Resident Agent in Charge at its Alexandria office.
Injected with morphine and going in and out of consciousness, Morris said he had been asleep in the back room of his shoe shop when he heard glass breaking. He said he immediately got out of bed and rushed to the front of the shop where he saw two men out front. He said at least one of the men continued to break glass.
He said he saw one man pouring gasoline on the outside of the northwest corner of the shop. According to photographs obtained by The Sentinel and an FBI diagram of the interior of the building, the front of the shop faced west and looked out onto the street (Hwy. 65/84). As Morris walked into that area of the shop he could see a plate glass window facing the street. A shoe shine stand sat in front of the window on the inside.
Just to the left of that window and directly in his view was a wooden door, the entrance to the shop. A photograph taken in November 1964 -- one month before the arson -- shows Morris standing outside the building watching a homecoming parade. He's standing beside that entrance door which appears to have window panes in the top half.
Inside the shop, immediately to Morris' right, was a counter and behind that counter were three shoe repair machines lined against the north wall. Behind that wall on the outside was an alley. Two small windows on that side of the building may have provided Morris a view of a third man and a car he said he saw parked in the alley. Morris speculated to the FBI that the third man may have been the driver.
Morris indicated that as he hurried to the front door to confront the men he called out to them, asking what they were doing.
"I just stood by the door," said Morris, when the man with the shotgun said, "Get back in, nigger," meaning to remain inside the shop.
At times incoherent and at other times speaking with clarity, Morris painted a picture of confusion and terror in the post-midnight darkness of a cool December night.
"Did you see them pouring gasoline...through the window?" asked Lancaster.
"No sir," answered Morris. "They must have poured it in some kind of way before I got there in the front." But he said he didn't see how they "did it so quick."
Morris said that while standing at the front door with the barrel of a shotgun pointed at him, one of the men appeared to strike something, possibly a match.
"Then he threw it inside?" asked Lancaster.
"Yes sir," Morris answered.
Ferriday Fire Chief Noland Mouelle wondered how Morris got burned so badly: "Did they throw any gasoline on you?"
"No, the gas must a been already in there," Morris answered.
The emergency room nurse, who had talked to Morris before he was injected with morphine, a powerful pain reliever which also causes drowsiness and can cause confusion, said Morris told her "someone threw something in my shop and blowed it up."
But what could his attackers have thrown and what could they have used to ignite the flames?
Retired FBI agent John Pfeifer, who was assigned to Concordia Parish in 1966, said one story that emerged during the bureau's investigation more than four decades ago was that "a big glass jug had been thrown in the shop, broke and probably had a wick in it and started burning right away." He also heard that Morris "was just plain pushed into the flames by one of the men."
A molotov cocktail as described by Pfeiffer is a breakable bottle or jug filled with a fuel such as gasoline. A kerosene-soaked wick is held in place by the bottle or jug's stopper. The wick is lit and thrown and when the bottle or jug breaks the vapour and droplets ignite causing a fireball.
A similar method was used a month after the Morris arson at Horseshoe Lake in Concordia when someone attempted to burn down Reef Freeman's nightclub. A relative of Freeman's who asked not be named, told The Sentinel that Freeman discovered a gallon jug had been thrown through a large window, spilling gasoline inside. Outside, Freeman found a railroad flare (or fusee) which had apparently been thrown after the jug to ignite the fuel but had hit the edge of the window and bounced off. The flare left a "burned spot" on the ground.
The arsonists returned in February and succeeded in burning Freeman's lounge to the ground.
At Morris' shop, could the arsonists have ignited the gasoline inside with a match, a railroad flare, a flare gun or even by the blast of a pistol or shotgun?
Pfeifer said that in the 1960s some flares were ignited on one end with "a kind of built in striker on it that looks like a match. Others you pull them. But the impression (for Morris) would be -- especially in the darkness -- of a match being struck." Such an object "flailing through the air would look like a big match."
It seems highly possible, said Pfeifer, that the inside of the shop was not doused with gasoline until after Morris arrived there.
If gas had been poured inside previous to Morris' arrival he "would have smelled it immediately when he came out of his bedroom," said Pfeifer. "It would have knocked him over."
He said the arsonists could have broken out the big front window to pour gasoline inside or to throw a jug of gasoline inside.
"They wouldn't have wanted to go in there and try to light it off while they're standing up to it in their ankles," said Pfeifer.
To ignite the accelerate, "a flare is excellent," he said.
Shooting a can of gasoline can also create an explosion and spread flames.
Leland Boyd of Texas, who grew up in Concordia Parish, the son of Klansman Earcel Boyd, said his father -- against his mother's wishes -- stored bombs for the Klan at their home in Crestview during the 1960s. Boyd said he and his brothers, unbeknownst to their father, sometimes experimented with bombs and other explosives.
Boyd said he once "shot a gallon can" of high octane gasoline "with a 7MM rifle at about 60 yards and the flame came almost all the way back to me and scared me to death."
Pfeifer said that whatever went down in the shoe shop from the time Morris first heard glass breaking until he escaped the burning building probably took "less than three or four minutes."
Morris was seen emerging from the rear of his business in flames by two police officers, a passenger in their car, his employee, his grandson and an attendant at the nearby Billups Service Station, according to FBI records.
"He was generally described as like the Human Torch, kind of like the character, running down the street, totally in flames," said Pfeifer.
According to FBI records obtained by the Syracuse College of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative, Morris, 51, had been targeted for a beating in late 1964 by the Ferriday-Clayton unit of the Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan made several allegations against Morris, including that he flirted with white women who visited his shoe shop, documents say. Klansmen also didn't like the fact that Morris, a black man, owned a business which served both a black and white clientele.
One FBI informant said the Ferriday-Clayton Klan reached out to the Mississippi Klan requesting that a hit squad, also known as a wrecking crew, cross the Mississippi River into Concordia to beat Morris although there is no evidence that a beating took place.
A second motive followed by the bureau, according to FBI records, was that Morris had a confrontation with Concordia Parish Sheriff's Office deputy Frank DeLaughter over a pair of cowboy boots. The dispute arose when DeLaughter had refused to pay for a pair of cowboys boots Morris had ordered for him. Informants also indicated that DeLaughter had stiffed Morris before and that the cobbler told the deputy he would no longer extend him credit.
The attendant working the night shift at the Billups service station just a half block north of the shop told agents that at some point after midnight he "heard an explosion that sounded like a pistol shot from the vicinity of Morris' shoe shop. Almost immediately after this explosion a car came out of the alley next to Morris' shoe shop, turned left on South 4th Street (Hwy. 65/84) and headed towards Vidalia-Natchez."
What did the attendant hear? The pop of a flare gun or a 12-gauge followed by an explosion?
A cook at Haney's Big House, located a block south of the shoe shop on Hwy. 65/84, told the bureau she heard "a loud explosion that caused the windows of the restaurant to rattle." Around that time, she said she heard a car race by the restaurant heading toward Vidalia. A few minutes later she looked down the street and saw that Morris' shop was on fire and that a crowd was gathering.
More than one explosion was heard, according to witnesses living in the vicinity of the shop.
Morris' grandson, Nathaniel "Poncho" Morris, and Frank Morris' employee, Snoot Griffing, were asleep in a small house located directly behind Morris' shop when an explosion shook the house. They looked out and observed the shop was in flames.
Both told the FBI they saw Morris emerge from the rear of the shop "covered with fire from head to toe." Griffing told agents that he then heard "a minor explosion back at the shop," and assumed it was caused by flammable liquids inside, which he said included two full gallon cans of cleaning fluid, one gallon of turpentine, eight to ten gallons of rubber cement and large quantities of shoe polish and dye.
Officials found the charred empty cans inside the shop after the fire as well as a five-gallon gasoline can.
Ferriday police officers George Sewell and the late Timmy Lofton arrived at the scene of the fire just after Morris emerged from the back of the building in flames. A friend, Kenneth Walsworth, was riding in the backseat of the patrol car, a white 1965 Pontiac.
Sewell said the men were on the Ferriday-Vidalia Hwy. south of town when a radio dispatch came through alerting them that there was a fire. Racing north on Hwy. 84 into town, he said he did not observe a car heading toward Vidalia, Sewell told The Sentinel. He said he slowed down and looked to the right as he passed the shop from the south heading north on Hwy. 84.
"I thought, 'Lord, this was no fire, this was an explosion.'" Sewell told The Sentinel in 2008. "There was glass and pieces of cinder blocks all over the place. It looked like somebody had thrown a stick or two of dynamite."
Sewell and Lofton -- both 23 years old in 1964 -- told the FBI in 1965 that Morris was naked, while his hair was on fire and smoking. Walsworth told The Sentinel that pieces of Morris' skin were falling off his body.
"Frank was kind of praying, saying, 'Oh, Lord...,'" Walsworth recalled. "I think he knew he was in his last days."
The men rushed Morris to the Concordia Parish Hospital (now Riverland Medical Center) 1.3 miles north of the shoe shop. While en route, Morris told the officers that he confronted two men, one holding a pump shotgun, the other pouring from a can some type of accelerate around the outside of the building. They said Morris indicated that when he told the man pouring the accelerate "to stop, the other man pointed a shotgun at him and told him to get back...." in the shop.
Morris also told the officers that one of the men was "throwing rags," but Morris didn't explain what he meant by "throwing rags."
"Rags saturated with gasoline would cause a lot of fumes," said Pfeifer.
In 1967, an informant named O.C. "Coonie" Poissot, who had been a member of the Ferriday-Clayton Klan unit, told the FBI he was with Frank DeLaughter in the deputy's patrol the night before the arson. Poissot told agents that DeLaughter ranted about his confrontation with Morris over the cowboy boots. But Poissot indicated he didn't know who committed the arson and claimed he wasn't involved.
But according to a Minden woman, Poissot told her in 1972 or 1973 that he was involved. Brenda Rhodes informed The Sentinel in 2010 that Poissot told her he was part of a Klan group instructed to torch Morris' shop. She said Poissot said Morris wasn't supposed to be at the shop and the Klansmen were shocked to see him. She said Poissot told her that someone "threw a match," and Morris was engulfed in flames.
Rhodes recalled Poissot used these words to describe his action: "He lit that son-of-a-bitch up."
She said she was shocked when Poissot told her that her ex-husband, Arthur Leonard Spencer of Rayville, was also involved in the arson. Spencer, 71, acknowledged to The Sentinel last year that he was in the Klan in Richland Parish in the 1960s, but denied knowing anything about the Morris arson and denied knowing Coonie Poissot.
Spencer's ex-brother-in-law and son told The Sentinel last year that Spencer told them in years past that he was involved in the arson of Morris' shop, and that Morris wasn't suppose to be there.
The son, William "Boo" Spencer of Rayville, said his father told him that the Klansmen "could hear a stirring in the place, then a man came out," and that the man, Morris, "was doused with gasoline and started to run."
The ex-brother-in-law, Bill Frasier of Minden, said Spencer said he was carrying a shotgun that night and fired it.
A parish Grand Jury convened Feb. 8 to initiate a probe into the Morris murder. The panel met again on the matter on March 28.
|Frank Morris Murder Series|