Explosion disturbed quiet December night
by Stanley Nelson - posted Thursday, April 3rd, 2008 @ 8:19 am
A number of people saw Frank Morris during the 24 hours prior to the fire that destroyed his shoe shop, most reporting nothing unusual in Morris' demeanor or routine.
But after midnight on Dec. 10, 1964, the few people who were still awake in the neighborhood around Morris' shop reported hearing an explosion while one woman said she heard a car speeding out of town at about the same time.
The most compelling thing that happened to Morris prior to the fire has only recently been made public.
One of two young brothers who swept and mopped the shop floor that night told The Sentinel that he and his brother actually saw three white men corner Morris that evening in the back of the store.
Jake Davis of Ferriday, who was 13 in 1964, said the men were angry at Morris over a woman. He said Morris paid the brothers and told them to leave the store, fearing for their safety.
The next day, Davis learned that Morris had been seriously injured in a fire at the shop, but the boys' mother, fearing for her sons' lives, told them not to give the FBI that information, which neither did.
During the past four decades, Davis never disclosed what he saw that night. But two months ago he revealed for the first time what happened in a story published in The Sentinel on January 24th.
According to documents recently obtained from the U.S. Justice Department through the Freedom of Information Act, a number of people saw Morris in the hours before the fire.
The documents also reveal that Morris had only recently been living in the shoe shop. This information leads to speculation. Is it possible Morris' killers did not expect him to be in the shop that night?
A few years afterward, an ex-Klansmen who worked at Armstrong Tire & Rubber Company in Natchez, told Ferriday's Antonne Duncan that Morris had been warned that his building would be burned and the FBI considered several Klansmen as suspects although no one was ever arrested for Morris' murder.
During the months preceding the fire, Morris had been spending his nights in Clayton with his girlfriend, a seamstress who had traveled to Chicago, Ill., to visit her daughter in the days prior to the fire.
The woman told the FBI that Morris and his grandson had been coming to her home in Clayton every night since July 1964 when he finished his work. When she left for Chicago in November, she said Morris stayed at his shop in Ferriday.
A former employee of Morris' who had known him for 10 years said he stopped by the shop the night of the fire "to chat as he frequently did...Morris seemed to be his usual self with no indication that anything was wrong..."
Another visitor that evening was a man employed at Pasternack's Lumber Company in Ferriday. The man said he went to see the pickup Morris had purchased that day, arriving around 5 p.m.
A representative of Delta Truck & Tractor confirmed the sale to the FBI. Morris purchased a red and white 1955 Chevrolet pickup on December 9 with a down payment of $75.
Morris' mood, said the man from Pasternack's, "did not appear to be any different on that night than at any other time. He appeared to be jovial and happy."
Morris remarked to the man that he "had enough shoe polish to last him a couple of years." The statement was recorded by the FBI possibly because it is believed that the shoe polish and other flammable chemicals inside the shop accelerated the fire and may have contributed to an explosion which occurred just seconds after the fire was set.
The FBI conducted an intensive search for the origin of sale for a five-gallon Skelly oil can found in the rubble of shop. The only visible markings on the charred can were the letters "H D" over the words "MOTOR OIL" and the word "COMPANY" at the bottom area of the can along with a "small picture of an oil derrick."
The fact that this can was left behind poses two other questions? Were the men so surprised at seeing Morris that they forgot the can? Or, did the fire spread so quickly that the men barely escaped the blaze themselves?
One witness said he came to the shop at 5 p.m. and left sometime between 7 and 8 p.m. While in the shop, he said Snoot Griffing and two small boys -- Jake and Jimmy Davis -- were "cleaning and oiling the floor." The man said the boys were "sweeping the dirt and trash up and mopping the floor with 'coal oil' to clean the floor." The man said Morris' grandson -- Poncho -- was in the small house behind the shop "watching television."
Jake Davis, who helped clean the floor that night, told The Sentinel that he doesn't specifically remember mopping the floor, which was primarily concrete, with coal oil.
At 8 p.m., Griffing, Morris' employee, left the shop and went to the same house behind the building, watched television until about 11 p.m. and then went to sleep.
A man who had known Morris since 1934, and considered Morris one of his best friends, visited shop around 8:30 or 9 p.m. He found Morris "in his usual good mood." He said Morris "did not appear to have any problems on his mind." The two men stood around and talked for a few minutes.
The friend said Morris "indicated that he was going to go back to his room and watch television. The only other person in the store were two or three little boys who worked in the shop cleaning for Morris."
Morris told him that he had purchased a pickup that day.
Across town, Fire Chief Nolan Mouelle wasn't feeling well that evening. Around midnight he got out of bed and went to the bathroom. He returned to bed but never went back to sleep.
At Haney's Big House, owner Will Haney, a friend of Morris', left work about midnight, and saw nothing unusual happening in town as he "left the Fourth Street area to drive" home.
A cook working the midnight to 8 a.m. shift at Haney's said things remained quiet after her boss left. Two other people were in the restaurant. One man was drunk and asleep on a bench in the back.
Another man was sitting at the bar. This man was employed by L.J. Denny Trucking Company and said that when he got off work after midnight he was dropped off at Haney's. Once there, he ordered a cup of coffee and a bottle of beer and in the meantime "attempted to seduce the cook." He said he saw or heard nothing unusual about town.
Sometime after 1 p.m., two waitresses went off duty at King's Hotel at the main intersection in town. The two girls headed south along Fourth Street (Hwy. 84) toward Vidalia in the same car. They passed Morris' shop, but reported seeing nothing unusual there or anywhere else as they left town.
The attendant employed at the Coast Service Station just down the street to the south of Morris' shop said it had been a quiet evening and he didn't recall seeing any cars speed by the station during the night. But, he said, sometime prior to the fire he did see a "white car enter South Fourth Street from the side street towards downtown Ferriday." He said the car was traveling "at a normal rate of speed."
A man who lived just a short distance away from the shoe shop also recalled a quiet night. He didn't hear any cars or people in the alley as he lay in bed watching television. Then, sometimes after 1 p.m., he heard an explosion. He jumped out of bed, and ran to his kitchen window. In the distance, he could clearly see Morris' shoe shop in flames.
Back at Haney's, the cook heard the sound of a car "going very fast" down Fourth Street toward Vidalia. At about that time, she said a loud explosion rattled the windows of the restaurant.
The man drinking the beer at the bar dashed to the front door. "Come look," he yelled, "there's a fire."
Just across the street from Morris Shop was Lee's Grocery. A man who lived in a house near the "Chinaman's store," said he was awakened by a noise he thought was "an exploding firecracker."
Nearby, a witness said she heard the sound of a "firecracker exploding," woke her mother and together they looked out and saw fire at Morris' shop.
At Billups just north of Morris' shop, the station attendant said he heard "an explosion that sounded like a pistol shot." He said almost immediately "a car came out of the alley next to Morris' Shoe Shop, turned left on South Fourth Street and headed toward Vidalia...The car was going very fast," although the tires didn't "squeal." He said the car was "dark in color, possibly black, and was a sedan."
Restless, Fire Chief Moulle was awake though still in bed. Sometime after 1 p.m. the telephone rang. The caller said Frank Morris' shoe shop was on fire.