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CAROLA LILLIE HARTLEY
Publisher and Contributing Writer

Feature Photograph: St. Landry Parish Courthouse on the square in downtown Opelousas in c. 1880s. This is the courthouse building that was lost in the 1886 fire. (Photograph courtesy of Scott Longon.)

As history tells us St. Landry Parish was created in 1805, just a few years after the Louisiana Purchase. Named for St. Landry, the Bishop of Paris from 650 – 661 A.D., Opelousas was selected as the Parish seat.

But did you know there has been a courthouse building in downtown Opelousas since 1806? That is when the first courthouse was built. Four others have been built over two centuries: one in 1822, one in 1847, one in 1886 and the present courthouse, constructed in 1939. All these buildings occupied the same square in the heart of downtown Opelousas.

Imagine that! And imagine if that courthouse square could tell us its stories — the ones about the exciting moments in our town’s history and the ones about the sad days that affected so many of its citizens. I know some of those stories, like the one about the great fire of 1886. You know, the one that destroyed the courthouse on the square plus many of its documents and led to a fight to keep the parish seat in Opelousas?

The mystery of who set that 1886 fire was hidden in the ashes that fell on the Opelousas downtown square and remained buried in the soil of our city for over a century. Oh, if only that square could talk, we would know who, and the reason it was set.

As the years, decades and a century flew by, now 136 years later, we may finally have the answer to that reoccurring question — “Who burned down the St. Landry Parish Courthouse in 1886?”

On Wednesday, April 27, 2022, the phone rang at my home. When I answered the ring, I had no idea what I would learn about a 136-year-old cold case in St. Landry Parish. The voice on the other end of the line asked, “Are you Mrs. Hartley?” I answered “Yes, this is Carola.” The woman then said she had been trying to contact me for some time. She said her name was Kristy Padgett, and she was calling from Missouri.

Kristy Padgett, the Missouri woman who provided the information regarding the 1886 fire. Kristy is the granddaughter of Glen Gilliam who was told the story by Selmon Napoleon Mothershead on his deathbed. Selmon was the nephew of John Allen Mothershead, the man who the family says was responsible for the 1886 Opelousas fire. (Photograph courtesy of Kristy Padgett.)

Kristy explained her call was about an article she read online, one that I wrote five years ago about the 1886 fire that destroyed the St. Landry Parish Courthouse in downtown Opelousas. That story ended saying the fire was deliberately set, and the mystery of who set that fire was never solved.  Kristi told me she had information she thought would finally solve that crime.

According to Kristi, the St. Landry Parish Courthouse fire was deliberately set by one of her Great-Great-Great Uncles. The man was John Allen Mothershead.

She than shared this fascinating story with me, one that has been handed down in her family from generation to generation. “The story as I know it is that John Allen Mothershead was a cattle thief in Louisiana,” Kristy said. “Others just say he had been accused of some crime in Louisiana. To blow off the criminal charges John burned down the county (parish) courthouse thus destroying all evidence. John then moved to Yeager, Hughes County, Oklahoma and changed his last name to Marsalas.” 

Kristy continued, “In 1900 John’s brother Christopher Columbus “Lum” Mothershead died. His wife passed away in 1886, so their boys Selmon Napoleon “Sellie” Mothershead and Erie Allen Mothershead were sent to Yeager, OK to live with their Uncle John, thus changing their last names to Marsalas. When they were old enough to be on their own, they changed their name back to Mothershed dropping the “a” in the name to help with pronunciation.” 

I was both amazed and excited to get this information and thanked her for calling.

When we completed our conversation, I immediately went to my computer to begin researching the Mothershead family and find their connection to Louisiana.  Before Kristy’s phone call, I was not familiar with the Mothershead family name. After conducting on-line research, I was able to find a few Mothershead families living around the St. Landry Parish area of the state, as well as areas in North Louisiana in the mid nineteenth century into the early twentieth century. So, it did seem possible that John Mothershead could be responsible for the 1886 courthouse fire.

Who was John Mothershead, and why did he burn the courthouse down?

John Allen Mothershead, the son of Christopher Columbus “Christy” Mothershead (1826-1891) and Elvira J. Maynard, was born in Lowndes County Alabama on July 4, 1861. He married Sarah Elizabeth Victor Walker on December 26, 1883, in Crenshaw, Alabama.  He died on September 16, 1938, in Temple, OK and is buried in Masonic Cemetery in that town.

As the story goes, John A. Mothershead was a cattle thief. He had been operating in and around St. Landry Parish and other areas of Louisiana, where some of his relatives lived during the 1880s. He knew there was evidence of his criminal activities in documents held at the St. Landry Parish Courthouse. Under the veil of darkness in the early morning hours of March 22, 1886, John rode into Opelousas, set the fire that destroyed those records, and destroyed the courthouse building. After that he left town, moved to Oklahoma and changed his last name to Marsalas. He lived out the remaining years of his life in Oklahoma using that last name. 

John raised two of his nephews that were left as orphans when their parents died. The two boys also changed their last names to match his. However, following John’s death in 1938, the nephews changed their name back to Mothershed. One of those nephews was Selmon Napoleon Marsalas (aka Mothershead). When Selmon was on his deathbed, he called his grandson Glen Gilliam to his home and confessed the family secret to him. Glen Gilliam is Kristy Padgett’s grandfather on her father’s side of the family.  

This story about the courthouse fire has been shared with the Mothershead family descendants since that time. When Kristy read the story that I wrote in 2017 about the 1886 fire, she started trying to tie that story together with her family’s story. After doing some research, she determined there were many things in the story I wrote and the one handed down through her family that matched up. For that reason, she feels it was her Great-Great-Great Uncle John who set the 1886 St. Landry Parish Courthouse fire. So, although there is no way we can contact John Mothershead to verify that he did this, we are as certain as we can be at this time.

Law Enforcement Day Rotary Club - Sheriff Bobby Guidroz
St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby J. Guidroz. (Photograph courtesy of St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Department.)

St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby J. Guidroz was contacted about the disclosure regarding this very old cold case. According to Sheriff Guidroz. “This is a cold case investigation with no evidence whatsoever, other than family members confessing and stating that John Allen Mothershead was a suspect in the fire that destroyed the St. Landry Parish Courthouse in 1886. Anyone with addition information on the family name Mothershead or the fire set in 1886 is asked to contact St. Landry Parish Crime Stoppers at 1-800-TIPS, or 337-948-8477.”