Parish’s sensational trial -- Speaker explores the influence of media coverage in 1927 murder trial
THIBODAUX, La. — James LeBoeuf was murdered on Lake Palourde outside Morgan City, and in July 1927, James Beadle, Dr. Thomas Dreher and the victim’s wife, Ada LeBoeuf, were tried and found guilty. Both Ada LeBoeuf and Dreher were hanged.
That much is a fact, but the rest is subject to speculation and differing eyewitness reports including newspaper accounts of the day.
“The LeBoeuf-Dreher Affair: Newspaper Coverage of the Murder and Trial Held in St. Mary Parish in 1927 and How it Affected the Trial, the Atmosphere and Ada LeBoeuf,” lecture was given by Francine Middleton, a retired Ellender Memorial Library staffer, at the library located on the Nicholls State campus Tuesday.
She discussed the case as well as how newspaper coverage influenced the atmosphere surrounding the trial and possibly the outcome before a full audience of relatives of the principles in the case and interested citizens.
The families rarely speak about the incident.
“There is an understandable silence from the families of Ada LeBoeuf and Dr. Dreher, and probably that of Jim Beadle,” Middleton said, adding that it was taboo to broach the subject with known family members. Several descendants said the same was true within their own families.
James LeBoeuf was killed with two loads of buckshot on Lake Palourde July 1, 1927, its waters still swollen from the Great Flood. Three froggers discovered his body on July 6 as the waters receded. The following day, Ada, Dreher and Beadle were arrested.
Middleton said that had the murder occurred on land, as Beadle contended, the trial would have been in Morgan City court, as opposed to district court.
On July 8, 1927, Ada, 38, and Dreher, 48, signed written confessions. They were not advised of their rights before doing so. The 1966 Miranda decision was decades away, Middleton noted.
Jury selection took four days at the end of July, only a few weeks after the murder, and the trial began Aug. 1. There were no women on the jury, over 100 objections by the defense were filed and overruled by the judge and possible blood evidence from Beadle’s knife could have been obtained with more time to prepare for trial, Middleton said.
“These were other times with other customs,” Middleton said.
The trial received nationwide attention with the (New Orleans) Times-Picayune, Morgan City Review, Franklin Banner and the New Orleans States-Item.
Middleton said that while the Times Picayune and States-Item detailed the trial, defendants and spectators, the Review and Banner “drift into sensationalism but are not as bad.”
“In the 1920s, most people got their news from newspapers. Few Louisiana homes had radios … a lack of audio and visual media caused the newspapers to use a good, narrative style which easily morphed into sensationalism rather than using today’s more familiar inverted pyramid leading with who, what, when, where, why,” Middleton said.
“In the 1920s, an article alleging adultery, murder, involving prominent people, would be found on the front page. It would be introduced with dramatic headlines and contain vivid descriptions of people, places and actions some of which may not be accurate,” she said.
It was alleged in testimony, as well as in the newspapers, that Ada and Dreher had a six-year affair. It was this — and a letter to Dreher’s wife from an anonymous “woman across the tracks” — two years prior to the murder that lead to LeBoeuf’s death.
Middleton said she believes that the doctor visited the woman so frequently to counsel her because of the beatings she suffered at her husband’s hands, not because he was treating headaches as both commonly said and not because they were having an affair.
News stories of the trial gave Ada the most attention.
Her dresses are described down to the most minute detail, and “her use of powder, rouge and lipstick was critiqued by Gwen Bristow of the Times-Picayune. Literary illusions … are frequently used. (Ada) is referred to as a siren, a sphinx, a Cleopatra and a Messalina. None of the newspaper photographs justify such exotic descriptions, though in 1927 she is still a very beautiful woman,” Middleton said.
Her dresses were described as being new by the press when they likely were something brought by family from home and something her attorney told her to wear, Middleton said.
This description “alleged that adulterous, murderous Ada was a vain woman who cared more about her appearance than her soon-to-be impoverished, possibly orphaned children,” Middleton said.
In contrast, Beadle is described as having a “neat appearance, a stoic silence and loyalty to Dreher … Beadle is described as Dreher’s ‘Good Man Friday’,” Middleton said.
“James Beadle was able to use the press to his advantage … He knew what to do,” Middleton said.
Middleton conjectures that it is Beadle who killed James LeBoeuf and disposed of the body.
He was a hunter and trapper who would easily have been able to “field dress” the victim in the manner in which he was disposed.
“I believe Jim Beadle shot James LeBoeuf. Ada never held a weapon, and Dreher was blind in one eye. Furthermore, the shot was made at night. Beadle made his living as a hunter and was more experienced at shooting in a variety of conditions,” Middleton said.