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Gov. Alcorn’s Secret Service Infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan – Part 2

By Lucas Somers, Ph.D. , Asst. Prof. of History, Lindsey Wilson College

Last time, we looked at Mississippi Governor James Lusk Alcorn’s formation of a state Secret Service Bureau to combat the Ku Klux Klan in 1870. That agency sent U.S. veteran and former deputy sheriff John J. Gainey on an undercover operation to determine the identities of individuals responsible for violence against African Americans in Lafayette County. He successfully infiltrated the local KKK chapter, gained the trust of one of its members, and organized a confession witnessed by local officials.

Gainey arrived in the county seat of Oxford on July 19, 1870, but his presence in town did not remain a secret for long. The Oxford Falcon, a Democratic newspaper, even alerted their readers that “One of Alcorn’s secret detectives was in town this week.”[1] While in Oxford and before going undercover, Gainey coordinated his investigation with three civil officers: C. N. Wilson, Edwin M. Main, and W. H. Ford. Each of these men received appointments in 1869 from the previous Republican Governor Adelbert Ames—who had been himself been appointed by the U.S. Congress—which earned each of them the ire of Democratic observers even before taking their respective offices.[2] Despite Alcorn’s hope that the Secret Service would thwart Klan violence and keep the federal government at bay, many white residents of Lafayette County perceived the individuals carrying out the state’s work as vehicles of Radical Reconstruction. Nevertheless, those officials proved useful to Gainey’s investigation. Wilson provided him with information about potential persons of interest, which led Gainey to visit the plantation of Thomas Woods, located roughly fourteen miles outside of town. Gainey quickly befriended Woods’s twenty-year-old son, Ignatius “Few” Woods, and Gainey soon met other members of the local Klan as well. Few Woods even bragged to his new acquaintance that the Lafayette County chapter of the KKK had been personally organized by Nathan Bedford Forrest in April 1867. After feigning interest in their organization and earning their trust for about a week, Woods and his fellow Klan members invited Gainey to be initiated into their ranks.

“Visit of the Ku-Klux,” drawn by Frank Bellew, Harper’s Weekly, February 24, 1872.
Courtesy Library of Congress.

The story reached its climax when Gainey and Few Woods went into Oxford together one evening. After convincing his new friend to purchase some wine in town, the undercover agent secretly met with two of his local contacts, Wilson and a former sheriff named Mahon. Gainey’s plan involved coaxing Woods into recounting KKK crimes by “plying with the bottle,” while he arranged for the two civil officers to hide below them under a bridge so they could overhear the confession.[3] This plan worked to perfection as Woods revealed the names of several masked Klansmen responsible for multiple shootings of freed people in that county. Gainey then reported their identities to the Secret Service headquarters and local officers learned this crucial information as well.

Now, the particular attacks that were retold in the confession took place at the home of a “Widow Watson,” where KKK members John Conkle, Mat Goolsby, Few Woods, and others attacked an African-American man and shot him in “the back with a double barreled shot gun, forty-seven buck shot entering into him.”[4] Gainey may be describing the shooting of a freedman named Jacob Watson who lived next door to a widowed white woman named Amanda M. Watson in 1870. He was a captain in a Black militia company and led a local Union League chapter at that time as well.[5] According to other sources, earlier that year the Lafayette County Klan made a series of raids against Jacob Watson and his lieutenants, Sandy Newberry and Jake Boone, after their militia company conducted nighttime drills that “annoyed” whites in the vicinity.[6] Those sources reported that Jacob Watson received serious gunshot wounds from those Klan raids, suggesting that Woods’s confession to Gainey was describing this same attack from a few months prior.[7] Throughout the South during Reconstruction, the KKK specifically targeted Black men belonging to Union Leagues—which were local organizations designed to politically mobilize Black voters—and militias in large numbers in order to intimidate their efforts toward racial equality. African Americans continually struggled to protect their political rights and their own lives, though their allies within the state and federal government dwindled significantly by the end of the decade.

“The First Vote,” drawn by A.R. Waud. Harper’s Weekly, November 16, 1867.
Courtesy Library of Congress.

The existing records do not indicate that Gainey’s investigation led to any legal action against Watson’s attackers. During its brief existence, Mississippi’s Secret Service stretched itself thin attempting to investigate Klan attacks throughout the state, and it seemingly lacked sufficient resources to curtail the violence in a meaningful way. With a staff of only seven detectives, the agency had little hope of combatting the vigilantes when many whites either supported or tolerated them.[8] In fact, Gainey observed during his mission, “Almost every young man in the county is a member of the organization or in sympathy with those who are in it.” This case shows that while Alcorn’s Secret Service could identify and expose those responsible for Klan violence, their ability to protect Mississippi’s Black communities proved negligible.

Alcorn’s hope of defeating the Klan with his Secret Service Bureau ultimately failed to gain an upper hand on the pervasive white terrorism throughout the state. As Reconstruction fell apart in the mid-1870s, the Democratic Party regained control of the Mississippi government, curtailed the political rights of African Americans, and ushered in the Jim Crow era by the end of the century. Beyond a dramatic story, Gainey’s letter offers insight into that the brief period during Reconstruction when the state government had the opportunity to protect the rights and the lives of African Americans. But that would have required more than “cautious and irresolute” action from leaders like Alcorn to be successful and permanent.[9]

Lucas Somers is Assistant Professor of History at Lindsey Wilson College. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Southern Mississippi in May 2022. His dissertation is entitled Embattled Learning: Education and Emancipation in the Post-Civil War Upper South. In 2018, Lucas served as a Graduate Research Associate for the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition and was a research assistant for the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi project in the summers of 2020 and 2021. He also served as USM’s McCain Graduate Fellow in 2021-2022.


[1] Editorial, The Oxford Falcon, July 23, 1870.

[2] “Officials for Lafayette County,” The Oxford Falcon, June 26, 1869; “Blood Money. Clayton’s Thieves and Murderers Receiving the Reward of Their Infamy. A Nice Party to Control the Affairs of a County,” The Oxford Falcon, November 27, 1869.

[3] CWRGM has not been able to find a Sheriff Mahon in Lafayette County between 1850-1870.

[4] According to a later account of one of the Lafayette County Klansmen, B. F. Goolsby, Mat Goolsby’s father, served as the Grand Cyclops of that den of the Klan, Julia Kendel, “Reconstruction in Lafayette County,” Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society 13 (1913), 240-241.

[5] 1870 United States Federal Census [database online], (Provo, Utah: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009).

[6] “The Shooting Affair at Near Mrs. Simmons’,” The Oxford Falcon, April 2, 1870.

[7] Kendel, “Reconstruction,” 240-241.

[8] William T. Blain, “Challenge to the Lawless: The Mississippi Secret Service, 1870-1871,” The Mississippi Quarterly 3, no. 2 (Spring 1978), 231.

[9] Michael Perman, The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics, 1869-1879 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 35.

Gov. Alcorn’s Secret Service Infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan – Part 1

By Lucas Somers, Ph.D. , Asst. Prof. of History, Lindsey Wilson College

Every once in a while, when reading through the letters written to U.S. governors in the nineteenth century, you will find a story that nearly jumps off the weathered pages. A story that draws you in all on its own and spurs you to learn more about it. Even in its nascent phase, the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi (CWRGM) project has been fortunate to discover several such stories, not the least of which is the J. J. Gainey letter from July 30, 1870.

Gainey’s letter is quite relevant in the year 2022, when movements for racial justice have regained momentum and when true crime podcasts and documentaries are as popular as ever. His letter can help us observe what is arguably one of the most consequential periods in U.S. history. Historians generally agree that understanding the era of Reconstruction is crucial to our ability to grapple with this country’s complex and present-day issues with race. And my personal favorite aspect of CWRGM is that the collection allows us to better understand the long-term effects of emancipation and Reconstruction in Mississippi.

The events depicted in this document occurred five years after the Civil War ended. During that period, Mississippi experienced significant and potentially revolutionary change. The state witnessed the rise of notorious Black Codes under Presidential Reconstruction that attempted to revert African Americans to a status resembling enslavement. By 1868, the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress had taken control of the Mississippi through the military administration of Adelbert Ames. As a result of this second phase known as Radical Reconstruction, the state witnessed sweeping attacks on the Black Codes, and the formerly enslaved population gained civil and political rights enforced by federal troops in the Fourth Military District. This progress came about largely through the ratification of amendments to the U.S. Constitution that provided an opportunity, a hope, for true racial equality for the first time in American history. Radical Reconstruction, therefore, represented a legitimate opportunity for lasting change in the South within only a few years of slavery’s demise.

 

James D. Lynch, first African American Secretary of State of Mississippi. This is a detail from the Lynch monument in Greenwood Cemetery, Jackson, Mississippi. Courtesy WikiCommons.

Evidence of this rapid progress is demonstrated by the number of African Americans who served in political offices at local, state, and national levels. For example, in 1869, Mississippi elected James D. Lynch Secretary of State, making him the first African American to hold a statewide office. But these advances inspired a backlash from white paramilitary groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, that attacked and threatened formerly enslaved people and their allies. This violent resistance intended to “redeem” the South by reversing all traces of racial equality and reasserting white supremacy.

By the time Mississippi native James Lusk Alcorn became the first elected Republican Governor in Mississippi in March 1870, white vigilante violence had become a serious threat to the Black constituents upon whom his election relied. To address this, Alcorn organized a small group of detectives known as the Mississippi Secret Service Bureau, appointed a man named Lewis M. Hall to serve as its leader, and tasked them with investigating the KKK’s terror campaign throughout the state. Concurrently, the federal government began enacting its own plans for combatting white violence throughout the South with the Enforcement Acts.

 

Mississippi Governor James Lusk Alcorn. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpbh.04713

Alcorn was a former Unionist slaveholder who had opposed session, though once the war began, he served as a brigadier general of state militia forces. In postwar Mississippi, Alcorn was viewed as a moderate Republican who advocated for African-American civil rights, including suffrage and the right to serve on juries. When his resistance to the Klan concerned more conservative whites, who tolerated brutal racial violence if it re-established their authority, Alcorn insisted that the investigations were meant to prevent further federal involvement in Mississippi.[1] Ultimately, Alcorn’s efforts to counter the KKK amounted to what one historian called a “cautious and irresolute response.”[2]

The author of this letter, a man named John J. Gainey, had begun working for the Mississippi Secret Service by the summer of 1870. His mission was to determine the identities of the Ku Klux Klan members responsible for a series of violent attacks against African Americans in Lafayette County. Prior to this, Gainey, a twenty-two-year-old native of Cork, Ireland, had worked as a tobacconist in St. Louis, Missouri until he enlisted in the U.S. Army in October 1866. He served in the military for three years, including a stint in the Fourth Military District.[3] Just before joining the Secret Service, Gainey had worked for a short time as the deputy sheriff of Sunflower County, Mississippi. In January 1870, Gainey, accompanied by a group of federal soldiers, attempted to arrest Tully S. Gibson, a former Confederate soldier. After a firefight that resulted in Gibson’s death, conservative newspapers throughout the state branded Gainey a “murderer” and “a Radical carpet-bagger.”[4] Despite this reputation among native Mississippians, Gainey still successfully passed himself off as a Klan sympathizer only a few months later.

The letter featured here provides a gripping narrative of Gainey’s undercover operation as he attempted to carry out Alcorn’s policy of ending the white terrorism in his state. Though Gainey achieved all his objectives in Lafayette County, the overall impact of that mission in protecting the hard-fought civil rights for Black Mississippians ultimately proved negligible. In part 2 of this blog post, we will examine Gainey’s mission itself and try to understand why local African Americans remained vulnerable to white violence despite his success.

 

Lucas Somers is Assistant Professor of History at Lindsey Wilson College. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Southern Mississippi in May 2022. His dissertation is entitled Embattled Learning: Education and Emancipation in the Post-Civil War Upper South. In 2018, Lucas served as a Graduate Research Associate for the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition and was a research assistant for the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi project in the summers of 2020 and 2021. He also served as USM’s McCain Graduate Fellow in 2021-2022.


[1] “Letter from Hon. J. L. Alcorn,” The Clarion-Ledger, May 30, 1872.

[2] Michael Perman, The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics, 1869-1879 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 35.

[3] Registers of Enlistments in the United States Army, compiled 1798 – 1914, NARA RG 94, Microfilm Series M233, Roll 31.

[4] William T. Blain, “Challenge to the Lawless: The Mississippi Secret Service, 1870-1871,” The Mississippi Quarterly 3, no. 2 (Spring 1978), 232; Editorial, The Clarion-Ledger, February 3, 1870.

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