The Bungled Crimes Of Lake Charles’ Most Famous Murderer
By Brad Goins
Toni Jo Henry was only 24 when she became the first and only woman to die in the electric chair in Louisiana. At the time, the chair was on loan to the Calcasieu Parish Courthouse.
Originally known as Annie Beatrice McQuiston, Toni Jo was born in Shreveport in 1916. Plagued by an abusive father and an indifferent stepmother, McQuiston became immersed in prostitution and drugs in her teen years.
As she approached the age of 20, McQuiston met the love of her life, “Cowboy” Henry, in Beaumont. Years later, when she spoke to Lake Charles writer Robert Benoit, she waxed poetic about Cowboy’s influence on her:
“No one ever cared about me before … Cowboy Henry. That guy is the king of my heart … I remember the day I told him I was a cokie and the look on his face … He got the drug monkey off my back …”
Cowboy was a very mature 26 at the time. He and McQuiston — who was now using the moniker “Toni Jo” — were wed in Sulphur in November, 1935. They’d gotten their marriage license in the Calcasieu Parish Courthouse. Although Toni Jo didn’t know it, she’d soon be coming back to the courthouse on a much less auspicious occasion.
Toni was a one-man gal, and the man was Cowboy. But Cowboy got nabbed on a charge of shooting a Texas policeman, and wound up with a sentence of 50 years in Huntsville Prison. It is said that during the sentencing hearing, Toni Jo yelled out, “Those bastards got my man!”
She vowed to acquire enough money to get Cowboy out of jail. That vow would shape the remainder of her short life.
Toni Jo aligned herself with an ex-convict called Arkie, whose real name was Horace Burke. Burke appears to have convinced her that she could rob a bank in Arkansas to get the funds she desired.
Toni Jo could have done a more efficient job of planning the robbery. She began by paying two boys to get guns for her. The youths stole plenty of guns from a Beaumont gun store. But they only got the correct ammunition for one of the guns.
Toni Jo had a chance to highjack a Lincoln Zephyr, but took a pass on the car. Later, she and Burke were walking past the honky tonks on the Louisiana side of the Sabine River when they were offered a ride by Joseph Calloway, a salesman for Montgomery Ward in Houston, who was headed to the Younger Brothers Trucking Co. in Jennings on business.
Toni Jo, who appears to have been developing her plot as she went along, suddenly pulled her loaded gun on Calloway. He offered her money. But she said it was his car she wanted.
She and Burke commandeered the vehicle. After putting Calloway in the trunk, they drove to a field with some haystacks that lay far to the south of Lake Charles. This was the land of rice fields and barely visible country roads. The car was parked, and Calloway was marched to one of the haystacks. He was asked to remove all his clothing and complied. Then he was shot to death.
Toni Jo and Burke just couldn’t agree about who shot Calloway. Toni Jo said Burke did it and Burke said Toni Jo did it.
In Burke’s version of the story, he said he was taken aback when Toni Jo’s murderous nature became apparent. Burke felt he was still obligated to help Toni Jo rob the Arkansas bank. But Burke now told Toni Jo that after the robbery, he would go his separate way. He said Toni Jo interpreted his position as a betrayal, and wasn’t too pleased with it.
Toni Jo eventually changed her story and said she was the trigger man. Police asked why she made the confession. She told them, “I have nothing to live for. The man I love is in prison …” On a bid to raise sympathy for Burke, she said, “Besides, he has a mother and I don’t.”
Toni Jo and Burke arrived in El Dorado, Ark., on the morning of Valentine’s Day, 1940. When they got there, they tooled over to the spot where Burke said the bank was located. When they arrived, Toni Jo was surprised and angry. There was no bank to be found. Burke had been making up the bank story the entire time (simply because he needed to get a ride to Arkansas).
In their tiny hotel room in Camden, Ark., the two had words. Toni Jo says that Burke was determined to leave; he gathered up the guns and put them in his hatbox. Toni Jo said she gave him a pistol whipping for his trouble. Still, Burke was determined to leave and leave he did. And he took the car with him.
Toni Jo made her way back to Shreveport in the back of a Greyhound Bus. She had hardly reunited with her aunt Emma Holt when she told her she’d shot a man.
If Toni Jo had had her wits about her, she might have given more consideration to the fact that her uncle George McQuiston was a captain in the Louisiana State Police. At any rate, Uncle George was the first person Aunt Emma contacted. She asked him if he might be able to help Toni. He reckoned he might be able to if she turned herself in. That was it for Toni Jo.
‘Nor Can The Manner Of Death Be Too Severe’
Another State Police captain, John Jones, drove Toni Jo around the rice fields of Lake Charles. All the undeveloped roads looked the same to her, and she was unable to locate the spot where Calloway’s body could be found. But then she saw two haystacks sitting together in the field. And she knew she had the place.
Of course, there was no ID with Calloway’s body. But Toni Jo remembered the name Joseph Calloway.
Finding out the name of Toni Jo’s accomplice was also a problem. She’d never bothered to learn his real name. She knew him only as Arkie, and thought he might be living in Camden, Ark.
When the Camden police sent some mug shots to Lake Charles, Toni Jo was able to identify the culprit. It turned out that in addition to Burke, the young thug was known as John Roe, Lloyd Adams and Kermit Haygood. But in the end, they were all nothing more than good old Horace Burke.
Soon both Burke and Toni Jo were cooling their jets in the Calcasieu Parish Jail. Toni Jo’s trial began in March, 1940.
Presiding judge John T. Hood appointed local attorneys Clement Moss and Norman Anderson to defend Toni Jo. The attorneys, who were accustomed to practicing civil law, asked to be given a pass on the case. Hood told them they must serve and added that the trial would begin March 27. The attorneys pointed out that only gave them 25 days to prepare. But, again, Hood was unmoved. Before it was all over, the two attorneys would lodge four appeals with the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Arkansas attorney J.A. Williams represented Burke. He and Toni Jo received separate trials.
Houston attorney J.P. Copeland, who had been a friend of Calloway, joined the prosecution for the trial. Copeland told the court, “Nothing will satisfy me and the better class of people in Houston but the death penalty for this man and woman. Nor can the manner of death be too severe.”
On the first day of Toni Jo’s trial, 200 people crammed into Judge Hood’s courtroom. It was said that the courtroom was so crowded that one spectator was allowed to sit in the jury box. Defense attorneys complained that audience members were hanging from the pipes in the courtroom.
For a time, Toni Jo became a national celebrity. Magazine photographers felt that her long dark hair and unblemished complexion made for an extremely photogenic look. The courtroom crowd passed around rumors about some local law men spending an inordinate amount of time with Toni Jo.
But not everyone was enamored of Toni Jo. Jurors claimed that when they walked into the courtroom, the crowd outside was chanting, “Hang her! Hang that bitch!”
In spite of all the build-up, the trial lasted but a single day. The defense attorneys weren’t able to build much of an argument. One of them did point out that in her confession to Lake Charles police, Toni Jo said she shot Calloway in the heart. In fact, he had been shot in the head.
In the first appeal, the Louisiana Supreme Court sided with the defense, arguing that the circus atmosphere of the trial, along with spectators’ insistence on a hanging, had deprived Toni Jo of a fair trial.
Toni Jo received a number of stays courtesy of the state Supreme Court and the governor. But after the pauses in the process, Toni Jo inevitably found herself once again counting down the days to her meeting with the electric chair.
As she waited for death in the Calcasieu Parish Jail, Toni Jo sometimes received more than 200 letters from fans (and detractors) in a single day. She spent most of her time in jail answering her mail. She also received visits from strangers who sympathized with her. One visitor, a California widow, travelled all the way from San Francisco.
Shortly before her execution, Toni Jo granted an interview to the American Press’ Eliot Chaze. Among her revelations were these:
“I’m telling you I shot [Calloway], because it’s no good lying now. Burke didn’t do it.”
“It was like being drunk; real drunk. Have you ever pulled something when you were drunk and that something seemed the cutest, smartest thing in the world? But [really] it was the awfulest. Well, I was drunk with pressure, worrying about my husband …”
“The victim does not return to haunt me. I never think of him. I’ve known all along it would be my life for his. I believe mine is worth as much to me as his was to him. I wonder, though, sometimes, why it’s legal now for another fellow to kill me.”
Toni Jo expressed concern that a radio serial she liked, Abie’s Irish Rose, would go on after her death. “I’m scared,” she said. “I’m scared because I don’t know where I’ll be September and Abie’s Irish Rose will go right on without me.”
‘She Thought She Didn’t Have A Chance’
As she approached her execution, Toni Jo arranged to have the little black and white dog that had been her constant companion in jail sent to Shreveport. On the day of the execution, Toni Jo walked down 22 steps to the electric chair that was temporarily housed in the Calcasieu Parish Jail. The long black hair that had been the subject of so much media attention was cut off by a barber.
Outside, several thousand people milled about on the courthouse grounds.
In the three years before Toni Jo’s death, the person who visited her the most was Father Richard of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, who sat with Toni Jo three times a week in her cell. The priest didn’t believe any rumors about Toni Jo consorting with law men. He felt she was still too much in love with her husband, Cowboy, to do such a thing. Father Richard asserted, “She was passionately in love with her husband. She spoke of him often and wrote to him every day. Faithfully he wrote her back.”
Before she died, Toni Jo was baptized into the Roman Catholic faith. Father Richard had no part of the popular notion that Toni Jo had found jailhouse religion because of her fear of death. “She wasn’t afraid,” he said. “She was pessimistic. She thought she didn’t have a chance.”
Father Richard had given Toni Jo a scarf she could use to cover her bare head. When she walked to the chair, she looked him straight in the eyes, and said simply, “Goodbye, father.” And then she took her seat.
Adapted from Crimes Of The Past In South Louisiana by Nola Mae Ross. To purchase books by Ross, call 337-540-6037 or 337-249-0368.