Friday, January 3, 2014

Louisiana’s Female Killer

Annie Beatrice McQuiston better known as Toni Jo Henry was 26 years old when she became the first female in Louisiana to be executed in the electric chair.

Toni Jo sitting in her cell
the morning of her
Toni Jo had both beauty and brains, but a tough childhood left her scarred. Her mother died when she was four, and an aunt took her in. Toni Jo found no love in this household. She didn't finish grade school, and she started to run away at age 13.

It was not long before Toni Jo had a reputation in her hometown of Lake Charles, Louisiana as being a “lewd woman.” By the age of 17, she was addicted to cocaine and was working as a prostitute in a local brothel.

She was arrested several times for assault, larceny, and vagrancy. She served a short stretch in jail for cutting off part of a man’s ear with scissors. Not surprising she gained a reputation for being “the most ornery gal east of the Mississippi.”

The one bright spot in Toni Jo’s life was when she met Claude Henry known as “Cowboy” in a brothel she worked in. The two hit it off right away, and Cowboy helped Toni Jo kick her cocaine habit. They fell in love and were married.

Claude "Cowboy" Henry
But Cowboy had killed a police officer in Texas before he met Toni Jo and when the law caught up to him, he was taken back to Texas. He was tried and convicted of this murder and was sentenced to 50 years in Huntsville.

Toni Jo became determined to break Cowboy out of prison. She enlisted the help of a bum, Harold Finnon Burkes--known as “Arkie.” The two started to hitchhike across Louisiana headed for Texas.

This pair pulled a pistol on a car salesman J.P. Crowley who stopped to give them a ride. They forced this poor man to strip naked and tortured him. As he begged for his life Toni Jo put a pistol between his eyes and shot--he died instantly.

The two took Crowley’s car and went on their way. But they stopped at a roadhouse where they both got drunk. They proceeded to brag about killing Crowley. In short order, they were arrested, and Crowley’s body was found.

Calcasieu Parish Courthouse
They both claimed the other had actually pulled the trigger but this ploy backfired for both were convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. During Toni Jo’s first trial in Lake Charles the hundred plus crowd in the large Calcasieu Parish Courtroom often shouted, “hang her, hang her.”

Texas released Cowboy under close supervision during this time, and he was taken to Lake Charles to coax a confession out of Toni Jo--she openly admitted to him that she shot Crowley “right between the eyes.”

Toni Jo’s lawyers appealed her conviction, and she was granted a second trial where she was sentenced to die again. They then appealed once more, and she was given a third trial where the verdict did not change.

By the end of Toni Jo’s third trial, Louisiana had brought in an electric chair to be used in state executions. She was sentenced to die on November 28, 1942.

Toni Jo became a celebrity and she was often granted privileges other prisoners were not given. She was even allowed to keep a pet in her cell. When it came time for her execution, a hairdresser was called in to cut her hair instead of the prison barber.

Cowboy managed to break out of a prison farm a few days before Toni Jo was to be electrocuted--in an attempt to save her-- but he was re-captured quickly.

It was Toni Jo’s dying wish to talk to Cowboy and even though it broke the rules she was allowed this call. “She did all the talking, and he did all the crying.”

Louisiana's electric chair.
It is said that Toni Jo was calm on the day of her execution. She spent the morning joking with her jailers, waiting for the governor’s call which never came. She did protest loudly when they cut off her hair.

After her execution Cowboy went wild and tore up his prison cell. Ironically, just a few years after Toni Jo’s death Cowboy was released from prison, but within ten years he was shot and killed.

It is said Toni Jo’s ghost haunts the Calcasieu Parish Courthouse in Lake Charles. Footsteps are heard, and a distinct perfume from the 1940s is often noticed around this building.

A woman’s husky voice is often heard in the distance but no one has been able to make out what she is saying.

An electric rotating file is often mysteriously turned off when no one is near it. This file is turned on and off with a key. Courthouse employees consider this to be Toni Jo’s handiwork. 

The door to the entrance to this area has to be unlocked with a key as well. It is then left unlocked during the day--but voter registration employees have found the door locked in the middle of the day.

Even more startling activity occurs on a stair landing. This stair is near where Toni Jo was said to be executed. A woman’s shrill screams are often heard in this area.

Here is a link to a Travel Channel episode of Ghost Stories that has several witnesses sharing their encounters with Toni Jo's ghost.

1 comment:

elana r. snyder said...

Fascinating. Just watched her "life" story on I.d. "deadly women"