Please welcome guest author Nelson Harris. Harris served as a member of the Roanoke City Council, twice as vice-mayor, from 1996 to 2004, and then was elected to one term as the city’s mayor from 2004 to 2008. He has been active in regional civic and historical organizations, including as a member and chairman of the Roanoke School Board and as a member of the boards of Radford University, the Historical Society and Museum of Western Virginia, the Grandin Theatre Foundation, the Hotel Roanoke Conference Center Commission and Virginia Baptist Homes, Inc. His work has been published in The Roanoker, the Journal of the Historical Society of Western Virginia, Virginia Southwest and Historic Salem. We’re pleased to present this excerpt from his recently published ‘Hidden History of Roanoke Star City Stories:’
Charles Howard was a man accustomed to getting what he wanted. As manager of the Louisiana State Lottery, Howard had developed a reputation for rewarding friends and remembering enemies. Proclaimed as the “Louisiana Lottery King,” Howard was integral to the controversial and corrupt state lottery that was, at best, an early means for Louisiana to recover financially from the Civil War and, at worst, a scheme that deprived citizens of their earnings in a lottery that was plagued by fixed drawings, limited payouts and Howard’s “Black Book.”
Howard’s Black Book was reputed to have contained the long list of bribed public officials and kept detailed notes of those who had sought to harm the lottery machine. Millions of dollars in lottery profits were managed by Howard during the twenty-five-year franchise from 1868 to 1894. While John Morris was the public figurehead, a man not above reproach by any means, it was Howard who kept the scorecard, lined the pockets of state politicians and harvested hefty sums for himself.
Howard was a man who wielded influence and made or broke many men, political and otherwise, in postwar Louisiana. In Howard’s shadow was his son, Frank, who in his mid-twenties began escorting around New Orleans a widow six years his senior. The Lottery King strongly objected to his son’s amorous relationship and demanded it be ended, even offering his son $50,000 as an inducement to do so. The expectation that his son would acquiesce was certainly ensured given Howard’s penchant for barking orders and manipulating the lives, ambitions and fortunes of so many in and around New Orleans.
The actions taken by young Frank would prove grist for the rumor mill of New Orleans high society, make headlines in Louisiana and New York and drag the sleepy village of Big Lick into the spotlight of an investigation that one prominent newspaper would call “a tale of romantic corruption such as has heretofore been unequaled in Southern society.” The year was 1880.
The object of Frank’s affection was the widow Mrs. Gray Doswell, formerly Emma C. Pike. The Doswell and Pike families were prominent, reputable members of New Orleans society, in contrast to Howard, whose dirty money had allowed him to crowbar his way into the opera halls and gallant balls of New Orleans. Nonetheless, the Pikes’ and Howards’ paths often crossed with the social calendar of activities in Louisiana’s capital city.
When Frank and Emma’s courtship officially commenced is unknown, but by the summer of 1879 the two were often seen together in the city attending shows, charity events, operas and dances. To those who knew Emma and, by extension, her family, the notion that she would keep company with a member of the Howard clan raised many eyebrows, not least of which were those of her own mother and brother. Emma’s father, William, had died a few years earlier.
However, Emma seemed quite happy with Frank, and being a widow with two children, finding a man of means was not to be diminished. Further, Frank did not have the reputation of his belligerent father, and so the two allowed their romance to deepen despite warnings from Emma’s family and confidants. As time progressed, many began to wonder if Frank and Emma were going to marry, so when a notice appeared in the New Orleans city newspapers in late November 1880, their curiosity was satisfied: “HOWARD-DOSWELL, On Thursday, September 25, 1879, by C.H. Wilson, Esq., Justice of the Peace, at Big Lick, Roanoke County, Va., Frank T. Howard to Emma C. Doswell.”
Interest was piqued and gossip aroused, not by the marriage notice itself, but because the families had withheld the information for over a year. Given the penchant of New Orleans society for the timely communication of such occasions, this was most odd. Most were certainly willing to forgive the faux pas, but what appeared a few days later in the New Orleans papers grabbed the city’s attention: “A CARD, the Statement in the public press that I was married, at any time or place, is untrue. I am not married and never have been married. Frank T. Howard.”
Two prominent families were now swept up in a swirl of contradiction trumpeted in Louisiana’s leading newspapers. The Louisiana Capitolan and the New Orleans State each sent a bevy of reporters to find and interview the parties involved. Most sought after was Frank Howard, in whose name the latest notice had been placed, but when reporters arrived at his New Orleans office, they were told he had not been in the city for several days. Some even suggested he might have left the country. The intrigue deepened. Only when Emma Doswell’s family was contacted did a story emerge that would cause editors to declare on their front pages, “A Scandal Sensation.”
As newspapers around the state and in the South entertained their readers with what was a personal embarrassment for Emma Doswell and a public disgrace for Frank Howard, one Florida newspaper declared, “Social circles in New Orleans are just now undergoing a sort of tidal wave of excitement from a choice bit of scandal which has been unearthed and the vile author exposed.” Even the New York Sun ran a front-page headline on December 5—“Married or Not Married?”—about the “strange matrimonial entanglements.”
It took reporters only a few days to piece together the curious events of the Howard-Doswell affair.
Frank had called on Emma at her mother’s home and began to take Emma out driving and to social functions, much to the opposition of his father. Knowing this, Frank decided to proceed with the relationship quietly. After two years, Emma’s family became impatient, wondering if an engagement was not to be and advising her to look for another suitor.
In September 1879, Emma, her mother and her brother, Dr. George Pike, left New Orleans for Salem, Virginia, to spend the early fall there at a springs resort. Hearing of their travels, Frank decided to use the occasion and the out-of-state locale as the opportunity to wed Emma, avoiding the scorn of the Lottery King.
All four got rooms at the same Salem hotel, and on one afternoon, Frank and Emma went on a buggy ride, something they had done with regularity in New Orleans. Once they were out of Salem, Frank picked up a man whom he introduced to Emma as Mr. C.H. Wilson, a justice of the peace. Together the three then continued on to Big Lick, where Frank and Emma were married. Entrusted into Emma’s care was the marriage certificate, as she knew her husband could not keep the marriage document lest his father discover, at an inopportune time, their marriage.
The newlyweds quickly returned to the Salem hotel, telling no one what had transpired, and each kept their own rooms for the rest of the stay. The marriage remained a secret even in New Orleans as Frank and Emma maintained separate homes but courted as usual, with Emma continuing to be called “Mrs. Doswell.” It seemed both had made good with the prevailing circumstances. Frank was still single in the eyes of his domineering father, but Emma, a devout Catholic, could be “intimate” with the man she had married and the promise of a public declaration of their marriage forthcoming.
Only in the spring of 1880, while on a family trip to Nashville, did the arrangement begin to unravel.