by Van Roy
This story is an unusual chapter out of Louisiana history and has always been one of our favorites. Please join us in this revisit, and don’t miss the Travel Avoyelles/CENTRE de la LOUISIANE story in this month’s issue. We love Avoyelles!
District Attorney Finds Passion and Purpose as published author of Central Louisiana history
This June, the University of Louisiana Press published “The Life and Diary of John P. Waddill,” an in-depth study of the Avoyelles lawyer credited with freeing Soloman Northup in Avoyelles in 1853. The book is truly fascinating, but we are equally fascinated by the man behind this labor of love. Meet author Charles Riddle of Marksville. Riddle may be best known for his long and storied thirty eight years as an attorney, seventeen of those as District Attorney of Avoyelles Parish. But to some, it might not be too long before he is equally known for his uncanny sense of telling a story through the written word.
As a high school student, Riddle had an appreciation for history and good stories, though English was not his strong suit. It was later in college that he started to write short stories, often autobiographical or stories about family members. What started as a hobby evolved into a passion that followed Riddle to the floor of the Louisiana legislature. Over 11 years in the House of Representatives, Riddle would take notes and compile these malapropisms into a paper he called “The Outhouse Report,” a play on the Legislature’s official “Inhouse Report.” What began as a two-page handout grew into twelve pages of comic relief that lawmakers would look forward to receiving and reading. This was the inspiration for Riddle’s first book, “The Outhouse Report.” Riddle became known for saying, “If you don’t laugh at least once, I’ll give you your money back.” He’s yet to make one refund!
Riddle attended LSU and, inspired by great professors there, his love of history only grew. A professor once taught him that one learns the most about history by reading books written during that time period, explaining that one will understand history better. Little did he know that some forty plus years later, he’d be writing a book about Avoyelles attorney, John P. Waddill, who figured so prominently in the life of Soloman Northup, the subject of the best selling book, and later Academy Award winning film, “12 Years A Slave.”
The success of the movie brought much attention to Central Louisiana and Avoyelles Parish. Riddle had been involved in re-enactments of Northup’s emancipation since the 1980’s and once again portrayed Waddill on the steps of the Avoyelles Parish Courthouse for the anniversary of Northup’s freedom. Relatives of Soloman Northup and actors from the film attended the celebration. It was at a reception following the event that Riddle met Elizabeth Brazelton, the great, great granddaughter of John P. Waddill. She explained that she had his diary – some four volumes that explained his life in vivid detail. Riddle became obsessed and began the arduous process of transcribing the four volumes, a task that took him almost two years to complete. The diaries not only told the story of Waddill, but of many others listed in detail, enough for Riddle to research these other names in sealed courthouse archives and newspapers from the period. In one compelling account, Waddill wrote in extensive detail how nineteen men from Avoyelles signed up in one day to fight in the Mexican War under Zachary Taylor. Henry O. Robertson, associate professor of history at Louisiana College, and who wrote the foreward for the book, states matter-of-factly, “There’s no other book about that time period of history in Central Louisiana.”
Riddle is looking forward to researching and writing more books and feels certain that he’ll continue to explore those moments of history he finds most compelling. “I’d like to write a book about the flood of 1927. My grandfather was the chairperson for the Red Cross, so you can only imagine the monumental responsibilities he had during that local disaster.”
I enjoyed my visit with this accomplished gentleman, so much so that at the end of our interview, I was compelled to ask him which five guests, living or deceased, would he invite to a dinner party where he could ask them any question he liked. “Jesus Christ, for obvious reasons and my Dad, would be at the top of my list. I’d also like to talk to Huey Long, who was such a complex person and charismatic politician. Thomas Jefferson because he was so brilliant. Last would be Mother Theresa.” With each name, I got goose bumps and left his office thinking what a great book he could write if that dinner party were to occur.
“The Life and Diary of John P. Waddill: The Lawyer Who Freed Soloman Northup” by Charles A. Riddle III
2019, University of Louisiana Press
Available at www.ulpress.org, Amazon and Barnes and Noble bookstores