Among the characters Louis Armstrong interacted with as a child growing up in New Orleans is a boy he calls Red Sun. Armstrong, in his 1952 autobiography, introduces Red Sun as the central figure in one of the “funny incidents” that occurred while the future jazz great was incarcerated at the city’s Colored Waifs Home, a reformatory at which he served at least two stints and where he became the star of the home’s brass band.
Armstrong and other children under the care of Capt. Joseph Jones at the home were doing drills on the campus one day when a child riding bareback “on a real beautiful horse” approached, he writes. (In an interview on “The Mike Douglas Show” in January of 1964, Armstrong repeats the anecdote but says the children had been playing ball when they saw the horse.)
“We all wondered who it could be,” Armstrong writes in “Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans.” “Mr. Jones stopped the drill and waited with us while we watched the horse and rider come towards us. To our amazement it was Red Sun.”
The boy, who was often in trouble with the law (“he would steal everything which was not nailed down,” Armstrong writes), had only recently been released from the home, so his return was a surprise.
As the boys gathered around to admire the horse and greet Red Sun, Jones asked him how he had acquired the animal.
“I have been working,” Red Sun answered, according to Armstrong. “I had such a good job that I was able to buy the horse.”
Red Sun spent the day at the waifs home, which was located near the intersection of Conti Street and City Park Avenue. The other children took rides on the horse, and Red Sun stayed for dinner. “Oh, we had a ball!” Armstrong writes.
After the meal, Armstrong played “Taps” on the bugle, and Red Sun hopped on his horse and rode off into the sunset. The children who remained marveled at how Red Sun had turned his life around.
Armstrong writes that a day later (or three days later, he says in the Mike Douglas interview), an official from the waifs home marched Red Sun into Jones’ office. He had been arrested for stealing the horse.
Armstrong is not known to have addressed the life of Red Sun beyond his writing and interview about the episode with the horse. But details about the young man are sprinkled throughout public records and New Orleans newspapers of the early 20th century. They tell a sadder tale, confirming his many arrests and revealing his violent death as a teenager, just as Armstrong was finding himself as a professional musician. And they also show his real name: Arthur Brooks.
Brooks lived in Algiers with his mother, Eleanor Hoffman. (In the Mike Douglas interview, Armstrong notes that the job that purportedly supplied Red Sun with the money to buy the horse was at a dairy in the West Bank community.) He was identified in numerous newspaper stories as having been arrested or sought by police between 1915 and 1918. (Armstrong served at least two stints at the Colored Waifs Home, one in 1910 and one from 1913 to mid-1914; it’s not clear when Red Sun’s arrest for stealing a horse occurred.) Though Red Sun is most commonly given as his alias, it also appears as Red Son and even Rising Sun.
Brooks was accused in May of 1915 of throwing a rock or brick at a woman from whom he stole a purse in Algiers, just days after he had been released from jail for theft from Standard Oil, according to reports in the local newspapers.
In 1916, Brooks was accused of crimes including stealing rope from the Southern Pacific Railway, trying to burglarize the home of man who ran a dairy in Algiers and shooting a pistol at an ice cream shop near the intersection of Verret and Newton streets.
That November, two police officers and a civilian spotted Brooks eating a cheese sandwich near a canal around the corner from his home on Saux Lane in Algiers. They confronted him for reasons that are not explained in newspaper accounts of the time, and one of them shot him in the stomach after he reportedly “made a motion to draw a weapon from his hip pocket.”
Brooks was later found to be unarmed, but he was arrested at his house anyway, as was his mother. He escaped from a hospital while he was undergoing treatment, wrote the New Orleans States.
Arthur Brooks’ short, tragic life came to a violent end when he was shot in the back of the head on Jan. 3, 1918. Late that morning, he entered an out-of-service Southern Pacific train at Toulouse and North Prieur streets, in what’s now the Lafitte Greenway.
Richard M. Scheiner, a private guard for the railroad, said later in an interview that he saw Brooks in a railcar trying to remove a brass handle from a door, an alleged crime reminiscent of Armstrong’s arrest in 1910.
Scheiner confronted the man later identified as Brooks, and Brooks pulled out a pistol and began shooting. Scheiner, who was hit in the abdomen, returned fire.
“I followed him to the platform,” Scheiner later told the New Orleans Item from his bed at Charity Hospital, “and as he endeavored to step down I shot him through the head and killed him.”
Scheiner survived his injuries. Brooks died at the scene. According to his death certificate on file with the Secretary of State’s Office, he was 18 years old. The cause of death was listed as “penetrating and perforating gunshot wound of chest, abdomen and head, int. and ext. hemorrhage.”