Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Charles Arthur Floyd, known as The Pretty Boy because of his thick brown hair and chocolate eyes, wasn't always a criminal. This is true of many of those who took up robbery during the Great Depression. Times were so difficult, and he was had a wife and son to support. The family lived for a short time in Fort Smith, Arkansas, though he was born in Akin, a small town north of Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Ironically, his birth place was not far from the notorious Cookson Hills, where many criminal fled and hid out when being pursued. Once known as The Indian Nation, or Indian Territory (IT) the area remained a wild and wooly place far into the Twentieth Century.
His first connection to Arkansas during those criminal days, came about when Dickie Mueller, a Fayetteville lawman purchased some old guns. He was on his way to Muskogee to trade them for something else. He was stopped in a roadbloack where officers were on the lookout for Pretty Boy. The lawmen took no chances and pointed shotguns and rifles at each car that was stopped. Mueller opened his car door and one of the old pistols fell out on the road. Quaking in his shoes, Mueller was taken prisoner at gunpoint and transported to Muskogee. They thought they had captured the famous outlaw, Pretty Boy Floyd, until he verified his identity.
One day it was rumored that Floyd was about to rob a bank in Prairie Grove, Arkansas. This brought out a lot of lawmen, lying in wait for the outlaw to show up. It was supposed to happen at Noon. Sure enough, right at noon here came a new Ford up to the side door of the bank. A young man leaped out and rushed in, came back out a moment later, jumped into his car and headed west. Fortunately for the young man, who was a student at the University of Arkansas, one of the lawmen at a window across from the bank recognized that the man was not Pretty Boy. He was able to signal to the others not to pursue. Floyd and his gang didn't show up.
Back in the Thirties in Oklahoma and Arkansas, lawmen hadn't heard much about the Supreme Court and its rulings. And those who had paid little attention. They would set up a road block and search every automobile for any reason. Some people didn't like it, but they recovered a lot of stolen articles, even stolen cars and fugitives on the lam.
Floyd was involved in another incident in Arkansas, this time he was actually there, when he and Adam Richetti massacred four Federal officers riding in a car taking a wanted man from Hot Springs to Kansas City. The wanted man was in the front seat with the driver. All but the man riding in the center of the back seat were killed. It was never proven that Floyd did the deed, but like most myths and legends, the fact remains that he was blamed for it.
Why was such an outlaw running free and not in prison? Well, he was sentenced to the state penitentiary in Missouri for robbery, but later paroled. He was convicted in Ohio of a robbery and sentenced to prison but escaped while enroute. In Kentucky he was charged with robberies but never convicted. In one Oklahoma robbery his companion George Birdwell was killed, while Floyd escaped. Someimes, he was seemingly everywhere as lawmen pursued and frightened citizens quaked in their boots.
Floyd continued to hide out in the Cookson Hills for most of his criminal life. Where his wife and son were is anybody's guess. Of course, like Robin Hood and Jesse James, Floyd is said to have given away a lot of his ill-gotten gains to the destitute people in the hills. He is also reported to have stayed in various places throughout the Boston Mountains including my hometown of Winslow during his long career.
This story is told about a time when he was in the Cookson Hills and went to Sallisaw to a barber shop to get a shave. As the barber finished, Floyd asked him if he wanted to see a bank robbery. Without waiting for a reply, Floyd promptly crossed the street, held up the bank and headed back into the wilderness of the Cooksons.
Pretty Boy Floyd was finally captured by members of the FBI, aided by local officers and state police. Cornered in a barn near Youngstown, Ohio, he crawled out and started running. Officers' gunfire cut him down. Lying on the ground dying, he is said to have asked, "Who the hell tipped you off?"
The body of the famous outlaw was returned to Sallisaw, Oklahoma and put on display. After crowds of people visited the funeral home, it is said that some 20,000 people mobbed the cemetery in Akins for his funeral. Later it was found that his headstone was nicked many times by people trying to get a tiny piece for a keepsake.
Floyd's brother's grave was nearby, the stone unmarked. He was a sheriff. It continues to amaze me how so many people make heroes out of outlaws.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


In 1881 Fayetteville, Arkansas was a small village, and one with a reputation of being as wild as any town “out west.”
Much of Fayetteville was burned by soldiers on both sides during the Civil War. But the beginnings of this tale go back before the war. Three brothers John, George and James Reed, sons of Richard Reed, all natives of the county, were known to be industrious and respected. John went off to war and returned a quiet man when sober but a bully when drunk. After defying authorities on more than one occasion, he became known as a bad man.
That reputation would be strained to the breaking point when Sheriff John R. Sorrell arrested a close friend of the Reeds in February of 1879. Rutherford failed to pay his bond and so the law was on the verge of jailing him when good friend John Reed arrived. In his bully phase, he demanded his friend’s release, yet refused to come up with his bail.
The jailer opened the cell door to throw the prisoner in and Reed hit him on the head with a bottle of brandy. Deputy Sheriff Sorrell shot Reed and was arrested and charged with homicide. At his trial he was set free. John’s brother George swore he’d avenge John’s subsequent death, but since George wasn’t of the same pursuasion as his wilder brother John, no one thought much of it.
It was well known that he feared Marshal Stirman, going so far as to beg him not to shoot him if he ever got in trouble. Of course, Stirman wouldn’t make such a promise, so Reed later drew down on the Marshal while mounted and was promptly dragged off his horse and beaten by Stirman. Nothing more came of this, so everyone forgot about Reed’s promise to avenge the death of his brother. But this wouldn’t be the end of this fracas. Some people just don’t forget when they think they’ve been wronged.
Marshal Stirman retired in 1881 and was replaced by William Patton, whereupon George told friends he was going to try out the new marshal. Obviously he didn’t fear Patton like he had Stirman. So one day he rode into town and deliberately picked a fight with Patton, drew on him and was shot and killed by the marshal who was promptly acquitted of any charges. Now we have two Reed boys killed and friends and family up in arms demanding someone be punished. They became so vocal about it that Patton feared for his life.
Patton believed he would be shot down on the street and did everything he could think of to prevent it. But on a dark Saturday night, about 9 o’clock, July 2, 1881, while Patton and his deputy John Mount were talking on the public square, shots came out of the dark and both were instantly killed. Though no one could ever prove who the assassins were, everyone was sure they were friends of Reed.
Thomas J. Churchill, Governor of Arkansas offered an award of $500 for the arrest and conviction of the assassins. No one was ever arrested.
Meanwhile, Mount’s family received an anonymous bundle of money and a note that he wasn’t meant to be killed. The killers were never identified.
In looking into Mount’s service record, he was the true hero of this piece. He served as a private in Co. G, 16th Arkansas Infantry from the fall of 1861 until the end of that brutal war in April, 1865. He enlisted at the age of 17, was captured at Port Hudson, Louisiana on July 9, 1863. After the war he married Catherine E. when he was 25 and she was 22. When he was killed he left behind his wife and four children, the youngest about one year old.
In those days a woman left in this situation had few choices, the best of which was to find another man to marry. Often it was a man who had been widowed himself and left with small children. Some women would find menial jobs they could do, such as taking in washing and ironing, cleaning houses, and the like. With smaller children and nothing resembling day care, they could not go out and find work, scarce as it was for women.In 1903, after moving closer to her brother for support, Catherine applied for a widow’s pension on the basis of her husband’s service in the army of the Confederate States. Her application was approved.
In those days pensions ranged from $10 a month to $40, scarcely any more. It was not only men who were heroes in the old west, but the women who supported them, bore their children and kept a good home. And like Catherine, who carried on when widowed.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012


Those of us who live in and around Ft. Smith, Arkansas, often find it difficult to believe how raw the fort once was. Situated at the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau rivers, the location that would become a most important frontier fort, was first established as an outpost in 1817 when Major William Bradford and his command of 64 men put ashore on the rock landing below the bluff at Belle Point. One of Bradford's duties was to prevent the Indian Tribes from continuing hostilities with each other.

Due to the remote location, the men were pretty much on their own. They were to erect a post on the Arkansas near the point where the Osage boundary struck the river.  The first few rude shelters built there by Major Stephen Long of the Topographical Engineers, before Bradford's arrival, were designated as Camp Smith in honor of General Thomas Smith, commander of the 9th Military Dept. with headquarters at Belle Fontaine. On hearing that Bradford was on his way, Long left his plans for the first fort along with a small detail of men and went on his exploratory way.

What makes Bradford my "hero" here goes back a ways, to 1808 when hostilities first began between the native Osage tribe and the foreign Cherokees. A delegation of Cherokee chiefs from east Tennessee had visited then President Thomas Jefferson and asked that he allow members of their tribe to live as hunters and emigrate to the lands west of the Mississippi River. At this time the Osage claimed all the land west of the Mississippi between the Missouri and Arkansas Rivers. So this move could cause a war between those tribes. Yet, on January 9, 1809 President Jefferson authorized the requested move. Within a few years a few thousand Cherokees had settled on the Arkansas and White Rivers in Arkansas, a good thirty years prior to the Trail of Tears that would herd thousands of Cherokee out of their homelands and into Indian Territory to the west of Arkansas.  

An imaginary boundary, drawn by United States Commissioners, did little to keep the warring Indians apart. Constant friction caused killings, the stealing of horses and plenty of aggressive behavior. The Treaty of Hiwassee of July 8, 1817 added more friction. It would give the Cherokees as much land in Arkansas as they had relinquished in the Appalachian region. By then around 2,000 Cherokees lived in settlements on the Arkansas. By 1819, 3,500 to 6,000 lived there.

So then arrived Major Bradford and his company of Rifles to establish Fort Smith at Belle Point. Bradford had been ordered to do everything possible to keep peace between the hostile tribes. Immediately he called a meeting of the leaders of the Shawnee, Delaware, Chickasaw and the Choctaw bands that had sided with the Cherokees. Bradford also counseled the Quapaws and the Cherokees to live in peace. But these weren't all the hostiles Bradford was forced to deal with. Trouble-making non-Indians came into the territory and added their violent behavior to the mix. In addition frontier families squatted on Indian lands.

Faced with non-existent communication with Washington---it took up to three months or more for a message to reach Washington---decisions were all up to Bradford. As Indian wars flamed, he could only rely on his small company of blue and gray-clad Rifles and two six-pound cannons to handle the situations. Besides this, he had to keep a work detail to plant corn and tend to a garrison vegetable garden. Because Congress had decided to be more frugal in army spanding, most all of his supplies had to come from the soil. Hunting details also brought in wild game killed near the fort. To add to his problems were diseases known as the ague and bilious fever. During the summer of 1819, 100 Cherokees succumbed.

While Bradford was away a few Osage leaders, led by Bad Tempered Buffalo and some 400 braves threatened the fort. Left in charge Lt. Scott threatened them with the two cannons and managed to hold down the uprising. By the time Bradford returned it was rumored that over 1500 Osage warriors had amassed on the White River to take over the Cherokees' land. Bradford sent word this would not be tolerated. Then in a bold move, he warned the chiefs that if they shed one single drop of a white man's blood, he would exterminate their nations.  He said he would not write Washington for advice, but would report that there was not a Cherokee or Osage alive on his side of the Mississippi.

Bradford continued to work tirelessly to maintain and uneasy peace between the two hostile tribes. He was finally relieved of duty on February 26, 1822. At the end of his tour of duty not one of his men had been killed by an Indian, and as far as was recorded not one of his men had so much as fired a shot at an Indian.
A new era began at Fort Smith with the arrival of Colonel Matthew Arbuckle who was convinced that the time was ripe to bring the Cherokees and the Osages together and restore peace on the Arkansas frontier. This could and did take a long while.

Information gathered from The Fort Smith Story by Edwin P. Hicks available at the Fort Smith National Historic Site.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Mason Holcomb was scheduled to hang on the gallows at Fort Smith on April 17, 1885. A native of Kentucky, he had migrated to Missouri after being mustered out of the Union Army. He married a woman known only as Miss Bridgeman, and took her to Arkansas where they lived for a while near Jasper in Newton County. From there he moved to Franklin County near Ozark, then migrated into Indian Territory. For seven months prior to the killing that would hand him a hanging sentence, he lived on the Canadian River near McAlester.

Later, folks claimed it was the devil in whiskey that brought about the killing, and it would seem so. For Mason and his friend Siegel Fisher were working in the hay fields and on July 23, the two became intoxicated. Late one evening they started home and on the way Mason killed Fisher. Who knows why? He claimed it was a fight Fisher started that escalated into the killing.There was no witness to the deed, and leaving the body out in the open, Mason fled to his native state of Kentucky. In 1884 he was arrested by a brother of the man he had murdered and taken to Fort Smith for trial. We have no idea what happened to his wife, or if they had children together.

He pled not guilty, saying that Fisher had a pistol and he pulled it, so the killing was in self defense. The trial lasted over a week. Because Fisher was shot in the back and there was no evidence of a struggle in the grassy area where the body was found, the jury returned with a guilty verdict.

Several outlaws received "guilty" verdicts, over a period of those few days prior to April 17, 1885, and they were commuted to life. Among them was a white man who lived under the name of Blue Duck.

I can see Larry McMurtry, paging through those old records and running across that fascinating name, filing it away somewhere in his writer's mind and pulling it out when he began to create his characters for Lonesome Dove. Until running across this information myself, I never imagined that McMurtry might have used an actual name, yet it's something all we writers do. 

                                                   Gallows at Fort Smith, busy as usual

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Spotlighting some of the more famous cases tried in the court at Ft. Smith, one that stands out is the first hanging on the gallows.

His crime was vicious and cold blooded and recalled for many years by people who lived in Van Buren and Ft. Smith.

John Childers, a half-blood Cherokee was charged with killing a peddler named Rayburn Wedding. Childers was the son of John Childers, a white man and KatyVann, his Cherokee wife. He was born May 3, 1848 on Cowskin Creek. This was located in the Cherokee Nation, later to become Oklahoma.

On October 14, 1870, the young man would commit a crime that eventually led him to the newly constructed gallows outside Judge Parker’s Court in Fort Smith, Arkansas. His crime wasn’t much of a surprise to anyone who knew him. Childers had a wicked past. He belonged to an organization composed of Indians and whites, whose main object on this earth was to murder and plunder. They were a close knit bunch, and so whatever one of them did, the others stood behind him.

Deputy Marshal Vennoy, a native of Kansas, had run-ins with Childers on several occasionas. He had admitted to killing a man over in Kansas to get even for some imagined wrong doing. So on this particular day, he spied a very fine black horse that he knew he had to have the moment he saw it. No matter that it belonged to someone else. Namely, a fellow by the name of Rayburn Wedding, a peddler who made his living traveling through the Indian Territory trading flour and bacon for hides and farm products.

Accustomed to getting what he wanted, one way or another, Childers told Rayburn he’d make him a trade for his fine black horse, but Rayburn wasn’t interested. Not willing to take no for an answer, Childers dropped back a ways and and then rode up on the unsuspecting trader. He dismounted, tied his horse to the peddlers wagon and climbed up in the seat beside him. After chatting until they reached Caney Creek, he drew a knife and cut the peddler’s throat from ear to ear. He dumped the body in the water, saddled the black and left his own horse there, riding proudly away on his new acquisition.

Childers was captured and scheduled to be taken to Kansas, but he dreaded that, so he escaped his irons. He was again arrested and then conveyed to Van Buren. He was held to await the action of the Grand Jury. No court was in session. Judge Caldwell then the Federal Judge, adjourned court in December, 1870. Court was reconvened at Fort Smith the following month with William Story as Judge. Judge Isaac Parker had not yet been sent to Ft. Smith.

Determined to escape justice, Childers and six other prisoners broke out and took to the woods. He might never have been recaptured had it not have been for a woman of whom he was enamored. The woman saw her chance to make some money, lured Childers into her arms, then eagerly took the $10 reward she’d been promised to aid in his capture. Deputy Marshals Vennoy and Joe Peevy easily dragged him from her arms and led him back to jail.

The beginning of the second week of the first term of Federal court ever held in Fort Smith, the Grand Jury returned eleven true bills of indictment, naming sixteen persons charged with various crims. John Childers was at the foot of the list. He was arraigned on Thursday, May 18 of 1871. The trial lasted from Novemeber 6 until the 18th before he was judged to be guilty of murder. He was kept confined in the garrison dungeon until May 19, 1873 when he was sentenced to be hanged. On August 15, the gallows, still smelling of fresh cut lumber, served it’s first duty and saw Childers hung from the neck until dead.

For 23 years the gallows took the lives of 88 more criminals, all sentenced to be hanged by a man who would become known as The Hanging Judge, Isaac Parker.

Facts for this story taken from the book, Hell on the Border

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Upper photo is Van Buren in the early 1900s. Lower photo is Garrison Avenue in Fort Smith in 1870

In 1859, killing an Indian in the wild territory of Western Arkansas was generally believed to be justified. It was unusual for someone who committed this deed to be charged. People thought it best to acquit or worse, not even bring such a killer to trial. Think of the old saying, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

Considering the facts of John Raper’s case, even his arrest would surprise a lot of people. Nevertheless,  he had a jury trial and was found guilty of killing John Rogers, a Cherokee.

Raper lived and worked on his farm in Arkansas not far from the Indian Territory line. One afternoon, his young son went to visit a friendly Cherokee family in the Indian Nation. That night he was attacked by several Indians and brutally murdered.. It would be the next morning before Raper heard of the killing. He was also told that John Rogers was the one who murdered his son.

Raper hurried to the spot and found the terribly mutilated remains of the boy. While kneeling beside the body, deep in grief, the Cherokee John Rogers rode by whooping, howling and hollering. He then reined in his horse, dismounted and headed for a nearby house. Upon spotting this man who he believed had slain his beloved son, Raper raised his rifle and shot him dead.

A quick jury trial held at the Van Buren courthouse December 1, 1859, resulted in a conviction of Raper. Eight days later, the judge sentenced him to hang and set a date of April 27, 1860 for his execution. People were incensed. A large number of leading citizens in Van Buren, including the judge who had held the trial, signed a petition. It was forwarded to President James Buchanan along with information telling exactly what had happened that led up to Raper killing John Rogers.

The president commutted Raper’s sentence to life imprisonment at Little Rock. The following year Raper, and all other prisoners held in Little Rock, was released by the Confederate soldiers. It is thought that he entered the southern army and was killed in battle.

Plenty of men were hanged on the scaffold at Van Buren. Judge Isaac Parker, the man who would gain a reputation as the “hanging” judge wouldn’t arrive in Fort Smith until 1875.

The term Hell on the Border was originally coined by outlaws of the Southwest. The jail quarters at Fort Smith were horrendous. As many as 200 prisoners at a time were kept in two inadequate basement rooms beneath the old stone barracks which was used for the court. Young, old, sick and well, hardened criminals and first offenders, all were crammed into these rooms together. In 1886 money was appropriated to build a three-story brick structure. The building was completed in 1889 and it adjoined the court building on the south.

The permanent gallows at Fort Smith was the site of many a hanging.  One of the most infamous was Cherokee Bill. More about him in a future blog.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2012


The Kimes boys including George, Matthew and Roy were known far and wide for their "outside the law" ways. Country Western Singer and composer Royal Kimes once told me something about his ancestors who rode the outlaw trail in Arkansas.

While some people are reluctant to open up the family closet and reveal a few skeletons, Royal is eager to talk about his distant kin. "George and Matthew Kimes once shot it out with the Sallisaw sheriff, killed him and got away. They were famous outlaws and very smart. They were men that wouldn't bend to the government and laws of the day."  He goes on to call them flamboyant, and adds, "If I was born back then I might've done the same. I don't believe in compromise. I don't believe in giving up half of something to get something else."

He paused, then went on. "They had a mean streak in 'em, but Uncle Roy was an awesome guy who'd do anything for you if he liked you. If he didn't, well…" A shrug finished the thought. "They were men and women living in tough times taking on tough ways. The Great Depression made them that way. But they respected lawmen and to a certain degree the law respected them."

Arkansas bred some other locally famous Great Depression outlaws, men of this breed who saw no other recourse except breaking the law to feed their families. After January 16, 1920, when the Volstead Act was enacted making the entire country "dry," the accepted money making crop soon became moon-shining. This occupation often turned these successful businessmen into outlaws in the eyes of the sheriff and his deputies. But it was a moneymaking proposition on both sides. The law would arrest them, lay on a big fine and break up their stills. Within a week or two, the boys were back in business with a new still in a new location. After a while, the law would raid them once more, smash the stills, drag them to court and the endless circle would continue.

The Kimes Boys, Matt and George, actually began their crime sprees west of Arkansas in Oklahoma during this time. And bank robbing was in fashion during the Roaring Twenties. But they weren't alone, for it was the age of bootleggers, corrupt politicians and gangsters. Even cops and professional men like doctors and lawyers were corrupt. Morals were at an all time low all over America. In the Ozarks where poverty ran rampant, many young men turned into outlaws.

Automobiles and machine guns made it possible to hit a bank, speed away, gunning down anyone who got in the way. It is written that the Kimes boys' outlaw days began when they were young and they stole candy from a little country store in Arkansas. It is told that Matthew was seven and George a bit older. Worse, the matter was settled by harried parents who offer the kindly storekeeper a case of eggs, to which he gave each of the boys a package of gum.

According to Michael Koch, author of The Kimes Gang, available on Kindle, the boys were brought up to become outlaws. Their father ran a still, their mother grew corn. George shoveled mash and peddled white lightning for his dad. The boys went to school at the old "88" school and to church at Kenner Chapel near Rudy, Arkansas. They were both baptized by Rev. Ben Pixley.

Obviously, taking to the waters didn't help. The family moved across the border into Oklahoma, where their wild ways continued. In his book Koch doesn't mention Roy Kimes, who obviously came from another branch of this extensive family and remained in Arkansas where this derring-do continued. My Dad, who came to Arkansas from Texas when he was 16, used to tell stories of these outlandish Kimes boys. According to local writer, Dusty Richards, Roy was killed in a pickup truck accident. By 1926 Matthew and George were notorious outlaws in Oklahoma and Arkansas, and they were eventually sent off to prison for their dirty deeds.

Matt died Dec 14, 1945 at the age of 40. George continued his life of crime until he went to prison. He was paroled from McAlester in May of 1957, claiming to be a changed man. He said his wife helped him find religion and that changed his life. After one more scrape with the law for which he was found innocent, he died Jan. 3, 1970 in Carmichael, California. The Kimes family cemetery is located in Van Buren, Arkansas.

It was nothing for local residents to protect these outlaws, from Jesse and Frank James and Belle Starr and her gang in the 1800s to the Kimes boys, Bonnie and Clyde and and Pretty Boy Floyd during the Depression. All would eagerly be hidden out in someone's barn or a cave, or at the least not spoken of out loud when the deputies were around. In return some of the loot, earned by bank and train robberies, or selling moonshine, was shared with locals who kept quiet. That was just the way it was in those days, in the Ozarks of Arkansas.

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