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— A school assignment long ago may have foreshadowed Orval Allbritton’s third career before his first one ever started.

“I wrote a paper about the Battle of Jenkins Ferry for a history class,” said Allbritton, 83. “The teacher sent it to the Arkansas Democrat, and they ran it in their Sunday magazine. They sent me a check for $15, and my teacher told me, ‘I’ve made you a professional.’”

Allbritton’s fourth book will soon be published by the Garland County Historical Society, but he still doesn’t consider himself either a historian or an author.

“I am just an amateur with an interest in history. I do write, but I am just the oldest volunteer of the historical society, and they give me a way to share the things I have collected.”

His latest book, like his earlier publications, is about a period of history when his hometown was known for its casinos and as a haven for gangsters as much as it was known for its thermal waters.

Carrying a working title of The Mob at the Spa: Organized Crime and Its Love of Hot Springs, the book centers around the infamous mobsters who vacationed in Hot Springs or found refuge from the law in the Spa City.

“There is a difference between a gangster and a mobster,” Allbritton said. “A gangster is a bank robber, kidnapper, always wanted by the law and very dangerous. A mobster, on the other hand, is involved in organized crime and is probably not wanted. They can be even more dangerous but in a different way.”

Allbritton’s new book opens when Johnny Torrio, head of the Five Points Gang from the south side of Chicago, visits Hot Springs around 1920.

“Torrio’s wife had visited Hot Springs, and she had been here and wanted to come back,” Allbritton said. “He would bring about four men with him to watch the [hotel’s] front desk to make sure no one from the North Side Gang of rival Dean O’Banion had arrived in town.”

One of the men Torrio liked to bring along was his right-hand man, Al Capone, who in 1920 had just come to Chicago from New York.

“Torrio kept quiet and acted like a gentleman and would not allow any cursing in front of his wife,” Allbritton said. “When Capone took over and would bring his gang, they were more raucous.”

They were asked to leave one Hot Springs hotel but found a Hot Springs home and the “new” Arlington Hotel, built in 1925. Capone and his gang would sometimes reserve an entire floor of the Arlington, Allbritton said.

The book also covers the Hot Springs adventures of Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, who was arrested in Hot Springs when he was seen by a New York policeman who was in town.

“He saw Luciano walking down the Promenade with the chief of detectives, Herbert “Dutch” Akers,” Allbritton said.

Other mobsters who found refuge in Hot Springs included Albert Anastasia, head of Murder Inc., Bugsy Segal and Meyer Lansky.

An earlier book by Allbritton, titled Dangerous Visitors, was about the gangsters who came to town to enjoy the lifestyle of the open gambling and alcohol of the city or to evade the authorities. Another book, Hot Springs Gunsmoke, deals with the gunfights that took place between rival gangs or gangsters and law enforcement officers in the city.

“Three people were killed at the gunfight at the OK Corral in Arizona, and they have made at least five movies about it,” the author said. “Hot Springs has a gunfight where five men were killed, and it was covered up.

His first book for the historical society, Leo and Verne: The Spa’s Heyday, published in 2003, is about boyhood friends Leo McLaughlin and Verne Ledgerwood, two of the city’s most colorful residents. With McLaughlin as mayor and Ledgerwood a judge, they created the political machine that allowed crime and vice to flourish in the city.

McLaughlin was mayor when I was born and when I got out of high school,” Allbritton said. “I thought it was a job for life.”

Allbritton said he grew up during the years of his hometown’s infamous past.

“I have always been interested in the history of my hometown,” he said, “especially about the notorious side of Hot Springs. My father was a city fireman and was around City Hall, and he also worked as a guard at the Southern Club, and he told me stories.”

The author spent more than six years researching the book, checking with more than 1,700 sources.

Detailed investigation is a skill in which Allbritton is well experienced. Before he graduated from high school in 1947, he was recruited by the FBI. He worked in the bureau’s Electronic Statistical Section at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“When they started the atomic-energy program, it was done so quickly they didn’t investigate the backgrounds of all the people working on the project,” Allbritton said. “By the time I was hired, there were 100,000 people who needed their security clearance.”

The young investigator used some of the early data-processing machines from IBM to collate information, he said.

“We had the ‘Big Machines,’ as they were called, long before anyone had heard the word ‘computer.’ We used punch cards, and they could be sorted to call on all kinds of data.”

Later he returned to Arkansas, working in the FBI office in Little Rock. After 11 years, Allbritton left the bureau and became an insurance claim adjuster, still investigating and doing research.

His research turned more seriously to history in the 1970s, when he began to collect information about the USS Arkansas, a battleship built in 1912.

“It was used to keep the German fleet bottled up in World War I and was the oldest battleship in World War II,” Allbritton said. “Later, it was one of the target ships when they dropped the H-bomb on the Bikini Atoll.”

Returning to Hot Springs when he retired, Allbritton began volunteering at the Garland County Historical Society in 1993.

When society officials found out about his collected stories of his hometown, they encouraged him to write a book. The result was Leo and Verne.

“This research is so impressive and detailed. He backs up everything he writes,” said Liz Robbins, executive director of the historical society in Hot Springs. “When it comes to the stories about those days, Orval’s the expert.”

The society has published all of Allbritton’s books, and Robbins said they are invaluable pieces of the history of the community.

“There are a lot of rumors about Capone and those days in Hot Springs. Orval knows what really happened and what didn’t,” Robbins said.

Allbritton said there is at least one more book he wants to write.

“I want to write about my good friend Clay White,” he said. “He was an FBI agent and the Garland County sheriff, and was head of the Arkansas Crime Laboratory. I have 18 90-minute cassette tapes I made with him. I want to put that in a book.”

When Allbritton is not gathering formation or writing books, he and his wife, Ann, can often be found walking the mountains around Hot Springs.

“Ann is a race walker, and for years, she has been part of the Pikes Peak Marathon Association, and they walk to the top every year,” Allbritton said. “She can walk off and leave me anytime she wants to, but she keeps it down to my pace.”

Allbritton said his life could have taken a different direction.

“In high school, I worked helping a man who sold plumbing supplies,” he said. “He offered me a job before the FBI called me. He and his wife had no children, and I think he was thinking about making a place for me. I might have done better if I had taken it.”

That might be true for Allbritton, but his readers and those interested in the history of Spa City might disagree.

Print Headline: FRONT AND CENTER: Orval Allbritton


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