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OPINION | TOM DILLARD: Outcome of a sordid affair

by Tom Dillard | December 27, 2020 at 8:50 a.m.

Last week I wrote about a love triangle in 1890s Fort Smith which resulted in Julia Bourland, wife of prominent businessman Fagan Bourland, attempting to murder her husband's lover Maud Allen. Today we continue the story following Julia's second attempt on Maud's life, which left her victim seriously wounded.

Julia's first attempt resulted in no injuries, but in early June 1896 she made a more serious attempt that resulted in Maud suffering a pistol shot to the midsection.

Maud recuperated at a local hospital and at her mother's home in Seneca, Mo. However, she decided to return to Fort Smith, probably with Fagan's blessing. She took a room with Mrs. Lydia Sprinkles several blocks from Bourland's businesses.

We know from testimony by Maud's landlady that Fagan visited Maud's room frequently, "once a day and sometimes two and three times a day." She also noted that "Fagan paid Maud's board--$4 a week." He sent Maud love letters, which Julia was intent on retrieving.

Maud knew she was in extreme danger. Mrs. Sprinkles testified after the murder that "Maud expected to be killed, but she would not go back home."

On April 22, 1897, Julia went to Maud's room while Maud and her landlady were on an errand. She found Fagan's love letters, and with revolver in hand, Julia hid in a closet under the stairwell close to Maud's room. Upon returning, Maud asked Mrs. Sprinkles to check out the room before she went inside, but Julia was not detected and quickly attacked.

Details of the actual shooting were fuzzy, but Maud soon died after receiving a bullet to the chest and a second to the neck. Mrs. Sprinkles was in an adjoining room when she heard the first shot, and unsuccessfully wrestled with Julia for control of the gun. Her task finished, Julia calmly put on her bonnet, in which she had stashed Fagan's letters, and started off for her husband's store.

Fagan rushed to the murder scene and consoled his wife, seating her in a carriage. Amazingly, a reporter for the Fort Smith News Record was granted access to Julia only 30 minutes after the killing. The resulting story, published later that afternoon, opened with Julia's words: "I regret it, but I had to do it. I killed her because I loved my home and my husband."

Maud's body was taken to Birnie's Morgue, where a newspaper reported "it was visited during the afternoon by hundreds of morbidly curious people." No autopsy was performed, an oversight which would play a role in the coming trial. Fagan took possession of Maud's body one more time and paid to transport it to her family.

Fagan stood by his wife when she was charged with murder, with the trial starting Oct. 6, 1897. He hired two excellent attorneys--James F. Read and J.B. McDonald--who are probably responsible for the decision to plead self-defense.

At the risk of seeming jaded, I must point out that the Bourlands used a local Methodist revival to favorably impact public opinion. She was a devout Methodist, and he soon joined the Methodist Church; as one newspaper put it, "both have experienced conversion."

The reporter admitted that Fagan "is not a man to talk on such matter, but he announces that he has seen the errors of his past life and will lead an altogether different career." The dramatic conversion was announced less than one week before Julia's trial began.

One interesting aspect of the trial was the presence of a Black man, Louis Bolin, on the jury, which was unheard of during those Jim Crow years of the 1890s.

Lead defense attorney McDonald opened for the defense, promising to prove that "... Mrs. Bourland shot Maud Allen in self-defense ... that Maud Allen had threatened her life and armed herself with a knife and a pistol."

The first witness was Dr. J.W. Breedlove, county coroner, who admitted he made "only a superficial examination." This is important because the defense contended that only one shot was fired, the second wound "resulting from the discharge of the revolver during the struggle which followed the first shot."

The reporter for the Fort Smith Elevator made no effort to hide his bias, writing that "... Maud Allen did, at divers and sundry times and places in the presence of hearing of several persons, threaten to kill Mrs. Bourland."

Appearing on the witness stand "becomingly gowned in black and veiled," Julia testified that she was in Maud's room to retrieve letters Fagan sent his mistress. She also claimed that Maud had rushed at her with her hands raised and with what seemed to be a weapon.

On one occasion the defense contended that Maud not only had a pistol (and had practiced her marksmanship), but that she was armed with not just a knife, but a "dirk-knife."

Julia concluded her testimony by saying, "As she came toward me I thought my life was worth more than hers, and I fired."

The prosecutor, aided by the administrator of the Maud Allen estate, presented plenty of witnesses to prove that it was premeditated murder. Fort Smith resident Mary Johnson testified she encountered Julia "in front of Fagan Bourland's store before the shooting, and that she had stated her intention to go to Maud Allen's house and kill her, and that she was armed."

The jury deliberated for 16 hours before asking some questions of the judge. Shortly afterward, a verdict of innocent was announced. The Arkansas Gazette, which covered the trial, described the "dramatic scene" in the court room: "... a burst of applause shook the court house. Clapping hands and the stomping of feet told of the favor the verdict met with among the crowd ..."

The reaction of Maud's 12-year-old brother, who attended the trial, is not known.

The murder was a tragic event on many levels. Finding Julia completely innocent was a failure of justice, but more serious was the decision rendered by public opinion to blame Maud for her murder and to absolve both Julia and Fagan of any culpability.

Julia Bourland became a near-recluse after the trial, being seen occasionally outside tending her flowers. She died in 1941. Fagan's career suffered no ill effects from the trial's disclosures. He later served four terms as mayor of Fort Smith, although in 1923 he was recalled from office in a campaign instigated by the local Ku Klux Klan.

Ever resilient, Fagan regained the mayor's office in 1929. He died in 1952.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

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