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OPINION | TOM DILLARD: A state with a knack for murder

by Tom Dillard | October 17, 2021 at 1:47 a.m.

I am not surprised to learn that the murder rate in Arkansas and the nation is increasing. We are a violent country, and Arkansans have been killing each other for generations.

Circumstances change drastically over time, so it is impossible to arbitrarily compare the Arkansas of today with our distant past. Nevertheless, a long career spent reading old newspapers and untold numbers of 19th-century letters and diaries--as well as listening to tales told by elderly men who might periodically take a dip of snuff--convinces me that Arkansans have been endowed with a special knack for murder.

I was an undergraduate in 1970 when I was shocked to learn that a murder occurred on the floor of the Arkansas Legislature during its first meeting in 1837. I was reading a classic history of America by eminent Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison when I came across this:

"Michigan and Arkansas were admitted to the Union together. The constitution of Michigan prohibited slavery. The constitution of Arkansas prohibited the legislature from tampering with slavery. The first Michigan legislature created a university, at Ann Arbor. The first Arkansas legislature was remembered for a fatal brawl, when the Speaker of the House came down from his chair and slew a member with his Bowie knife."

This murder in the newly built state Capitol building on Markham Street is an example of the political violence which stalked our history like a shadow. A number of early Arkansas politicians and public officials participated in duels, an ancient form of ritualized violence which had special appeal to the Southern white upper class. Even Arkansas judges found themselves on the "field of honor."

In 1824, two judges on the Arkansas Territorial Superior Court, Andrew Scott and Joseph Selden, fought a duel, with Selden dead after the first firing. To escape Arkansas jurisdiction, the judges conducted their duel on an island in the Mississippi River near Helena. This jurisdiction issue, along with a general disdain among the public and the judiciary for the state anti-dueling law, allowed Judge Scott to escape prosecution.

Newspapers throughout the country gleefully reported on political murders in Arkansas, the most prominent being the killing of Republican congressional candidate John M. Clayton in 1889 in Conway County.

Clayton, the brother of Reconstruction governor Powell Clayton, was murdered while visiting Plumerville seeking evidence to contest the highly corrupt election of 1888.

A surprising number of Arkansas murders can be attributed to family feuds. In some cases, family feuds had their basis in partisan politics. Such was the case with the Tutt-Everett War in Marion County in the 1840s. Perhaps as many as 14 people were killed as each county election resulted in shootouts between the Democratic Everetts and the Whig-supporting Tutt and King families.

Lonoke County was the scene of the Eagle-Booe feud involving the prominent Eagle family. The violence revolved around Charley Booe, a member of a family known for violence. The author of the entry on the feud in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Larry LeMasters, described Charley Booe as practicing law in the town of England "as well as terror in Lonoke" where he threatened people frequently. Among his threats was the extermination of the Eagle family.

When the Eagle family learned that Charley, his brother Will, and his father William K. Booe were joining forces in Lonoke, an ambush was planned.

LeMasters described the scene on that April 25, 1898 morning: "After conferring at the depot for a moment, the three Booes, all heavily armed, proceeded down Center Street ... As the three men neared the corner by Ruble's Store, the Eagles fired at them. Within minutes, all three Booes lay dead."

The New York Times reported the following day: "Booes of Arkansas taken by surprise by the Eagles and shot down in cold blood."

Six members of the Eagle family were arrested; however, the grand jury refused to indict them for murder, charging only second-degree murder. The lesser charge reflected the high standing of the large and prosperous Eagle clan, which included former governor James P. Eagle.

The Eagles were defended by Joe T. Robinson, a distant Eagle relative and soon-to-be U.S. representative, governor, and U.S. senator. All the defendants were acquitted.

Feuds killed many Arkansans, but a far greater number died from race violence. Lynching is just another form of murder. Historian Richard Buckelew has documented 318 lynchings in Arkansas, 231 of the victims being Black.

One of the great contributions to Arkansas historiography is the attention given to race violence by Guy Lancaster, editor of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. His most recent book is "American Atrocity: The Types of Violence in Lynching" (UA Press, 2021). Lancaster has ensured that every known lynching victim has an entry in the Encyclopedia. For a list of victims, see the Encyclopedia entry on lynching by Brent E. Riffel.

To represent all those victims, I have chosen the murder of the Taylor sisters in Lafayette County on March 17, 1907. The victims are not representative in that they were women; only eight women are known to have been lynched in Arkansas. However, their being Black was typical.

The Arkansas Gazette article reporting the murders did not list the names of the victims, but research by the Encyclopedia staff established they were likely Suffronia and Lela Taylor. They were killed after being arrested for a purported knife attack on a white family. While circumstances of the killings are confused, both young women were shot, probably with the collusion of their guards.

One of the most important murders in Arkansas history involved the killing of early Mormon official Parley P. Pratt on May 13, 1857. Pratt, an original member of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was murdered near Van Buren by Hector McLean, the estranged husband of Eleanor McComb McLean.

Pratt married Mrs. McLean, his 12th plural marriage, and they were on their way to Salt Lake City when Hector had the couple jailed in Van Buren. Fearing that anti-Mormon public outrage and hostility might result in a lynching, Pratt was released and headed west on his own.

About 12 miles out of Van Buren, Pratt was overtaken by Hector McLean, who shot and stabbed the Mormon leader. Historians disagree as to whether Pratt's murder brought on the Mountain Meadows Massacre four months later in which Mormons and Indians in southern Utah killed a large party of Arkansas migrants on their way to California.

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

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