ARKANSAS A-Z: Louis Sharpe Dunaway earned fame as newspaper sales agent, author

Louis Sharpe Dunaway

(Courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Central Arkansas Library System)
Louis Sharpe Dunaway (Courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Central Arkansas Library System)


Louis Sharpe Dunaway may be the most famous traveling salesman in Arkansas history. For nearly 50 years, Dunaway was a sales agent for newspapers, mainly the Arkansas Gazette, which earned him the sobriquet "Mr. Gazette." He was a friend and supporter of many Arkansas politicians, notably Gov. and U.S. Sen. Jeff Davis and U.S. Sen. Hattie Caraway. However, he is also well-known for his 1925 book, "What a Preacher Saw Through a Key-Hole in Arkansas," and the claims it includes about the Elaine Massacre of 1919.

Dunaway was born on Jan. 10, 1870, in Faulkner County, the third of eight children. He attended Conway High School and Hendrix College but dropped out in his third year to travel. At Mineral Wells, Texas, he was a reporter for a small newspaper and then spent a period reporting for newspapers in Dallas and Fort Worth. He moved back to Conway, buying the local People's Advocate newspaper and changing its name to the Faulkner County Times.

In 1899, Dunaway married Lela Witt, whom he had met at Hendrix, and they had three children.

He went to work for the Arkansas Gazette as a circulation manager, soliciting subscriptions. For a short spell, he did the same for the Arkansas Democrat but then rejoined the Gazette for the rest of his career. Dunaway's salesmanship became legendary, especially his promise to barter a Gazette subscription for almost anything. Among the items he collected, according to his obituary, were "nine steeltraps, three raccoon hides, a large beef hide, two cords of cook wood (three miles from the railroad), and two hives of bees." He traded Gazette subscriptions for a small alligator, a bear cub and a wolf cub. The wild animals were traded for either three-month or six-month subscriptions with the proviso that the animals would be delivered to his home in Conway by parcel post with the full postage paid.

Dunaway knew Jeff Davis when both were youngsters, and Dunaway would attend Davis' campaign speeches (he claimed to have heard 850 of them) and sell Gazette subscriptions in the crowd -- although Davis sometimes attacked him from the podium, yelling that he would rather be caught with a dead polecat in his pocket than with a Gazette in his possession, and several men found Dunaway to get their money back. Dunaway's book on Davis' life and speeches, published soon after Davis' death, collected a number of Davis' most colorful diatribes and his taunts of opponents, critics and newspaper editors, particularly Dunaway's employer.

During his travels for the Gazette, Dunaway met a young soap-and-pencil salesman named Huey P. Long at the Gleason European Hotel in Conway. When Dunaway's friend Hattie Caraway was running for reelection in 1932 and seemed headed for defeat, he telephoned Long, by then a populist U.S. senator from Louisiana, and suggested he come to Arkansas and campaign for her. Their weeklong speaking tour of the state helped Caraway easily defeat four prominent men in the Democratic primary.

Although Dunaway frequently passed news tips to the Gazette from his travels around the state, he rarely, if ever, reported or wrote for the paper. He was a promoter and very rarely a critic of anyone. That was what made his 1925 book, "What a Preacher Saw Through a Key-Hole in Arkansas," unusual. This book profiled communities, tourist sites and people all over Arkansas, including local and state leaders and politicians.

One chapter in the book focuses upon the Elaine Massacre of 1919. Although Dunaway's account at first followed the usual theme of Arkansas newspapers that the white leaders, including Gov. Charles Hillman Brough, were honorably motivated to stop "meddlers" from inciting ignorant Black locals to riot and kill white plantation owners, he concluded -- after considerable investigation, he wrote -- that what actually happened was far different. He claimed that the soldiers sent from Camp Pike to preserve the peace got drunk and committed violent acts. Dunaway even claimed that the exact number of Black men, women and children slain in the fields and canebrakes, along the roads, or in their shanties totaled 856. Nearly a century later, historical research has verified Dunaway's general outline of events, but historians continue to debate the number of people killed during the massacre. Dunaway's book claimed that Gov. Thomas McRae, who pardoned the last six Black men unfairly sentenced to die for the "rebellion," had told him that he was the only person who ever gave a full and correct account of the massacre.

Dunaway died on Sept. 3, 1959. He is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in Conway. -- Ernie Dumas

This story is adapted by Guy Lancaster from the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas, a project of the Central Arkansas Library System. Visit the site at encyclopediaofarkansas.net.


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