WESTERN ARKANSAS (KNWA) – – The people of the Ozarks saw it all from the 1800’s to the early part of the 20th century. We took a look back at the days of the Old West on through the times of organized crime, when the Natural State could have just as easily been called ‘Outlaw Arkansas.’
“Arkansas was the Western Frontier. … It was really rough and tumble,” explained local historian and author J.B. Hogan, Ph.D.
Bank heists, shootings, brothels, legendary lawmen and notorious outlaws; our fascination with the unsavory characters that traipsed through the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas and Missouri — from the old Indian Territory — continues today.
“I teach a class called ‘Murder and Mayhem: The Dark Side of Fayetteville History,'” Hogan said with a chuckle. “Some of ’em are just horrifying.”
Hogan loves to share his life’s research through a course offered by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute through the University of Arkansas, and there seems to be no shortage of interest in our violent past.
“We admire these people because maybe they’re sticking it to ‘the man’ when maybe we’d like to,” Hogan shared.
“If they were outlaws, they were just putting money in the bank from the people they sold things to,” Bella Vista Historical Museum Treasurer Carole Harter plainly stated.
Harter pointed out a number of outlaws were just regular folks trying to carve out a living during difficult times. But not all of them.
Local folklore surrounds the old Wonderland Cave in the Bella Vista area, where it is said the James Gang hid out while running from the law. That cave belonged to Harter’s family, the Linebargers, for generations. They operated it as a nightclub and as a tourist attraction. However interest in the cave waned in the 1950s.
“[The] number of people coming in to see Wonderland Cave was down.” Harter said.
So her father shared the long rumored tale of the James Gang’s use of the cave in an interview with a local newspaper. But he made an important distinction by stating, ‘Some people say Jesse James hid out in the cave.’
“My father, in his defense, was probably trying to get a little interest,” Harter explained. “And it did get a little interest and more people came.”
Of course there is no bona fide documentation proving or disproving the claim, and we still enjoy sharing tales of the outlaw’s days on the run. Of course anyone with long family roots in the area will likely tell you a handed-down story about a celebrated outlaw-hero.
“Almost every story that you hear, somebody had a relative or knew somebody that was there,” historical researcher and reenactor Layton Egger stated matter of factly.
Egger studied up on one of the most famous outlaw clans in history, the Starr Family. Henry Star robbed more banks than the James Gang and the Dalton Gang.
Starr and his bunch robbed the Bentonville Bank in 1893. And, as Egger tells it, they got away with thousands of dollars along with a sheriff’s posse in tow.
“Everybody had to go home and they said, ‘get their gun and kiss their wife,’ Egger explained. “And by the time they got started they chased him 11 days into the Indian Territory and never caught him.”
Henry Starr’s luck would run out though and he would face one of the most feared judges in American history; Federal Judge Isaac C. Parker, otherwise known as ‘The Hangin’ Judge.’ Parker came to Fort Smith in 1875 after he was appointed the post overseeing Western Arkansas as well as the Indian Territory.
For those, who would face Judge Parker in his courtroom, some would walk out on their own free will. However others, from the final bang of the gavel, would wind up behind bars. But for others, their journey was not over because Judge Parker wasn’t called ‘The Hangin’ Judge’ for nothing.”
“About 79 actually made it to the gallows during his time as a judge,” Fort Smith National Historic Site Park Ranger Cody Faber said.
After being appointed in 1875, Parker tried more than 13,000 cases and sentenced 160 people to death. Their last view would be looking down from atop the gallows before meeting their maker. Despite Parker’s merciless reputation, he was actually quite misunderstood.
“He was against the death penalty, he thought it was morally incorrect,” Faber explained. “He once said, ‘It was not about the severity of punishment, but the certainty of it.'”
Parker sentenced Henry Starr to death, however Starr would win multiple appeals and live to rob other banks in the region before meeting death during a robbery in Harrison. Parker would also see another famous member of the Starr clan, sentencing the Bandit Queen herself — Belle Starr — to jail for horse theft.
The Great Depression era delivered a number of famous outlaws to the area as well. While Chicago Mafia crime lords — like Al Capone — made their way to Hot Springs for rest and relaxation, Bonnie and Clyde as well as Pretty Boy Floyd criss-crossed their paths of robbing and bloodshed across the Ozarks and Oklahoma. One of our historical experts shared an ‘I was there’ story from one of his relatives.
“He said when Pretty Boy came out of the bank that he handed money out to the folks,” Hogan remembered. “Well, that’s it right there.
“There’s your Robin Hood outlaw. So if he did that, he’s guaranteed nobody’s gonna’ say anything.”
To give you an idea of what law and order was like in the pioneer days. In 1835, Ellis Gregg was found guilty of manslaughter for killing a man in Fayetteville. The sentence was a fine of one dollar and just one hour in jail.
You can find more information about the famous outlaws that criss-crossed through the Ozarks region by clicking here to check out the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. You can also learn more about the Fort Smith National Historic Site for details on our history and for tours by clicking here.