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Tom Dillard: Commune goes crazy, and murder is history's outcome

by Tom Dillard | August 9, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

One of the most notorious murders in Arkansas history was done in the name of God.

On Aug. 29, 1876, followers of an elderly divine named Cobb living in the tiny settlement of Gum Spring in White County on the main road from Searcy to Little Rock killed an intruding skeptic, decapitated him in a religious frenzy, and impaled his head on a fence post facing the road.

Though two of the commune were killed by a sheriff's posse, the surviving Cobbites -- as they were called -- were tried and acquitted on the grounds of insanity.

Little is known about Cobb, not even his given name. He seems to have come to Arkansas from his native Tennessee, perhaps by way of Indiana.

Cobb found few followers in Arkansas, mostly members of the Dover and Nelson families. The group lived communally, according to the late Professor Ray Muncy in his history of Searcy, and newspaper stories charged that followers were expected to turn over all their worldly possessions to Cobb.

Cobb apparently claimed some sort of divinity, though sources do not agree that he claimed to be God himself. He carried a sycamore pole as a sort of mark of his authority; each morning he pointed the pole to the east and bid the sun to rise, while each evening he faced the west and ordered the sun to set.

A Chicago Tribune reporter described Cobb as "a man of erratic originality, native shrewdness and possessed of considerable magnetic power."

Cobb preferred to be known as "the walking preacher" -- an apparent reference to his nomadic tendencies. But it could be a reference to the Cobbite belief in roof-walking.

Muncy explained: "One of the typical tests for a sanctified Cobbite to determine his spiritual status was a walk on the housetop ... with his eyes closed, coming as close to the edge as possible and then being divinely led to stop, turn around and walk to the edge on the opposite side of the roof."

Apparently in preparation for the imminent return of Christ, the Cobbites burned their furniture, killed their pets and pulled down fences. Before long the believers were starving, but that did not curtail their commitment.

Though few in number, Cobb's followers were a noisy lot. Their church services were frenzied affairs, with both men and women shouting at travelers on the road to come into the two-story log home which served also as a church house.

The Tribune reporter explained that Cobb left the commune before the murder, disappearing on "a proselytizing mission," and leaving his trusted lieutenant and "living saint," Preacher Dover, in charge.

Dover proceeded to arouse the Cobbites. According to the Tribune, "they held meetings day and night." The reporter described a scene in which "men, women and children became perfectly wild during these gatherings, and shouted, screamed, clapped their hands and prayed until they dropped down with exhaustion."

The Cobbites had the unsettling habit of literally forcing people to attend their meetings. Both male and female members were known to grab the reins of travelers' horses and plead with them to attend the services. As you might expect, this did nothing to endear them to residents of the nearby county seat town of Searcy.

One hot day in late August 1876, as a drought parched the rolling hills of White County, two residents of Searcy decided to investigate the Cobbite meeting. Carter Humphries, a barkeep in Searcy, took it upon himself to "learn them crazy folks something." He took along a friend, Rufus Blake, though both were apparently unarmed except for Blake's knife.

Sources differ dramatically as to what transpired next. One account claims that the Cobbites already knew Humphries and Blake and considered them "Satan's co-workers" because of Humphries' connection to liquor sales.

The two visitors were met on the road by Cobbites, several women screaming, "Come in and see God." Humphries was reported to have responded cynically that he "had not seen the old man in some time, and would go in."

Most sources say that Humphries was surrounded and accosted as soon as he stepped through the fence gate. Shouts of "Kill them" and "Cut their heads off" rang out, and Humphries was soon begging for his life.

Blake, who had been seized by a group of women but was standing on the roadway beside a buggy, watched in horror as his comrade was stabbed and beheaded by Preacher Dover. One source had Blake using his Bowie knife to cut the horse free of the buggy to ride back to Searcy. Another more likely account had Blake fleeing in the buggy, which he damaged heavily in his head-long rush to escape.

A competing account portrays Humphries as the aggressor. Upon alighting from his buggy, Humphries was said to have torn a picket from the fence and hit Preacher Dover on the side of his head; the preacher turned his head and Humphries struck that side too. Not surprisingly, the fray did not end there, and Humphries' head ended up on a pike.

Historian Muncy quoted the preacher as stating that by turning his head, he had done all required by the Bible, whereupon he asked for an ax, and the pleading Humphries was "dragged to the corner of the yard where a root of a large mulberry tree arched up from the ground. His neck was stretched across the improvised chopping block and the women held his head steady. ... Dover began chopping. ..."

As soon as Blake reached Searcy, the murdered man's brother led an armed group to the site of the murder. They were met with a boisterous group of Cobbites, the women screamed and the men "unbuttoned their shirts and bared their chests" and defied the mob to shoot.

"Shoot you cowards ... the Lord won't let your guns go off," shouted the men. Perhaps the story is too good to be true, but Muncy says, "Rufus Blake attempted to shoot, and twice his gun failed to fire." Other rifles fired without problems, and soon Preacher Dover and his son-in-law lay dead upon the parched ground.

Surviving members of the group were arrested and jailed in Searcy. In January 1877, four men and three women were indicted for murder. The defendants hired an excellent lawyer, Joseph House, "the best counsel this part of the state affords."

The defense was insanity, with the Chicago Tribune reporter writing there "was no lack of evidence on this point." And, then he concluded: "The indicted Cobbites were shown to have been quiet people, as Arkansas life goes, except during this revival."

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]


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