Julia Bourland, wife of a prominent Fort Smith businessman, shot to death Maud Allen, her husband's mistress, in the spring of 1897, bringing an end to a lurid public scandal which over the previous year had involved two attempts on Maud's life, a federal hearing on the mailing of obscene material and an alienation of affection lawsuit.
Ultimately, Mrs. Bourland was found innocent, and the community found plenty of ways to blame the victim. Her philandering husband, who would soon convert to Methodism and promise to reform, would go on to serve four terms as mayor of Fort Smith.
The center of the triangle was James Fagan Bourland, a handsome 35-year-old already well established in the border city's business elite. He was born on a farm not far from Fort Smith in November 1862 while the Civil War raged.
Young Bourland, who preferred to be known as Fagan, seems to have made his entry into the business world by operating or owning a ferry across the Poteau River. His father, also a ferryman among other things, was James Cook Bourland.
Joe Wasson, a Fort Smith native who has undertaken a decades-long investigation of the Maud Allen murder, recently told me in an email that Fagan Bourland's father had a second family living across the border in Indian Territory. Fagan's grandchildren knew of this second family, so one can reasonably suspect that he knew, too.
The second leg of the triangle was Julia Bailey, who married Fagan Bourland in December 1880. Nearly a year older than her new husband, Julia was born in Georgia in December 1861. She was plain in appearance, especially when standing next to her dapper husband. Julia was a devout Methodist while Fagan was a Catholic, though in late 1897 he converted to his wife's church.
Maud Allen, a native of Independence, Mo., is not as well documented as Julia and Fagan Bourland. The Fort Smith Elevator, a respected weekly newspaper, reported Maud's age at death as "25 or 26," and that she was "slender and delicately built and rather good looking."
Maud was married to George Allen when she and Bourland began their affair. In March 1895, more than two years before the murder, George Allen's attorney filed an alienation of affection suit, accusing Bourland of using "divers and sundry means, artifices and inducements which his wealth and sinister disposition enabled" to seduce his wife, and asking for a judgment of $10,000 plus costs.
In the wonderful words of the day, George Allen claimed he suffered from "wounded affections and lacerated feelings." The outcome of this case is unknown, which probably means Bourland settled it out of court.
This lawsuit must have brought additional public awareness to what can only be described as an open love affair between a sophisticated young businessman and an impetuous but iron-willed woman from a very different background and economic status who was willing to not only accept the scarlet letter but to face the threat of death.
After deserting her husband, Maud took a room in a boarding house across the street from Bourland's store on South Sixth Street in the busy heart of Fort Smith. Fagan visited Maud in her room and appeared in public with her. Julia soon learned of her husband's infidelity, and sources differ as to what happened next.
The Fort Smith papers report that Mrs. Bourland fired a revolver into Maud's room from outside. The Van Buren Press, published across the Arkansas River in the historic town of Van Buren, reported that she had "shot at [Maud] without effect." Whatever the circumstances, Maud was not injured in the attack, but the shooting served notice that Julia was no pushover.
About a year passed before Julia decided to make a second and much more direct and physical attempt on her rival's life. This attack, which occurred June 5, 1896, might have been precipitated by Maud having sent taunting and obscene letters to Julia.
We know about these letters because the U.S. Postal Department charged Maud with mailing obscene materials through the mail. U.S. Commissioner James Brizzolara of the Western District of Arkansas conducted the hearing. Persevering research by Joe Wasson obtained copies of the crudely salacious and disturbing letters from the U.S. Archives in Fort Worth. Some included drawings of a sexual nature.
In an unsigned letter postmarked March 29, 1896, Maud launched an attack on her married rival, calling her a series of names not suitable for publication in this newspaper. She wrote: "I will be the cause of him leaving you yet."
Then she admitted to vandalizing Julia's property: "How did you like those holes in your umbrella ... how did you like those names [written] on your saddle ... Did you see that name on a sack of flour?" Maud signed off, "I remain highly kept."
Maud made no attempt to disguise her letters. A letter sent just before Christmas in 1896 was addressed to "Jule Bourland the b*tch hoar." A note to the postman, written at the edge of the envelope, asked, "Don't give it to Fagan, but give it to her."
Maud admitted to writing the letters, but claimed she did not address or mail them. Surprisingly, she was found innocent. One newspaper reported that "the acquittal of the defendant was a matter of surprise, for nearly all who heard the testimony expected a conviction."
On June 5, 1896, less than a week after the obscenity hearing, Julia Bourland made her second attempt to kill Maud Allen. Learning that her husband would be taking his mistress for an evening carriage ride, Julia disguised herself as a Black woman, and as the couple walked to their carriage in the dim glow of gas streetlights, she stepped from the shadows and hit Maud on the head with her pistol, then fired a shot into the reeling woman.
An errant bullet lightly grazed Fagan's leg, causing Julia to hug her husband and exclaim, "I did not shoot at you. I love you too well for that."
Maud was seriously wounded and was taken to a local hospital where she received treatment. Upon being discharged from the hospital, she went to Seneca, Mo., to recuperate at her mother's home.
Over the next month or so Maud convalesced, but was unable to recover from her infatuation with Fagan Bourland. Realizing the dangers she faced if she returned to Fort Smith, Maud spoke openly of her realization that Julia lay in wait for her return. But she could not get Fagan out of her heart.
That was a mistake. Her story continues next week.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist. Email him at [email protected]