Columnist

OPINION | TOM DILLARD: The notorious Barnett-Henley feud

Arkansans have a penchant for violence. While the knifing murder of a state legislator by the speaker of the state House of Representatives in 1836 is the best known instance of violence in Arkansas, our state has also witnessed numerous feuds, some of which were incredibly bloody.

One of the later feuds took place in the 1930s in Searcy County between the Barnett and Henley families.

The Barnett-Henley feud is still a hot topic in Searcy County, and there is no consensus as to the details of the confrontations which left several people dead, others wounded, and all embittered. Descendants from both families still live in the county and have long memories.

This story is complicated, and it's a challenge to keep the players straight.

James J. Johnston of Fayetteville, the leading authority on Searcy County history, has written that the Barnett-Henley feud was political in nature. Both families were affiliated with the Republican Party and had previously cooperated in running for county offices.

Searcy, Madison, Newton, and a few other counties in the Ozarks were unusual in Arkansas political history for having viable Republican parties. Keep in mind that neither family was known for having pacific ways.

Early violence involving the families occurred in December 1923, when Marshall City Marshal Wilson Branscum was shot while trying to arrest Vance Barnett for carrying a concealed weapon. According to the Marshall Mountain Wave newspaper, "immediately after the shooting, Barnett ran through town toward home, followed closely by his father, J.H. Barnett, who, it is stated by eyewitness[es], assisted his son in his escape ..." Marshal Branscum was rushed to City Hospital in Little Rock where he recuperated after surgery. Vance Barnett remained free and continued to flout the law.

The tale of political violence took a turn toward the gothic in 1924 when Postmaster David J. Barnett of Gilbert was shot and killed in an ambush on election night, Oct. 7, 1924, as he drove the ballot box from Gilbert to the county seat.

Johnston believes both J.H. Barnett and Leland Henley were together trying to stop the car and steal the ballot box, not knowing it was being driven by David Barnett. It was J.H. who fired the shot that killed his son. The elder Barnett had been an unsuccessful candidate in the Republican primary for sheriff earlier in the year.

James Johnston has noted that members of both families were prone to political violence, but the feud did not begin until the 1930 Republican primary for sheriff in which J.H. Barnett threw his support behind Ray Hogg, leaving his longtime ally Leland Henley feeling deeply betrayed.

The situation worsened on July 9, 1932, when Vance Barnett was murdered late one Saturday night as he walked home from his restaurant on the courthouse square. This was the same Vance Barnett who had shot and wounded City Marshal Branscum eight years earlier.

The 29-year-old father of two was killed instantly when hit by nine buckshot pellets. Vance's father and brothers Oscar and Rupert Barnett were not about to forget this murder. Exactly one month later, another man fell victim.

At 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 9, 1932, W.W. "Bud" Fendley, a 61-year-old retired lumberman and former sheriff, was killed from ambush as he walked along Main Street with J.H. Barnett. The consensus was that Barnett was the intended victim, since Fendley had no known enemies. Leland Henley barricaded himself in the two-story building from which the shot had been fired.

This latest shooting finally caught the attention of the world outside Searcy County. The Arkansas Gazette sent a reporter to Marshall, who reported that Henley had been arrested after a more than 24-hour standoff.

He was rushed to the state prison in Little Rock for safekeeping. The accused man spoke willingly to the press, saying that Sheriff Ray Hogg, whom Henley had unsuccessfully opposed in the primary election, "was gunning for me." He also accused Rupert Barnett, brother of the recently murdered Vance Barnett, of having recently fired four shots at him although all missed their target.

By today's standards, Henley was far too communicative for a man just accused of murder, even admitting to being in the second-floor room from which the shots were fired which killed former sheriff Fendley. He should have known better, as his extended family contained numerous lawyers, two of whom later became his defense counsels--Ben Charles Henley of Harrison and Nobe Henley of Marshall. Future Federal Judge J. Smith Henley was a part of this extended family.

In court, Henley accused Blake Treece of killing Fendley, but the jury rejected his defense and sentenced Henley to life imprisonment. This should have brought an end to the story, but the drama was merely beginning a new act.

On April 1, 1933, Will Henley, a relative of Leland's, was shot in the leg but survived. Later that year a customer at Alf Henley's restaurant, Isaac Ragland, was killed. It was at this unsettled time that Gov. Marion Futrell gave Leland Henley a 10-day furlough to visit his mother in Harrison during the Christmas holidays, with the understanding he would not enter Searcy County. Rumor had it that the Henley family paid a bribe of $500 for the furlough.

Allowing Leland Henley to leave prison was galling for the Barnett family. According to an Associated Press article, the Barnetts believed that Henley had secretly returned to Marshal.

It all came to a head on Christmas Eve of 1933, when City Marshal J.H. Barnett, 60, and his deputized sons Oscar and Rupert attacked the Alf Henley restaurant, with an old-fashioned shoot-out resulting. Marshal Barnett mistakenly believed Leland Henley was in the restaurant.

Though more than 25 bullets were fired, the only casualty was Barnett himself, who was slightly wounded in the face. The following day Governor Futrell called out the National Guard, sending 15 guardsmen from Clarksville to patrol the Searcy County seat.

The Arkansas Gazette observed that "... this small mountain town observed Christmas quietly as officials sought to make peace between the two families in the feud which had claimed two lives in recent years."

The guardsmen assisted local authorities in arresting members of both the Henley and Barnett families, confiscating numerous firearms and finding stashes of illegal liquor. The situation quieted down, but only for a while. Ominously, Leland Henley failed to return to prison after his furlough expired.

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