Opinion

Tom Dillard: Murder and mayhem certainly existed in territorial Arkansas

Given the frightening growth in the murder rate in Arkansas and the nation, it would be easy to yearn for a time in history when we all lived in harmony and safety. Although the details might be hazy, we remember it as a time when drive-by shootings were unknown, when people had respect for law and order, an era when substance abuse was unknown, when our children were safe.

Our mentally ill were safely locked away in a hospital near Benton in Saline County. It might not have been exactly like the black-and-white images we fondly recall from early episodes of "The Andy Griffith Show," but it was close.

If you have read my columns over the past 20 years, then you probably suspect I am going to paint a different reality. Violence has been central to Arkansas from the very beginning of the new state carved out of Missouri Territory. A quick survey of Arkansas newspapers during the territorial period of 1819-1836 reveals a time and place where murder and mayhem were compounded by the prevalence of lenient juries, ready sources of alcohol, and inadequately secured jails.

And there was dueling. Since I've written on the "Code Duello" previously, I will briefly summarize this deadly ritual of honor by noting that dueling came to Arkansas in March 1820, less than a year after the creation of Arkansas Territory. The deadly contests continued apace until after the Civil War and did not die out completely until 1897.

Historian Matthew A. Byron has recorded a total of 25 duels in Arkansas, many fought among leading public figures. In 1824, two judges on the Arkansas Territorial Superior Court, Andrew Scott and Joseph Selden, fought a duel, with Selden dead after the first firing.

One of the most tragic early murders in Arkansas involved Isaac Watkins, a prominent citizen and early settler of Little Rock whose 17-year-old niece married Arkansas Gazette founder and owner William E. Woodruff. This murder had nothing to do with politics; the killer, John Smith, was accused by Watkins of stealing hogs the previous day.

Though captured in Missouri, Smith managed to escape his guards while being returned to Little Rock. At that point ,the story ends with no further coverage in the newspaper.

Even if recaptured and tried on murder charges, there was no guarantee the accused hog thief would have been convicted. Early Arkansas juries were incredibly generous to the accused. In October 1825, a Little Rock jury convicted a man of manslaughter; his sentence was three months' imprisonment.

Gideon Dunn of Helena was tried for murdering his father-in-law in 1831, and though found guilty, his sentence was one year. In the spring of 1834 an enslaved Black man named Ben was found innocent of murder charges.

Perhaps the most remarkable case involving a Black defendant played out over two years following the murder of Benjamin Kuykendall in May 1828. The accused, a newly emancipated slave of Kuykendall's named Mark, was captured, but he escaped from the poorly constructed log jail in Little Rock.

He fled to New Orleans, where he was recaptured. Again he escaped. He was captured again and transported to Little Rock, where in March 1829, after almost a year on the run, the jury convicted Mark of manslaughter and sentenced him to three years "close confinement" plus a fine of $500. But the story was not finished.

After serving 15 months, Mark was suddenly pardoned by Territorial Gov. John Pope in June 1830. Factors beyond our knowing complicated the prosecution of Mark, but one possibility is that he had good legal counsel.

That might sound strange considering the abiding racism which made slavery possible. We do know that four years later a Hot Spring County slave named Ben who was accused of murdering his owner was found not guilty. He was represented by a lawyer named Ringo -- probably Daniel Ringo, a partner of the renowned Chester Ashley of Little Rock and soon to be the first chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court after statehood came in 1836.

Despite the capricious manner of its enforcement, Arkansas territorial courts certainly enforced the death penalty, the prescribed punishment for the most severe murders. The first hanging in Arkansas for murder occurred in April 1827 when Jacob Strickland died on the gallows in Little Rock for killing a fellow soldier at Cantonment Gibson, a military post in what is today Oklahoma.

The presiding judge, the Hon. Thomas P. Eskridge, issued a most earnest and compelling death sentence: "There is something peculiarly awful and appalling in the idea of one human being murderously taking the life of another; humanity shrinks with horror from the contemplation of a crime of this magnitude."

Later, the judge stated: "Yours was a premeditated and cold-blooded murder; and all the circumstances attending it demonstrate a wicked, depraved, and malignant spirit." The Gazette thought Judge Eskridge's sentencing statement was delivered "in a feeling and impressive manner."

Judge Eskridge to the contrary, a large number of early Arkansans seemed skeptical of the law. One jury after another set free defendants who pleaded self-defense. The most notorious example occurred during the first meeting of the Legislature after Arkansas gained statehood. In June 1837, the speaker of the state House of Representatives drew a knife and murdered a fellow legislator while engaged in debate on the floor of the recently completed Statehouse in Little Rock.

When the trial was moved to Saline County, a jury returned a verdict of "justifiable homicide."

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

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