Murder Mystery: Sensational Arkansas Trials
Old West outlaw Henry Starr’s appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court set legal precedents.
photographs courtesy of Arkansas Gazette archives at Hendrix College and UALR Photograph Collection/UALR Archives at the Arkansas Studies Institute.
On Jan. 19, 1931, shots rang out in the Arkansas County Courthouse where Jack Worls was on trial for killing Cicero Spence. The jury was about to deliver a verdict when three bullets struck Worls in the back. The courtroom erupted in pandemonium with spectators screaming and scrambling to get out. But the shooter, 17-year-old Helen Spence Eaton, dropped the pistol she had smuggled in under her clothes and surrendered without further incident. “He killed my daddy,” she said, as Worls lay dying at her feet.
Thus began the public’s fascination with the “comely brunette,” as she was described by the New York Times. She garnered a lot of sympathy with her tale of woe.
She had been born into a poor family who eked out an existence on the White River and lived in a houseboat. Some called them “river rats.” Nine months before the courthouse shooting, Worls and two accomplices boarded the Spence boat and attacked Eaton’s parents. The intruders killed Cicero with his own gun, threw his body into the river, and then severely beat Eaton’s mother, who died two weeks before Worls’ trial.
Separated from her husband, Eaton cut a tragic figure and with public sentiment on her side, she was given a relatively short prison sentence of two years for manslaughter. Before she had to start serving her time, she worked in a restaurant at DeWitt. When the restaurant owner turned up dead, authorities suspected Eaton of the deed, but she denied the accusation. She went on to prison for the courtroom slaying, and after she gained parole, she got another job and seemed to be on the road to a normal life. Her conscience, however, wouldn’t accommodate. She confessed to killing the restaurant owner, saying he had taken liberties with her. This time the public wasn’t as supportive. Eaton was sentenced to 10 years at hard labor.
The rigors of an inhumane prison system took their toll on the young woman. When she escaped on July 10, 1934, she left a note saying, “I’ll never be taken alive.” The following day, a prison farm trusty named Frank Martin shot and killed Eaton as she was walking along a country road. A grand jury ruled the shooting justifiable.
Helen Spence Eaton’s life was the antithesis of Anne McMath’s. Anne was the wife of Sid McMath, whose political career began in 1946 when he was elected prosecuting attorney of Garland and Montgomery Counties. He and Anne lived in a house on 40 acres just outside Hot Springs, where they enjoyed riding their Tennessee walking horses, Colonel and Nell. Sometimes McMath’s father, “Pap,” tended to the horses or worked in the garden. Though a nice man when sober, Pap was a mean drunk — and he was drunk much of the time.
Halfway through McMath’s first term as prosecuting attorney, he began campaigning for the governor’s seat, and on Aug. 7, 1947, he was stumping at a fish fry in Lake Village. Back home, Pap decided to ride Colonel into town, even though the horse had thrown a shoe. Anne pleaded with her father-in-law not to endanger the animal, but he insisted. When he returned several hours later, the horse’s foot was bleeding, and Pap was inebriated. He and Anne argued outside, and he became verbally abusive. After threatening to kill the horse, Pap moved toward Anne menacingly. She backed up into the house and ran to McMath’s desk where he kept his service revolver. Pap advanced on her with clenched fists. She reached for the gun to scare him, but he was too drunk to be intimidated. In a frightened panic, Anne fired the weapon, and Pap died instantly.
A grand jury acquitted Anne on the basis of self-defense. McMath’s political opponents tried to make the shooting an issue in his gubernatorial race, but their efforts failed, and he was elected Arkansas’ 34th governor.
The self-defense plea has been a cornerstone of the American judicial system since frontier days. From 1893 to 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a series of landmark decisions involving self-defense, and all but one of the cases came from a single federal district court, the Western District of Arkansas, which included 74,000 square miles of Indian Territory, a jurisdiction presided over by Judge Isaac Parker in Fort Smith. Parker was often referred to as “the Hanging Judge” because of his propensity for sending outlaws to the gallows. Because of a drafting error in an 1877 statute, for many years Parker’s authority was absolute. His court had been given the same powers as a Circuit Court of Appeals, so defendants who had already faced the stern judge had no recourse except to appeal to him. Not surprisingly, he never reversed himself.
After the statute was rewritten correctly, nine defendants from Parker’s court appealed to the Supreme Court on grounds of self-defense, and eight of the convictions were overturned. One defendant succeeded in gaining a reversal again after a second trial. That defendant was Henry Starr, an outlaw who became a burr under Parker’s blanket.
Born in 1873 of Scotch-Irish-Cherokee Indian ancestry, Starr was an intelligent man with a penchant for robbing trains and banks. In 1892, he held up a depot in Nowata, Indian Territory, and railroad officials hired a former deputy marshal, Floyd Wilson, to hunt him down and arrest him. According to witnesses, when Wilson found Starr, the ex-lawman opened fire without warning, but missed his target. Starr returned fire and killed Wilson.
Several months later, the outlaw was captured and taken to Fort Smith to stand trial. He plead self-defense, but Parker did not look kindly on a fugitive using such an argument.
Parker had already gotten the attention of the Supreme Court and Congress for his zealous rendering of death sentences and his habit of leading juries to convictions. His lengthy instructions were oratorical marathons. Starr later wrote in his autobiography, “The judge’s instructions to the jury lasted two hours and 40 minutes, and for legal pomposity and hazy insinuations, it would rank high.”
Starr appealed to the Supreme Court and won a new trial. This time, Parker told the jury that Starr’s flight after the killing was “not in harmony with what innocent men do.” The jury concurred and convicted.
Starr appealed to the Supreme Court again, and the justices overturned the verdict, saying running away did not constitute guilt. Parker wasn’t around to hear the ruling; the jurist whom Starr called “the Nero of America” died just over two months after Congress stripped him of jurisdiction over Indian Territory.
A curious court case occurred in 1929 in Stone County. It all started with the romance of a 16-year-old Tiller Ruminer and a young man, a drifter named Connie Franklin. One evening, Tiller said, she and Franklin were accosted by five men who raped her and killed Franklin. The men were arrested, but before their trial began, a rumor circulated that Franklin wasn’t dead. It was a strange sight, indeed, when the alleged murder victim showed up to testify on behalf of his accused killers. Tiller and other prosecution witnesses said the man was an impostor. The defense claimed that Tiller had concocted her story of rape and murder after she and Franklin argued, and he left town. To complicate matters further, it was learned that the supposed “Ozark Lazarus” was actually a former mental patient named Marion Franklin Rogers. After 20 hours of deliberation, the thoroughly-confused jury acquitted the defendants.
Tiller went on to marry and raise a family before dying in the early 1990s. The man who appeared in court and swore he had been Tiller’s sweetheart was found along a roadside near Clarendon in December 1932. Suffering from exposure and exhaustion, he died for the first and final time
Footnote: For an in-depth account of the Connie Franklin case, readers can look forward to a book by Brooks Blevins. Ghost of the Ozarks: Murder and Memory in the Upland South will be published early next year by the University of Illinois Press.