Authors: Speer Morgan
Copyright Â© 1994 by Speer Morgan
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Morgan, Speer, date.
The whipping boy / Speer Morgan.
49 1994 93-40836
813'.54âdc20 Â Â Â
Map by Jacques Chazaud
Thanks to John Sterling and Esther Newberg, who keep the faith, and to the National Endowment for the Arts, whose fellowship came along just in time.
This one is for
Caitlin Derbyshire Morgan
on a late fall day in 1894, the sun was almost visible in thin clouds, and the sky over western Arkansas looked as if it was about to clear after days of on-and-off rain. But the air suddenly turned cool, with the quickening feel of more weather on the way. Within an hour the sun's halo disappeared, as two massive prongs of cold approached along the Arkansas River Valley from the east and the Indian Territory to the west, pushing wet southern air away from the earth in majestic anvil-shaped clouds.
In Fort Smith, a young murderer named Johnny Pointer was to be hanged at noon on the lawn of the old U.S. courthouse, a few hundred yards from the Arkansas River. It was the first execution ordered by Judge Isaac C. Parker in over a year, the longest interruption in his otherwise lethal twenty-year record on the bench. Newspapers from as far away as Boston had sent stringers for the event, which wasn't unusual for a Parker hanging. In a nation enveloped in a depression, a good hanging offered promise of spectacle, lurid detail, moralizing, sentimentality, and all the other elements of the best order of journalism.
A lot of sightseers from the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations had come over to see the white man hanged. It was ginning season, and some of the farmers were taking the occasion to bring in their cotton. There was a recently opened bridge across the Arkansas River that they could use, instead of the ancient log-and-plank barge operated by a disagreeable old man, who'd been subjecting his riders to the same jokes for over four decadesâfoul, ancient jokes which some people actually swam the river to avoid. Now people could just trot right across the bridge, high above the unpleasant old coot and his flyblown ferry.
At 10:30, hangman George Maledon appeared on the scaffold, a man of such slight build that he looked like a white beard on a stick. He adjusted the rope's length and checked the trap mechanism, which momentarily hushed the crowd when it chunked open. Farm wagons drifted slowly up the street, with rawboned children sprawled across bales that were destined for the factors along Garrison Avenue. Advertisers milled among them, cheerfully yelling that they were paying more than any other factor in town. In truth, there was nothing cheerful about the price of cotton in 1894, which, after decades of decline, was scraping along at less than fifty dollars a bale.
The streets must have afforded curious sights to the Indian and boomer kidsâzinc-sheathed telegraph and telephone poles along one side, buildings as high as six stories, a horsecar track, and the big crowd, variously described in news accounts as “more than five hundred souls” and “well above fifteen hundred.” Monte sharks and patent-medicine salesmen were doing business along the street north of the old courthouse lawnâwatchfully, since at previous hangings some had been arrested and fined. There were dippers milling in the crowd to steal watches and money. Men emerged from alleyways wiping their mouths with coat sleeves.
On the south side of Rogers Avenue rough three-tiered bleachers had been erected, and thirty-four orphan boys from the Choctaw Armstrong Academy dressed in plain butternut uniforms stood on the wooden planks, brought here by their missionary principal to witness, while still young and uncorrupted, the fruit of crime. Since their orphanage was in the farthermost sticks of the southwestern Choctaw Nation, where the only women were wraithlike crones who came once a week to wash the clothes, many of the boys were in fact concerned less with the fruits of crime than the amazing women promenading through the crowd behind their formidable madams in bright, deeply slashed pastel dresses.
At 11:47, Johnny Pointer, convicted of murdering two livestock-thief cohorts in separate incidentsâshooting them through their heads while they lay asleepâwas taken from the courthouse jail and with great difficulty led to the gallows. He complained, pushed, pulled, and fell on the ground, protesting that he was being mistreated, that he wanted his lawyer, that his dear mother had not visited him and he would not leave the world without seeing her one last time.
Pointer had been a cause cÃ©lÃ¨bre in the local papers, partly because there hadn't been a hanging in a while. Also, Parker's usual clientele were whites and breeds illegally roaming the Indian Nations, hiding from the law, selling whiskey, stealing livestock, who one day got a little too drunk in a one-horse town like Nicksville, Claremore, Cloud Chief, Pitcher, White Bread, who went on a rampage, murdering somebody or several somebodies, and woke up in jail. Compared to these smelly types, Johnny Pointer was a member of the royalty, raised in a middle-class family, a white boy who had “gone astray and deserved mercy,” as one newspaper put it. Other papers described him as a spoiled, treacherous, murdering bratâa “traitor to his race”âwho deserved worse than hanging. There were four newspapers in Fort Smith and dozens of others on both sides of the border, all keen to gain readers and trying to outdo each other at ferocity of opinion and sensationalism, much of it conjured out of whiskey-empurpled imaginations.
Johnny Pointer's protestations silenced the crowd. Dragged onto the high gallows by six stern deputy marshals, his knees and boots clunking against each of the thirteen steps, the prisoner rejected the advice of one of the deputies to take it like a man by sitting down and bursting into copious tears. The marshals briefly conferred, then picked him up bodily so Mr. Maledon could slip his carefully tarred rope over Pointer's head and secure the knot under his left ear. Maledon normally tied his client's legs and placed a black bag over the head, but this time he did neither. Pointer was putting up such resistance that he wanted to finish the job as quickly as possible.
Desperately, Pointer got his hands loose and clasped his arms around one of the marshals at just the moment the diminutive hangman sprang the trap, “retarding the felon's fall,” as one reporter described it, “and causing the struggling marshal almost to plunge through with him.”
The newspapers gave wildly different accounts of what happened on the gallows and among the crowd after this point, but the primary fact was not disputed: the man who was to be skillfully ejected into hell at the hour of noon refused to die for forty-three minutesâa record by a good mark, even in the ample history of the Fort Smith gallows.
A half-hour after Johnny Pointer's mortal struggle began, Judge Parker was fetched at a board meeting of the Belle Grove School and asked what should be done about the unfortunate spectacle. His answer, as recorded by one reporter, was, “Let the son of a bâ go all night. You may hire an orchestra for all I care.”
In earlier days, when Parker's court was located in the old officers' quarters of Fort Smith, and his dungeon below it, he held sole appealless jurisdiction for all murder, robbery, assault, and whiskey cases involving whites and non-full bloods in seventy-four thousand square miles of western Arkansas and the Indian Nations. On a number of occasions, Parker had saved the district money by sending two to five men at once to the gallows. New courts lately had been established in the Indian Nations and the white-settled Oklahoma Territory, and Parker's district was now whittled down, his authority shrunk. His cases were now subject to appeal, many were overturned, and Parker himself had gotten into bitter, public disagreements with federal officials over policy and management in the Indian Nations. Influential men in the United States government, including members of the Supreme Court, the solicitor general, the Congress, and the president, all regarded the now white-haired, dropsy-plagued judge as undesirable. In one of his more politic statements on the issue, the solicitor general said that Parker was “overzealous in convictions and executions, particularly of whites and half-breeds who he claims disturb the peace and dignity of the Indian Tribes.” Parker's somewhat less politic response was that “The solicitor general of the United States doesn't seem to be aware of the fact that it is against the law for whites and nontribal members to roam around the Indian Nations confiscating Indian lands, stealing livestock, and killing people. I advise him to read the treaties.”
In 1894, in a fancy new gingerbread-gothic federal building located several blocks away from his old courtroom, Parker still kept up his accustomed schedule, holding court from daylight until dark six days a week. He would retire a little over a year after the Johnny Pointer hanging, with 174 convictions and 160 actual executions or jail deaths, the largest number of any judge in U.S. history, but his more remarkable accomplishment may have been how long he could talk, off the cuff, about disorderliness, drunkenness, murder, theft, rape, and the destruction of the Indian Nations by lawlessness. When delivering the death sentence to Johnny Pointer, he had subjected the poor hangee to the usual long lecture, at the end holding out hope for him that our Lord, whose Court could offer the only appeal, might afford one last chance for eternal mercy to whoever repented his sins and took his punishment humbly.
Johnny Pointer, refusing to die, showed no inclination to follow this advice.
The tone of the newspaper descriptions of his forty-three-minute execution varied from the blackest moral outrage to the most whimsical carnival irony, making it hard to tell what the mood really was. It was noted that a large number of people in the crowd became ill, some with nausea, others with chills and fever and “sudden, catastrophic indigestion.” Most of them did remain throughout the event, despite the increasing cold, the darkening sky, and the rain, which started after noon. A few younger witnesses mocked the hanging man in macabre cavortings around the gallows. This would later result in a peculiar high-kneed, walking dance called the Johnny Pointer, popular among children and teenagers in the border country as late as the 1950s.
The rain wasn't heavy at first, but several of the news stories telegraphed out of Fort Smith that evening noted the ominous weather.
So began the flood of 1894.