As you know, for most of the summer I’ve been researching crime in the Indian Territory. I’m nearing the completion of my book and in a matter of a few days I’ll turn it over to the library for indexing. My primary purpose in compiling this information was to give families information about relatives on either side of the law who may have “disappeared” from other records. It’s difficult to find an ancestor on the Oklahoma census if they were serving a life sentence in a prison in Michigan or shot down somewhere in the woods and left to rot! And of course my other reason for doing this was to give readers a sense of the life and times of early residents of this area. When I first came here I only knew of the “civilized” history of Caddo- the merchants and church-going residents, the already established Native Americans, the missionaries. It wasn’t until I began reading about Frank Thurmond and Lottie Deno that I discovered the influence of crime and violence on this area.
As you might imagine, the wild and mostly untamed Indian Territory was a refuge for outlaws, renegades, and miscreants from “the states”. Some of them were professional criminals and spent years robbing and killing and hiding out until they were finally captured, killed, or retired. However, as this project draws to a close I’ve been haunted by another significant conclusion: The majority of criminals who ended up in prison or hanging from the gallows at Fort Smith were ordinary people living ordinary lives…until they made one bad decision.
My book is filled with doctors, farmers, merchants, and cowboys who, in a moment of anger or drunkenness or despair, took the life of someone who stood between them and happiness. And while it’s true that most of them were men, there were also a disturbing number of women…and children. It’s the last group that I find fascinating and the case of two young boys from Kansas is a prime example of how one bad decision can instantly change a life.
Butler and George were two ordinary young men living with their parents in Kansas in 1885. Butler was seventeen and George had just turned fifteen. Their neighbor raised horses and one Sunday, after attending church, Butler and George decided to turn the horses loose and run them across the nearby border into the Indian Territory. George stated in court that they did it “just for fun more than anything else”. The owner of the horses, joined by his brother, pursued them with the intent of “giving them a whipping”. During the confrontation that ensued, George shot the owner, who later died. George was arrested, tried before Judge Parker at Fort Smith, found guilty of manslaughter, and sentenced to three years in prison at the Detroit House of Correction. Yes, that was a prison, not a juvenile facility. It was the same prison where Belle Starr served nine months.
I’m still researching what happened to George after prison, but I can’t imagine that the experience was pleasant for a young farm boy. DeHoCo was a “workhouse” prison and no one lounged around their cell. On the men’s side they had a chair manufacturing facility. (I’m not sure what the women’s wing did- probably laundry and cooking!) George’s saving grace might have been the educational opportunities afforded him in prison. The superintendent of Detroit believed in reform by “work and education”. I’m hoping that as I continue to follow George’s life I’ll find that he took advantage of that.
I can’t read this without thinking about the fact that George was younger than my grandchild. He was probably an ordinary kid. He stated that he often talked with his neighbor on his way to school and he’d never had any trouble with him. He had even been in his home. He went to church that morning. Got together with his friend for a little “fun” that he probably thought was a harmless prank. Butler swore it was the first time they had ever let the horses go. George stated that once inside the Nation they sat down and rested. They didn’t want to go much farther because they didn’t want to be late for the evening church service.
Like most of us George didn’t start his day with the intention of harming anyone. He just let one bad decision change the course of his life.