The Arkansas Raid on Island 37, Tennessee
by Richard S. Daniels (( *The author is working toward a master’s degree in history at Memphis State University. He is assistant administrative engineer, Division of Public Works, at Memphis. ))
BLIND TIGERS AND BLIND JUSTICE: THE ARKANSAS RAID ON ISLAND 37, TENNESSEE: The Mississippi River has wound its way through the heart of America for countless years, and its path has changed with the imperceptible ease of the river’s own movement. Island 37, located about thirty-five miles north of Memphis, was changed dramatically by the Mississippi, and the story that unfolded there in 1915 had nearly as many shifts in direction as the river itself.
Although this island was called Devil’s Elbow by the early settlers, the name (or number) that stuck was given by a federal survey that simply numbered the islands of the river in consecutive order. A writer of that time compared the island and its numeric designation to “a convicts who dons stripes and has a number assigned him in the place of his name.” (( W. L. Owen, “A Short History of Island 37,” Memphis, Tennessee Commercial Appeal, August 29, 1915, p. 12. ))
In the beginning, the Mississippi River made a great bend around Island 37. The main channel turned west from its normal southerly flow and followed a course that left Tennessee with a peninsula in the shape of a horseshoe, or elbow. The circumference of this projection was twenty-two miles, although the distance across the open end of this “horseshoe” was only two miles. On March 7, 1876, the river found the power to cut through the narrow land mass, thus avoiding the longer circumferential journey. (( Part of Island 37 was also separated that day, resulting in the formation of appropriately named Centennial Island. )) The flow was so strong, in fact, that within thirty hours a steamboat safely crossed on its way up the Mississippi. Hence, part of Tipton County, Tennessee, had been cut off from the mainland and had come to rest against the Arkansas banks.
Disputes quickly arose as to the boundary line between Tennessee and Arkansas, litigation eventually reaching the Tennessee Supreme Court in State v. Muncie Pulp Co. As Tennessee came from territory belonging to Great Britain, and Arkansas was a part of the Louisiana Purchase, the court ruled that the boundary disputes would be settled by determining the course of the river in 1763. At that time a treaty was signed between England, France, and Spain which stated that the middle of the main channel of the Mississippi River was to be the dividing line between the possessions of France and England on the continent of North America.
The Blind Tigers
Quarrels over jurisdiction quickly followed the boundary disputes. Sometime in 1911 “blind tigers,” or dives, began to appear on the island. Blind tigers was the colorful name given to locations used to sell bootleg whiskey. (( The origin of this term is uncertain. It could refer to the physical condition of customers upon leaving. Or it might have something to do with the fact that these locations were usually approached at night in cars with the headlights off. Another explanation is that it combines the “blind” of the duck hunter’s undetectable site, with the “tiger” potion referring to either the contents of the inhabitants. )) For four years criminals on the island had avoided capture by Arkansas authorities by protesting that they were citizen of Tennessee. At the same time, they had little fear of Tennessee raids because of the compound problem facing the Tipton County lawmen. In addition to the difficulty in navigating the forty miles from Covington across the Mississippi to Island 37, there was a funding problem associated with making the raids. The cost of such an expedition could range from thirty-five to fifty dollars. In order to be reimbursed by the state or county for the expense of these trips, the sheriff had to make arrests. Most of the raids that wee made were unsuccessful, as the outlaws were normally “tipped off” and had their joints closed.
In an effort to close the legal loophole, “Arkansas passed a bill which provided that Tennessee was to have jurisdiction to the western banks of the Mississippi River, the same to take effect when Tennessee passed a similar bill, giving Arkansas jurisdiction to the eastern shores of the river”. (( Owen, “A Short History of Island 37,” Commercial Appeal, August 29, 1915, p. 12. )) When the Tennessee legislature finally passed such an act, each state appeared to have criminal jurisdiction over the island. Acting on this belief, Sheriff Sam Mauldin of Mississippi County, Arkansas (from where the island could be reached overland), organized a force and raided Island 37 in the early morning hours of July 31, 1915.
A few weeks before, a deputy sent from Tipton County was killed from ambush by Bob Kenton, who was arrested but later turned loose on a $1,500 bond by Tennessee officials. Arkansas had also lost deputies on the island and feeling was high there that some Tennessee officers were in league with Andy Crum, the thirty-five-year-old leader of the outlaws and owner of more than 400 acres of Island 37. (( There was a report from Osceola stating that Crum had shot and killed a man named Wells two months earlier. The story further stated that, “It is known to be a fact that both of these men were deputy sheriffs of Tipton County, Tenn. The killing was brought about on account of each of the said men having a warrant for the arrest of the other.” “Arkansans Protest,” ibid., August 3, 1915, p. 6. )) Reportedly, Crum had sent word to the Mississippi County lawmen to stay off the island – adding that he would never be taken alive.
Circuit Judge W. J. Driver of Mississippi County had asked Sheriff Mauldin “to deputize enough men to go there and take the place, regardless of the cost.” (( Ibid., August 1, 1915, p. 3. )) With this fateful charge Mauldin left Blytheville with a detachment of the state militia under the command of Major Curtis J. Little. After first attacking a dive owned by S E Patterson, the raiding by a volley of bullets from high-powered rifles manned by Bert Spring, (( The name of this man appears most frequently as Spring, but also as Springs, Springer, and even King. )) a black employee of Crum, two other black men, and Spring’s female companion. Reports circulated shortly afterward had Spring confessing that he “was left in charge of Andy Crum’s dive, armed to the teeth and with instructions to shoot and kill any and every officer that put his foot on the island.” (( “Lynching is Averted,” Commercial Appeal, August 2, 1915, p. 1. ))
Sheriff Mauldin had been in office about a year and had promised when elected to uphold the law or “die trying”. When leading raids on gambling or whiskey dives, he was supposedly always in the lead. What happened to the sheriff at the blind tiger of Andy Crum was reported in different manners. One story stated that, “Sheriff Mauldin, against the advice of his deputies…. entered the house…. He was shot through the heart the moment he entered.” (( “Island 37 Swept by Fire Following the Killing of Sheriff,” ibid., August 1, 1915, p. 1. )) Another said, “Mr. Mauldin advanced to the front of the house to open the door, and when he did so he was shot.” (( “Citizens Aroused,” ibid. )) And in yet another account can be found, “Sheriff Mauldin, while passing the front door, was shot by the negro, Bert Spring. he died almost instantly.” (( “Gang’s Leader Caught,” ibid., p. 3. ))
At this point, the militia opened fire and completely riddled the cabin. After a brisk exchange, someone inside signaled a surrender. Spring was captured “mortally wounded”. Feelings were that, even if he lived, he would probably be lynched. Bert Spring was not lynched, but he had to be removed from Osceola to Marion for safekeeping. Although he seemed to be recovering, based on reports of Dr. W. B. Jamison, Spring died of his wounds ten days later, a coroner’s inquest ruling that he died from blood poisoning caused by gunshot wounds. Before dying he denied being given instructions by Andy Crum to shoot any officers, and stated that he was not working for Crum.
Andy Crum was not able to avoid a lynching – at least, not for very long. Reports had it that, after hearing of Sheriff Mauldin’s slaying, 300 men had gone to Island 37 and burned everything in sight. Major Curtis J. Little, in charge of the militia, made the following statement defending the action of his troops:
From reports printed in the different dailies, it seems that all of the property, without regard to ownership or use on the island, was wantonly destroyed by officers and others, and that the soldiers and the officers did not do their duty toward protecting life and property.
I want to say that this is not true.
With the exception of four of the outlaws who had to be shot before they could be taken, no one was hurt further than was justified by conditions we were confronted with, and after their capture civilians tried to shoot them, and we protected them, even to the extent of threatening to shoot the first man who shot one of them. Every effort was made to avoid mob violence…
There were positively no houses burned on this island, except blind tigers and block houses, apparently built for the purpose of protection from officers. (( “Arkansas Islanders Protest Innocence,” ibid., August 3, 1915, p. 6. ))
Crum allegedly was in Memphis at the time of the murder. He was finally caught the afternoon of July 31, hiding in one of Island 37’s many cotton fields. A shooting chase followed but Crum finally gave up, begging his captors to protect him from a mob that was quickly forming. A crowd of more than 5,000 eventually surrounded the Osceola jail, where he was taken.
Judge Driver is credited with averting a lynching at this point, as he rushed Crum and other prisoners away for their safety. (( Different versions had Crum being taken to either Jonesboro or Marion, but he ended up shortly at the latter. A possible explanation for this seeming confusion is that an erroneous destination was “leaked” to throw off the pursuers in the mob – and the press picked up the information as well. )) A report from Marion on August 2 in discussing the claimed innocence of Crum and Bob Kenton stated, “Both men seemed to fear mob violence, and said they were glad they had been removed from the jail at Osceola. They prefer being taken to Little Rock.” (( 2 White Men Deny Any Part in Killing,” Little Rock Arkansas Gazette, August 3, 1915, p. 10. )) The judge had indeed acted wisely, as the mob at Osceola eventually forced its way into the jail there, only to find it empty.
From this point, the battle scene shifted to the courts as justice was given a chance. Deputy Sheriff J. S. McClanahan and Deputy T. J. Scott of Tipton County made a formal demand on August 1 for the prisoners to be turned over to Tennessee. Guy Swift, coroner and acting sheriff of Mississipi County, refused to turn over the prisoners and, after conferring with Judge Driver by telephone, refused the Tennessee authorities permission to even enter the jail and see the prisoners.
A series of recriminations followed by both states. Arkansas officers expressed the opinion that “the prisoners would be treated too leniently in Tennessee. They declare[d] the law giving Arkansas and Tennessee concurrent jurisdiction over the island gave Arkansas the right to prosecute the men.” (( “Prepared for Attack from Tennesseans,” ibid., August 14, 1915, p. 1. )) Judge Driver was quoted as saying, “Tipton County has long held the power to go to these islands and bring justice to this band. But after Mississippi County has spent the life of her sheriff and has run the risk of having her deputies foully murdered, Tipton County steps in and asks that they be turned over to her.” (( “Lynching is Averted,” Commercial Appeal, August 2, 1915, p. 1. ))
According to the Tennessee lawmen, Tipton County Sheriff B. E. White had written to Sheriff Mauldin volunteering to assist in blind tiger raids, but was not informed of the raid in which Mauldin met his death. In protest to the accusations that they had “looked the other way,” the Tennesseeans noted that Andy Crum and others had been indicted by Tipton County grand juries and were out on bond when arrested by the Arkansas authorities. Also pointed out was the fact that J. D. McClanahan, uncle of the acting sheriff, and Tipton County’s representative to the state legislature, was the man who had engineered the passage of the joint jurisdiction bill in Tennessee. ((“Island Citizens May Apply to U.S. Courts,” ibid., August 4, 1915, p. 4. ))
A Memphis attorney, John C. Chason, was retained as counsel by Andy Crum. According to Chason, who was reputed to be an authority on the boundary issue, the federal courts would be asked to settle the question of jurisdiction. (( Chason did not go very far with the legal proceedings, as he was met at the Osceola train depot with a warrant. Apparently Mr. Chason had written a “hot” check while in Osceola the previous December. Arrested, tried, convicted and find $250 in the same day, he was jailed that night when the fine was not paid. “Memphis Lawyer Jailed,” ibid., August 6, 1915, p. 3. )) Other attorneys representing the Island 37 prisoners were Colonel John A. Tipton of Covington, State Senator Clyde Going, C. P. Boals, and Homer Sewell of Memphis. Going had applied for a writ of habeas corpus to Judge Frank A. Youmans of the Crum and the others should properly be tried in Tennessee since Island 37 was a part of that state. Judge Youmans refused to issue the writ, but the news did not reach Osceola until after Crum’s lynching.
According to the Arkansas Secretary of State Earl W. Hodges, who had been dispatched to Osceola, the main reason for the lynching was the fear on the part of the people living in the vicinity of Island 37
that if Crum were transferred to Tennessee, he would escape unpunished, or with a light punishment. The people in that section have suffered much from Crum and his companions. For years he has sold liquor and operated negro dives on Island 37, in defiance of all law. The murder of Sheriff Mauldin aroused feeling to a high pitch. Still there would have been no violence had it not been for the fear that the case would be taken into the United States courts. (( “Prepared for Attack from Tennesseeans,” Arkansas Gazette, August 14, 1915, p. 1. ))
Whatever the legal questions were, a group of men with their own answers decided that the death of Sheriff Mauldin would not go unavenged. Bert Spring, the man accused of actually killing the sheriff, had died in his cell at Marion. This mob wanted to make sure that Andy Crum, the central figure in the whole incident, “got what was coming to him.”
There is a considerable amount of disagreement on just how many men were in this group. The Arkansas Gazette states throughout its coverage of the event that there were “six unmasked men.” More detailed accounts in the Commercial Appeal, including interviews with a deuty sheriff and the two jailers, place the number somewhere between twelve and fifteen, some masked and some not masked. The lynching occurred while Judge Driver was on a fishing trip and the majority of the town was watching the Osceola baseball club whip Blytheville four to one.
Secretary of State Hodges again supplied an explanation: “The jail is situated in the old town, along the banks of the Mississippi river. The new part of the town is a mile or so away, and that accounts for the fact that help did not come to the men guarding the jail.” ((“Earl Hodges in Osceola,” ibid., August 13, 1915, p. 1. ))
The reconstruction of the lynching that follows is pieced together from accounts in both papers and should be a reasonably accurate description of the affair. Someone in the mob first called the sheriff’s office stating he had a prisoner to place in the jail. The jailer, A. J. Huckaby, met the group at the courthouse, which was about 100 feet from the jail. Here he was overpowered and his keys were taken after an abortive attempt to throw them through a window into a field of weeds. A second jailer was overpowered at the door to the jail itself.
The mob found Crum on the second floor of the jail, hiding in his cell under a pile of quilts. Accounts of the shooting vary according to interviews with various prisoners in the jail at the time, some who may have seen what happened and others who may have only heard. They are as follows:
The men forced a negro prisoner to point out Crum and then fired seven shots into his body…. (( “Prisoner Shot and Killed in Osceola Jail,” ibid. ))
While several members of the mob remained guard over Mr. Huckaby, the rest of said mob entered the jail and proceeded to call for Crum to come out of his cell. To their call he made no response. They then went close up to the bars and proceeded to shoot him to death…. he was shot nine times. (( “Precautions Fail,” Commercial Appeal, August 13, 1915, p. 3. ))
Some of the prisoners state that Crum began begging for his life, and with this some eight or ten shots were fired into his body, eight of them taking effect. (( “Andy Crum Shot to His Death by Mob in Osceola Jail,” ibid., p. 1. ))
An inquest was held over Crum’s body on Friday, August 13, but the coroner’s jury fixed no responsibility for the lynching. A letter to the Commercial Appeal written from Osceola that same ominous Friday states:
the manner in which the law is administered in Memphis and the State of Tennessee had much to do with the execution of Crum.
We believe that if Crum ever got into the hands of Tennessee he would escape the penalty on some narrowness or technicality of the law, and we did not propose taking any chances with the result, which every one now knows.
I know where of I speak because I was one of the leaders of the Executioners of Crum (( Letter to the Editor, ibid., August 15, 1915, p. 8. ))
Shortly after the lynching, rumors spread that a group of Tennesseeans were preparing to liberate the remaining prisoners. The Arkansas Gazette reported from Osceola,
Late this afternoon [August 13] the captain of a steamboat that touched here reported he had seen a ferry containing seven automobiles filled with armed men crossing the river from the Tennessee shore. All day the town had been filled with strangers, many of whom were known to be from Tennessee. It was reported that a large number of these men had congregated on the bank some distance up the river as though they were expecting reinforcements from the Tennessee side. ((“Prepared for Attack from Tennesseeans,” Arkansas Gazette, August 14, 1915, p. 1. ))
It was not altogether unreasonable that such a reaction could have been expected from across the river since newspapers in both states, as early as August 2, had mentioned that the presence in the raiding party of “Arkansas militiamen in uniform is said by Tennesseeans to have further complicated a delicate situation.” (( “Tennessee Demands Island Prisoners,” ibid., August 2, 1915, p. 1. An identical account appears in “Two States Claim Island Outlaws,” Commercial Appeal, August 2, 1915, p. 1. )) A lame excuse appeared in the Commercial Appeal the following day quoting an unidentified source as saying, “The men wearing military clothes during this raid were acting in the capacity of citizens of Mississippi County, being deputized by her sheriff, and not as the state militia.” (( “Arkansans Protest,” Commercial Appeal, August 3, 1915, p. 6. )) In addition to the rumor of an invasion, there was also speculation that Tipton County authorities might issue warrants “charging all those who are known to have been in the raid on the island with arson and assault to murder.” (( “Island Citizens May Apply to U. S. Courts,” ibid., August 4, 1915, p. 4. ))
Regardless of the substance to these stories, the officials of Osceola called for help. The town immediately became an armed camp as Governor George W. Hays ordered the Blytheville company of the Arkansas National Guard to protect the prisoners. The expected Tennesseeans never appeared, the Arkansans claiming their show of strength had scared them off. At any rate, while the grand jury was deliberating the fate of the “surviving” twenty-six prisoners, a company of militiamen and 100 deputized citizens “picketed four square blocks around the courthouse.” (( “Osceola Resembles Town in War Zone,” Arkansas Gazette, August 15, 1915, p. 17. ))
Fines of $78,500 and prison terms totaling eight years and 170 days were imposed on the bootleggers and gamblers. Dave Hearne, Crum’s bartender, and brothers Bob and T. F. Kenton, were ordered to stand trial for complicity in the killing of Sheriff Mauldin. Judge Driver ruled on August 28 that the court had failed to make a case against the Kenton brothers. The jury found Hearne guilty, however, and he was sentenced to twenty-one years in the Arkansas penitentiary.
The incidents surrounding Island 37 should neither be forgiven nor forgotten. There is a tendency for each generation to rewrite history with its own values, but viewing the events of 1915 with a current perspective is not entirely fair. The newspapers of that time were replete with lynching accounts.
Although the number of lynchings in the United States had been declining, 1915 could statistically be dubbed the Year of Lynching. From 1890 to 1899 there were 1,665 lynchings; from 1900 to 1909 there were 921; from 1910 to 1919 there were 840; and from 1920 to 1927 there were only 304. (( Walter Francis White, Rope and Faggot (1919; reprint, New York, 1969), 19. )) During the decade beginning in 1910 well-organized efforts to curb lynchings were first begun on a national level. However, in 1915, the number of persons lynched jumped inexplicably to 145, nearly double that of the year before. The table below clearly illustrates the surge in 1915.
|Lynchings||90||80||89||86||74||145||72||54||67||83 (( These statistics were arrived at by comparing the NAACP study for the years 1889-1918 and the figures in the World Almanac and Book of Facts, 1927, prepared by Monroe N. Work of Tuskegee Institute, covering the period 1885-1925. Ibid., 231. ))|
As a state Arkansas trailed only Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama in the number of lynchings occurring within her borders. Erle Fiske Young, of the University of Southern California, tabulated lynchings over a thirty-year period in the South and found that the rate of lynchings varied inversely with the populousness of the counties. According to Professor Young, a high incidence of lynchings could be expected in rural Arkansas counties. (( Erle Riske Young, “The Relation of Lynching to the Size of Political Areas,” in Sociology and Social Research, XII (March-April 1928), 348-353. ))
Mississippi County was to prove in January 1921 that it was indeed a likely place for this sort of activity. On Christmas Day 1920 Henry Lowry of Nodena shot and killed his landlord and the landlord’s daughter. The fact that Lowry was black overshadowed the fact that he had been cursed and struck by the landlord and shot by the landlord’s son prior to firing his own gun. Lowry was arrested in Texas, but the two officers sent to bring him back decided on a return route through New Orleans and Mississippi.
Waiting for the officers in Sardis, Mississippi, was part of a mob that took control of the prisoner – the other members were dining at the fashionable Peabody Hotel in Memphis. The newspapers were informed as to the details of the imminent lynching in Arkansas; and Ralph Roddy, a reporter from the Memphis Press, attended the event along with more than 500 other persons. Mississippi County Sheriff Dewight H. Blackwood, who had served as a pallbearer at the funeral of Sheriff Mauldin, was quoted by the Press that “Nearly every man, woman and child in our county wanted the Negro lynched. When public sentiment is that way, there isn’t much chance left for the officers….” (( White, Rope and Faggot, 23-25. ))
Throughout the South, not just in Arkansas, the institution of lynching had become a socially acceptable form of violence since the Civil War. An alleged sex-offender in nearby Memphis was burned at the stake under the gaze of fifteen thousand men, women, and little children. (( William D. Miller, Memphis During the Progressive Era, 1900-1917 (Memphis 1957), 191-195. )) In addition to seeming wide-spread indifference to lynchings, people’s minds were occupied with the results of World War I, a border war with Mexico and, closer to home, the hotly-contested Bilbo-Reilly gubernatorial race in Mississippi. It thus becomes understandable how the manner in which “justice” was dispensed could have been countenanced by the public during the period. (( In a chronological list of persons lynched from 1899 to 1918, arranged by states, Andy Crum’s name does not appear with the three other persons lynched in Arkansas in 1915. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1918 (New York, 1919). 51. )) After all, the island was cleaned up. About 200 gallons of whiskey and several casks of beer were destroyed along with every house that looked the least bit suspicious.
A visit to the island today reveals it to be almost entirely covered with cotton and soybeans. Houses number fewer than a dozen. Charles Reynolds, a seventy-four-year-old resident, pointed out a stump that obviously once supported a huge sycamore tree in which “lookouts were posted by the outlaws.” (( According to Reynolds, his father-in-law was a not infrequent inhabitant of that tree. Interview with Charles Reynolds, Island 37, Tennessee, October 22, 1977. ))
The only other items of note on the island are the Barrow family cemetery and an iron mule-towed grader abandoned by the United States Corps of Engineers sometime in the 1940s. There are no blind tigers. They were all captured in 1915 and never did return to Island 37.
Daniels, R. (1979). Blind Tigers and Blind Justice: The Arkansas Raid on Island 37, Tennessee. The Arkansas Historical Quarterly,38(3), 259-270. doi:10.2307/40023977