25 Jun Gun Battle on the Streets of Bentonville
June 5th, 2018 marked the 125th anniversary of one of the most exciting robberies in Bentonville history, that of the People’s Bank on the southwest corner of the square.
Bentonville in 1893 was a small town of 2000 citizens and nearly everyone was employed in the agricultural industry. There were apple orchards as far as the eye could see to the south and west of town, 40,000 acres by 1900. Most importantly for this story is that Bentonville is a mere 23 miles as the crow flies to Maysville, and the safety of Indian Territory. As most people know, the Indian Territory’s only law enforcement were either the United States Indian Police or the US Federal Marshal. It was a vast area unknown to many and an overall good hideout for criminals.
For the reader to get the full effect of the robbery I am going to quote liberally from an article written in 1948 by Clara Kennan, a Bentonville resident early in her life and later a teacher in Little Rock. This fascinating article is from the Arkansas Historical Quarterly and is one of the best accounts I have read. Ms. Kennan interviewed several people that were present that day and some of the children of those involved.
One of the aspects of Henry Starr’s personality was that he preferred to not injure bystanders. He felt that a bank robber could command respect if he only demonstrated that he was very capable of hitting what he shot at. If people understood his mastery of his weapon and his ability to ride, then they would be more likely to stay out of his way. This proved to be to Bentonville’s advantage, in that no one was killed from the town.
From “When Henry Starr Robbed the Bentonville Bank: 1893:”
…The character of Bentonville, on the other hand, is better indicated by the fact that it was only remotely conscious of the goings-on in the (Indian) Territory. As for guns, its citizens used them for hunting squirrels, rabbits, and quail, or at Thanksgiving season for participation in a “shooting match.” Many men owned small revolvers as a sort of a “gentlemen’s piece,” but they seldom used them except sometimes in summer to shoot a mad dog. The county peace officers wore their weapons when court was in session but found it hardly worthwhile to go armed all the time… Bentonville was surrounded by a prosperous region of farmers and fruit growers. In June, 1893, a big crop of strawberries had just been marketed, and despite the Wall Street crash a few weeks earlier, money was plentiful here. So much cash had come into the banks via the merchants recently that the People’s Bank, on the corner of the square, had sent a packet of currency to St. Louis a day or two earlier, though few knew of this. Businesses flourished. And on Saturday nights, merchants, bankers, county officers, and “Colonels” and “Judges” who lived in this Southern-rooted town gathered of Saturday nights to hear the local band play in the band stand at the center of the square.
Though Henry Starr couldn’t have known about the packet of money’s being sent out of town, he must have observed most of the other things about Bentonville. He said later, “I spent a week in that town, planning the robbery, studying the habits of the men in the bank, seeing when they opened it and laid the money out, acquainting myself with every street and alley, store and vacant lot. I rode out over fifteen miles from the bank to the first hills a dozen times and noted every feature on the route. I got acquainted with the town marshal and studied his habits…I located their firearms (in hardware stores) and where they kept their ammunition…I’ll venture to say that after a week in that town I knew it better than any man in it.” (Sounds like a braggart’s boast to me. LLH)
Starr soon left town and returned with six confederates. This time he and one of the six (Frank Cheney) rode ahead of the group in a buggy with Winchester rifles hidden under the seat and their riding horses led behind. The five other members of the gang were Bud Tyler, Hank Watt, Kid Wilson, and “Happy Jack.” Link Cumplin followed on horseback, strung out so as not to attract attention. On their way into town, a couple of “country citizens” came alongside the group, Tom Barr and Ed Holowell. Both of these men were taken along as prisoners because the robbers suspected that they had grown suspicious of the group.
Soon the mounted men had all joined Henry Starr in Bentonville, where he had stopped the buggy in an alley a “long block” south of the bank, between a lumber yard and Brock’s Music House. Here three other men were taken prisoner (William and E.E. Brock and F.F. Dumont). Leaving one of his confederates, “Happy Jack,” there in the alley to take care of the horses and prisoners, Starr and the other five started up the boardwalk toward the bank. The walked single file…and each carried a Winchester rifle in his hand.
The only building in the open space they had to traverse in going to the bank was the plant of the Benton County Sun. There editor H.L. Cross stood in the front door talking to an employee, Miss Maggie Wood. When he became aware of these strange armed men passing by, he exclaimed, ‘My God, they’re going to rob the bank!” They attempted to leave the building but they were blocked by an armed man in the back so they were stuck there for the duration.
One man stopped in the alley between the Sun Office and the bank. Starr and the other four advanced to the bank on the corner. Starr and two others entered the bank. A fourth man (Link Cumplin) mounted the five steps that led to the entrance and in a “stentorian voice” ordered everyone off the streets and followed his order with a shot from his Winchester rifle. Then he exchanged guns with the sixth bandit, who stood on the sidewalk beside the steps with an ammunition bag slung over his shoulder. However, it is doubtful if anyone stayed to see that first exchange of guns. The report of that gun was louder and more ominous than any they had known. Experienced men knew it for a high powered, long range gun used in hunting big game – and men. It didn’t take long to clear the streets.
Henry Starr said later, ‘Scores of people saw us enter and knew us for bandits. Shooting began the moment we entered the bank.’ But for a little while it was Link Cumplin’s shooting only. In fact, Cumplin’s position and demonstration of shooting skill were histrionic. Even the setting was perfect. The door of the bank was in the snubbed off corner of the building, facing the square. Standing on the fifth step which led to the entrance from the sidewalk, he was not only framed by the two white iron pillars which flanked the door, but he was elevated above his surroundings, so that with his gun he commanded the streets on the south and west sides of the square, and the entire square as well. He stood there shooting in the direction of every head that showed, though obviously careful not to hit it. When no head showed, he shot down one side of the square, then exchanged guns and shot down the other side of the square, keeping everyone indoors. For a minute he actually had the whole town at bay, His boldness and skill fascinated the surprised and affronted citizens.”
How did the citizens react to this invasion?
The venerable W.L. Marley, then a young peace officer, wrote me recently, ‘It was as surprising as a sudden clap of thunder. The people of Bentonville…were suddenly face to face with an emergency for which they had made no preparation. They had no guns with which to defend themselves against such desperate intruders. They didn’t know the robber’s strength, they didn’t know which way to turn, and they were without a leader.” But here is what some of them did:
Ben Allison, city marshal, was in town without his gun. He ran home, northeast of the square, got his gun, and, entering the square at the opposite corner from the bank, worked his way into the square, then to the band stand, dodging behind some shelter at moments of greatest danger and dodging out between times to shoot or advance. He is credited with hitting the gunman, with making a dent in one of the iron pillars beside the door, and unhappily with shooting a horse in the hip as it stood hitched beside the square.
Sheriff Pierce Galbraith, sitting unarmed in his office at the courthouse, came out through a window and climbed up on the board fence to see what all the commotion was about. His little son, Hunter, who had been on the bank corner when the bandits came up, came running up to him, telling him what happened. Galbraith and his son ran home, skirting the square on the north and east sides, to get his gun. When he arrived his wife and Clem Williams, one of his deputies, were already in the front yard loading the guns. Realizing they couldn’t afford to walk into the fire of that high powered gun, he and Williams hunted out the robber’s horses, intending to stampeded them with gunfire. When they took up position between the hotel and Dr. Smartt’s, Galbraith’s gun wouldn’t work. Some people say it hadn’t been used in so long it was rusty.
At the courthouse, meanwhile, W.L. Marley was attending JP court. He says that when he heard the robber’s gunshots ‘the loud report of which seemed to carry and spread like wildfire…Getting his revolver, he made his way across the street, where he had a whole block of brick buildings as breastworks. So far, so good. He was joined there by two other citizens, who also had revolvers, the late Joe Peel and Colonel J. Dillard James, who kept a store on the north side of the square. Peeping around the corner of their breastworks, they could see when the gunman was shooting up their way and when he was shooting down the south side of the square. Choosing the latter times, Colonel James worked his way down the west side of the square, dodging into the protection of one store door after another, and firing at the gunman with each advance. He kept advancing until he had covered most of the block, when his bullets evidently began to take effect. He, like Allison, was credited with hitting the gunman and also making a bullet dent in the iron pillar. It was about this time that Cumplin called to the robbers inside the bank to hurry up, that it was getting hot out there.
Taylor Stone, a farmer who happened to be in town, secured a gun and stepped out from Craig’s drug store, across the street east from the bank, with the intention of shooting the man on the steps. But the man stationed in the alley shot Stone in the hip. He fell behind some packing boxes on the street but succeeded in dragging himself into Hamel and Wood’s barber shop nearby, where Drs. T.W. and Charles Hurley dressed his wounds.
Marley, meantime, had gone around the backs of the buildings as Colonel James had progressed down the front. When he arrived at the street across from the bank, he could see the robbers at work inside the bank. It looked like such an easy shot that he fired at them. However, he was shooting at an angle and the plate glass window offered so much resistance that he succeeded only in breaking the window.
By this time, some two or three minutes had elapsed since the robbers entered the bank. Soon Starr and his two allies emerged, marching four bank officials ahead of them as a shield. They were J.G. McAndrew and George P. Jackson, cashier and assistant cashier, and A.W. Dinsmore and I.R. Hall, directors of the bank. The robbers were carrying bags of currency and gold. But Jackson was being forced to carry the heavy sack of silver.
Crumplin was so badly wounded by now that he had to be helped down the street. He and the two men carrying the gold and currency walked ahead and the two others followed as a rear guard, keeping Jackson in line and fighting off citizens. A citizen named Tom Baker had secured a shotgun and fired point blank at the retreating robbers. The shot scattered too much to do much damage, but Jackson, for one, was hit.
The citizens were keeping the two gunmen in the rear pretty busy. Just as the robbers’ procession was passing the Sun office, Miss Maggie Wood, acting on impulse, unlocked the door, reached out and pulled Cashier Jackson in, then shut and locked the door before anyone had time to interfere…Jackson, who was more than six feet tall, had been hit by three birdshot from Baker’s gun. He didn’t know how badly he was hurt. When he got inside the Sun office, he let the bag of silver slip to the floor and let himself be taken to the back room. Miss Wood lifted the bag with much effort and difficulty and carried it upstairs and hid it. Later, it was found to contain about a thousand dollars and the weight was about sixty-five pounds…It was with this money that the bank opened for business the next morning.
After the battle came the pursuit, which was rapid, vigorous, and exciting. At the beginning of the flight F.G. Lindsey ran home for his pistol. As the robbers passed, he fired, seriously injuring one of them… After a skirmish in Decatur in which the robbers were worsted, the sheriff’s posse exhausted their ammunition. Mayor J.B. Patterson and Mr. Grimsley, however, continued to harass the fleeing bandits… until nightfall.
Later, Starr said that Link Cumplin, who had done the spectacular shooting from the bank steps, was almost shot to rags. He said one eye was shot out and an arm through twice, and that he had eight bullet wounds in other places.
Starr met his end in 1921 at the People’s Bank in Harrison, where the former president of the bank obtained a rifle from inside the bank and shot Starr as he filled the money bag. His gang escaped into a waiting car and fled. This is said to be the first bank robbery in the United States in which an automobile was used in the getaway. The robbery was on Friday and Starr lasted until Wednesday before succumbing to his injuries.
The next time you are on the square, look at the Fiamma Restaurant on the corner of Central and Main. That is where the bank was built in 1887. One of the few remnants of the exterior of the original building are the two columns in the front. If you look closely you’ll see a couple of indentations that are likely bullet holes from that gunfight. Look south down Main Street and imagine the walk from the bank door to the horses with gunfire coming from all around. In the back part of the bank was Kit Campbell’s barber shop. Kit was rumored to have hidden in a trash barrel once the shooting started. Then just past that was the Sun office where GP Jackson was rescued. Finally, the corner of Main and SW 2nd where the horses were waiting.
I’m going to let Miss Kennan end this story:
“Bentonville may not have overcome the robbers who came illegally into their town that day. But they didn’t take the intrusion lying down. The quiet, peace-loving Southern-spirited town rose up with what weapons it had at hand and fought the best it could under the circumstances, and the memory of that fight is a high spot in its traditions.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Credit: Kennan, Clara B. “When Henry Starr Robbed the Bentonville Bank: 1893.” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, vol. 7, no. 1, 1948, pp. 68–80. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40026219.