“Honor is due to all who participated in the shooting.” Community Defense in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, 27 September 1922.

Sipsey Street Irregulars

Eureka Springs, Arkansas, A modern view of the street where five bank robbers met up with the armed citizenry in 1922.

I found the following true story of community self-defense in a 1970 edition of A Fame Not Easily Forgotten that I picked up at the thrift store for $.98. This slim volume contains many stories of the community of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, including that of its one-time mayor and most prominent and colorful citizen named (and I kid you not) Festus Orestes Butt. But the excerpt I present below is an interesting anecdote of community defense.  

Left to Right: Ernest Jordan, Jesse Littrell, Joe McKinney, Sheriff Ed McShane, Constable Homer Brittain, Sam Harmon, and Robert Bowman.

It was almost eleven on a quiet autumn morning, September 22, 1922, when five strangers drove into downtown Eureka Springs in an open Model T Ford touring car. The men had spent the previous night camped out on Leatherwood Creek just west of town and made their final plans as to how they would go about holding up one of the banks in Eureka Springs.

Of the men, Charles and George Price were brothers from Sallisaw, Oklahoma. The two of them, along with Si Wilson of the town of Cookson in that state, were a part of the Henry Starr gang which had broken up a short time after Starr’s death in a robbery attempt in Harrison. These three were wanted by the Oklahoma authorities for robbing the Muldrow Bank and were also suspected of a robbery at Everton, Arkansas. The Prices and Wilson looked up two old friends, Mark Hendricks of Parkhill and John Cowan of Tahlequah, persuaded them to come along and set out for Arkansas to keep out of the way of Oklahoma police.

Apparently John Cowan was driving the car and would later act as a lookout while the holdup took place. Cowan parked the vehicle on Spring Street, headed downhill, and just a few doors below the First National Bank building. The other four stepped out and went quickly into the bank, leaving one man, Wilson, near the door to cover them.

It had been a busy morning for the five employees of the bank and when the bandits arrived they were seeing to the wants of four customers. According to the statement given by the cashier, E.T. Smith, later in the day, the men were not masked and at first displayed no weapons. Smith had the presence of mind to step on the burglar alarm button concealed in the floor near his desk as the four men pulled their guns and herded all of the nine patrons and employees into a back room of the building. An assistant cashier, F.M. Sawyer, also stepped on an alarm button near him without being noticed by any of the bandits. The men worked quickly and efficiently, talking little, as they gathered up $60,000 in Liberty bonds and $10,000 in cash, stuffing it into sacks.

Suddenly the man at the door noticed their car start down the street and realized that something had gone wrong. None of the bandits had heard the alarm bells activated by Smith and Sawyer which sounded in four nearby business houses, the Basin Park Hotel, and the Bank of Eureka Springs. As men from these places began to run out into the street Cowan had seen them and evidently fearing only for his own safety tried to flee in the getaway car.

The cashier, G.E. Burson, at the Bank of Eureka Springs, less than a block away, stepped out the door, gun in hand. Seeing the car pulling away in a hurry, Burson fired at the driver, wounding him in the arm. Cowan managed to drive as far as the Basin Spring before two shots fired by citizens Jesse Littrell and Sam Harmon caused him to lose control of the car, smashing into a power pole on the east side of Spring Street.

Ernie Jordan was working at the repair bench in his jewelry store when the disturbance began. He also kept a pistol close at hand and grabbing it he ran out into the street in time to see Wilson, with a drawn gun, step away from the doorway of the bank. Jordan immediately fired at Wilson, who fell dead in the street. An attorney, Joe McKinney, also shot Wilson from an upstairs window over the bank where he had his office. In the confusion it was never determined who had actually fired the shot that killed Wilson.

Inside the bank the Prices and Hendricks had the loot in hand and were preparing to take Smith and Sawyer with them as hostages to assure their safe getaway. At that moment Robert Bowman, the desk clerk from the Basin Park Hotel and Claude Arbuckle, who had been chatting with him when the alarm sounded, dashed into the bank building, Bowman carrying a .45 pistol. The three bandits immediately forced them to put up their hands, then rushed out of the door with Sawyer and Smith between the two fo them. Jordan, not realizing what was happening inside the building, ran to Wilson to examine him and was met by the three bandits and their hostages. One of the armed men shot point blank at Jordan as they ran across the street toward a stairway between two buildings which would take them down to Center Street. Jordan, despite powder burns to his eyes, fired several more times, as did other men coming from both directions as well as those leaning out of upstairs office windows.

Seeing the confusion of the bandits, Smith and Sawyer jerked free and fell to the street where they stayed unharmed until the shooting ended.

Constable Homer Brittain arrived upon the scene just in time to find himself caught between Charles Price and Mark Hendricks, who had reached the bottom of the steps, and George Price, still on the upper street level. Brittain crouched low, firing in both directions. As the shooting continued George Price slumped over the railing at the top of the steps, fatally wounded. His brother Charles also fell to the ground having sustained near fatal wounds, and Hendricks, also seriously wounded, gave up the battle. Throwing away his gun he slumped down on the steps and waited to be captured. The five men were carried a short distance to Huntington Hospital, at the foot of Pine street, where they were attended by Doctors Pace, Bolton, and Albert Tatman.

Si Wilson was dead with eight bullets in his body. George Price had sustained only one wound, in the chest, but the bullet had taken his life. His brother Charles Price, was seen to be dying of stomach wounds though he lived for four more days. Mark Hendricks received two wounds, both from a shotgun, but neither was serious enough to end his life, and John Cowan, who had tried to flee from the scene, was wounded twice in the arm and leg. . .

Spoils of war: Eureka Springs citizens pose with bank robbers’ getaway car.

Cowan and Hendricks survived the ill-fated robbery attempt and were lodged in jail until the following February when they were tried and convicted for bank robbery. Just twenty-one years old, Hendricks was sentenced to three years in prison, but Cowan, because of his past record, received a sentence of ten years imprisonment.

So ended what proved to be the bloodiest and most disastrous criminal act in the history of Eureka Springs . . .except for the aftermath of publicity which was picked up by newspapers all over the United States and reached ridiculous heights of praise and honor bestowed on the community and its citizens.

Six young men were given the credit for having “killed on and mortally wounded two others.” They were Ernest Jordan, Constable Homer Brittain, Joe McKinney, Jesse Littrell, Robert Bowman and Sam Harmon Though all six owned and kept at hand in their places of business either hand pistols or shotguns, not one of them had ever seriously considered an eventuality which would necessitate their use against another human being. After having reacted courageously to the necessity of stopping a criminal act and protecting themselves from the actions of desperate men, they found themselves subjected to an embarrassing barrage of publicity. Newspaper reports on the local scene used words like “honor,” and “glory,” and begged to be forgiven if each man were not allowed sufficient “credit” for the deaths of the robbers in their news coverage of the event.

The Daily Times Echo of October 2, 1922, in an article entitled “Our Heroes” enumerated each of the six men in turn, pointing out qualities of their character and past life which had enabled them to make such a fine showing against evil men. Said the writer of this editorial:

“To be unpopular in Eureka Springs is to express sympathy for the robbers who were killed or wounded last week, when they attempted to loot the First National Bank. Man or woman who express themselves in this vein are looked upon by the loyal citizens and friends of our heroes as German sympathizers were during the great World War.” The reporter concluded, “We imagine it will be difficult to tell just who fired the fatal shots. Nevertheless honor is due to all who participated in the shooting.”

Forget Texas. Don’t mess with Arkansas. He came for the money and ended up buying the farm. Si Wilson after his encounter with the good citizens of Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

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One thought on ““Honor is due to all who participated in the shooting.” Community Defense in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, 27 September 1922.

  1. Google Santa Claus bank robbery, Cisco Texas in the late 1920’s. The county citizens hanged Santa Claus…

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