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A little murder with your lemonade?

What could be more interesting summer reading than murder stories from the 1800s? This collection of fifty stories cover the earliest years of Arkansas statehood, Civil War atrocities, and a shoot-out on Fayetteville’s town square. All the murders occurred in Washington County Arkansas, a mild-mannered place by any other account.

Here’s just one chapter:

On an icy Wednesday January 24, 1872, in a field on the Rev. Riley Jones’ place near Black Oak in eastern Washington County, two young men set about the task of feeding livestock, Riley’s 21-year-old son James Cornelius ‘Nealy’ Jones and Henry Durham, age unknown. Durham had been taken in by the Jones family and lived there as part of the family.

As young men often do, the two exchanged jokes, lies, and dares as they pitched hay off the wagon. According to later accounts, Jones was ribbing Durham pretty hard about some trivial matter.[1] Before either of them realized how or when, the mood changed. The jokes became insults and the dares became threats.  Biting cold set their teeth on edge as they faced each other. Tempers ignited and before anyone paused to think, Durham charged Jones with the pitchfork. One of the tines pierced his coat and went straight to his heart.

Suddenly young ‘Nealy’ Jones lay dying on the field as Henry stood over him watching in disbelief.

Despite Durham’s efforts to resuscitate him, Jones did not revive. Roused by Durham’s shouts, Riley Jones came running to his dying son. But it was too late. They carried the body inside while someone went for the township constable.

The Reverend Riley Jones and his wife Nancy had arrived in Washington County between 1850 and 1860 to settle near his three younger brothers Clairborne, Enoch, and James Jones, all natives of Hawkins County, Tennessee who had arrived in Washington County some years earlier. The descendants of all four brothers would mingle in county records forever after. [2]

Riley took up residence in the Middle Fork Valley near Carter’s Store. Age fifty-five in 1860, Riley and his wife Nancy Bailey had gained eleven children over the years of their marriage including nine daughters and two sons. The couple had suffered their share of tragedy. One daughter died in infancy. Another daughter Eliza Tabitha died unexpectedly June 21, 1861, six days after giving birth to her fifth child Benjamin Calhoun. Eliza’s husband, Pleasant Riley Jones (probably her first cousin),[3] remained to grieve with their children: Jesse 13, John 11, David 9, and William 7—as well as the newborn Benjamin.

With war breaking out all around, in the summer of 1862, Pleasant joined up with the 1st Cavalry Regiment Arkansas (C.S.A.), leaving his children in the care of Eliza’s parents Riley and Nancy.[4] According to family records, his unit met Union forces November 1 at Cross Hollow. Pleasant was killed in a skirmish on November 29.[5] Also lost that fateful year was Absolom Abraham Jones, the older of the two Jones sons, who died at age 27 while engaged in Civil War combat in Northwest Arkansas.

With the deaths of Eliza and now Pleasant, Eliza’s parents Riley and Nancy Jones became the caretakers of their four orphaned grandchildren. For the next five years, the family suffered the deprivations of continued guerrilla warfare that plagued north Arkansas even after the war ended. But in August 1871, they celebrated the promise of a new marriage when the baby of the family, James Cornelius “Nealy” Jones, joined with Matilda Lewis, the lovely young daughter of George Washington Lewis who operated the Lewis Mill on the Middle Fork of White River.

Now a freak encounter had ended Cornelius’ life. In disbelief, the Reverend Riley Jones controlled his rage and grief as he waited for the constable to remove Henry Durham from the premises.  At least with the murderer in custody, he would gain justice for his son’s premature and tragic death. Finally the constable arrived and took the shaken Henry Durham to the local lock-up.

Call it fate. Call it karma. What happened next would be the only semblance of justice in this case. The next morning, the constable left a young man named Lewis, probably a relative of Matilda, in charge of the prisoner while he went for his breakfast. Sensing an opportunity and facing possible execution by hanging, Henry Durham made a run for it. Ignoring Lewis’ demand to halt, Durham pursued his escape. Prepared with a loaded weapon, Lewis fired, striking Durham with a fatal gunshot.

Research has not discovered whether Henry Durham was in any way connected to the naming of the nearby community of Durham. In fact, the only record of this name other than the few facts noted so far is a listing of his name in the 1869 personal property tax records for Washington County. Of further note, a few versions of the story claim that Henry Durham killed Nealy Jones with a knife rather than a pitchfork. But dead is dead and both men found their end on back-to-back frigid January days.

‘Nealy’ Jones was buried beside his brother Absolom and his sister Eliza at Mt. Zion Cemetery. Henry Durham was buried at Reese Cemetery in an unmarked grave.

Finally, a post script about Matilda Lewis Jones. After only five happy months of married life, the young woman had become a widow. In August 1873, eighteen months after the death of Cornelius, Matilda married again, this time to Cornelius’ cousin William Newton Jones, the son of the Rev. Clairborne Jones, Riley  Jones’ brother. Newton Jones will figure prominently in another murder story in Chapter 21.

An interesting story about Matilda involved a recently freed slave named Mary Ann. At the end of the Civil War, slaveholders were required to release all slaves. The owner of Mary Ann wanted to sell her despite the new law. Seeing the value in a young mixed race girl of about fifteen years at the time, the owner expected to receive a thousand dollars for her.

Hearing of Mary Ann’s fervent wish not to be sold, Matilda’s father George Lewis offered Mary Ann work at his household if she wished to leave her former ‘owner.’ (Some rumors alleged the ‘owner’ was in fact her father. Begetting mixed race children upon slaves was a common practice among some slave owners. The act was seen as ‘bettering’ the negro race.) This intervention of Lewis in facilitating her ‘escape’ caused a permanent rift between him and the former slave’s ‘owner’.

Mary Ann eagerly accepted Mr. Lewis’ offer and the young woman flourished in her new home. About five years later, in January 1874, Mary Ann became sick and died. With travel impossible in the icy weather, Matilda contributed her twice-used wedding dress as a burial shroud for Mary Ann, who was then laid to rest in an unmarked grave at the east end of Reese Cemetery.[6]

Get your copy of Murder in the County at Amazon.com

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[1] Fayetteville Democrat January 27, 1872

[2] More on the Jones family in Appendix of Selected Family Histories, Jones, p 394

[3] Pleasant’s father, John Jones, was born in 1789 at Hawkins County, Tennessee. Eliza’s father Riley Jones was born in 1805 in the same county.

[4] The 1st Cavalry Regiment, Arkansas State Troops (1861), was an Arkansas cavalry regiment during the American Civil War. The regiment was organized at Camp Walker near Harmony Springs, Benton County, Arkansas. The regiment was officially designated as the Third Regiment (Cavalry), Arkansas State Troops by the State Military Board but was designated as the 1st Arkansas Cavalry by Brigadier General Nicholas Bartlett Pearce, Commander, 1st Division, Provisional Army of Arkansas. The regiment is referred to as “Carroll’s Regiment” in contemporary accounts.

[5] Family records may be in error here. A large Confederate encampment at Cross Hollow was left in smoldering ruins before a Union advance in February 1862. With the Battle of Pea Ridge in early March 1862, Confederates retreated south from Benton County. With a death date of November 29, 1862, Pleasant Jones may have died in the run-up to the Battle of Prairie Grove, perhaps in the November 28 Battle of Cane Hill.

[6] Coley, Cheri. “The Rest of the Story…Sort of:” Washington County Arkansas Genealogical Society newsletter June 2005.  http://wcags.org/?page_id=784

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