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  • Writer's pictureDennis McCaslin

Arklahoma Heritage: The life and times of "almost famous" Jenny Lind resident Elmer Wayne Mikel

Elmer Wayne Mikel

A man both early in the 20th century in Jenny Lind survived the Great Depression, the Tucker State Prison Farm, a life of petty crime — and some say — a short stint robbing and running with the notorious “Pretty Boy” Floyd before becoming a songwriter and author in his later years. Elmer Wayne Mikel was a unique character in the annals of Arkansas history, born on Oct. 8, 1905, in Jenny Lind as one of 10 children of George Mikel and Amanda Featherston Mikel.

George Mikel, a Missouri native, was active in the United Mine Workers of America and ran as a socialist candidate for governor of Arkansas in 1912. South Sebastian County was a hotbed of Socialist activity in that era affiliated with the United Mine Workers locals in the mining towns. Elmer Mikel attended high school but never graduated. He later wrote that Jenny Lind had “no law” and that, as young man, “all he ever saw or heard about was violence.” Rather than follow his father or brother Lyman Mikel (who became a state senator from Sebastian County) into politics,Elmer became a bootlegger. In 1923, the same year he married Marsha Dodson, with whom he had three children (William, Wanda, and Wayne), he began manufacturing and selling illegal liquor in Oklahoma, not far from Fort Smith.

"Ma" Barker

While bootlegging, Mikel claimed to have met criminals Ma Barker, Pearl Starr and Clyde Barrow (though, to his knowledge, he never met Bonnie Parker). In January 1931, Mikel was arrested for bootlegging. He was sentenced to five years at the state penitentiary in Little Rock (Pulaski County), commonly known as “the Walls,” but he was released after nine months. Mikel went back to crime, committing a string of robberies. Mikel claimed to have helped notorious criminal Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd rob a bank in Kansas. He also wrote of attending Floyd’s funeral in Oklahoma, for which tens of thousands of people turned out. ikel expanded his criminal activities to include stealing cars and cracking safes. In Little Rock, he was arrested again, this time for robbery. Mikel made bail, joined a gang, and soon was arrested yet again for burglary. In the spring of 1933, Mikel was sent to Tucker State Prison Farm, where he would be eld until late 1934. Mikel called Tucker a “hell hole,” but his time was not as horrific as it was for others.

His political connections through his brother likely won him preferential treatment. Mikel worked in the identification office, where new inmates were finger-printed and photographed. The job freed him from brutal field work on the “long line.” A bad infection almost cost him his leg, but Mikel recovered and was made a trustee. He sometimes worked as a driver, which allowed him to visit the women’s prison at Jacksonville where he met Helen Spence, the “Shanty Boat Girl” famous for having shot her father’s killer in court. Although he was married, Mikel fell in love with Spence, whom he called his girlfriend. Mikel was paroled in January 1935. He returned to his family and operated a tavern in Rogers. In the 1940s, Mikel moved with his family to California. He wanted to enlist after the outbreak of World War II but was denied entry into the military because he was an ex-convict. He worked instead for the Consolidated Aircraft Company in San Diego during the war. In 1968, at the height of the investigations and scandals surrounding conditions at Arkansas prisons, Mikel wrote to controversial superintendent Tom Murton and Governor Winthrop Rockefeller about the abuses he saw at Tucker prison in the 1930’s. Mikel’s description of Tucker confirms the horrors described by other inmates, including inhumane living conditions, inedible food, whippings, shootings, and corruption within the prison. Mikel claimed that 1933 was an especially bad year, with the killing of prisoners being commonplace.

In 1970, Mikel wrote and self-published "Uncle Tom’s Prison", which recounted his life as a criminal and prisoner, and issued an album of the same name with his musical collaborator Glenn R. Arters. Mikel’s songs were written in the American folk/protest style and sung by Toby Pollock. In 1975, Mikel released “Jenny Lind,” a song about his hometown in Arkansas and “Greenwood Tornado,” a song about the destructive tornado of April 1968; both were sung by Lee Richards.

Mikel circa 1974

The next year, in honor of the nation’s bicentennial, Mikel released the songs “Give Me Back My America” and “Is This My America.”

A few years later, Mikel returned to Arkansas from California to work on a book about Bonnie and Clyde, writing the story in the same “tourist court” room on Midland Boulevard in Fort Smith where the pair had once recuperated from a car crash.

Mikel died on April 16, 1988, in Los Angeles, California. No record has been located of where Mikel was buried at the time of his death.

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