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  • Writer's pictureDennis McCaslin

Cookson Hills bank robber wanted by the FBI met his demise in Arkoma roadhouse on March 3, 1934

An Oklahoma Depression-era outlaw, who was actually more successful in his bank robbing antics than his Cookson Hill counterpart Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd, suffers from the lack of a colorful nickname and the fact that he died young in a shootout in an Arkoma roadhouse when it comes to fame and fortune in the annals of Oklahoma outlaws..

Ford Allen Bradshaw the one-time leader of the Cookson Hills Gang and a partner of Wilber Underhill and Charlie Cotner, was wanted for numerous bank robberies in Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and Nebraska, and suspected of four murders.

Born in Oklahoma, Indian Territory in 1906, Bradshaw was part of a family that lived in and around Vian in Sequoyah County. Historical data suggests the family lived in an area about five miles north of present day Vian.

A card-carrying member of the Dawes Roll that enumerated the native American families of that era, Bradshaw was the youngest of four children born to James "Jim" and Mary (Sanders) Bradshaw. By all accounts, the Bradshaw family consisted of farmers and small ranch owners in the area.

Somewhere along the way, Ford Bradshaw decided working the land wasn't his calling and he went into the bank robbing business. Terrorizing much of the midwest from 1928 until his death at 26 in 1934, Bradshaw's path would cross with Floyd's but the murderous bank robbers preying on the same stomping grounds were described as "friendly rivals" during their heyday.

Bradshaw was doomed by history to remain in the shadow of Floyd partly because the former stuck to low-profile targets in small towns throughout Oklahoma and the latter went after bigger scores in cities like St. Louis, Akron, and Kansas City.

And while Floyd's name has endured as the quintessential example of Oklahoma outlaws of the time period, the legacy of small town bank raids committed by Bradshaw --and the money taken in those robberies -- far exceeded the exploits of Floyd during his criminal career.

Bradshaw, who was born in Grady County in 1908, pulled off his biggest bank job on November 2, 1933, when he and his gang successfully stole $13,000 from a bank in Okmulgee.

Five days later, Bradshaw robbed a bank of $11,238 with Newton Clayton and Jim Benge in Henryetta on November 7, 1933, a heist that would be mistakenly attributed to Floyd, George Birdwell and Aussie Elliott the next year.

The gang also contained Bradshaw's half-brother, Tom “Skeet” Bradshaw (aka "Skeet" Atkins).

Wilbur Underhill

Bradshaw's friend and sometime partner Wilbur Underhill was shot (and would die ten days later in "Big Mac" in McAlester) in a multi-agency raid on a travel cottage court in Shawnee on December 30, 1933. Underhill was on his honeymoon and his "moll" and one other outlaw were also wounded in the fracas.

In retaliation, Bradshaw drove into Vian on New Year's Eve with several other men and began a shooting spree damaging a local restaurant, hardware store and the town jail.

There has been no empirical evidence showing why the gang vented their rage on Vian for a shooting that occurred 116 miles away in Pottawatomie County but the attack on Vian finally got the attention of not only state officials, but the federal "G-Men" as well.

Those exploits landed Bradshaw on the FBI Top Ten Most Wanted list, a distinction that would last less than three months.

Bradshaw was familiar with Fort Smith, having retreated to the area to recover after a robbery a few years prior in which he had been shot. Apocryphal accounts had him staying at both the Dennis Tourist Court on Midland Boulevard and the houses of ill repute that lined the "Red Light District" off downtown.

Contemporaries Bonnie and Clyde also stayed at the Midland Boulevard establishment once when hiding from the law.

He apparently was operating (or laying low) in the city in early March of 1934 when he decided to make his way across the border to a speakeasy in Arkoma. Accounts of the incident (also apocryphal) say that the establishment was located just west of the curve that starts near the present day police station and city hall.

Bradshaw apparently knew that he wanted a drink and an opportunity to listen to a little music and possibly dance presented itself on March 3. What he didn't know was that the establishment was owned and operated by LeFlore County deputy sheriff by the name of Bill Harper.

Harper recognized the outlaw, confronted him and turned out to be just a little faster on the trigger.

The career of Bradshaw as a bank robber and murderer ended on the sawdust floor of the dance hall when the men exchanged gunfire.

Bradshaw's body was claimed by family and returned to the Cookson Hills where he had lived most pf his adult life.

He is buried in an unmarked grave in the Bradshaw Family Cemetery (on private land) north of Vian.

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