Our Arklahoma Heritage: Hero or Heel? The legend of Johnson County's Sidney Wallace
Sidney Wallace, a Johnson County legendary figure of the Reconstruction Era, was either a noble defender of hearth and home or an out-of-control Confederate bushwhacker symbolic of the lawless nature of western Arkansas during the period after the Civil War.
As with all legends, it kind of depends on which side you chose to believe.
In December of 1863, Wallace's father, Vincent, who was a Methodist minister, was killed by three or more men in front of the Wallace home near Clarksville. The men were wearing Union army coats, but reports differ as to whether they were actual Union soldiers or bushwhackers disguised as soldiers.
Accounts also differ as to whether 12-year-old Sidney witnessed the murder. Some say he did, while others say he was shielded from the sight by the family servant, Missouri Blackard. Blackard supposedly recognized all the killers but did not reveal their identities until Sid Wallace reached his 21st birthday.
According to legend, Young Wallace then set out to avenge his father's murder, first traveling to Kansas to kill a man who had participated in the 1863 attack.
In 1871, he shot (or shot at) Joseph Dickey on a road outside Clarksville and beat up Dickey's companion, Dud Turner. Turner filed charges of attempted murder against Wallace.
Released on bond, Sid and his brother George went looking for Turner, and Turner killed George in the showdown. About the same time Sid Wallace also reportedly killed constable R.W. "Doc" Ward and a man named Davis.
Turner was arrested for George Wallace's killing, but Judge Elisha Mears discharged him, saying the shooting was a clear case of self defense. This infuriated Sid Wallace, who killed the judge and took to the woods to hide out.
He was tracked down, however, and lodged in jail at Clarksville. He broke jail but was caught and returned to his cell. Then, in November of 1873, Sid killed Thomas Paine from his cell during another jailbreak attempt.
When he was first arrested for the shooting of Dickey, he removed the jail window and returned home. Reportedly, when a posse arrived to take Wallace back into custody, he left the house hiding under the skirts of Blackard while she went to the family well.
After he was back in his cell in Clarksville, Wallace overpowered his guards, seizing their weapons and shooting Paine, although some claim that a girlfriend had smuggled a gun to Wallace in the prison.
The standoff at this time ended after Clarksville authorities threatened to blow up the building containing Wallace and his two younger brothers.
Wallace appealed his conviction for the murder of Ward on the grounds that he was unable to receive a fair trial in Johnson County.
He and his family consistently maintained that he had been at home, ill, at the times of the shootings of Ward and Mears. Wallace was held in the state penitentiary in Little Rock (Pulaski County) from February 18 until March 9, the Arkansas Supreme Court having ruled against his appeal on February 5.
According to folklore, Wallace was allowed out of prison one evening during this period to accompany the warden’s daughter to a social ball.
The warden is said to have reversed his feelings about the prisoner when his daughter begged that Wallace be permitted to escape so that the couple could elope.
On March 10, the Arkansas Gazette reported that 1,068 Johnson County residents had signed a petition requesting that Wallace’s sentence be commuted.
According to Wallace's defenders, all or nearly all of these killings were somehow related to Sid's quest for revenge for his father's murder, and they held him up almost as a hero.
Wallace was eventually convicted of murder in the killing of Judge Mears and sentenced to hang.
He was held for safekeeping at the state pen in Little Rock from February 18 to March 9, 1874, when he was brought back to Clarksville to face the gallows.
He was hanged four days later in front of hundreds of spectators. A contemporaneous newspaper account reported, "The notorious desperado Sidney Wallace, defied the crowd and said clearly, 'I have no confession to make to man, but whatever I have to confess must be to God. I die in defense of myself and friends, and I regret not having a dozen deaths to die.'"
Because his heart was still beating twenty-five minutes after the hanging, he was left suspended for forty minutes, at which point his body was declared dead and surrendered to his family for burial.
Later accounts state that he may have survived the execution and that the casket buried by his family contained only bags of sand. Such legendary accounts were believable only long after Wallace was publicly hanged.
Legends arose years later that Sid Wallace had survived the execution attempt and that the casket buried by the family was actually filled with nothing but sand bags.
Adding more intrigue to the story, the March 15, 1874, Daily Arkansas Gazette article about his hanging speaks of a mysterious note accompanying a bouquet of flowers and a basket of fruit sent to Wallace by a woman in Little Rock. Other accounts describe a woman from Little Rock, dressed in black, who attended the hanging.
The New York Times published an account of Wallace’s crimes and execution a week after his hanging, sadly concluding that Wallace’s mother had encouraged her two younger sons to follow in the footsteps of their martyred brother.
Ironically, both those who describe Wallace as a hero and those who emphasize his criminal behavior overlook Wallace’s frequent claims that he killed no one except in self defense and that he had been framed for local crimes.
In a seldom overlooked section of the Oakland Memorial Cemetery in Clarksville, two tombstones bear the name of Sidney Wallace. One was placed on his grave within days off his "hanging" in 1874 and a another, a rectangle-shaped modern stone, was added in the 20th century by ancestors of Wallace.
To this day, no one really knows if the "legend" actually lies in the grave.