Our Arklahoma Heritage: Moonshine, marshals and manslaughter in Pope County
Many of the forests, mountains and valleys that make up extreme northeast Pope County look the same now as they did in the late 1800's. Make a Sunday car ride through the hilly and hardscrablle area today and you'll see small farms, tradional residences, isolated mobile homes and cabins and an ocassional "No Trespassing" sign.
The US Census Bureau says the population density in th county is 67 people per square mile. Up in the "hills" near the Pope and Searcy County border, you would be lucky to find sixty-seven people within 50 square miles in some areas.
Imagine the same area in 1897, a dense wilderness suffering from a shortage of policing which allowed illegal activities to flourish. At the top of that list was the age old problems of moonshiners and illicit stills.
Two Deputy US Marshals --Joe Dodson and Benjamin Franklin Taylor --were commissioned out of the Eastern District of Arkansas and lived in the hills of the area and had caused havoc in the spring and early-summer of 1897.
Dodson lived in Stone County and Taylor live near the community of Snowball in western Searcy County and the men had busted up several stills and handed over three or four moonshiners to the federal authorities.
Early on the morning of August 29, 1897 the two deputies with four posse men riding out of Russellville were making their way through the mountain trails.
Their target was deep in a "holler" about ten miles south of Witt Springs and a couple of miles west of the Searcy County line where four men worked one of the last remaining big scale liquor operations in the region.
When the troop of lawmen rode into the valley where one of the stills was located, shots suddenly rang out. Marshal Dodson was shot in the head and slumped off his horse, dying immediately. Marshal Taylor took a bullet to the gut and was able to retreat to relative safety before he died just a short time later.
Two of the possemen were also hit. Clay Renfroe was shot in the side and Cyrus Lawrence was wounded in an arm which later had to be amputated. But both men survived.
After a brief gunfight the four posse men made their way back to round up help and a group organized by the sheriff returned to an abandoned still later the same day . They scoured the hills in an effort to locate the operators, who were identified as Alva Church, Harve Bruce, Dave Millsaps and Turner Skidmore.
A posse of more than twenty US Marshals and posse men took to the hills the following day. Church and Milslsaps were apprehended almost immediately. Skidmore managed to stay on the run for almost two months before being arrested in Van Buren County.
All three men eventually pled guilty to moonshining and obstructing federal justice and earned a three year stay in Leavenworth Prison.
But Harve Bruce, who had been a private in the Confederate army, was still on the run with a reward of $600 on his head. On October 7, 1898 a local farmer in Sharp County was able to catch Bruce unarmed and took him into custody.
The Sharp County sheriff turned him over to federal authorties and he pled guilty to the same charges as his busness partners and joined them in the Kansas prison.
The state of Arkansas decided to follow through on an indictment of murder against all four men and in July of 1899 they were returned to Russellville to stand trial. After the murder charge was dismissed against Skidmore, who could not be proven to have been at the scene, Millsaps and Turner were found not guilty by a Pope County jury.
The jury returned a verdict of guilty for Bruce. For manslaugher, And gave him just six additional months added to the sentence he was already serving.
Bruce, who admitted in court to having fired "six or seven" shots at the deputies, even had the gall to unsucccesfully appeal his verdict.
Bruce served out his time in Leavenworth, returned to Sharp County and lived to age of 59 before he died in 1907. Probably of too much rot gut whiskey.
He was buried in the Pleasnat Valley Cemetery in the community of Rupert in rural Sharp County.
Sadly, there is no record of where the two fallen marshals were buried.
But there is one thing for certain. The hills and mountains in western Arkansas and Pope County are kind of like the legal system in this part of the state.
Neither of them have changed much in the past one-hundred and twenty-three years.