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  • Writer's pictureDennis McCaslin

Our Arklahoma Heritage: The more things change, the more they stay the same

Updated: Jun 16


If you are a law-abiding citizen, you may sometimes be taken aback at the way our Judicial system handles crimes and criminals in our country.


Political favoritism, as well as a general malaise among prosecutors and courts, sometimes turn our judicial system into a laughingstock. Seemingly, the situation just gets worse and worse with each passing year.


Take, for example, a situation where a married, prominent attorney and a former member of the state government in Arkansas impregnates a girl, kills her father in broad daylight on the main street of an area town, and is sentenced to just seven years in the penitentiary for his crime. 


Just a little more than five years later, the same man is basically absolved of all wrongdoing in the case after being pardoned by the sitting governor of the state without having served a single day of his actual sentence.

We see similar scenarios played out all across our country almost on a monthly basis. Now imagine how shocking the same scenario would have been 100 years ago in Franklin County.


Henry Clay McElroy was born in 1864 in Stewart County, Tennessee, one of four siblings born to the coupling of George Washington McElroy and Lutisha Woodruff McElroy. The couple can be found on the 1860 census living in Tennessee  and seemingly never left the Volunteer State, considering that three of their four children lived out their life and died within a few miles of their birthplace. 


But Clay McElroy was an anomaly. He was married sometime before 1890 to Edna Sue McKinney and by the mid 1890's the couple lived in Franklin County in the area around Ozark. That union bore six children in all including the first daughter, Edna jean, who was born in 1904. 


Williard Pendergrass

Fast forward to 1920. Williard Pendergrass, a prominent, married Charleston attorney and former State Mining Inspector living in Altus, was 43 years old. 


Married, with a teenaged son, he had been appointed to his state job by Governor C.H Brough in 2017, a move which caused much dissatisfaction to the miners in the region, and by 1920 that dissatisfaction had resulted in him becoming the "former" head of the State Mining Commission. 


Clay McElroy was a well-respected Mason, former county treasurer, and  prominent merchant in Ozark. He and his family lived on a farm about two miles from town.


In late 1920, his then 16-year-old daughter Edna and the 43-year-old married Pendergrass became "involved" in "illicit matters" which resulted in a pregnancy for the teenage girl. Newspapers at the time called the situation "illicit intentions", code words for a dirty old man having an affair with an under-aged child.


In the Fall of 2021, Edna was removed from the home and sent to live in Oklahoma City.   



Contemporary newspaper reports at the time, which should be taken with a grain of salt, said the family was unaware she was pregnant, learning of the situation only after a doctor had contacted them about the birth and eventual death of a baby.


A more likely scenario seems to be that, as was a practice of the time, the family sent Edna away to have her baby in seclusion so she wouldn't become a "marked" woman by the standards prevailing in that era.  Or, there could have been an abortion involved.


No one really knows.


The seduction of the teenage girl, her pregnancy, and the death of her baby clearly factored into the animosity between Clay McElroy and William Pendergrass. 


McElroy was adamant in the fact the Pendergrass was responsible for the ruination of his family. Testimony brought out in later court dates indicated that Pendergrass tried to claim he was being blackmailed by McElroy to keep silent about the affair. 


Either way, only one man lived long enough to actually get to tell his side of the story.  


On the morning of January 14, 1922, McElroy was walking down Main Street of Ozark, carrying a rifle after supposedly returning from a hunting trip. As he drew even with the front door of the People's Bank, Pendergrass stepped from the doorway of the building and fired one shot with an automatic pistol "without saying a word".


According to newspaper reports at the time, McElroy's dying declaration was "you've ruined my daughter, you ruined my home, and now you have killed me". Taken to a local physician's office by onlookers, McElroy died within an hour. 


Pendergrass surrendered to sheriff C. G. Harman immediately after the shooting and was jailed in Ozark. 


A few days later, Clay McElroy was interred in the Highland Cemetery in Ozark. His funeral was said to have been the largest ever up to that time with "hundreds" of mourners showing up from surrounding counties and Oklahoma.


Sentiments toward the murderer were such that Sheriff Harman chose to remove Pendergrass from the jail and take him to Fort Smith, where it was later learned he checked into the Goldman Hotel with his "prisoner" under the assumed names of two businessmen from Muskogee.


According to a newspaper article written at the time, Pendergrass and Harman were seen "out and about the town" by several Franklin County residents visiting the Sebastian County city and by the time all the ink had dried, Pendergrass had secured a change of venue to Logan County after being released on bond.


During the trial, Pendergrass pleaded self-defense, but it was obvious from witness testimony and from the animosity between the two men that the killing was nothing more than a pure, cold-blooded, and premeditated murder. Still, a jury in Paris sentenced Pendergrass to just seven years and he immediately appealed that sentencing and was placed under a $10,000 bond.


Although his appeal, which was based upon Pendergrass claiming he couldn't get a fair trial because of the "spirit of the crowd", was taken all the way to the state Supreme Court and denied, before the former politician with friends in high places served a single day in the penitentiary he was given his pardon by the governor of the state. 


Other than time spent in jail immediately after his arrest, and the time that he was a "prisoner" at the spaciously appointed Goldman Hotel in Fort Smith there is no record of Pendergrass serving a single day for the murder. 

Edna Sue McElroy

There is also no record of the outcome of a $35,000 wrongful death suit that Edna McElroy filed against Pendergrass after his manipulations of the Court allowed him to walk free.

 

Edna Sue and her family continued to live out the remainder of their existence basically staying in Franklin County.


She never remarried at the age of 92 in 1961 she was buried next to Clay in the Highland Cemetery in 0zark.


So while we may express dismay at the sorry state of the judicial system and the mollycoddling of criminals in 2024, it's a tale as old as time. 


The more things change, the more they stay the same.





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