Our Arklahoma Heritge: The 1874 lynching of some very bad men
Information for this article taken from the Encylopedia of Arkansas, Find-A-Grave and the archives of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.)
At the end of the post-Civil War era know as Reconstruction in much of western Arkansas, lawlessness, corrupt politics and, as we will see in this example, mob rule was the norm.
Franklin County brothers William G. and Randolph Harris and their brother-in-law Robert Skidmore were lynched in the early morning hours of August 6, 1874, after a mob took them from the jail in Roseville in present-day Logan County, where they were being held for stealing horses.
William Harris, age twenty-four, led a gang that had terrorized the area for several years. He had been arrested for the May 2, 1872, murder of a man named McCoy and McCoy’s son who had recently moved to Arkansas from Alabama
Harris was freed on $10,000 bond, owing to “the flexible conscience of the judge and prosecuting attorney who disgraced this circuit in 1871 and 1872,” and began a criminal career that was later described thusly: “Horse stealing and highway robbery was his vocation, and he plied it with energy.”
Harris held a grudge for his arrest and tried to kill Mont Quinn, who had helped capture him for the McCoy killings, in the winter of 1873 but was wounded in the attempt.
Harris operated from the farm of his parents, Henderson and Martha Harris, in Franklin County’s Lower Township, and his gang included his brother Randolph, age eighteen, and brother-in-law Robert Skidmore, age twenty.
In July 1874, the Harris gang stole several horses from Sarber County (present-day Logan County) residents named Council, Hughes, and Shropshire. The owners tracked them to Washington County, where a brother-in-law of the elder Harris lived, and an attempt to arrest William Harris in Fayetteville failed.
William Harris returned to Franklin County, and a pair of deputies found him hiding in a cornfield at his parents’ farm on the night of August 4, 1874; he surrendered, despite being armed with four pistols and a shotgun.
On August 5, he was placed in Roseville’s jail, along with his younger brother and Skidmore, to await trial the next day on horse-stealing charges. Their mother Martha, apparently fearing for her sons’ safety, also went to the jail, which was guarded by jailer H. G. Williams and seven other men.
At around 11:45 p.m. a mob of from 40 to 100 men attacked the jail amid a fusillade of gunfire, seizing the Harris brothers and Skidmore, but not harming the jailers other than Williams, who was knocked down when some of the attackers tried to throw a blanket over Martha Harris.
The prisoners were taken about a mile and half from Roseville and all hanged from the same branch of a tree, with Randolph Harris nearest the trunk, then Skidmore, then William Harris.
Martha Harris found the bodies and cut one of them down, with one account saying it was Skidmore, while another said it was Randolph Harris.
The latter report claimed that some of the mob returned, found that Randolph Harris still had a pulse, and hanged him again.
Martha Harris had Seth Spangler, James Sewell, Theodore Potts, and J. Morse of Roseville “arrested on suspicion,” but they apparently were soon freed, with Potts and Sewell involved in forming a pro–Elisha Baxter militia in Sarber County in September and Spangler being elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives on October 13 and sworn in on November 11.
The Harris lynchings took a political spin in October when the Daily Arkansas Gazette included the incident among several under the heading “The Outrage Mill,” which the newspaper culled from a propaganda pamphlet attributed to Powell Clayton’s branch of the Republican Party.
In this version, the lynching victims “had served in the union army, and were murdered because they claimed to be republicans.”
The article stated that Martha Harris arrived in time to cut William down, “her son falling lifeless to the ground.” The assailants then shot her in the head and dragged her into the brush at the side of the road and covered her with a horse blanket, “while these worse than savages, more than cannibals, proceeded to murder her children.”
This led to a response a week later from L. L. Wittich of Sarber County, who had been hired to defend the Harris brothers and Skidmore and who termed the revised version of the incident “a most stupendous lie.”
Wittich corroborated the original account, stating that Martha Harris “was not molested or hurt, and is still living,” that none of the lynched men had served in the Union army, and that the victims’ “politics were similar to Clayton & Co.’s, both being infernal robbers and murderers,” adding that “Bill Harris was considered as a desperado, a murderer and horse-thief, and there is ample evidence that Randolph and Skidmore were his confederates in horse stealing.”
Wittich’s letter to the editor concluded with a statement signed by thirteen Sarber County residents “and five hundred others” that “the above and foregoing statement is true in substance and particulars, to the best of our knowledge, information and belief.”
William and Randolph Harris are buried with their parents in Carpenter Cemetery in Ozark (Franklin County), as is Robert Skidmore.