Many people think of Fort Smith, Arkansas in the late 19th century as the gateway to the Wild West where outlaws attempted to overthrow any type of policing or laws – and they’re right! However, Fort Smith isn’t the only Arkansas town that was subject to visitors with bad intentions. Throughout the years the Natural State has been frequented by rough and colorful characters who either continued their wild ways out of the state or met their match at the hands of an Arkansas lawman.
We’re aware that these uncertain times are limiting many aspects of life as we all practice social and physical distancing. While we’re continuing to feature destinations that make our state wonderful, we don’t expect or encourage you to go check them out immediately. We believe that supporting local attractions is important now more than ever and we hope our articles inspire your future adventures! And on that note, please nominate your favorite local business that could use some love right now:
12. Belle Starr: In the late 1800s, Myra "Belle Starr" Reed was known as a notorious female outlaw in America’s “Old West.” As a resident of Indian Territory, she came under the jurisdiction of Judge Isaac C. Parker in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Starr's closer associates included the legendary American outlaws Cole Younger and Frank and Jesse James. Her reputation as an outlaw, the novelty of being a woman outlaw, and her violent, mysterious death led to her being called “The Bandit Queen.”
11. "Pretty Boy" Floyd: Charles Arthur Floyd, known as The Pretty Boy because of his thick brown hair and chocolate eyes, committed numerous robberies in Northwest Arkansas during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Floyd has remained an infamous character in American folklore, often typecast as a hardened crook yet frequently referred to as a midwestern Robin Hood, a victim of poverty and circumstance led to a life of crime.
10. "Lucky" Luciano: On April 1, 1936, a New York detective on assignment spotted notoriously wanted gangster Charles Luciano strolling along Bathhouse Row in resort town Hot Springs, Arkansas (along with Hot Springs’ chief of detectives). The detective approached Luciano and invited the gangster to return with him to New York, where Luciano would certainly be placed under arrest. Luciano naturally declined, saying that he was having a good time gambling and cavorting in the Spa City - which at the time was politically corrupt and a safe haven for many criminals.
Luciano was detained that day in his beloved getaway town, moved to confinement in Little Rock on April 2, 1936, and later in June of the same year Luciano was sentenced to thirty to fifty years at the maximum security Dannemora Prison in New York.
9. The Ma Barker Gang: A reknowned and frightful group who operated during the Great Depression, the gang's leader Alvin "Creepy" Karpis was another criminal who enjoyed spending time and money in Hot Springs.
Before their capture in Malvern, Arkansas, Karpis and his accomplice Fred Hunter stayed at two different cottages on Lake Catherine and Lake Hamilton in the later part of 1935 and early 1936. Karpis and Hunter moved frequently in the Hot Springs area, as they knew the FBI and U.S. postal investigators were in the area looking for clues to their whereabouts.
8. Bonnie and Clyde: Arkansas was frequented by Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow, and their associates, collectively known as the "Barrow Gang", between 1932 and 1934. The gang’s criminal exploits in Arkansas included murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, robbery, and automobile theft.
Western Arkansas was also on the circuit of back roads Clyde Barrow used to evade lawmen from other states. The most serious crime committed in the state by the Barrow Gang was the murder of Marshal Henry D. Humphrey of Alma, Arkansas, committed while the gang was hiding out in a tourist camp in Fort Smith in June 1933.
7. Frank "Jelly" Nash: Frank Nash, often referred to as “the most successful bank robber in U.S. history,” spent part of his childhood in Paragould, Arkansas and was arrested in Hot Springs the day before his death.
On June 15, 1933, two FBI agents traveled to Hot Springs after learning Nash could frequently be found in town at the White Front Cigar Store. After being arrested and placed in transport to Kansas City, Missouri, Nash was shot and killed at the Kansas City Union Station in a botched rescue attempt by armed thugs.
6. Al Capone: The safe, secluded, and scenic location of Hot Springs made it the ideal hideout for a gangster as notorious as Al Capone, who made the resort town one of his preferred getaways and would rent out entire floors of Hot Springs hotels for himself and his entourage. The political and legal corruption of the town made it a gambler's paradise long before Las Vegas made its mark on society.
Though illegal, and a felony under Arkansas law, gambling was no secret to the majority of local authorities. Police officers, judges, and even the mayor turned a blind eye to the industry and to the high-rolling gangsters who enjoyed partaking in Hot Springs's favorite vice.
5. Owen Vincent Madden: Owen "Owney" Madden, referred to as “The English Godfather" and "The Killer", came to Hot Springs in 1935, seeking the slow-paced Arkansas life as opposed to the roughness of New York City. Originally from England, Madden grew up in the tough neighborhoods of Manhattan’s “Hell’s Kitchen” and is best known for giving "organization" to organized crime.
A respected and well-liked man amongst his hardened circle of peers, Madden settled into Hot Springs with ease. As time passed, more of Owney's criminal colleagues arrived. The word spread that Hot Springs was the perfect hideout for criminals running from police investigations.
4. Bill Doolan: One of the state's earliest-known wild men of the west, William Doolin was an Arkansas-born outlaw who rode with the infamous Dalton Gang in the Oklahoma Territory.
Labeled "the most cold-blooded robbers in the West", the Dalton Gang robbed several trains and depots in the Oklahoma Territory. Doolin even banded a gang of misfits and formed his own outlaw bunch, which operated in the territory from October 1892 until Doolin died violently at the hands of the law on August 25, 1896.
3. Maxine Temple Jones: Ms. Jones was a Hot Springs businesswoman during the period from 1945 to the early 1970s. A well-known madam with numerous political connections, she managed a lucrative brothel operation that catered to politicians, businessmen, and mobsters.
Jones was able to expand her business, most notably with the purchase of a large home on Palm Street (which became known as “The Mansion”) thanks to her top-tier connections. She provided her “high-classed” clientele, including local businessmen, doctors, top state officials, congressmen, and prominent mobsters, with years of illegal adult entertainment before "going straight" and publishing a tell-all autobiography in 1983.
2. Tony Alamo: Born Bernie Lazar Hoffman, Alamo is a well-known evangelist who, after a radical conversion to Christianity, founded what is now called Tony Alamo Christian Ministries with his wife, Susan, later establishing its headquarters in Dyer, Arkansas. Widely regarded as a cult, Tony Alamo Christian Ministries has been at the center of a number of lawsuits and government actions, and its leader has been jailed on a variety of charges, including income tax evasion, the theft of his late wife’s body, and taking underage girls across state lines for sex.
In October 2007, Tony Alamo Christian Ministries was listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center on account of its anti-Catholic rhetoric. Alamo was found guilty on July 24, 2009, on ten counts of taking underage girls across state lines for sex. On November 13 of that year he was sentenced to 175 years in prison.
1. Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood: The Rolling Stones are known for crazy antics on the road in their heyday, and their list of misadventures includes a 1975 traffic stop incident in Fordyce, Arkansas that led to the arrests of two of rock and roll's favorite guitarists. The routine stop turned into a reckless driving bust where a small amount of cocaine and a knife were uncovered by the authorities. The situation allegedly caused Richards to vow never to play in Arkansas.
The Rolling Stones did return to Arkansas, however, in both 1994 and 2006 to perform to massive audiences. Then-Governor Mike Huckabee issued a pardon for Richards's reckless driving conviction in November of 2006. Richards opens his 2010 memoir Life by referencing the Fordyce arrest.
Like all states, Arkansas still sees its share of visiting and residential rough types – but hardly any are as colorful or memorable as the individuals stated above. From the west end of Fort Smith to the east side of West Memphis, there have been people making not-so-nice names for themselves with the Arkansas State Police for years…be sure to stay on the good side of the law when you find yourself traveling the Natural State!