Brief History of Murder in Oklahoma

Outlawry in the old west was an immense bed of water that stretched from the Mississippi to the Pacific, but the relentless sun of law and order, the great sun of the Incorporation of America, shone until the waters receded and all that was left was a puddle called Oklahoma. The fish that were left swam in Oklahoma. Today the Chambers of Commerce proclaim the trinity of oil, football, and Indians, but the fourth leg of that table--to muddy the metaphor--is outlaws.

The books on Oklahoma outlaws and lawmen--the literature, as it’s loosely called, is a thriving cottage industry, and the poor ichthyologist who would hook a selection of these fish finds no place to begin or to end. He detours the Hollywood heroes--the lunkers like Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, the Barker family gang, Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Deacon Jim Miller ‘“Killer Miller”), Baby Face Nelson, the Dalton Gang--and looks for other less familiar fish.

The women have charming names:  Poker Alice, Cattle Annie, Little Britches, Blanche Caldwell, Polly Ann Reynolds, Alvirado Hudson, Elsie James, Mollie King, Flora Quick Mundis (alias Tom King, the sixth man of the Dalton Gang), Myra Maybelle Shirley (known as Belle Star) and her daughter Pearl Starr. Belle Star had Hollywood ambitions, billing herself as the Queen of the Outlaws, but the could as well have had Parnassian ones and billed herself as the Queen of the Poets. Her epitaph: 

Shed not for her the bitter tear,
Nor give the heart to vain regret.
‘Tis but the casket that lies here;
The gem that filled it sparkles yet.

The men are a motley assortment. I flip through a few of the deathful pages that recount their deeds.

Ned Christie was a member of the executive council in the Cherokee Nation Senate. After being wrongfully accused of the killing of Deputy Marshal Daniel Maples in May 1887, he fled to a remote area of the Cherokee Nation. For five years Christie eluded the white men’s posses, but in November 1892 lawmen attacked his fort with canon and dynamite, breached his stronghold, and killed him. Though newspapers accounts claimed that Christie was an outlaw, there is no evidence that he ever committed a crime until after the Maples incident, and what followed after that was in self-defense. A witness stepped forth in 1918 and exonerated him from the Maples slaying. Today he is honored by a plaque at the Cherokee Court House in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the oldest public building in the state. The memorial reads that he was "assassinated by U. S. Marshals in 1892." 

In 1888 the Hay Meadow Massacre took place in what was then called No Man's Land, now in Texas County on the Kansas line. Four men were captured by a marshal’s posse and shot down in cold blood. The district court convicted seven of them and order them hanged, but the supreme court ruled that it had no jurisdiction. Neither did any of the other courts, and the accused were released.

The Brooks–McFarland Feud started in Alabama but ran its final course in Indian Territory between 1896 and 1902, where the bone of contention became who was to benefit from the arrival of the Fort Smith and Western Railway. After the death of Thomas Brooks on August 24, 1896, the Brooks family blamed the McFarlands, and from there a series of confrontations culminated in a shootout on September 22, 1902 at Spokogee, a Creek word meaning “near to God.” During the battle, Willis Brooks and two other combatants were killed while a fourth man was seriously wounded. The feud ended three weeks later with the killing of Jim McFarland. When the railroad reached town, Spokogee was renamed Dustin.

1905: Dead Women Crossing is a small town on Deer Creek near Weatherford in Custer County, at elevation 1,509 feet. On July 6, 1905, a schoolteacher named Katie DeWitt James filed for divorce, and the next day she carried her 14-month old daughter Lulu Belle to the train station in Custer City. A few days later, Lulu Belle was found unharmed, but her clothing was covered with blood. On August 31, 1905, Katie's remains were found near Deer Creek, twenty miles east of Clinton, with her head severed from her body. To this day, a strange blue light is sometimes seen at at night along Deer Creek and the voices of women are heard crying.

The 1920s saw the Osage Indian Murders, a series of murders in Osage County, called the "Reign of Terror" by newspapers. Estimates are that 60 or more wealthy Osage were killed from 1921 to 1925. The murders appear to have been caused by the greed of whites for the great wealth of the Osage, whose land was flowing with oil and who each had headrights that earned lucrative annual royalties.

The Tulsa Race Riot was a large-scale battle that took place on May 31 and June 1, 1921. The Greenwood District, known as 'the Black Wall Street' and the wealthiest black community in the United States, was burned to the ground. During the 16 hours of the assault, more than 800 whites were admitted to local white hospitals. (The black hospital was burned down.) Police arrested more than 6,000 black Greenwood residents at three local facilities, in part for their protection. An estimated 10,000 blacks were left homeless, and 35 city blocks were destroyed by fire. The official count of the dead by the Oklahoma Department of Vital Statistics was 39, but other estimates of black fatalities have been as high as 300.

And on we could go, year by year, decade by decade. But finally one tires of time’s patina and wants the raw sleaze of the now--the sullen roar of the tawdry present in all the everyday dullness of its continuous calamities. 

In 1977 came the Oklahoma Girl Scout murders, never resolved. At Camp Scott in Mayes County, three Girl Scouts between the ages of 8-10 were raped and murdered and their bodies left in the woods near their tent at summer camp. Although the case was declared "solved" when Gene Leroy Hart, a local jail escapee with a history of violence, was arrested and tried for the crime, he was acquitted. Thirty years later authorities conducted new DNA testing, but the results proved inconclusive, as the samples were too old.

1978, the Sirloin Stockade murders. Roger Dale Stafford started his killing at a McDonalds in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. For four years the case, known as the McDonalds murder, was unsolved. Then on the side of Interstate 35 near Purcell, Stafford’s wife flagged down a family named Lorenz, who were traveling to North Dakota for the funeral of Melvin Lorenz's mother. When the Lorenzes stopped to help, Stafford robbed and murdered them. Three weeks later  during a robbery, he murdered six employees at an Oklahoma City restaurant called the Sirloin Stockade. 

1986. Patrick Henry Sherrill was a United States Postal Service employee who shot twenty co-workers in Edmond, Oklahoma, killing fourteen of them, before committing suicide. Sherrill's attack was the third worst single-gunman mass murder in U.S. history at the time and remains the deadliest incident of workplace violence in our history. It gave us the phrase "going postal."

On April 19, 1995 Timothy McVeigh, a Gulf War veteran, detonated an explosive-filled Ryder rental truck parked in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The truck contained 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer mixed with 1,200 pounds of liquid nitromethane and 350 pounds of Tovex. The last is a water-gel explosive that has several advantages over dynamite, including safer manufacture, transport, and storage. 

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