Feuding in Howell County at the End of the Nineteenth Century
Wed, 12/01/2021 - 12:33pm admin
At the end of the nineteenth century, Howell County experienced an upturn in violence much as it had in the two decades following the Civil War. Most of the deaths resulted from feuding and caused alarm about how the next century could be. 1899 was a rough one with a smallpox outbreak that started in the summer and lingered when one of the coldest snowiest winters on record drove folks indoors.
The editor of the West Plains Gazette started the year with a lament on the violence he was witnessing. In an editorial entitled “The Hip Pocket,” he wrote, “The columns of the newspapers of the country during the past few weeks, and especially during the past few days, have teamed with the accounts of shootings, both murderous and accidental. It would seem that the male population of the whole country has been going about with its hip pockets loaded with pistols. In town and country, in every street, alley, and highway, in fields and in houses, in barns, stables, and woodsheds, the pistol toters have been able to get in their deadly work. Young boys have killed boys still younger, old men have killed young men, and have been themselves killed in due course. Every hip pocket seems to contain a pistol, and all the pistols are loaded.”
“The Gazette is of the opinion that it is high time for states and communities to take measures more certain and definite than any that have yet been taken to protect themselves against the blood-thirsty instincts of the pistol toters. The whole country over, there have been, in all probability, as many men, women, and children killed during the past ten days as there were soldiers mortally wounded at Santiago. The epidemic of crime has been something fearful, and the pistol toter is responsible for it all.”
“Our judges cannot be too severe in their efforts to put down this practice of carrying concealed weapons. A man, young or old, with a pistol in his hip pocket has already advertised the fact that he is anxious to murder somebody, and the law should deal with him accordingly.”
In reality, handguns were not the only problem. They did start a series of long-gun, back shooting ambuscades that became known as the Collins-Fox Feud, and law enforcement and the courts seem to have been ineffectual in influencing the feud’s outcome or conclusion.
On January 4, 1899, the Journal Gazette reported the killing of Andy Fox. “Yesterday afternoon, about 4 o’clock W.H. Collins (commonly known as Bill, also identified by his middle name of Hester) shot and mortally wounded, it is supposed Andy (Andrew) Fox, in the store of Collins.”
“W.H. Collins runs a store (and lives in the same building) a little place called Centers, three miles north of Pottersville and about thirteen miles west of West Plains. This morning, at about 7 o’clock, Mr. Collins arrived in West Plains and surrendered to Sheriff Thomas, who placed him in jail. This is the first news of the shooting which reached here.”
“A reporter of The Daily Gazette interviewed Mr. Collins shortly after he was placed in jail, and this is his report of the trouble: ‘I have been sick for some time, unable to do anything. Yesterday afternoon, about 4 o’clock, my wife was out at the woodpile near the house cutting wood. Andy Fox and Will Hall rode up and commenced cursing and abusing my wife. In a few moments, Fox came into the store. I knew they were mad, and I shut the door and kept Hall outside. I told Fox to go to the fire and warm. Fox said to me, ‘Did you tell Dr. Smith you paid that note for me? If you did, I will kill you,’ at the same time, running his right hand in his pants pocket and starting towards me. My wife had come into the room in the meantime, and she and Grant Fox, who was in the room all the time, grabbed Andy Fox and tried to stop him. He shook them both loose and kept on towards me. Thinking, and thinking so yet, that he intended killing me, I picked up my Winchester rifle and fired at him. He fell across the counter and exclaimed, ‘I am killed!’ Fox was taken across the road to Carroll Riggs’, a neighbor, and staid (sic) all night and came to town this morning. I am very sorry I had to do this. I told Fox several times while he was fussing to leave my house. He would not go-seemed determined to have trouble.’”
“The above is, as we have said, Mr. Collins’ version of this occurrence. When the preliminary trial is held, we will publish all that is said. We haven’t heard since the foregoing was written that Mr. Fox was shot through the bowls and is dead.”
Four months later, on May 26, 1899, the Journal reported, “Hester (William H. Collins) was shot from ambush, while at work on his farm near Pottersville, this morning at 9 o’clock. Mr. Collins, accompanied by his wife, had gone to the field to finish some work. While standing with his back to the brush, his wife just in front of him, a shot was fired by an assassin, the bullet striking Collins in the back between the shoulder blades and lodging in the body. His wife stood in the direct line of the bullet. Collins lived until he could be carried to the house where he expired. Mrs. Collins saw the man who did the shooting but did not recognize him. His appearance and attire she could describe. A messenger from the scene arrived this afternoon. He stated that the rifle used was an old-style muzzleloader. Much excitement prevails as this is the second shooting in that neighborhood in which Collins was a party. The Sheriff and deputies left for the scene this evening.”
In a coroner’s jury called immediately, a half dozen witnesses testified, including Collin’s wife. She swore that “two men were concerned in the crime and described the appearance of the one she saw plainest. He was dressed in a canvas coat and red hat and was stooped or humped-back.” The other man she was unable to describe.
A few days later, a hired hand working for Bill Collins on his farm near Pottersville left to salt some cattle and did not return. It was speculated he was another ambush victim and never found.
Two days after Bill Collins was killed, Janet Deveraux, the brother of Al Deveraux, was killed in an ambush shooting. A relative of victim Andy Fox, Esau Fox, had his barn burned to the ground, and it was speculated that Janet knew something of the intentional barn burning and that Bill Collins had been involved before he was killed. Perhaps the assassination attempt had been directed at Al Deveraux, or Janet was an easy target in another feud killing.
The Journal Gazette, years later in 1904, reported the incident this way, “There were two of these boys, Janet and Alphonso, who resided in the Vienna neighborhood (a few miles north of Pottersville) with their parents. The boys did not have a good reputation and were not well-liked in the vicinity. It was claimed, too, that they knew something more than had been told about the burning of Esau Fox’s barn. After the death of (Bill) Collins, a cow belonging to the family strayed away. Mrs. Collins went to the Deveraux home, where she found Janet, who started out with her to search for the cow. They were walking along the road side by side, and he had gone only a short distance when a shot rang out, and the Deveraux boy fell dead at the feet of Mrs. Collins. Since that time, no one has seen or heard of Alfonso Deveraux, who left the country for fear of meeting a like fate.”
In the first days of June 1899, a grand jury met for an inquest held into the death of Janet Deveraux. The Journal reported, “A number of witnesses were examined, but nothing definite could be learned. No one in that neighborhood knows a thing, and from the information gleaned, you would suppose that few of them knew anything about the trouble. Mrs. Collins was placed on the stand and asked if she saw the parties who shot young Deveraux. She replied that she could recognize no one. The officers think she knows a great deal more than she would tell but for some reason would not testify.”
The article continued, “Al Deveraux, who was brought to town Saturday morning (as a suspect in the killing of Bill Collins), was released late in the evening and has returned to the scene of the trouble. Many think his arrest and early start to town is the all that saved his life. The assassins were evidently intending to ambush both of the boys. The younger boy was killed in less than thirty minutes after the officers had started with Al for town. No surprise would be expressed at the killing of Al Deveraux should he remain in that neighborhood. Nor would the burning of their home be an unexpected event. The whole affair is deplorable and productive of a bad reputation for that part of the country.”
Things seemed to settle down as the year 1899 came to a close, but wait, there’s more.
In June 1904, George W. Bundren was charged with shooting and killing William H. Hesterly in the same neighborhood as the other murders. In years previous Hesterly was a citizen of some prominence, serving as superintendent of schools, and his brother was currently serving as the clerk of Douglas County. A Journal Gazette article fills in some gaps and bizarre twists in the story. It seems Hesterly had earlier been charged with statutory rape, and charges were pending at the time of his murder.
Here the wife of Bill Collins comes back into the picture. The Journal reported, “Mrs. Collins continued to reside in the (Vienna) settlement. A year afterward, she was married to George W. Bundren, whose first wife had been dead for some time. This was the third marriage of Mrs. Collins, her first husband having been William Byers, father of the girl whom William Hesterly deceived and which led to the killing of Hesterly.” The charges against Bundren were dismissed.
And then there is one more murder in the same community to be explored. The West Plains Journal Gazette reported, “The mysterious disappearance of John Gilbert, in 1902, again threw the Vienna neighborhood into a fever of excitement. Gilbert had been working at Bunch’s sawmill for some time, and it was known that he had quite a sum of money. He was single and boarded near the mill. Considerable illegal selling of liquor had been going on thereabouts, and the government authorities arrested several men and charged them with the offense. Gilbert was a witness against one of the accused.”
“While the liquor cases were pending in court, Gilbert and Harmon Clinton, a neighbor, decided to go to the Northern Arkansas zinc fields. They set a date for their departure, but the evening previous arrangements had been made to have a poker game in a deserted cabin nearby. Gilbert, Clinton, Hesterly, and others were to ‘sit’ in the game. Hesterly always asserted that he did not go to the cabin that night, and Clinton also avers he was not there. Clinton left for Arkansas the next day, after waiting for Gilbert until he became satisfied that the man was not going with him.”
“Nothing was ever heard of Gilbert since that time. Clinton remained in Arkansas for a time and returned. The cases in the Federal court for illegal selling of liquor were dismissed on account of the failure of Gilbert, a leading witness, to appear. Last November (1903), a son of the unfortunate Hester (William Hester Collins), while out in the woods, found a human skull. Further search revealed portions of a skeleton, and near a charred pine log, the remainder of the bones were found. Through the skull, three bullets had been fired, and from the nature and size of the bullet holes, they had been made by different weapons. The skull was identified by several, who claimed that Gilbert had a depression on the side of his head like that found on the skull. Several trinkets about the bones were known to have belonged to Gilbert. After he was shot, his body had evidently been thrown among the branches of the fallen pine tree and then set on fire to cover the crime.
There was another ambush killing in Howell County just before 1899, and when a posse arrived to apprehend the suspect, two members of the party were shot and killed by the suspect, and a third member of the party was wounded. The suspect was taken into custody and in court acquitted of all charges. There must have been much more to the story, but it won’t be explored in this story for brevity. The incident occurred in another part of the county and played itself out during 1899.
What is indicated in this complex set of tales is a general disregard for the rule of law and a lack of confidence in the courts. In this vacuum, the rule of the gun prevailed. I believe it also partly resulted from the lawlessness in Howell County during the Civil War, in which all due process had failed. Law enforcement in rural communities was spread thin and, in many cases, inept. Where there is no sense of justice in a community, these things seem to happen.