This article was printed in "The Ozark Mountaineer", December 1964 issue. Permission was given for it to be reprinted.
(STAFF NOTE: The author is a professor of Journalism at the University of Arkansas and a MOUNTAINEER staff member. His occasional contributions are much enjoyed by our readers. He is a native of Northern Arkansas and is filled with the lore of that area.)
By Professor Wm. J. Good
The American frontier loved a good trial !
......A trial on most any charge would draw a crowd, but a good murder trial, with silver-tongued lawyers fighting for a man's life---that was enough to excite an entire county.
......And for something extra special mix in a few old Civil War issues and add a liberal measure of politics. Such produced a roman holiday indeed. of such events ballads were frequently made.
......Such were the circumstances on March 9, 1891, when Lindsey Gibson, a Republican and veteran of the Union Army, went on trial in Madison County Court in Huntsville, Arkansas, for the fatal shooting 24 years earlier of William Prater.
......It was just the kind of trial someone would want to write a book about, and someone did write a book about it. The book carries the imposing two-part title: "The Great Murder Trial of Lindsey Gibson in Western Arkansas and History of His Eventful Life. Saved from the Unjust and Ignominious Death by the G. A. R. and W. R. C." It was published in 1891 by the Alma Book Publishing Company at Alma, Arkansas, but nowhere in the book is the name of the author---at least not in the only known existing copy.
......The G. A. R. of course was the Grand Army of the Republic, and the W. A. R. was the Woman's Relief Corps.
* * * * *
......Gibson was a child of 13 when his family left his native Kentucky in 1851 to settle in Madison County, Arkansas. Only a decade later loyalties and friendships--even families--were torn asunder by outbreak of the Civil War. Young Lindsey Gibson and several hundred other young men fled to Missouri where they entered the Union forces. His older brother, a brother-in-law and numerous friends went south to join the Confederate forces. His brother was killed in action.
......For years after the war, throughout the period of reconstruction, hatreds engendered by the war remained near the surface in Madison County, and war animosities colored the political relationships of the Republicans and Democrats during these years. During many of these years the Republicans were in office, and Gibson was a Republican.
* * * * *
......It was in "old" St. Paul, in the southern part of the county, that the shooting of William Prater occurred on April 1, 1867. Gibson, who lived in that village, and "a number of other good men", as the book expressed it, had just returned from the pusuit of a band of outlaws into Montgomery County, during which one man on each side was killed a number of others wounded.
......The day after their return Gibson went to the mill for some meal and there encountered Prater and Dock Tucker, relatives of an alleged member of the outlaw gang. A quarrel ensued, and Gibson shot Prater, who died a short time later. Gibson surrendered immediately to Justice of the Peace James Ritchie who, after an informal examination, set him free. Capt. H. Combs, coroner, did not hold an inquest---a fact that was to be a point at issue in the trial.
......Gibson continued to live near "old" St. Paul (not far from the present town of St. Paul) for three years after Prater's death, then moved to a farm near Mountainburg in Crawford County.
* * * * *
......In 1877--10 years after the shooting--a Madison County grand jury indicted Gibson for the murder of Prater, but apparently no move was made to arrest him, even though he occasionally visited in Madison County and officers supposedly knew where he lived. In time he came to assume, according to the book, that he would never be prosecuted on the indictment. But he was wrong in the assumption.
......In the spring of 1889--12 years after the indictment--Gibson was arrested at the request of the Madison County sheriff while Gibson was on a trip to Fort Smith. Returned to Madison County, Gibson was lodged "in a lonely, dreary jail" the book reported. A few weeks later he appeared before Circuit Judge J. M. Patton, in a writ of habeas corpus hearing, and was permitted to make bail in the sum of $5,000, most of which was contributed by Gibson's friends in Rice Post, No. 16, G. A. R., Department of Arkansas, located at Mountainburg.
......It was then that Gibson's case became a celebrated cause throughout the country. Gibson had no money to engage attorneys. Members of Rice Post of G. A. R. was made up of poor men who could not afford to hire lawyers for him. Comrades in the G. A. R. throughout Arkansas were appealed to, but this brought in only about $100. Then the drive was expanded to include G. A. R. posts and the Women's Relief Corps throughout the Country.
......". . . our brother comrade, Lindsey Gibson . . . has been unjustly indicted, charged with murder in the first degree, in the Madison County Circuit Court," the appeal stated. ". . .the man killed was a rebel guerrilla named William Prater, and the killing grew out of the old hostile war feeling which we ex-union (sic) soldiers of the South had to combat and endure even unto persecution . . ."
......A. S. Fowler, department commander, investigated the case and wrote an endorsement of the appeal. Gibson himself also wrote a letter in which he said he would not make such an appeal except for the reason that it was a life or death matter.
......The book does not report the amount of money raised, but it must have been considerable, for it enabled him to hire some of the most famous lawyers of the region -- lawyers whose names are still well known some three-quarters of a century later. So widely known has the case become that lawyers from other states offered their assistance but Gibson chose to rely entirely on his Arkansas lawyers - probably a wise decision.
......The Arkansas lawyers were: Former U. S. Senator J. D. Walker; former Congressman T. M. Gunter; and Capt. Wythe Walker, all of Fayetteville, and Col. J. P. Byers of Alma, a former prosecuting attorney. Gunter had served as a colonel in the Confederate Army.
......J. M. Peel was the prosecuting attorney. E. S.
McDaniel was the Judge. Judge McDaniel was only 39, but he had already
gained a wide reputation in the law.
......March 2, 1891, was the date for the opening of court, and the unidentified author of the book captured the spirit of the occasion in these words:
" . . . On that day the mountains and the valleys gave up their denizens, and the people flocked from far and near, all with their faces turned toward Huntsville, as the first day of court in a mountain county is the gala day of the year with the people . . . It has become a time-honored custom for the good farmers to bring their fine stock and exhibit their fine points as they do at regular county fairs in Kentucky and Tennessee. By ten o'clock the public square presented a picturesque appearance. It was fairly covered with living humanity and braying jacks and rearing stallions. At eleven o'clock the sheriff appeared at the courthouse door and cried: 'Oyez, oyez, the Honorable Circuit Court of Madison County is now in session' ."
......The case of "State of Arkansas versus Lindsey Gibson" was called on the opening day of court but was postponed for one week at the request of the prosecution. The trial began the following Monday, March 9, 1891.
......The unidentified author of the book took due note of the politics of the jury. There were seven Democrats and five Republicans.
* * * * *
......The jurors were warned repeatedly -- by the Court, by the prosecution and by the defense -- that they had to find Gibson guilty of first-degree murder or turn him loose as a free man. All lesser degrees of homicide had been ruled out by the statute of limitations then existing. It was indeed a life or death struggle.
......The prosecution injected the political issue in its opening statement. pointing out to the jury that the alleged crime had been committed nearly a quarter of a century before, Prosecutor Peel asserted ". . .the only reason the defendant was not indicted, tried, convicted and hung -- as he should have been -- was that the murder was committed during those dark and gloomy days of reconstruction that followed the civil war, when the hand of justice was hushed. But thank God, although Justice has slept and slumbered for many long years, she has at last awakened and demands her own -- that Lindsey Gibson pay the penalty of an outraged law that he violated when he shot down that poor, inoffensive boy, from his young wife and child the great long ago, and that he now hang by the neck until he is dead, dead, dead . . . "
......Former Senator Walker made the opening statement for the defense. Pooh-poohing the prosecutor's histrionics, the senator said: " . . . I am satisfied the prosecuting attorney means well, but I must say that he, like all other prosecuting attorneys, has become hardened and callused, and has got so he believes that every man which is so unfortunate as to be indicted is guilty, and ought to be convicted. I was once prosecuting attorney for this circuit in my younger days and I fell into the same error, but since I have arrived at more mature years I have discovered that grand juries, in their one sided secret investigations, frequently indict innocent men . . . "
* * * * *
......The account of the trial was a great piece of reporting, with the unfolding drama being related in the direct quotations of the participants. One expects witnesses to a murder to disagree as to details even when memories are fresh, but after a quarter of a century . . .
Well, here are examples from the testimony:
......John Kilgore - -". . .The first time he (Gibson) missed Prater and Prater ran, and the defendant ran after him and shot him in the back, right where the suspenders cross. . ."
......Mrs. Sina Brashears - -". . . I saw Prater before he died. I was there when he died . . .The wound was on his left breast. I did not examine his back . . .There was a knife and a piece of tobacco in his pocket . . . The knife, when taken from his pocket was shut . . "
......Mrs. A. S. Thompson - - " . . .I sat up with the corpse. It was laid out in the hall on some chairs and planks. Blood dripped from the body . . ."
......Jno. P. Salyars - - " . . .I saw the hole in the breast. The appearance was that the bullet came out of the left breast . . ."
......The state closed its case with testimony by Captain Combs, the coroner:
......"Gibson told me that he killed Prater, and did not deny it, and there was no use holding an inquest and he would rather we would not. Gibson said to me, ' You and I have always been good friends, and I do not want to have any trouble with you'. I have no interest in this prosecution, and I have not employed any counsel to prosecute this case. I did not hold an inquest..."
......The defense contended that Gibson killed Prater in self-defense.
......M .L. Green (by deposition from Oregon where he then lived) - - " . . .Prater made the assault by drawing the weapon. he was leaning against the wall of the mill when he drew the knife. Prater then pitched toward Gibson and was within three feet of him when Gibson shot him . . ."
......Mitch Morgan - - " . . . uncle Hiram Sumner was with me in the mill during the shooting . . . I heard loud talking on the outside. I heard one voice say 'Put up that knife' and the other replied ' You be damned ' and immediately I heard the report of two shots in quick succession . . . "
Then on cross examination, he said:
......" . . . I had started to Missouri but stopped at St. Paul to pay a debt . . . I heard someone in a high tone of voice say, ' Put up that knife ' and the other responded ' You be damned'. I am positive as to this . . . I had some curiosity about the matter, but I did not go to the body, as I was a stranger in the county . . "
* * * * *
......Gibson took the stand in his own defense and, after referring to his trip in pursuit of the alleged outlaws, he described the shooting of Prater following his quarrel with Prater's companion, Dock Tucker: " . . . Prater drew his knife and opened it, and I told him to put it up. He drew his knife in a striking attitude and advanced upon me, and I struck him with my fist and knocked him back, and he started at me again and I fired. I hit him the first shot, for I saw the dust fly from his breast . . . I did not see Captain Combs the day of the killing, nor the day after, and I did not try directly nor indirectly to keep him from holding an inquest over the body of William Prater . . ."
And so the story went, pro and con.
......Finally, with all testimony ended, the court gave its charge to the jury and then lawyer after lawyer made resounding pleas - - the state for conviction and death; the defense for acquittal and freedom. As was the fashion, the lawyers "pulled out all stops", and there were some real "tear-jerking" oratory.
......Argument ended at 4 o'clock Thursday evening. At 9 o'clock the following morning the jury returned and the foreman handed a slip of paper to the clerk, who read in a clear tone of voice, "We, the jury, find the defendant not guilty".
......The concluding paragraphs of the book seem anticlimax: "Thus ended one of the most exciting murder trials ever witnessed in Arkansas. Throughout the trial the courthouse was crowded to overflowing with anxious spectators, including a great many ladies, and after the verdict of not guilty the defendant was congratulated upon all sides".
......Yes, it must have been an exciting trial. Why else should someone have written a book about it?
© 1999-2001 by Joy Russell. All rights reserved.
This site may be freely linked to but not copied in any fashion without written consent.