ews of the activities of the religious cults like Rev. Jimmy Jones’ People’s Temple group has some folks in White County recalling stories about the Cobbites of a century ago. The Cobbite cult did not last long, and it did not involve many people; but it is not likely to be forgotten around Searcy. Though there are gaps in the story, it goes like this:
A bewhiskered gentleman named Cobb, who liked to be called “the walking preacher,” came from Tennessee to White County in 1876. He is supposed to have stopped first in the Clay community, about 15 miles north of Searcy.
He preached sanctification, or holiness of the individual, which, he said, came through the women. Through his preaching, he would sanctify the women; and they, in turn, would sanctify their husbands. This, he felt, was in keeping with the Apostle Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians “…the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife…”
Once a person is sanctified, Cobb taught, he would never sin again. He would also want to sell his property and share everything with other members of the group.
Dr. Raymond Muncy, chairman of the History Department of Harding College, says groups like the Cobbites were common in the 19th century. “Communitarians who wish to take leave of this present evil society and live in remote villages were found in all parts of the United States,” he says.
Claiming divine inspiration, Cobb soon had a group of fanatic followers gathered about him in a utopian community. It is not clear whether he thought of himself as a prophet, Christ, or God, but stories indicate he was high on his own power.
For example, he is said to have arisen early each morning in time to take his sycamore pole and bid the sun to rise. In the evening, he would stretch the pole toward the west and bid the sun to set.
He is also said to have buried a man alive, promising to raise him the next day. He secretly inserted a cane into the grave so the man could breathe, but it rained that night and water filled the cane. The man died, and Cobb could not raise him.
Cobb moved his group from Clay to the Gum Springs community, about seven miles southwest of Searcy, during the corn-chopping season of 1876.
In an article in the January 1967 White County Heritage, Mrs. Leister Presley tells about William G. Adcock, who lived until 1948, seeing the Cobbites move.
Adcock, who was about 16 at the time, was chopping corn when the group came by, with Cobb in the lead and his disciples following. Adcock reported being afraid, but he said that Cobb’s only words to him were, “That’s a nice patch of corn you have.”
It was at Gum Springs that the Cobbites did the things for which they are remembered today. Cobb taught that the sanctified would be able to perform acts that would convince skeptics. One of these acts was roof walking, about which Muncy says:
“One of the typical tests for a sanctified Cobbite to determine his spiritual status was a walk on the housetop, or along the ridge pole, with his eyes closed, coming as close to the edge as possible and then being divinely led to stop, turn around and walk to the edge on the opposite side of the roof. Cobbites often could be seen rooftop walking by
--courtesy of White County Historical Society J.G. Humphries Store, Judsonia, 1888 – At the time this photograph was made, this was thought to be the oldest store in Judsonia. J.G. Humphries, believed to be the brother of Cobbite victim Carter Humphries, is shown standing by the left post next to his wife Mary, and sons Bert and Brad. Another son, Lester, is at extreme right. The photo is owned by Lynn Kiser of Searcy, Humphries’ granddaughter. She says the family told her about a small café in the back of the store. Note the Coca-Cola sign at far left.
their neighbors. They also believed no bodily injury could come to their bodies, not even from the barrel of a gun or the blade of a knife in the hands of the wicked.”
The summer of 1876 brought a drouth to White County, and Cobb attributed the drouth to the sins of the people. He held a revival at the Preacher Dover house, located on the road from Searcy to Little Rock near the present pumping station. (Some residents of the area still call the old Dover farm “the Cobbite farm,” and a creek in the area is officially known as Cobbite Creek.)
As the revival progressed, the Cobbites got worked up to a fever pitch. According to Helen Harrison of Gum Springs, Mrs. Margaret Smith visited some of the meetings, but found them too wild. Mrs. Smith said that she watched from a hill and saw Cobbites walking on the roof of the two-story Dover house while others from the ground were emptying the house of furniture. The Cobbites were apparently getting rid of their possessions in anticipation of Christ’s return.
They also killed their dogs and cats, and pulled down fences so that cattle could eat the crops. They were determined to save all the people they could, so, according to W.J. Leach, writing in the White County Heritage in 1966, a crowd of Cobbites stood guard at the road in front of the house to hail everyone who passed. They pulled people from their wagons and buggies and forced them to come into the house and pray. Word of Cobbite goings-on spread to nearby communities caused the curious to flock out and see for themselves.
ne man who went to see the Cobbites was Carter Humphries, a bearded bartender from Searcy. He is supposed to have said that he was going out to “learn them crazy folks something.” Humphries was upset with the Cobbites for fighting the saloons, according to a recent article by Claude Johnson in the Searcy Daily Citizen.
Humphries took a friend, Rufus Blake, with him in a buggy. They were met by a group of Cobbites, who insisted that the men come in and see God. Humphries is supposed to have said that since he hadn’t seen God in a long time he would accept their invitation.
These are two versions of what happened next: Version A has the Cobbites dragging the two men, whom they considered Satan’s co-workers, out of their buggy with shouts of “Kill them!” and “Cut their heads off!” Version B has Humphries jumping from his buggy, grabbing a picket from the fence and clouting Preacher Dover over the head. Dover is supposed to have turned the other cheek, whereupon Humphries delivered another blow with the picket.
The versions come back together with Preacher Dover calling for an ax and his wife giving him one. Humphries… was now pleading for his life. But the Cobbites dragged him to the foot of a large mulberry tree, which had an exposed root. They used the root for a chopping block, and while the women held Humphries’ head steady by pulling down on his hair, the aged Preacher Dover chopped on his neck with a dull ax.
After the head was finally severed, the Cobbites are supposed to have kicked it around in the dirt for a while. When one of the women noticed that whiskers were still attached, Preacher Dover tried to chop them off with an ax.
The Cobbites then took the head to the dogtrot of the log house and, forming a circle, did a ritual dance around the head. They then impaled it on a front-yard picket for all to see.
Eugene Smith of Gum Springs says his father, Elisha W. Smith, who was then 19, was the first person to come down the road after the head was put on the fence. The Cobbites tried to catch his horse and make him come into the Dover house, but he escaped. It was such a traumatic experience that Elisha was never able to talk about it, according to his son.
Meanwhile, Blake, who had somehow managed to get away from his captors, was on his way back to Searcy to tell the news about Carter Humphries. He wrecked his buggy going in, but soon got the word out. Carter’s brother got a group of men together to avenge Carter’s death.
Muncy describes the mob’s encounter with the Cobbites thus:
“Again the Cobbites came out to meet the people and shouted threats. The women, their hair wildly flowing down their backs and shoulders, were screaming and wringing their hands, and the men unbuttoned their shirts and bared their chests and defied the mob to shoot. They honestly believed that God would defend them and that nothing could harm them. They shouted, ‘Shoot, you cowards … the Lord won’t let your guns go off.’”
Sure enough, Rufus Blake tried to shoot twice, and his gun failed both times. He swung it like a club and felled one Cobbite. Another mob member is supposed to have said, “I’ll see if my gun will fire.” He pulled the trigger and killed a Cobbite. Other shots were fired. Preacher Dover and one of his sons-in-law were killed.
Eugene Smith thinks four Cobbites were killed by the mob. The rest, including the children, were rounded up and taken to the White County jail at Searcy. Preacher Dover’s wife, and perhaps some others, died there when an epidemic broke out.
A Grand Jury investigating the killing of Carter Humphries indicted six Cobbites and charged them with murder in January 1877. White County records show that they were John and Elizabeth Nelson and James, John, Lee and Clementine Dover.
According to Mrs. Presley, John Nelson was a veteran of the Civil War who had moved to White County from Alabama. He was large, strong and well liked by his neighbors. He joined the Cobbites after Cobb told him things that had happened to Nelson back in Alabama. Convinced of Cobb’s divinity, he and some other members of his family joined Cobb at Clay and moved with him to Gum Springs. What Nelson didn’t know, according to Mrs. Presley, was that his stepmother had given Cobb the information that the preacher claimed had been revealed by divine inspiration.
Joseph W. House represented the Cobbites in court. An outstanding lawyer at Searcy between 1869 and 1885, he also served as a state representative and as a delegate to the 1874 Constitutional Convention. Records show that his law firm was deeded 189.4 acres of land at Clay by John Nelson and his wife Sarah for defending the Cobbites.
William A. Monroe, assisted by Messrs. Cody and McRae, prosecuted for the state. The Cobbite men were tried first. Unfortunately, legal records give no testimony from the trial, but they do state the verdict reached by the jury on July 28: “We the jury find the defendants not guilty of the offense as charged in the within indictment.” The state then dropped its case against the women. The mob that attacked the Cobbites was never brought to trial. The thinking seems to have been that justice had been done: That the persons responsible for Carter Humphries’ death were the ones killed by the mob.
It’s not certain what happened to Cobb. Leach says that Cobb apparently played no active role in the killing of Humphries and that he may have escaped into the woods before authorities had a chance to arrest him.
Another possibility is that he was driven from the community. According to Mrs. Presley, Bill Pollard, who was a half-brother to John Nelson, said that he was in the group that escorted Cobb to Hilger’s Ferry and ordered him to leave the area.
Pollard said the vigilantes asked Cobb to let them see the scars in his hand. Cobb was supposed to have replied that he had just killed a snake and that his hands were too dirty for the scars to be visible. Pollard also reported that the men asked Cobb to walk on water across the Little Red River. When Cobb admitted he could not do that, they told him to walk on the ferry, cross the river and never come back.
The remaining Cobbites assembled at the Clay farm, which had been deeded to Joseph House and on which there was a large house. They built some smaller houses close to it and lived there until they could leave the county. According to Mrs. Presley, they kept to themselves. They worked oxen, not horses and mules, because oxen were used in Bible times. When they left White County, they went either to Washington County, Mo., or Randolph County, Ark. Some people think they got back together with Cobb in that area, but others are skeptical.
In the 1890s, John Nelson came back to White County to visit his brother, George, who was never a Cobbite. John talked about the killing of Humphries, saying that he saw it but did not participate in it.
According to Leach, the Preacher Dover house was used as a community amusement center for a while after the Cobbites left. That arrangement didn’t seem to work too well. Some folks said the forms of the men killed there appeared and joined in the dances to the wail of the fiddle.
(The author is a member of the White County Historical Society.)
Footnote from Malcolm L. Rigsby of Donaldson, Arkansas, who is a descendent of Carter Humphries’ widow: Carter Humphries was married to Laura Bewley Humphries (photo, left), the daughter of Adeline Peck Bewley and William or Henry Bewley. Carter and Laura had a daughter, Floy "Floss" Humphries Houpt. Laura is buried next to John at Smith Creek Cemetery, in east Garland County near Lonsdale where they lived. She had two sons by John H. Rigsby – Oscar Lee and Arthur Hiram "Hi" Rigsby. Floy married Sid Roswell Houpt, for whom Malcolm Risbgy’s father is named, and lived at Lonsdale. Malcolm Rigsby maintains these websites: http://www.angelfire.com/ar2/garland and http://www.angelfire.com/tv2/rigsby
It Was a Time of Religious Aberrations
By ED SANDERS
White County Historical Society 2002 White County Heritage
The period in the Cobbite incident was a time when religious aberrations were arising in many of the towns, counties and states of the United States. Something like this occurred in many places. It seems to have begun with the activities of: Joseph E. Smith Jr., who claimed that he could find buried treasure by means of a "seer stone" which he put into his hat and then placing his face over the hat so as to shut out light, he would see the buried treasure. He was arrested and tried for this in New York in 1826. Smith said by using the same process, he dictated the Book of Mormon to Oliver Cowdery who wrote it out in 1829. This led to the founding of Mormonism 06 April 1830 in the home of Peter Whitmer, Sr. in Fayette, NY.  William Miller and Ellen Gould (Harmon) White, whose activities in 1840s-1860s led to the founding of Seventh Day Adventism in Battle Creek, MI, 1863.  Mary Morse (Baker) Glover Patterson Eddy wrote the first edition of “Science & Health With Key To The Scriptures” in 1875 and in 1879 founded Christian Science in a not completely dissimilar chain of events in MA.
Each of the final three claimed to receive miraculous revelations and qualifications from God, whereas Cobb claimed to BE God. Marvelous things were frequently claimed by men and women alike in diverse places at the time mentioned.
(The author is a member of the White County Historical Society and former president of the Arkansas Genealogical Society.)