SEARCY, July 1 – E.L. Benton was shot and probably fatally wounded this morning by E.T. Scruggs in the Robinson Church near Floyd 10 miles from Searcy, during church services. Benton was wounded several times and is believed to be dying at his home in the country near the church. Scruggs is held in the county jail here, pending the outcome of Benton’s wounds. According to witnesses of the shooting, the two men were in the church and no quarrel had preceded the shooting. Near the end of the morning services, they say, Scruggs suddenly rose from his seat, drew a revolver and fired four times at Benton without saying anything. Both men are farmers in the Robinson neighborhood. It is said that there had been trouble between them for some time over Scruggs’ wife, and that Scruggs had of late been threatening to harm Benton. In January Scruggs brought suit for $15,000 against Benton alleging that he had alienated his wife’s affections. The suit is still on the docket.
he tombstone at Pleasant Grove Cemetery records that E.L. Benton was 42 years old when he died on July 1, 1917. His murder was a sensational drama that divided the little community and deprived it of a church for nearly two decades. Because of anger, fear, shame or other feelings, the murder of El Benton slowly became an ignored topic by all but the oldest residents of the Pleasant Grove community. It can be reviewed today, nearly 90 years later, without concern for the children of the victim, as the last one, Vera Benton Hazelitt of Searcy, died May 24, 2003. The article from the Arkansas Gazette was found in the microfilm files at Harding University. Researchers may peruse the old copies further for subsequent details of the killing, the trial and the ultimate release of the murderer.
E. Talmadge "Tal" Scruggs, the shooter.
The scene in the bloody church house and throughout the community was chaos and shock. It was only by the diligent and eloquent intervention of El’s brother John Steven Benton that a growing lynch mob was restrained, as many friends and relatives of El had gathered at the scene. It was said John Steven’s soothing prayers could stop even the roust-about boys outside the church during services.
El Benton’s widow was left with a house full of children to support. He had married widow Letha L. Heffington Cunningham of Harmony on December 21, 1898. Her husband Isaac Cunningham had died of pneumonia two years earlier, leaving her to raise two daughters, Lessie and Letha. El and “Lou” Benton would have eight children together.
On the morning of the murder some of their children had preceded their father to church, and came back running to report, “Old Tal is up there!” El replied, “I’ll be going to church just like I always have” – and that’s what he did. He walked into the church, down the aisle past Tal Scruggs and took his seat. Later in the worship service, El stood up to sing a hymn, holding his son Earnest Carmel, 4, on one arm and a songbook in his other hand. Tal suddenly rose from his seat, walked up behind El and fired four shots from a pistol he had concealed on his person. Then he turned, looked at the congregation and fled out the back door where a car was waiting. How many of the shots hit El is not recorded, but one bullet was said to have struck the preacher’s belt buckle. El died later that day.
Ellard (pronounced Elyard) Leonard Benton was born June 17, 1875, near Pleasant Grove. His father John W. Benton was born February 18, 1839, in Jackson or Madison County, Georgia, and came to White County in 1856 with his brother William T. Benton. Three years later, John married Rachel G. Burkett. She was born in Warren County, Tennessee, on January 8, 1840, and came here with her parents William and Rachel Hughes Burkett when she was about eight years old. The Pleasant Grove community had some settlers as early as the 1830s. At one time it had a post office, stores and a school. An acre of land was deeded in 1877 by Robert L. and Susan Roberson for a Cumberland Presbyterian Church here. Ironically, the Robersons were Tal Scruggs’ grandparents. The first building was used as a church and school until about 1906, when additional land was deeded by Mr. and Mrs. Emmitt Taylor. Then that church building was torn down and replaced in 1908 with the impressive structure shown in the photograph accompanying this article. There were different religions professed by the new settlers, so the church house was shared on an equal basis – one Sunday of the month each for Cumberland Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and Church of Christ.
There had never been a service like the one on Sunday morning, July 1, 1917.
When E. Talmadge “Tal” Scruggs shot Ellard Leonard Benton, then ran out of the church house and fled with his brothers, it is believed they drove directly to the sheriff’s office in Searcy and told what had happened. So, this first news article was based on what they said to the sheriff that first day. The jailhouse was probably the safest place for them to be until the uproar died down. However, one jailer, Bert Campbell, is reported to have said later that he was a good friend of El Benton, and “If as many as a half dozen men had showed up demanding Scruggs, I’d have thrown the doors wide open.”
That there was something between Tal’s wife Hettie Heggie and El was never contested. But the affair had been over for nearly two years, according to friends and family, and furthermore El had publicly repented. Unmoved, friends of Tal had encouraged him to avenge “the deprecation to his honor.” Others, including Tal’s own father Robert Scruggs, had discouraged this kind of thinking. There was a widespread tale that many years earlier Robert Scruggs had killed a man himself in Alabama with a single tree from his wagon. If this was true, he would have known first-hand the burden that Tal was about to bear. Robert Scruggs, it was said, was forced to move his family to Arkansas to be with his wife’s parents, Robert L. and Susan Smithwick Roberson. The Robersons were true pioneers, moving to the area years earlier when it became known simply as “the Roberson community.”
Robert Roberson moved to near Muldrow, Oklahoma, in the early 1900s. When Tal Scruggs made bail while awaiting trial for the Benton murder, he immediately went to Muldrow. According to a document that I found at the White County Courthouse, he had to be brought back by the White County sheriff. The incident was recorded because funds had to be allocated for the transportation of the prisoner back from Oklahoma.
The Scruggs family came up with enough money to hire two of the best lawyers in town, Stephen Brundidge Jr. and Harry Neelly, who were able to get the original grand jury indictment for first-degree murder charge reduced to second-degree. Additionally, charges against Frank and John Scruggs as accessories to first-degree murder were dropped. Witnesses listed in the original first-degree indictment included A.L. Strayhorn, J.D. Strayhorn, Levi Ellenberg, Dr. J.W. Hassell, Otho Roberson, J.E. McGreer, H.V. Cofer, Steve Benton, C.W. Benton and Frank Bell. Witnesses listed by the court in the indictment for accessory before the fact to murder in the first degree against John Scruggs and Frank Scruggs included Hugh Coffey, Robert Calhoun, Elsie Calhoun, Herbert Calhoun, Ben Akin, Mrs. Martha Benton, Frank Protho, Roy Strayhorn, A.H. Taylor, Oscar Stringfellow, Albert Akin, W.H. Thompson, Allen Roberson, Henry Caldwell T.E. Brewer, Retha Benton, Lillie Benton, Eugene Campbell and Mrs. Emma Bell.
Twenty-seven days after the murder, in case #8166, E.T. Scruggs was convicted of the second-degree charge. Jurors included Garland Holt, C.C. Williams, J.D. Smith, Frank Williams, W.A.W. Price, H. Pilkington, T.P. Williams, B.W. Rayburn, W.C. Crenshaw, John Harmon, E.R. Wilkins and J.A. Shoffner. Price was the foreman. A motion for a new trial was overruled on August 1, 1917, and two days later Scruggs began serving a five-year sentence in the Arkansas State Pentitentiary. A little more than a year later, on August 23, 1918, Tal Scruggs was pardoned and released. He returned to Oklahoma and apparently never saw White County again. He and his wife never reunited, and the children were raised near Little Rock under another name.
The assistant prosecuting attorney, John E. Miller, vowed he would send Evertt to the reform school for burning the church, “in spite of hell and high water.” But he was deterred from doing this by many petitioners, including White County Judge F.O. White, and the matter was dropped. Miller went on to become a federal judge. As he was involved in his political climb in later years, he felt necessity to send Evertt Benton an apologetic letter. Concerning the alienation suit brought by Scruggs, I have a letter dated February 17, 1917, from Scruggs’ attorneys to El Benton, asking for $100. This was before any hearing or ruling on the case and, of course, came to naught.
Lou Benton continued to live on the farm after El was killed. She was the mother of 10 children, seven of them still living at home on July 2, 1917.
Nine months after her marriage to El, Lou Benton had given birth to a daughter, Nettie Lena Benton, on September 16, 1899. Nettie Lena married Reuben Coffey when she was very young and gave birth to one daughter. Nettie died of pneumonia at 16, before her father’s murder. Nettie’s husband Reuben then married Letha Cunningham, Lou’s first child. They had one child, a daughter. When Reuben died, Letha then married Will Heggie but they had no children.
Lessie A. Cunningham would marry Henry Wright in 1912, move to DeRidder, Louisiana, then return and raise a family together at Rose Bud.
Lela Mae Benton, who was born October 4, 1901, married Huel Aunspaugh of Floyd. They had one daughter and four boys. They followed migratory work to Missouri, Florida and Michigan.
Evertt came next, on February 28, 1904. He married Hazel Wiggs and their family lived at Floyd and Searcy. (I was the next to the youngest of one girl and five boys)
Lloyd was born June 20, 1905, and died 11 days later.
Otie Benton was born August 31, 1907. She married John Hopper of Harmony, and they moved to Wichita in the early 1940s with their two children.
Vera was born December 1, 1909. She married Johnny Hazelitt, moved to Searcy and outlived all the other siblings. She had one son. She was still living on the farm when Lou Benton died in 1932.
Carlene, who was born November 22, 1911, married jeweler Clarence J. Fansler. They raised four daughters at Floyd and later moved to Searcy.
The last child, Earnest Carmel, was born November 17, 1913. He died August 21, 1920, with stomach cramps after eating green apples.
Lou died on September 12, 1932 and was buried beside El in Pleasant Grove Cemetery. El Benton had nine brothers and three sisters, all of whom grew to adulthood and had families of their own. Their descendents are scattered throughout the United States. We are all related by marriage to the Heggie, Roberson and Scruggs families mentioned in this story.
When Evertt was grown and with family, he and the Scruggs brothers, John and Frank, were able to make amends and put aside the old animosity. One of Evertt’s best friends in later years became “Bus” Scruggs, the son of Frank. After thinking about this murder of my grandfather for many years, I decided to write this account in the same conciliatory frame of mind. If I have written anything that might be construed as derogatory, I apologize for it, and ask the reader to accept that my purpose is only to reflect the historical aspects of the story and hopefully the lessons to be learned by the Grace of God.
(The writer is a member of the White County Historical Society.)