Category Archives: History

Oklahoma’s forgotten soldier diplomat

In 1944, Major General Patrick J. Hurley was given what proved to be an impossible task: reconciling the Nationalist Chinese of Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists of Mao Zedung.

Hurley was one of the most influential Oklahomans of the first half of the twentieth century. Born to Irish immigrant parents in the Choctaw Nation, he became a prominent Tulsa attorney and businessman and an Army officer who served with distinction in World War I. In 1929, Hurley was named Secretary of War in the Hoover administration, thus becoming the first Oklahoman to hold a cabinet-level position.

Although a partisan Republican, during World War II Hurley became Franklin Roosevelt’s personal envoy to the Soviet Union and later the Far East. It was in this later capacity he arrived in China, initially to mediate the tense relationship between the autocratic Chiang and prickly U.S. General Joseph Stilwell.

Stilwell, however, had already reached the point of no return. Against Hurley’s advice, he confronted Chiang with an ultimatum that resulted in Stilwell’s replacement.

Although the Communists and Nationalists were nominal allies against the Japanese, their armies functioned more or less independently and sometimes at odds with each other. Hurley’s task was to set the foundation for a united China during the final stages of the war and going forward.

The U.S. position was a difficult one. Its alliance of necessity with the Soviet Union aside, the United States was not keen on promoting communism. Those familiar with the situation, though, generally found the Communists better organized and disciplined and less corrupt than the Nationalists. Stilwell’s staff, in fact, clandestinely equipped and assisted the Red Army, and  continued to do so even after Stilwell was recalled.

Throughout his time in China, and during two trips back to Washington, Hurley contended not only with the seemingly intractable differences between the Communists and the Nationalists, but intrigue within the U.S. State Department.

John Carter Vincent, the official in charge of Washington, fought long-term commitments to Chiang, preferring “flexibility which would permit cooperation with any leadership in China ….” State Department officials in China leaked confidential information to Mao, undermining Hurley’s attempts to negotiate a coalition government led by Chiang.

Vincent gained considerable influence following Roosevelt’s death, and in November 1945, Hurley called a press conference in Washington to announce his resignation. He told reporters that State Department personnel in China had collaborated with the Communists in an effort to oust Chiang and the Nationalists.

The furor thus created effectively ended, but he does not seem to have minded much. He moved to Santa Fe, N.M., where he became involved in uranium mining, and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate three times. He died in 1963 at the age of 80.

Hurley is now largely forgotten, but at least one important monument to him remains in Tulsa. In 1929, Hurley and a business partner built the first “apartment hotel” in the city at 1314 S. Main St. Restored in the 1990s, the Ambassador Hotel is today the city’s most exclusive boutique hotel.

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Oklahoma’s Ewe Lamb Rebellion

William Henry Davis “Alfalfa Bill” Murray generally wins the prize for Oklahoma’s most colorful and eccentric public figure. Born in Toadsuck, Texas, he became an intermarried citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, was president of the Oklahoma constitutional convention and first speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. He served in Congress, started an ill-fated agricultural cooperative in Bolivia and hitchhiked his way to victory in the 1930 gubernatorial election.

Gruff, profane, ill-kempt, Murray denounced the Ku Klux Klan, called African Americans “coons” and sent the National Guard to keep Texas from opening a toll bridge across the Red River. He tromped around the governor’s office in his stockinged feet, had the executive mansion’s lawn planted to potatoes and made a delusional run for the presidency in 1932.

So yeah, he was pretty far out there.

But for sheer unadulterated weirdness, Henry S. Johnston runs a close second. A Biblical scholar, he also dabbled in Rosicrucianism, an esoteric and obscure philosophy allegedly based on “ancient truths” passed from Middle Eastern mystics to a medieval German named Christian Rosenkreutz. Johnston attended seances with his wife, consulted astrologers and numerologists, claimed to have been reincarnated at least twice, and counted his secretary’s canaries among his closest advisers.

In the end, it wasn’t the canaries that proved his undoing. It was the secretary.

These were hazardous times for Oklahoma governors. The previous elected chief executive, Jack Walton, last just 10 months before the Legislature removed him from office. Impeachment proceedings were initiated against two more of the state’s early governors, and a third had been indicted on federal fraud charges.

Johnston was elected governor in 1926. A dapper, scholarly man, he had been the first president pro tempore of the Oklahoma Senate, and for a short while it appeared  his term as governor would be a successful one. At his urging, the Legislature increased appropriations for common education and authorized the construction of a crippled children’s hospital.

But lawmakers used to speaking to the chief executive whenever they liked were at first annoyed and then outraged by Johnston’s appointment of an executive secretary, Mayme Hammond, who blocked the door to the governor’s office. More than that, they believed, she exercised undue and possibly even mystical influence over Johnston, and at times acted as the de facto governor. At the end of the 1927 legislative session they demanded Hammonds be fired.

Johnston, in his typically meandering manner, refused.

“If you came to me with a thousand sheep,” he said, “and I had only one ewe lamb and you wanted me to destroy that, do you think I would be so base as to destroy it? I repeat, gentlemen, it would be yellow, it would be unjust to Mrs. Hammonds to sacrifice her and her character on false charges.”

Thus began what became known as the Ewe Lamb Rebellion.

Hammonds’ opponents labeled her a “She-svengali” and initiated a special session for the purpose of driving her and Johnston from office. Hammonds probably didn’t help herself any by explaining her ability to keep track of goings-on all over the state through astral projection. It also didn’t help that her relatives, including her husband Dr. O.O. Hammonds, began showing up  and the state payroll.

The initial attempt to oust Johnston failed, but the continued presence of Hammonds and Johnston’s support of the Al Smith, the Democrats’ Catholic, anti-Prohibition candidate for president in 1928, eventually led to his undoing. In 1929, Johnston was convicted on a single count of incompetence and removed from office.

Thus, Oklahoma became and remains the only state to impeach and remove from office two consecutive elected governors.

Lieutenant Governor William J. Holloway, a level-head former state Senator, replaced Holloway and was able to put through several significant reforms during his short time in office. More importantly, he instilled a sense of order to state government despite the turmoil of the onset of the Great Depression.

But the Oklahoma constitution barred Holloway from seeking election to a full term in his own right, thus opening the way for Alfalfa Bill Murray — an eccentric, to be sure, but an eccentric no one dared impeach.

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The hanging of Frank Henson

Before lethal injection, before the electric chair, before the walls went up at the state prison in McAlester, individual counties were responsible for executing criminals convicted of capital crimes.

Only one such execution occurred in Tulsa County.

In early 1911, a scuffle broke out in a bar at Dawson. Dawson has long since been absorbed into the city, but in 1911 it was a rural ranching and coal-mining community on the Frisco line. When the dust cleared, a county deputy names Charles Stamper was dead and all fingers pointed to a black man who went by the name Frank Henson.

Henson was duly trialed and sentenced to death. Remarkably, given current attitudes, Tulsa County appealed the sentence. It did not want to execute Henson or anyone else. Oklahoma had executed only two people in its first three years of statehood, and Gov. Lee Cruce opposed capital punishment on moral grounds. But in this case he refused to intervene. Frank Henson was to hang by the neck until dead.

Sheriff Bill McCullough, a former cowboy with a big handlebar mustache, had the job of building the scaffolding and, when the executioner failed to show up, tying the noose, putting it around Henson’s neck, and dropping the trapdoor. McCullough would be sheriff a decade later during Tulsa’s 1921 race riot, but late in life called the Henson execution “about the worst job I ever had to do.”

Henson, maintaining his innocence until the end, was brought to the gallows just after dawn on March 31. Five hundred people had gathered to watch, despite the hour.

A black preacher named C.L. Netherland read the Twenty-third Psalm. Henson asked to speak. The witnesses had lied, he said. Stamper fired first, without identifying himself, said Henson.

“I’m going to get higher than any of you,” he said. “Some of you are going to have tribulations getting there.”

Henson prayed for McCullough and the other lawmen escorting him, asked God to forgive them, “for they know not what they do.”

Then, finally, he said, “My name is not Frank Henson. It is Amos Bell. You won’t find anything bad behind that name.”

The noose was then placed around Henson’s — or Bell’s — neck and a hood placed over his head.

“Are you ready Frank?” McCullough asked. When Henson didn’t respond, the sheriff added “may God bless you,” as he pulled the lever to drop the trap door.

“Whether the execution of Henson was justifiable was a question debated her for some time,” the Tulsa World reported. “Many wanted the sentence commuted to life imprisonment.”

Even in 1911, it seems, capital punishment was a source of controversy and strong feelings.

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Drugs wars and the Tulsa race riot

One of the things I’ve wondered for many years is whether drugs could have played a role in Tulsa’s 1921 race riot.

Drugs, and especially opiates, were a serious problem, even in those days. At least as far back as 1907, before statehood, police raided an opium den in what was then a town of seven thousand. By 1921, morphine and cocaine addiction had become a serious problem.

In January, federal agents raided a soft drink stand adjacent to McNulty Park — the stadium which would serve briefly after the riot as a holding area for black Tulsans — operated by one Irma “The Midget” Harisson. When a search of the premises failed to turn up the expected contraband, one of the agents grabbed the four-foot, six-inch Harisson by the ankles, turned her upside down, and shook her until cocaine capsules fell from her clothes.

Over the next several months, two doctors were sent to federal prison for illegally selling morphine and cocaine; two men were arrested in Tulsa and charged with possession of one thousand grains of morphine; a double amputee working in a shoe-shine parlor was found with five morphine and three cocaine capsules; a man named J.L. Love was fined $500 and sentenced to a year in prison for morphine possession; and two men were apprehended at the train station with a valise full of “liquid morphine.”

In May, police caught two drug dealers by making a buy with a marked silver dollar.

In the immediate aftermath of the May 31-June 1 Tulsa riot and for years afterward, official blame fell mostly on armed blacked men who went to the county courthouse to defend a prisoner they believed was about to be lynched. A confrontation ensued, shots were fired and riot was on.

Several of those men were described, by both whites and blacks, as dope peddlers and drug users. Today that claim is generally dismissed and in all likelihood rightfully so. But the fact it would be accepted as plausible suggests the extent of the drug problem in Tulsa at the time.

After the riot, police reported white drug dealers did indeed enjoy a windfall from the riot. One of the buildings destroyed in the fires that engulfed much of the black neighborhoods, they said, had been a well-known den, and Officer Henry Carmichael reported white dealers were “unusually active” since their black competitors had been temporarily put out of business.

Certainly, the riot was not about drugs, and I wouldn’t want anyone to make too much of this. But, as I said, I have long wondered if just may the riot did provide an opportunity for underworld characters to settle scores or get rid of competition.

I guess it’s just one of those things we’ll never know.

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Bill Tilghman

Bat Masterson called Bill Tilghman “the greatest of us all.” Theodore Roosevelt said he would “charge hell with a bucket.”

Tilghman was one of the last of the old west lawmen. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he never crossed the line to the other side. Never even skirted it. He was everything in life that Masterson and the Earps and Wild Bill Hickock were in legend. He died in the line of duty at age seventy, shot to death by a corrupt a federal agent while trying to clean up an Oklahoma boom town.

Like many men of his time and place, Tilghman began as a buffalo hunter in the years after the Civil War, when the railroads were stretching across the prairie and cattle were trailing north from Texas. He found his way to Dodge City, where he opened a saloon, despite being a teetotaler, and got his first job as a lawman. It was also where he met Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp.

In 1889, he moved to Guthrie. Over the next few years, he, Chris Madsen and Heck Thomas became known as the Three Guardsmen, deputy U.S. marshals who arrested around three hundred desperadoes over the next decade and killed several more. Tilghman’s most famous exploit was the arrest of Bill Doolin in a Hot Springs, Ark., mineral bath.

Tilghman retired in 1910 and was elected to the state Senate, but resigned a year later to become Oklahoma City’s police chief. In 1923, Gov. Martin Trapp persuaded Tilghman to come out of retirement a second time, to accept a special commission as marshal of Cromwell, a notorious unincorporated community in the Greater Seminole Oil Field known as the “wickedest city in the world.” Cromwell had it all: prostitution, gambling, liquor and drugs. And one of the worst influences was a federal Prohibition officer named Wiley Lynn.

Lynn shot Tilghman twice on the night of Nov. 1, 1924, as they struggled for a gun. The old lawman died almost immediately. Typical of the times, Lynn was acquitted when several witnesses mysteriously disappeared; he and state Bureau of Investigation Agent Crockett Long shot each other to death eight years later in a Madill drug store.

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