Friday, August 29, 2014

The Hot Springs Shootout 1899 -- Lawmen vs Lawmen

The hot spring water at Hot Springs, Arkansas, is believed to have medicinal properties. The water's healing effects were legendary among several Native American tribes long before Whites ever arrived there.

In 1832, right after the federal government set up federal protection of the area, the city developed into a successful town where people from all over went there for the healing benefits of the springs.

Hot Springs, Arkansas, should not be confused with Warm Springs, Georgia, where President Franklin Delano Roosevelt lived while not in Washington or at his residence in Hyde Park, New York. President Roosevelt tried to regain his strength in his legs by soaking and exercising in the warm water. People did the same thing in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Hot Springs incorporated on January 10th, 1851, it later became home to illegal gambling, speakeasies and gangsters such as Al Capone in the 1930s, horse racing at Oaklawn Park, and the 42nd U.S. President Bill Clinton.
It is said that illegal gambling became firmly established in Hot Springs during the decades following the Civil War. The town of Hot Springs, Arkansas, had a long history of illegal gambling and violence by the late 19th century.

Though it was illegal to gamble there, beginning in the 1870s, two factions, the Flynns and the Dorans, fought one another for control over the illegal gambling inside the city limits. With a population of around 10,000 at the time, it is a little surprising that the two factions were involved in a number of shootouts in and around downtown Hot Springs without raising the ire of the townsfolk to the point of stopping it.

Frank Flynn was the leader of the Flynn faction, and by 1883 he was firmly in control of all illegal gambling in Hot Springs. Through bribes and payoffs that he made to whole of the Hot Springs Police Department, Flynn successfully bought off any sort of problems by local law enforcement. And yes, besides bribes and payoffs to look the other way, believe it or not local deputies from the Sheriff's Office also worked for him as his enforcers. Both the city police and the County Sheriff's made sure he was the sole proprietor of gambling in that town, and yes, they even did his collecting of debts.

The big city mobs had nothing on Frank Flynn who made sure he had the Sheriff and the City Police working for him to look the other way as well as act as his hired muscle to keep other illegal gamblers out of his town. It seems that Frank Flynn owned the town of Hot Springs in the late 1870s.

Was everyone was on the take? With all of the law enforcement on the take, it seemed like that was the case. Though Frank Flynn paid off the County Sheriff's Department, he was said to have paid more money to the local city police department. And no, not everyone was happy about that arrangement.

With seven gambling houses, Flynn controlled all of the illegal gambling in Hot Springs in the late 1890s and was pulling in the dollars as fast as he could. Problems for Frank Flynn started when former Confederate Army Major Alexander S. Doran arrived to open gambling houses of his own in 1884.

Major Doran had a reputation as being good with a gun, and attempts at intimidating him were ineffective. Believe it or not, things got so bad for Flynn that he actually challenged Doran to a duel not long after Doran's arrival.

That didn't work out so well for Flynn as he was shot once in the chest. Lucky for him that it was not fatal. And after that, there were a number of clashes between the two factions which resulted in several people getting killed on both sides.

It is said that Major Doran killed ten men during the struggle for control of Hot Springs gambling before he himself was killed in downtown Hot Springs in 1888.

Flynn remained in business and continued to favor using the city police department to collect debts owed to him or to force competition to leave town.

Thomas C. Toler was the chief of police during that period. He was originally hired in the early 1870s by the first Garland County sheriff, William Little. By the mid-1890s, Toler had a falling out with Mayor W.W. Waters, leading Toler to support William L. Gordon in the 1897 mayoral election. By then the Hot Springs Police Department had a reputation for enforcing whatever Frank Flynn wanted, including collecting unpaid debts or forcing unwanted competition to leave town.

Hot Springs new Mayor Gordon once again appointed Toler as city police chief, but to Toler's surprise the new mayor ordered Toler to enforce new town ordinances that would restrict gambling activities and curb violence associated with vice. Preferring a more liberal policy, Toler is said to have refused to enforce the law. Besides, Toler took orders from Flynn who was a strong Alli that he did not want to lose.

Chief Toler and his police department opposed the new regulations and refused to enforce them. In the mean while Garland County Sheriff Bob Williams supported the mayor and was in favor of the new ordinances but only to gain more power for his department.

Coffee Williams, the sheriff's brother, was also his chief deputy. Coffee Williams, was a heavy drinker and frequented the gambling houses, but was otherwise considered competent in his duties. As tensions built between the two law enforcement agencies over the proposed crackdown on gambling, there were several heated verbal disputes between law enforcement officers.

Yes, this sounds a lot like the Earps versus Behan in Tombstone, Arizona, just a few years before. But unlike Tombstone, when lawmen went to shooting it out among themselves, things got bloody in a hurry in Hot Springs. If you've ever wondered how bad a shootout can really get with participants and bystanders getting hit, this might be the epitome of a horrible situation going to Hell in the Old West. Sadly, it was between lawmen.

It is said that the county sheriff was siding with the mayor to rid Hot Springs of gambling, but in reality it was a clash over whether the county sheriff's office or the city police department would control the illegal gambling profits in the city. Crooked is crooked, and while maybe not all of both departments were crooked. Both law enforcement agencies were extremely crooked to a large degree.

And please don't make the mistake of thinking that crooked cops didn't exist at the time, graft and corruption was actually widespread in police departments from San Francisco to New York back in the day. In San Francisco, the Vigilance Committee of 1851 and then 1856 were organized because of corruption in the that city's police department, and their local government as a whole. While many point at Sheriff John Behan in Tombstone as being corrupt and on the take, a stooge of the Cowboy faction there, some say the feud between to rival gangs being the Earps and Clantons over control of Tombstone. Another famous example of crooked lawmen was Sheriff Plummer of Bannack, Montana. He was said to have worked both sides of the law before being hanged by vigilantes.

The Hot Springs shootout was a fight over control of the city and who was going to be more crooked than the other. And frankly, Garland County Sheriff's Officer was corrupt as can be.

It was Lawmen vs. Lawmen

On the morning of March 16, 1899, mayoral candidate C.W. Fry and several police officers were present, Chief Toler now supported Fry for the upcoming election. After the meeting concluded, a stranger met with Sheriff Bob Williams to inform him of everything said during the meeting.  A list of all those present was given to Williams, who was enraged by the secret meeting.

Williams storm out of his office and went downtown to meet his friend Dave Young who worked occasionally as a deputy. From there the two men entered the Klondike Saloon, where they discussed the earlier meeting at around 1:30 p.m.

At the same time, Hot Springs Police Sergeant Tom Goslee was eating at the Corrinne Remington Cafe. After finishing his meal, Goslee went to the Tobe and York's barbershop at 614 Central Avenue to have his hair cut.

Goslee had left his .44 caliber revolver in his desk at the police station for safe keeping while he got a haircut, but no he was not totally unarmed because he did have a two-shot derringer with him. It was a hideaway gun that he used in emergencies.

Williams and Young left the Klondike Saloon, heading to the corner of Spring Street, where they saw Goslee leaving the barbershop. Sheriff Williams called out to Goslee from across the street, and Goslee crossed over to meet with the pair.

Police Sgt Thomas Goslee
Things became tense as soon as Goslee walked up. And as Sgt Tom Goslee held out his hand to greet Sheriff Williams, his hand was ignored.

Instead Williams gave Goslee a piece of paper containing the names of the men present during the political meeting. Williams then said something to the effect of, "I want to know what you mean by working against me."

Goslee denied nothing, responded calmly, then began to defend Chief Toler. Sheriff Williams became even more angry and called Goslee a liar and a coward, yelling at him the whole time.

When it appeared Williams was reaching for something under his coat, Goslee quickly drew his derringer, saying, "I want no trouble with you, as you are the sheriff of the county, but I will defend myself if forced to."

Young then stepped between both men, placing a hand on each mans shoulder and saying, "Boys, boys, this will not do.” And yes, Young would later tell a friend he believed Goslee would have killed Williams had he not stepped in.

Sheriff Williams opened his coat to show Goslee that he was not armed and continued to yell at him. Williams then saw his son, Johnny, who worked part-time as a deputy, walking out of the City Hall Saloon.

Sheriff Williams walked to him to greet him. But according to witnesses, Johnny passed his father a .44 caliber revolver and then took another from a friend for himself. It was then that Sheriff Williams opened fire on Goslee, who returned fire with his two-shot derringer.

There stands the problem with a two-shot derringer, it only has two shoots. And unless he was carrying a few extra rounds for his backup piece, Goslee knew that with his shots expended he was in trouble. But Goslee was no fool and immediately sought cover while both Sheriff Williams and his son fired at him. Not knowing if Goslee had reloaded, neither the Sheriff or his son moved in to kill him.

Instead Goslee was able to escaped down an alley to the Sumpter House, where he remained until Chief Toler and another officer arrived to escort him to city hall. Toler notified prosecutor David Cloud, who after taking statements from witnesses and the two men, issued a warrant for the arrest of Sheriff Williams.

Fourteen shots had been fired during the exchange. Luckily for Sgt Tom Goslee, he was not hit. And as surprising as it might sound, Chief Toler suggested that Sgt Goslee go meet with Johnny Williams to try to patch things up with him before the situation worsened. He in turn would meet with Sheriff Williams.

It's obvious that Chief Toler was not looking at the situation for what it really was, a war between lawmen. He would soon learn how much of a war it really was.

March 16th, 1899, was a very bloody day in Hot Springs Arkansas. 

Toler called a private meeting at his home, asking Goslee, C.W. Fry, Captain Lee Haley, Arlington Hotel owner Samual H. Stitt, and property owner George M. French to attend. Supposedly the meeting was meant to discuss how to lessen tensions between the two law enforcement agencies.

Toler then contacted Sheriff Williams to arrange a meeting at 5:30pm, which Williams agreed to but said it had to be short as his daughter Florence was having her 21st birthday party.

Sheriff Williams learned after his conversation with Chief Toler that his son Johnny was scheduled to meet with Sergeant Goslee. Williams then contacted his brother, Coffee, to accompany Johnny to that meeting.

Around 5:00 p.m. on the same day, Captain Haley and Sergeant Goslee walked down Central Avenue, meeting Johnny Williams, Coffee Williams, and Deputy Ed Spear in front of the Oliver and Finney grocery store. They greeted one another cordially, even jokingly, with Johnny Williams commenting that he wanted everyone to be his friend.

Chief Toler and Captain Haley went to Lemp's Beer Depot, where Haley's brother-in-law, Louis Hinkle, was bartender. It was there that they were to meet with Sheriff Williams. Coffee Williams and Ed Spear soon joined them in the bar. It was after this that the encounter began to take a turn from bad to deadly.

Capt. Haley said to Deputy Spear, "Ed, I understand you have told people that if I put my head out, you're going to shoot it off."

Spear seemed stunned for a moment, then replied that anyone who said that was lying. Louis Hinkle, standing behind the bar, became enraged and told Spear, "Don't you make me out to be a liar,"

Then, with one swift motion, Hinkle grabbed Spear around the neck, pulled out a knife, and sliced Spear's throat. As Spear struggled to get himself free and stop the bleeding, Haley yelled to Hinkle, "For God's sake, stop!"

Hinkle, however, would not let go. Toler and Goslee moved quickly toward the struggle, but before they reached the men, Spear wrestled free, pulled his pistol, and shot Hinkle in the throat.

As Hinkle staggered backward, wounded, Coffee Williams shot him in the chest one time.

Goslee was then shot by Johnny Williams, who was outside the bar. Williams shot him twice, once in the right knee and once in the groin.

Even though he was hit twice, Sgt Goslee returned fire shooting Johnny Williams in the head. Surprisingly the shot did not kill him instantly. Coffee Williams then shot and killed Sgt Goslee.

Captain Haley had fled when the first shots were fired, leaving Chief Toler outgunned and alone. Toler began shooting at Coffee Williams, who ran into the street and took refuge behind a freight wagon.

Ed Spear, still bleeding badly, began shooting at Toler. So did Coffee Williams.

Toler returned fire toward both. He hit Spear in the shoulder. But when Toler moved to get a better position on Coffee Williams, they exchanged shots and Toler was hit twice killing him on the spot.

One bullet was fired from Coffee Williams, hitting Toler in the head, and one bullet was fired by Spear, hitting Toler in the chest. Either shot would have been fatal. When Toler went down, the shooting stopped. Toler, Goslee, and Hinkle lay dead, and Johnny Williams lay dying.

Bystander Alan Carter had been wounded by a stray bullet. Spear was bleeding badly, but believe it or not he would survive.

But wait, though all were either dead or shot up, the shooting was not over.

Hot Springs Detective Jim Hart was notified by concerned citizens and responded to the shootout. Sheriff Williams had arrived by that time, found his son dying, and received a full report of what had happened from his brother Coffee.

Seeing Hart, Sheriff Williams walked over to him and said, "Here's another of those sons of bitches!" Williams then pointed his pistol and shot Hart point blank in the face.

Deputy Will Watt, nephew to Sheriff Williams, leaned over the sheriff and fired two more bullets into Hart's already dead body.

By this time, Chief Toler's wife had arrived. It is said that instead of crying, she simply glared at Sheriff Williams, who told her, "Yes, we got Toler, and I wish we had you where he is now."

Toler's wife immediately left, retrieved a gun from her house, and returned with the intent to shoot Sheriff Williams. Sadly he had already left the death scene by the time she returned.

By 9:30 pm, Johnny Williams died. And that brought the gunfight at Hot Springs to five killed and two wounded.

Constable Sam Tate and his deputy Jack Archer removed the bodies, taking them to Gross Funeral Home.

Mayor Gordon called an emergency meeting and replaced murdered Chief Toler with L.D. Beldin. And though tourists began fleeing town in large numbers by then, Mayor Gordon and newly appointed Police Chief Beldin found 150 men and armed them to patrol the city.

Newspaper reporters from the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette converged on the town. Headlines streamed out of Hot Springs, such as:

Five Men Shot to Death: Pandemonium at Hot Springs, Arkansas Gazette, March 17, 1899, p. 1.

No Further Trouble Feared, Arkansas Gazette, March 18, 1899, p. 1.

Placed in Jail: Four Participants in the Hot Springs Riot Held Without Bail, Arkansas Gazette, March 19, 1899, p. 1.

The following day an inquest was held with Governor Daniel Webster Jones present to ensure that procedures were carried out within the law.

Sheriff Bob Williams, Ed Spear, Will Watt and Coffee Williams were charged with murder. All four were arrested. In reality, that last headline was false because all made bail.

Soon a  series of trials followed, and Spear and Coffee Williams were found to have acted in self defense. And believe it or not, the trials of Bob Williams and Will Watt for the cold-blooded murder of Detective Hart ended in a hung jury based on conflicting testimony from witnesses who were said to have been threatened before taking the stand.

Jim Hart's wife, who was blind, later filed a $20,000 lawsuit against Sheriff Bob Williams but she lost.

Remember that ire of the townsfolk that I mentioned, well Frank Flynn was forced out of town following the shootout by a "Citizens Commission" formed by Mayor Gordon. Yes, vigilantes.

Sorry to say that illegal gambling in that city did not go away. The corruption within both law enforcement agencies did not go away as well. Some say that gambling was simply too ingrained in the fabric of their society to go away. And as for the animosity between the two law enforcement agencies, it is said to have lingered for generations.

Because many felt that some got away with cold-blooded murder, tensions between the Hot Springs Police Department and the Garland County Sheriffs Office continued well into the 20th century with lawman versus lawman.

I can understand the lingering animosity. Chief of Police Thomas Toler, Officer J.E. Hart, and Officer Thomas Goslee were shot and killed. And over the 160 years that the City of Hot Springs Arkansas has been around, it has lost a total of 8 officers in the line of duty. Three of those officers were murdered by the Garland County Sheriff's Office.

Tom Correa


  1. I never thought I'd live to see the day where there's an article on an Old West gunfight in Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1899. And that sheriff Coffee Williams. That's a funny first name! Who names their kid Coffee? I guess his mother was a fan of Starbucks or even Folger's. But then again, they didn't have those back then. She could have just loved coffee. But this is an interesting story. One that should be made into a film. One of many actually. A gunfight that was history in the making. And even deadlier than the O.K. Corral. What a fantastic journey in time. Worth the read.

  2. Coffee --- as far as my research went: his initials were J.C. Williams. Now: There were 2 famous American military men from the turn of 18th to 19th century called John Coffee, they were even cousins. And one of them was the name giver for John Coffee Hays, the famous Texas Ranger. And I tried to find out (it's a little bit difficult, I am writing from Germany) that J.C. Williams may have been a John Coffee Williams, but that's just my guess.


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