The Great Sulphur Springs Bank Robbery of 1925

sulphur springs bankLike all final good-byes, the June 1925 funeral service for the dearly departed Sulphur Springs resident Louis Manker, L.M., Stout was a sad affair.  The service held in the park’s big tabernacle was attended by more than 500 mourners, after all, the small Northwest Arkansas town was a close-knit one and if those in attendance were not somehow related to Mr. Stout, they certainly knew the recently deceased.

As Reverend Runyan spoke, Clara Abercrombie was overcome with the feeling that she was somewhat responsible for the death of Stout.  As she wiped away a tear born from guilt which moistened her cheek her remorse could be heard in the broken words she spoke; “If only I hadn’t been the one to tell him about the men at the bank.  But, how could I have known what tragedy and sorrow my actions and words would bring to Sulphur Springs and to the Stout family; how could I have calculated the path of the bullet fired by the villain’s gun and the unforeseen tragedy that was to follow.  I am so, so sorry.”

The cold and uncompromising wheel of fate which led to Stout’s demise was put into motion on May 2nd when Sulphur Springs Bank cashier Storm Whaley opened a seemingly innocuous envelope.  The letter, penned by an Adair County, Oklahoma deputy sheriff, warned that a group of ruffians were planning to rob the bank in May or June.  Fearing that the threat was real, Whaley took the letter to Benton County Sheriff Joe Gailey.

Gailey considered the threat to be credible and gathered up some rifles, shotguns and ammunition.  He drove the sheriff’s patrol car to Sulphur Springs and left the small arsenal at Stout’s Grocery Store located on Hibler Avenue.  Sheriff Gailey told Stout to make good use of the weapons should the robbery take place.

Several weeks passed and the bank and the deposits stored inside remained secure.  No suspicious or unsavory characters were observed on the streets of the small town and no new warnings regarding the anticipated robbery were received.  On Monday, June 8th Gailey once again traveled to Stout’s Grocery Store.  “I’m going to gather up all the weapons I left with you.  It looks like this was a false alarm,” he said to L.M. Stout as he walked to his car, arms filled with guns and boxes of ammunition.  “Give me a call if you see anything suspicious.”

The next 2 days found the town returning to normal and concerns over the possibility of the robbery turned to laughter as many considered the threat to be no more than a hoax.  The town’s inhabitants once again talked about the weather, the hay in the fields and their families, not bank robbers. That was, until Thursday June 11th.

“I’ll be back in just a bit,” Clara said as she stepped through the bank’s front door on her way to lunch.  There, just on the other side of that doorway stood John Burchfield and Elva McDonald.  For a brief moment the three stared at each other when all at once Burchfield said, “Just let her go.”  Was this an act of chivalry or was the gang’s leader overconfident in the group’s ability to successfully complete their evil task?

Clara tried to remain calm as she walked away from the two however she couldn’t resist the temptation to turn her head for an ever so quick glance back as the two entered the bank.  Clara’s thoughts were of a previous but very similar day not that long ago when the bank was robbed.  She was forced inside the vault and surrounded by the quiet darkness.

With pistol filled hands the two robbers entered the bank and as McDonald slowly closed the door the men’s intent was clearly stated.  “Produce all the money or suffer the consequences,” Burchfield brazenly announced.  Banker Storm Whaley and newspaper manager C.A. Swarens were inside the building when Burchfield blurted out his demand.

Concealed from the outlaw’s view was a pistol in the cash drawer but when Whaley’s hand came from that drawer it held only money.  Whaley calculated that the risk was far too great.  The robbers ordered Whaley and Swarens into the vault and as Burchfield collected the money stored there he threatened to kill the two victims should the vault door not lock.  “If this door doesn’t lock I’ll kill both of you.”

Once the vault door slammed shut Whaley used a hidden telephone secretly placed there as a result of previous robberies.  Whaley called Johnson’s Garage and alerted Elmer Johnson of the robbery.  Giving little or no thought to his own safety Johnson ran to his home and retrieved several guns.sulphur springs bank3

Clara found her pace quicken as she neared the entrance to Stout’s Grocery Store.  “Louis where are you,” she called out as the front door had barely opened.  “Louis they’re robbing the bank!”  While screaming, “they’re robbing the bank,” Clara ran to the rear of the store where she found Stout.  “Clara what are you saying? Who’s robbing the bank?”  Clara’s words couldn’t keep up with her thoughts.  “There are two men with guns inside and two men in a black Model-T parked on the street near the front of the bank.”  Stout didn’t speak but walked to a storage closet, reached inside and brought out and into Clara’s view a shotgun.

Stout, and his son Dick who was also armed with a shotgun, ran from the grocery and onto the street.  As the Model-T get-away car came into view, Stout saw that there were two men, later identified as Tyrus Clark and Boyd Jewell, seated inside the vehicle.  Burchfield and McDonald were running toward the black ford carrying the stolen money.

Stout shouted, “Stop right there or I’ll shoot!”  Clark didn’t surrender but rather fired one shot from his shotgun sending buckshot from the end of the barrel which struck Stout in the stomach.  As Stout fell to the ground he fired five rounds all striking the vehicle however no shots caused injury to any of the robbers.  Dick however, fired one single shot that found its mark and struck Jewell in the leg.  Another accurately aimed shot struck Burchfield in the shoulder.  Burchfield and McDonald eventually scrambled into the car and the shooting ended as the vehicle drove away.

Elmer Johnson and other townspeople caught up to the bandits before they left Sulphur Springs and Burchfield and Jewell surrendered.  Sheriff Gailey later arrived and took charge of the two prisoners.  Later that night Johnson and Jim Arthur found Clark and McDonald.  They were on foot and several miles away from the scene of the robbery.  Johnson demanded that they surrender but his words were answered with gunshots.  Johnson was struck in the face and chest while Arthur received a wound to the wrist.  On Tuesday June, 16th Sheriff Gailey announced that he had captured both Clark and McDonald.

Louis Manker Stout died as a result of his wounds while Elmer Johnson lost his right eye.  Three of the bank robbers were tried in a Benton County, Arkansas court while the fourth, Boyd Jewell, betrayed his co-conspirators and testified against the other three.  A large number of women onlookers crowded the courtroom which, at that time, was considered to be uncommon.

Tyrus Clark was convicted of the murder of L.M. Stout and was electrocuted on January 26, 1926.  Elva McDonald wept when his verdict was announced; guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison.  He was considered to be a model inmate and on December 23, 1930 his sentence was commuted to 21 years by then Arkansas Governor Harvey Parnell.  McDonald was released from prison on December 22, 1931.  John Burchfield was also found guilty of murder and was killed on May 24, 1926 while attempting to escape.  The bank robbers stole $933.00, much of which was recovered by posse members during the search for the four culprits.

Jewell seemed to harbor a grudge against Elmer Johnson and in 1931 relayed a message to him through local resident Butch Wyatt.  Jewell said that he was going to come to Sulphur Springs and upon arrival, kill Johnson.  Johnson, then living with only one functioning eye had moved to Kansas City but sent a message, again through Wyatt, to Jewell.  “Let me know when you’re going to be in Sulphur Springs and I’ll meet you there.”  Jewell, the scoundrel that he was, never returned to the small Arkansas town.

The four bandits assumed that the small town bank would be an “easy mark” but little did they know about the courage and determination of the townspeople of Sulphur Springs, Arkansas.  However, the four criminals would learn of that grit and resolve on Thursday, the 11th day of June in the year 1925.

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