By Ray Shelley
Looking out my window, I see large oak trees surrounding my home. The trees brought to mind a story of the first jail (Calaboose) In Coal Hill, Arkansas, constructed out of oak logs.
Coal Hill, Johnson County, is located 53 miles East of Fort Smith, Arkansas, Sebastian County, and 14 miles south of Clarksville. In 1840 Coal was discovered in Spadra Creek. By 1888 less than ten years after the railroad’s arrival, 47 million tons of coal had been shipped from the area.
On January 8, 1880, the town of Coal Hill was incorporated, with around 200. There were a couple of General Stores and four Saloons, but no jail. The folks of Coal Hill wanted a jail, raising 40.00 dollars; Uncle Smith Cantwell volunteered to build the jail/calaboose. Cantwell cut and hewed oak trees into four to six-inch square logs and constructed the jail. The walls, floor, ceiling, and door, consisted of the hewed logs.
The town selected a Saturday for a celebration upon completing the new jail. That morning a large crowd gathered in the saloons, and the drinks were plentiful. One fellow, in particular, George Tears, had more than enough of the spirits for his own good. He walked into a store owned by the Bench Brothers and started causing trouble. Johnson County Deputy Sheriff Bud Ledbetter, the first Town Marshal of Coal Hill and later United States Deputy Marshal of Indian Territory, was called to help control Tears.
When Ledbetter attempted to arrest Tears, he produced a long knife and attempted to stab Ledbetter. Tears would have succeeded if it wasn’t for the quick action of Henry Bench, one of the store owners who used an ax handle to knock the knife out of Tear’s hand. It took Ledbetter and several men to subdue George. He fought them every inch of the way to the new jail. Bud sent one of the men to the blacksmith shop to obtain a piece of metal to place in the hasp until he could send uptown for a lock.
Mid-afternoon the prisoner had sobered up a bit and knew he was in deep trouble. With serious charges against him and the possibility of penitentiary time, Tears sent a friend to see attorney J.D. Hunt. Hunt told the friend the only way Tears would escape the penitentiary time was to get out of the Calaboose and leave the county. Hunt suggests George have his wife visit him that evening, and before she leaves the jail, they would change clothes, leaving his wife in his place.
Now I don’t know if that was a tongue-in-cheek suggestion or if Hunt was serious. In any event, Tears took Hunts’ advice and had his wife visit him that evening. George was a small man, so fitting into his wife’s clothes was not a problem. Around midnight, Tear’s wife called the guard to let her out, at which time George himself, dressed in his wife’s clothing, with his head bowed and sunbonnet hiding his fake-sobbing face, plus the fact of the dark moonless night, passed the guard undetected.
Around sunrise, you can imagine the amazement and embarrassment David Smith felt when Mrs. Tears asked Smith to let her out.
The plan was for George to meet his wife and young daughter at George’s mother’s house, then the three of them would leave for Kentucky. When George arrived at his mother’s, snow was falling, and it was bitter cold. So. George decided he would go to Kentucky and then return in the spring for his wife and daughter.
As it turned out, George did not return in the spring; it wasn’t until 13 years later that Tears returned to Coal Hill. His daughter, then 13, lived with his mother-in-law, or I should say, former mother-in-law. George’s wife had left Coal Hill and remarried. Tears visited with his daughter before returning to Kentucky, where he died a couple of years later.
So now you know the true story of the first jail/calaboose break, or to be more accurate, the first jail switches, in Coal Hill, Arkansas.