• Rifle Regiment arriving at Belle Point, 1817. Artwork by Michael Haynes

    Fort Smith

    National Historic Site AR,OK

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Cherokee Bill's Escape Attempt From Jail

In 1895, when Cherokee Bill was lodged in the overcrowded and understaffed federal jail at Fort Smith, he occupied a cell on Murderers Row which was the first of three levels in the jail. It consisted of two rows of cells running back to back down the center of the building and then surrounded by an iron cage of cross-barred steel.

On July 10, 1895, the U.S. Jailer ordered a search of the jail. This was nothing unusual as routine inspections had turned up everything from three cornered files and slingshots to pistols smuggled in by friends and relatives in cakes, loaves of bread or in jugs of buttermilk. In Cherokee Bill's cell, the guards uncovered nine .45 cartridges and in the bathroom on the first floor a .45 revolver hidden in a bucket of lime. What the guards failed to discover was a second loaded revolver and additional ammunition hidden behind a loose stone in the wall of Cherokee Bill's cell.

On the evening of July 26, Turnkey Campbell Eoff and Guard Larry Keating were locking the cell doors. The method of doing this was by securing a lever connected with a long bar that fastened the closed doors of each row of cells at the top. Then the turnkey locked each cell individually. That night one of the prisoners threw back the lever on the west side with aid of a long broomstick or pole. The effect was the release of the cell doors on the side where Cherokee Bill was confined. Bill stood with a pistol in hand waiting, his cell door closed but unlocked. Turnkey Eoff and Guard Keating did not suspect that anything was wrong.

When they reached his cell, Bill yelled to Keating to throw up his hands and turn over his pistol. Keating however, reached for his gun and Bill shot him twice. The guard dropped to the floor. By this time four other guards had heard the shots and arrived at the scene. Entering the jail, they began firing to drive Bill and another prisoner back to their cells. Over 100 rounds ricocheted through the jail before Henry Starr called out that if the guards would stop their fire, he would take Bill's pistol. The cease-fire was honored and Starr walked to Cherokee Bill's cell and induced him to give up his weapon. The guards then entered the jail and once again secured Cherokee Bill.

Although the crowd surrounding the U.S. Jail that night wanted to lynch Bill, the legal system prevailed. The murder trial began on August 10. Two days later the jury announced a guilty verdict in 13 minutes. Judge Parker again sentenced Cherokee Bill to hang, and again the case was appealed. But luck and time had finally run out for Bill. In December, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict in the Melton case and Parker announced a new execution date of March 17, 1896.

Juliet Galonska
February 1995

References: Marauders of the Indian Nations by Glenn Shirley.

This sketch is part of a series, “Fort Smith Minutes,” originally developed by the park staff to provide one minute long public service announcements for local radio stations. These sketches provide a light and entertaining glimpse into the complex history of Fort Smith.

Did You Know?

Park staff and volunteers demonstrating using lindstock and slowmatch to ignite the cannon's primer

The soldiers who came to Fort Smith in 1817 were still using some 18th century technology and drill. The cannon was discharged using a lindstock and slowmatch to ignite the primer, which originally was loose powder or a turkey quill filled with powder.