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

    Fort Smith

    National Historic Site AR,OK

Rattlesnake Cave

On June 29, 1883, Martin Joseph, a Texas horse thief, was executed on the Fort Smith gallows for the double murder of Bud Stephens and his 16-year old wife. Joseph had convinced Stephens to accompany him on a horse stealing expedition. It was while the two were roping some horses that Joseph killed Stephens with a gunshot to the head. He then returned to the Stephens home and told Mrs. Stephens that her husband had been thrown from his horse and was badly injured. She got on the horse behind Joseph and started, as she supposed, to where her husband was. Instead, Joseph abducted Mrs. Stephens, raped and killed her, and threw her body into a cave in the Arbuckle Mountains. Joseph might have got away with his crime had he not confessed the details to a drinking companion who in turn notified Deputy Marshal J. H. Mershon.

Mershon apprehended Joseph with little difficulty. It was obtaining the evidence to convict him that created some problems. The location of Mr. Stephens remains was found and they were gathered up. A band of lawmen found the cave with Mrs. Stephens' remains and Deputy Marshal John Spencer volunteered to descend into the hole to bring up the bones. A rope was tied around his waist and he was lowered into the blackness.

As his feet touched bottom, a sudden rattling and hissing arose. Although there was little light, Spencer could see that the skeletal remains were crawling with rattlesnakes. He hollered to the deputies to pull him up quick. Once out of the hole he steadied himself and gathered his nerve for another attempt at gathering the evidence.

With a lantern in one hand and a revolver in the other, Deputy Spencer was again lowered into the cave. The lantern light momentarily blinded the snakes and with his pistol, Spencer "commenced a war on the snakes." He took careful aim at the largest rattler and fired. The explosion had the triple effect of extinguishing his lantern, scaring off the rest of the snakes and causing the one snake he shot to thrash about as it died, eventually coiling itself around his arms and neck. Undisturbed by the ordeal, Spencer gathered up the bones and clothing and called for a lift to the surface. As he appeared with one end of a rattler wrapped around his arms and the other around his neck, his friends nearly dropped him back into the cave.

The clothing and bones were used as evidence in the five day, double murder trial where the jury reached a guilty verdict in less than 30 minutes.

Juliet Galonska
February 1995

References: Law West of Fort Smith by Glenn Shirley; Fort Smith Elevator.

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.