Murder Mystery: Gunfight at Alma

 

In 1933, the notorious Barrow Gang terrorized northwest Arkansas and shot down a town marshal.

Photography courtesy of Dallas Municipal Archive, City of Dallas.
Originally appeared in AY‘s March 2013 issue.

 

On May 1, 1933, Henry D. Humphrey pinned on a shiny marshal’s badge and swore to protect and serve the more than 700 residents of Alma, Arkansas. Law enforcement was a new field for the 51-year-old who had spent most of his life farming and doing odd jobs.

He needed the $15/month he earned as marshal to help support his wife and three children. The work was typically uneventful — even boring — until the day the new marshal crossed paths with some of the nation’s most-wanted outlaws.

Humphrey’s law enforcement career was short-lived, ending June 26, 1933, after a gunfight with the notorious Barrow Gang. Led by brothers Clyde and Marvin “Buck” Barrow of Dallas, the gang also included Clyde’s lover, Bonnie Parker, and Buck’s wife, Blanche, as well as W.D. Jones and Henry Methrin. From 1932 to 1934, the gang made headlines during a spree of small-time robberies and 12 ruthless killings.

Despite their willingness to shoot anyone who got in their way, the gang’s exploits caught the fancy of Americans beaten down by the harsh reality of the Great Depression. The Barrow brothers were young, wild, gun-toting punks, but because they had sassy Bonnie Parker in their midst, many looked upon their brutal escapades as a titillating tale of illicit romance.

The gang’s bloody trail wound through Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. On June 15, 1933, the six bandits arrived in Fort Smith, Ark., where they checked into two cabins at the Twin Cities Tourist Camp to lay low and regroup after a car accident in Texas. Bonnie was in agonizing pain from severe burns on her legs, so the group hunkered down while tending to her injuries. No one knew the Barrows were in Arkansas.

Bonnie and Clyde traveled the country with their gang during the Great Depression, robbing people and killing when cornered or confronted.

Bonnie and Clyde

At 2 a.m., June 22, Humphrey patrolled downtown Alma as he did every night. As he passed the Commercial Bank, two men snatched him, took his pistol and flashlight, and bound his wrists and ankles with wire. They broke into the bank, then used a winch to hoist its 4,000-pound safe onto their truck. The safe contained $3,600. At the time, no one connected the Barrow gang with the bank robbery. Those suspicions came later.

The robbers threatened to kill Humphrey if he “squawked,” but left him unharmed. Still, the experience alarmed the townspeople so much that they ordered Humphrey a bulletproof vest to protect him. The vest arrived too late.

As the days ticked by in the tourist camp, laying low and caring for Bonnie proved expensive. The gang was desperate. Clyde wouldn’t leave Bonnie’s side, so he sent his brother and Jones in search of cash.

On June 23 at 5:30 p.m., Buck and Jones robbed Brown Grocery Store in Fayetteville, Ark., taking away $20 and change. They fled for Fort Smith as police spread the word to law enforcement agencies to be on the lookout for their Ford sedan. After hearing the getaway car was coming toward Alma, Humphrey and A.M. Salyers, Crawford County deputy sheriff, headed out on U.S. Highway 71 in Salyers’ car. Humphrey was armed with a borrowed .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver.

As the marshal and deputy drove out of town, the Ford sedan sped past them in the opposite direction and rear-ended a slower-moving car that had just crested a hill ahead. Humphrey and Salyers heard the crash and turned back.

The Arkansas Gazette reported that the robbers were still in their wrecked car when Salyers stopped and the marshal stepped to the ground. Humphrey did not have an opportunity to draw his pistol as the robbers started firing.

Buck Barrow shot the marshal in the stomach, chest and shoulder. After the gunfight, the shooters fled in Salyers’ car, but ditched it an hour later and stole another car from a Fort Smith couple. They picked up the rest of their gang at the tourist camp and terrorized the area as police searched for them. The gang appeared June 25 at the home of John Rogers near Winslow, Ark., and beat his wife with a chain when she refused to give them her car keys. Mrs. Rogers accused them of rape, but later recanted the charge.

From his bed in a Fort Smith hospital, Humphrey identified photos of the Barrow brothers as the men who shot him. Other witnesses identified the shooters as members of the Barrow gang. As news of the gunfight spread, so did speculation that the gang was responsible for the Alma bank robbery, but their involvement was never proven.

Although a posse searched for days and the Crawford County sheriff offered a $1,000 reward, the Barrow gang escaped into Oklahoma. Later, they were seen in Texarkana, where they committed a robbery and kidnapping.

A year after the Alma gunfight, police killed Bonnie and Clyde during an ambush in Louisiana.

Humphrey died from his gunshot injuries on June 26, 1933. He had been town marshal less than two months. The city of Alma honored him by erecting a plaque at the City Complex Building.


Resources: Arkansas Gazette; Fort Smith Times Record; Arkansas Historical Quarterly; the Portal to Texas History; Dallas Historical Society; and the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.

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