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Poteau Crime in the Roaring 20’s

By the 1920’s, most of the outlaw days of Poteau was over. Still, there was a criminal undercurrent that ran through town that centered around whiskey and guns. These stories provide a glimpse into those days of prohibition and the jazz age.

Jailbreak!

On May 30, 1920, while in Haskell County, Cole Shumake and Walter Calders attacked Norris Copper and robbed him of $33 by gunpoint. After holding up Norris, they quickly fled into the surrounding woods. However, they would not get away with this for long. They were caught several hours later and sent to the local jail until they could be removed to the federal jail in Poteau.

While incarcerated in the LeFlore County Jail, Cole and Walter hatched a plan to escape. While the details of this escape are vague, the story says that when the guard was bringing lunch into the jail, Walter distracted him while Cole bashed him from behind. Once the guard was subdued, it was a simple matter of getting the keys from the guard and letting themselves out.

A quick escape wouldn’t have been possible except that they had an accomplice waiting outside with a car. After getting in the car, their accomplice gave them a 38-caliber Winchester, which they probably wouldn’t have hesitated to use should they get caught. A manhunt quickly ensued, but Cole and Water, as well as the getaway driver, had made a clean getaway.

Authorities finally caught up with Cole and Walter on June 13, 1920 at the home of Jesse Franks in Poteau. Cole and Walter were arrested without incident. Jesse Franks was also arrested and charged with harboring fugitives from justice, as well as aiding in their escape.

While Cole and Walter would go on to spend some length in jail. Jesse would only spend a few days locked up before he was released on bond. On September 20, 1920, Jesse was acquitted of all charges.

     The Poteau Improvement Project Poteau Crime in the Roaring 20's
One of the old cells; these housed four people at a time
     The Poteau Improvement Project Poteau Crime in the Roaring 20's
Old Jail Cell Door
 

Prohibition

In 1918, congress passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. States ratified the Amendment in 1919, and it thus became the law of the land.

Prohibition began on January 16, 1920, when the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect. It was supposed to lower crime and corruption, reduce social problems, lower taxes, and improve health and hygiene. Instead, alcohol became more dangerous to consume; organized crime blossomed; courts and prisons systems became overloaded; and endemic corruption of police and public officials occurred.

In LeFlore County, the effects of prohibition were clear. Since the late 1800’s, when LeFlore County was still part of Indian Territory, alcohol had been outlawed across the county. Still, many law enforcement officials tended to look the other way. After the prohibition laws took effect, manufacturing and selling alcohol became a serious offense. Many groups, especially the Ku Klux Klan, strongly opposed the sale and distribution of the toxic substance. With such strong opposition to alcohol in the region, lawmen were no longer inclined to ignore those who manufactured alcohol.

On January 3, 1921, Poteau’s newly elected police force took on the responsibility of purging all alcohol from the county. John Hunt, a veteran peace officer and the new sheriff of LeFlore County, had served previously as a United States Deputy Marshal before and after statehood. For deputies, he selected the following men: Heavener, N. S. Costello; Spiro, Monroe Self; Talihina, Delos Wade; Bokoshe, A. C. Wilson.

Immediately after taking office in Poteau, Hunt asked, “for the cooperation of the good people of the county and assures them in advance that any information given by any person with regard to law violations will be treated in the strictest confidence”. He further stated, “strict business efficiency will be his slogan in office, and this will give little time for politics”.

Over the next few years, Sherriff Hunt, along with his deputies and local police officers, would face a great deal of turbulence throughout LeFlore County and within the city of Poteau. As with any growing town, Poteau’s growth created new problems that had not been foreseen previously. While the town’s population continued to grow and development progressed at a rapid pace, the need for a more effective police force became apparent. This new group of elected officials swiftly stepped in to take control.

While alcohol could never be completely eradicated from LeFlore County, Hunt did his best to see that it was. After the massive smallpox epidemic of 1921, lawmen cut back on their pursuit of illegal whiskey. Prohibition officially ended in the United States on December 5, 1933.

     The Poteau Improvement Project Poteau Crime in the Roaring 20's
LeFlore County Courthouse – Whiskey Stills – 1929

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