The recent 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination served as a reminder of three unpleasant acts of political violence involving Jefferson County residents, two taking place within a few weeks in the summer of 1847 and the other occurring in 1889.
The initial incident followed Pine Bluff’s first municipal elections on Jan. 4, 1847, when James De Baun Jr. was chosen as mayor.
On June 24, the mayor and his father — James De Baun Sr. — were walking to the elder’s business, a store near the Arkansas River here. As they neared White’s Tavern — a riverside saloon and eatery — two assailants at the door of the pub’s dining room opened fire with shotguns.
Despite suffering five severe buckshot wounds, the mayor would survive. His father, however, was killed instantly.
The gunmen escaped in boats.
The Arkansas Gazette reported only that a “Dr. Embree” was the lone identified shooter. The late James W. Leslie, who wrote three books on Jefferson County and Pine Bluff history, researched the matter and determined that Israel Embree and Jordan N. Embree were major landowners in nearby Rob Roy, but neither was known as a physician.
Leslie uncovered a docket showing that Israel Embree was charged with murder in 1830 but wasn’t convicted.
However, Leslie found no record of a trial in the murder of James De Baun Sr., but an 1848 circuit court docket discloses that felony assault charges again Mayor De Baun were dropped because an unnamed witness was not present to provide testimony.
Perhaps the mayor had sought revenge against “Dr. Embree” in the killing of the elder De Baun, but no records confirming that suspicion have been found.
The second episode was an arranged July 29 bout on an Arkansas River sandbar in the Cherokee Nation of the Oklahoma Territory, near Fort Smith.
Former state Rep. John Seldon Roane of Pine Bluff, who in 1850 would win election as a one-term governor, challenged nationally known Masonic leader and frontiersman Albert Pike of Little Rock to a duel after Pike publicly criticized Roane’s performance as a Mexican War commander in 1846.
Pike and Roane twice fired pistols at and missed one another. They wound up retreating to Fort Smith, where they would dine together.
The latter event is featured in a 1998 book — “Who Killed John Clayton? Political Violence and the Emergence of the New South, 1861-1893” — by the University of Central Arkansas’ Kenneth C. Barnes.
John Middleton Clayton was a former state representative and senator and had been a five-term Jefferson County sheriff when he became a Republican candidate for the U.S. Congress against fellow Pine Bluffian Democrat Clifton R. Breckinridge, a son of a former U.S. vice president.
The 1888 Breckinridge-Clayton race was considered the most fraudulent in state history. After losing by a narrow margin, Clayton went to Plumerville, near Morrilton, to personally investigate an armed theft of a ballot box thought to have contained a majority of Clayton votes.
On Jan. 29, Clayton — a younger brother of Pine Bluff’s Powell Clayton, who was elected governor in 1868 — was shot to death through a window of a boarding house in which he was staying. The crime attracted national attention and a then-massive $5,000 reward. An independent investigation by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency produced little finding.
No one was ever charged.
Congress, however, would decide in 1890 that Clayton had actually been victorious, and Breckinridge was booted from his post.
(Do you have a question on a local historical event or a story or photo from Jefferson County’s past to share? Email Rick Joslin at firstname.lastname@example.org.)