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Sunday, July 14, 2024

Timepiece: Feuding in the Ozarks

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Arkansas River Valley Business Directory

By Dr. Curtis Varnell

The story of the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s is a well-known incident in American history and most of us have either extensively read the story or saw the movie.  Two Scotch-Irish families with bad-blood between them set off chaos that rocks an entire region and ends up with a trial in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Scotch-Irish and mountain people tend to be highly individualistic, free-thinkers, and prone to take matters into their own hands when challenged.  These same type individuals settled in the mountains of Arkansas and, when challenged, could demonstrate these same tendencies. 

One of the more famous Arkansas feuds involved the McLaughlin and Nixon family of Franklin County, Arkansas.  Like the Hatfield/McCoy story, the feud had roots in the Civil War, moonshining, and ownership of land.  Samuel McLaughlin, a veteran of the War of 1812, was given a land-grant near Jethro, Arkansas.  When the Civil War broke out, he and most of his relatives joined the Confederates.  He fought at the battle of Prairie Groove at the ripe old age of 72.  William McLaughlin, a relative fought for the Union and was killed while at home under suspicious circumstances.  After the war, feelings were still running high, and former antagonists were blaming each other for atrocities committed by the other side.

Samuel McLaughlin

Another prominent family, the Nixon’s, were rivals in moonshining and, possibly politically, to the McLaughlin’s.  Feeling that simmered beneath the surface came to the forefront in the early 1900’s when Arthur Nixon was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives.  The McLaughlin clan claimed the county political machine, headed by Nixon, was corrupt.  In 1914, a local girl was molested and the Nixon group placed the blame on Neal McLaughlin. The McLaughlin clan claimed that the Nixon’s had framed Neal.  The case eventually went to trial with the result of McLaughlin, who steadfastly proclaimed innocence, being sentenced to die in the electric chair.  The electric chair, as a means of execution, was new to the state and it was deemed that the prison electrician at Tucker prison would be the man to perform the execution.  Each time McLaughlin’s date approached, the electrician refused to kill him.  In the meantime, some 2,800 people in the county pleaded for clemency.  Finally, a man willing to operate the chair was hired. Neal approached his date with death within 24 hours only to get a reprieve from Gov. Hays.

State Representative, Arthur Nixon vehemently opposed the reprieve and was vocal about it.  Kie McLaughlin, brother to Neal challenged Nixon during a chance meeting.  Nixon pulled out his gun and shot Kie cleanly through the chest while Kie hacked violently at Nixon’s throat.  Nixon ended up with a four-inch slash and Kie with a clean hole through his chest near his heart. 

Eight days later, while on a trip to an island in the Mulberry River to get corn, Nixon was shot through the heart with a 30-30.  Kia claimed he was in bed ill, a story validated by neighbors and family.

In prison, Neal continued to plead innocent and continued to be reprieved- a total of ten death sentences according to the Arkansas Gazette.  With thousands of people in Franklin County supporting him, and the girl recanting her story, the Governor finally commuted the death sentence to life in prison.  Released into the general prison population, the adroit backwoodsman, quickly escaped and walked through the forest back to Franklin County.  He eluded capture, aided by his many friends, for two years until newly elected Governor Brough, granted him a full pardon.

Kie eventually went to trial and was acquitted of murder.  He made a speech immediately after the trial claiming the Nixon family were trying to steal, kill, and destroy his family and it would not happen.

Newspapers from Honolulu to New York ran front-page articles with titles such as, “Ozark feud to be renewed.”  The fiery McLaughlin’s seemed ready to oblige when the Nixon patriarch decided it was time to vacate the county. 

In some areas of the Ozarks, feelings still run high and hot over long-past issues.  Talk to some of these old families, there are still undercurrents of feelings. Hopefully, we learn to from the old saying; Let sleeping dogs lie!!

McLaughlin in the later years
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