Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:January 2nd, 2014 08:59 EST
Why were Four Prison Escapees (from the Notorious Cummins Farm Prison) Hung on March 7, 1941?

Why were Four Prison Escapees (from the Notorious Cummins Farm Prison) Hung on March 7, 1941?

By John G. Kays

"I think you have a mighty fine sheriff. He has been kind to us...I would like to tell all of the youngsters and old timers, too, that crime does not pay. There is no such thing as `easy money.`" William Heard - Cummins prison (Arkansas) escapee`s last words before being hanged - March 7, 1941.

I`m still trying to put these pieces together on a very interesting story, that occurred 72 years ago, about a big prison break from the notorious Cummins Farm Prison in Arkansas on Labor Day of 1940. According to Sheriff Steve May (Caldwell Parish Sheriff), who`s my primary source of information, 30 inmates escaped from Cummins, which is located near Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and four of these inmates ended up in his jurisdiction, which is in Columbia, Louisiana; one had been shot (prior to the Columbia incident) on a Mississippi River Bridge (I`ll need more specifics on the fate of this one inmate). 

In an email, Sheriff May had mentioned this was the biggest prison break in U.S. history, up to that time, which as I had previously referenced, was the Fall of 1940, a little before the U.S. had entered the Second World War in earnest. Just to back up a tidbit, and I must say, I do believe this story is worthy of proper promulgation, which might explain why I am proceeding with a great deal of caution, but I had written several short pieces on Bonnie and Clyde, after a new miniseries was aired on the infamous Depression-Era outlaws (Dec 8th-15th). Sheriff May contacted me after reading one or more of my articles. 

You might remember the angle about Bonnie and Clyde springing a number of inmates (including Raymond Hamilton and Henry Methvin) out of another infamous prison farm, Eastham near Houston. Needless to say, it was the well thought out and cleverly executed Barrow Gang escape from Eastham Prison Farm on January 15, 1934, that probably put a fire under Governor Ferguson to organize a posse, giving the management duties to the canny and skilled stalker of badmen, former Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer. 

In any case, Sheriff May has let me know, a posse was organized as well to catch these escapees (about 6 years after Eastham), who for unknown reasons to me, drifted down south, across the Louisiana border, probably passing fairly close to Monroe, and ending up in Columbia, which is where the posse finally caught up with four of them. While I don`t know too much about them yet, such as why they were doing hard time in Cummins, I can at least tell you their names. They are/were: William Heard, 43; William Landers, 39; William McHarg, 25; and Floyd Boyce, 29. 

Apparently, the four desperadoes held three students from Rayville hostage for two days, near Bellview Plantation, when the posse discovered their whereabouts, as they were repairing a flat tire (I could use some more specifics on their capture also). A spokesman for the posse, Frank Gartman, was shot and killed by multiple shotgun pellets, in the back. It`s my understanding, Gartman`s death has always been controversial; that is, rumor has it, he may have been killed by friendly fire (another posse member you see!) My question is, as Frank negotiated with the convicts, was he facing them, or were they behind him? He was shot in the back.

If Gartman was killed from friendly fire, this would mean four innocent men (not totally innocent, you understand) went to their death (a very primitive way, by hanging, which was replaced by an equally primitive method of execution, the electric chair) for no reason at all, other than wanting to escape from an abusive prison system. I`m still filling in the lines as to exactly what happened in Columbia, La. all those years ago. I`ll need to do some more investigating, probe the records further, then I`ll come out with Part II (as soon as I get my ducks lined up straighter). Time and time again, I have found, an untold backstory lingers just beneath the surface of what we`ve been told (the official version); no difference this time around!