THE OLD STATE HOUSE

Old State House, newly renovatedThis is the Old State House at Markham and Center in Little Rock. It was the seat of the state government from 1836 to 1911, when the present capitol building was completed. The Clintons and the Gores watched the 1992 election returns here and Mr. Clinton gave his victory speech from the front porch.

During Arkansas' very first legislative session back in December of 1837, the distinguished Speaker of the House stabbed another Assembly member to death with a bowie knife. As knife fights go, this was probably one of the better documented, what with it being witnessed by a couple dozen state congressmen, many of whom might have been sober.

There was a bill on the floor to offer bounties for the killing of timber wolves. Major J. J. Anthony, the representative from Randolph County, said that instead of being issued by a "magistrate," the bounties should be handled by the "President of the Real Estate Bank." The Speaker of the House, Colonel John Wilson by name and President of the Real Estate Bank by profession asked from the podium whether or not Major Anthony meant that as an insult. Anthony snidely replied, "I believe there should be more dignity attatched to the office of one who recieves oaths in the state of Arkansas. Strike out 'magistrate,' and write in, say, 'President of the Real Estate Bank.'"

Truth told, I don't quite get the joke myself. But Anthony's disdain of the Real Estate Bank was well known; and even if Major Anthony was not smart enough to deliver Colonel Wilson a proper insult, tone of voice counted for a lot then as it does today. And when one of the other members broke the silence by laughing out loud, Colonel Wilson decided it was time to defend his honor by killing Major Anthony.

He jumped down from the podium and drew his nine-inch bowie knife. Major Anthony drew his own. A twelve-incher. (It says something about the importance of Bowie Knives that newspaper reporters were more concerned with the details of the knives than who-said-what.) Anthony had longer arms, too. He was a very tall man while Colonel Wilson was five-eight or so. So as Wilson approached, Anthony stabbed at him twice, the second blow landing in Wilson's left forearm.

The shorter man's strategy would have required him to fight from close enough to eliminate the disadvantage of reach. Anthony would have moved back after stabbing Wilson in order to prevent Wilson from closing. Wilson wasn't stopped by the gushing knife wound in his guard arm. Anthony then threw his knife at Colonel Wilson. Wilson ducked and the knife imbedded in the rostrum.

What could he have been thinking? Everybody knows you don't throw your only knife. It's a low-percentage tactic. A panic move. A rookie mistake. Maybe he was disarming himself, hoping that Wilson could then end the fight in a way that would preserve everybody's honor.

The Scene of the CrimeIf that's what he thought, he was wrong. Wilson charged. Anthony threw one chair at Wilson and then grabbed another and tried to fend off Wilson's blows. A colleague tried to break up the fight, but was brushed aside. Wilson ducked under the chair and brought the knife up into Anthony's chest from below. Both men collapsed, but Wilson had enough strength to withdraw his knife from Major Anthony's body and wipe it clean on his victim's coat before passing out. The whole fight couldn't have lasted more than twenty seconds.

Major Anthony died. Colonel Wilson survived. Wilson's trial was moved to a neighboring county on the grounds that tempers in Little Rock were high over the incident and the accused could not get a fair trial. While on trial Wilson lodged at the same house as the Judge and picked up the tab for his honor's meals. He also hired a mob to raise a ruckus outside the courtroom whenever the prosecuting attorney started to talk. Colonel Wilson was found guilty of excusable homicide, whereupon he stood up right there in court and invited the jury and anybody else who happened to be in the courtroom to adjourn to a "dram shop," where Wilson paid for drinks until the following morning. He kept his freedom but lost his seat in the Assembly. His replacement as Speaker was Grandison Royston, the man who had tried to break up the fight.

The Herman Davis Memorial FountainThe Old State House is a museum today, and has recently reopened after extensive renovation. One incidental historical footnote involves the three-tiered acanthus fountain between the portico and the front gate. During a previous renovation back in the 1950's, there was an effort by some Arkansas veterans to construct a monument to WWI hero Herman Davis. They didn't have the cash to come up with a new memorial, so this fountain was designated the Herman Davis Memorial Fountain. There's no plaque or anything on the fountain today, so I assume either the designation has been forgotten or the fountain has been redesignated as something else. The fountain was originally built for the Arkansas pavillion of the 1876 Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia.

RTJ--7/1/99

UPDATED RTJ--6/1/2000

UPDATE

I was reading a biography of Albert Pike which offered some alternate perspectives on the infamous Old State House knife fight.

The issue of bounties on timber wolves wasn't really taken seriously by those involved in the debate. It came up periodically and was voted down predictably because of problems with verifying the bounties, the possibilities of fraudulent pelts and so on. The issue was treated by the legislators as entertainment, an opportunity to display their talents at comedic rhetoric. These bills would be brought up the last thing before adjourning as a frontier equivalent of a Friar's roast.

Absurd amendments were proposed adding bounties on everything from possums to rats. Jibes and insults were flung carelessly about and were instantly forgotten, except in the case of Major Anthony's remark to Colonel Wilson. Anthony just stepped over the line and touched one of Wilson's exposed nerves. The fight was on before Anthony had a chance to formulate a graceful apology. According to Duncan's book, it started as a joke and ended in a trial. (Pike was on the prosecution team.) The Duncan book also says Anthony did not throw his knife at Wilson, but dropped it in a gesture he hoped would be disarming.

The short version of Wilson's Real Estate Bank scandal goes like this: A law was passed that payments to the federal government, taxes and fees and royalties and leases on public land, had to be paid in silver and gold. Since there was a shortage of silver and gold here on the frontier which could slow the pace of economic development, the federal government agreed to lend four million bucks in precious metals to two banks, the Arkansas State Bank and the Real Estate Bank. These banks would lend the specie to settlers, who could use it to pay their taxes and obtain leases for timber and grazing and mineral rights and thus more quickly civilize the frontier.

These two banks lent the gold and silver to real estate speculators in some shady transactions. Land was appraised at $40 an acre when it was worth $5 an acre. The thin land was used to secure fat loans. The speculators took the gold and defaulted on the loans. The bank ended up with the worthless land and the bankers ended up with the cash, since they had loaned all the money to each other in a series of these sweetheart deals.

If this sounds like the Whitewater scandal, it's because today's Arkansas real estate hot dogs are the cultural descendants of those frontier speculators. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Just substitute a taxpayer bailout for the hard currency and you've a familiar story. The result in 1837 was that the feds got ripped off to the tune of $4M in 1836 dollars and the hard currency that was supposed to invigorate the economy of the new state ended up in the private hoards of a few wheeler dealers.

RTJ -- 10/1/2002

In the neighborhood: The Little Rock

Some other stories involving Arkansas real estate deals: Dogpatch | Heber Springs | Little Rock | Crater of Diamonds


Arkansas Travelogue home page

Sources:

Duncan, Robert Lipscomb, Reluctant General -- The Life and Times of Albert Pike, E. P. Dutton and Company, Inc., New York, 1961. pp. 90-94.

Thorp, Raymond W., Bowie Knife, University of New Mexico Press, 1948. pp 1-4.

Fletcher, John Gould; Arkansas, University of Arkansas Press, 1947. pp. 52-54.