Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Unsolved mystery ... or was everyone glad he was gone?

 By Fatme Myuhtar-May, archival manager for Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives

The records of the Walnut Ridge district court comprise the largest single collection preserved at NEARA. They are part of the Lawrence County court records and exceed 230 cubic feet of processed materials, all of which is open to researchers. In this collection, there are two thick folders which document the sensational 1910 trial of James C. Langston for the murder of Arthur W. Shirey. 

Arthur W. Shirey
Shirey was a wealthy landowner and merchant who resided in the small town of Minturn in Lawrence County, Arkansas. Langston was a 33-year-old telegraph operator for the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway and a veteran of the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902. He became the prime suspect for Shirey’s murder because he was young Mrs. Shirey’s avowed suitor. When it became clear that he was nowhere near Arkansas at the time of the murder, Langston was acquitted. Shirey’s murder has remained unsolved to this day.

On the rainy and misty evening of March 10, 1910, “events began to unfold … that would eventually become known as the most famous and bizarre murder case ever to occur,”1 at least in Lawrence County, Arkansas. The elderly Shirey was shot dead in his store in Minturn, a two-story building located near the railroad. The store occupied the ground floor of the building, while Shirey lived in the rooms above. The gunshot apparently came through the open door of the store while Shirey was conversing with Walter Merritt, a customer. His store clerk, Levy Hutton, was also present. As Hutton recalled on the witness stand during Langston’s trial, Shirey was sitting “on two sacks of potatoes,” near the door, when a shot rang out:

I was standing about six feet from him [Shirey], was looking at his head, right here (rubs right side of his head along temple and above the ear), he was sitting there, the shot was fired, and his brains ran out of his head, and looked as white to me as cotton, he just nodded his head, when he was shot[.] Walter Merritt was in front of him and both rubbed their heads and Walter did considerable rubbing and said he was powder burned[.] Mr. Shirey began to straighten up and fell over backwards[.]2

Evidently, the shooter fired from a range close enough to powder-burn Merritt’s face and to damage Hutton’s hearing. As Hutton declared in his deposition, he was otherwise unharmed by the shot, except: “... it kindly deadened that ear and I can’t hear out of it good yet.” 3 Both Hutton and Merritt testified during the murder trial, but only Levy gave an account of the murder scene. Based on his description and timing, Shirey’s killing was not an accident, nor was it ever interpreted as such by the state prosecutors or anyone in the community. The murderer, whoever he (or she) was, fired with the apparent intent to kill since the shots hit the target precisely, without seriously harming either Hutton or Merritt who were just a few feet away from Shirey. The shots were also from a close range, as Hutton indicated, because Merritt suffered a powder burn, while Hutton lost his hearing in one ear due to the noise from the gunshot. What is more, as the prosecution later argued, the murderer timed the shooting to a nicety, so that the noise from the firearm could be drowned by the freight train passing nearby at the very moment of the shooting. This timing, the prosecution stated, permitted the perpetrator to escape. When Shirey fell dead, Hutton and Merritt stood stunned for a moment and then rushed out to see if they could see the shooter, but it was too dark. Hutton said that he “went out and hallowed for the marshal [sic] right there, he was right there close.” He also “sent Walter Merritt out then to let them know, everybody I could get there, and telephoned up here for Will Surridge [the county sheriff] and for him to bring some blood-hounds there.”4 

The news of Shirey’s death spread quickly, and the residents of Minturn turned out, lanterns in hand, looking for the killer. It had been raining and the soil was soft, so “the murderer’s footprints could be seen” in the mud near the store.5 In the ensuing days, Lawrence County Sheriff William Surridge took charge of the investigation and even deputized detective Herbert L. Mosher of the St. Louis branch of the Pinkerton Detective Agency to help with solving the case. Early on, the investigators zeroed in on a male suspect who rented a white or gray mare from the nearby town of Hoxie, rode it to Minturn, then was presumed to have hidden the horse in some bushes near the store before committing the murder. After that, he rode back to Hoxie to return the horse and boarded the passing train to get away. Soon, a man matching the description of the suspected murderer was named: one James C. Langston.

James C. Langston
On Aug. 17, 1910, the grand jury indicted Langston for murder in the first-degree. Langston was an outsider who had briefly resided in Minturn as a railroad telegraph operator but, by the time of the murder, had moved to South Dakota to claim a tract of land on a soldier’s claim under the Homestead Act. Langston was arrested in South Dakota and brought back to Arkansas to be tried for Shirey’s murder. Witnesses for the state affirmed that they had seen Langston in the Hoxie-Minturn area on the day of the murder. According to some of these witnesses, it was Langston who had rented the gray mare from Hoxie on the evening of the murder and rode down a dirt road to Minturn to commit the crime. His motive for the murder, according to the prosecution, was his love for Shirey’s young wife, Fairbelle. On Oct. 4, 1910. Langston was formally charged with the murder of A.W. Shirey; he entered a non-guilty plea.

Fairbelle Hill was 14 or 16 years of age when she married 69-year-old A.W. Shirey in February of 1904. Shirey was reckoned by his neighbors to possibly be the wealthiest man in Lawrence County; a newspaper noted that “at the time of his death, Shirey had accumulated thousands of acres in farm and timber land and several lots in nearby Walnut Ridge [the county seat], worth between $200,000 and $400,000.”6

By local standards, Shirey was indeed a rich man. It was small wonder, then, that in early 1904 he “wooed and won” pretty Fairbelle Hill, the only daughter of a large and very poor family of tenant farmers who rented land from “Old Man” Shirey.

Fairbelle Shirey (nee Hill)
From the start, the Shireys had a tumultuous marriage. During the six years they were technically married, the couple lived together in the rooms above Shirey’s store for only three months. Their relationship quickly fell apart when Shirey severely and publicly whipped Fairbelle with a switch on the streets of Minturn after some people told him that they had seen her with a man in the secluded local cemetery. Later, when seeking a divorce from Shirey, Fairbelle alleged in court that the beating rendered her unable to work and make a living. As a result, she sought alimony from him, plus one third of his estate.

In response to her lawsuit, Shirey stated that he had never intended to marry Fairbelle in the first place because she was “a prostitute.”7 He said he was forced into the marriage by her mother who threatened to bring a hefty lawsuit against him for seduction and a breach of promise. Shirey’s lawyers argued that Fairbelle had been unfaithful to him during the marriage;  therefore, their client would not pay the alimony, nor any share of his estate. To prove that she was a prostitute, Shirey went so far as to hire some questionable characters to follow her around and even to try to solicit her services in order to compromise her. The back-and-forth divorce saga ultimately reached the Arkansas Supreme Court, which denied them a divorce on the grounds that they were both at fault: Shirey, for marrying an “infant,” as the court called her,8 and then for promising to take her back, despite the evidence of her infidelities; Fairbelle, for continuing to have a sexual relationship with Shirey after he brutally beat her. That they continued to have a sexual relationship was evident from the fact that Fairbelle became pregnant during the separation and gave birth to a daughter that died shortly thereafter. When she named Shirey as the father, however, he denied it.

While both Fairbelle’s and Shirey’s characters were called into question during the divorce proceedings, public opinion seems to have been largely on the side of Fairbelle. Shirey had a history of mistreating his previous two wives, Eliza and Maggie, who had also been much younger than him. The community apparently did not look favorably on his proclivity to chase after much younger women, even though “May-December” marriages were not unusual in the day. Shirey’s reputation may be gauged by remarks by attorney (and future judge) Charles Coffin of Batesville, who stated that, if he could, he would have “issued a restraining order preventing Mr. Shirey from having anything further to do with the female sex in any form or fashion.”9

Shirey’s relations with neighbors and business partners were similarly troublesome. He frequently cheated others out of pay, including his lawyers, but always insisted on being paid promptly. He was not on speaking terms with his relatives either, a fact that was underscored by Shirey’s last will and testament, leaving each of his family members “one cent and no more,”10 effectively disinheriting them. The overall impression from newspaper accounts, preserved local memories and court records is that the Lawrence County community, while certainly shocked by Shirey’s death and in favor of his murderer’s punishment, did not particularly mourn Shirey himself.

As for Fairbelle’s fidelity, witness testimonies during Langston’s murder trial left no doubt about the suspect’s infatuation with Mrs. Shirey. At least one witness testified in no uncertain terms that an affair was going on between them: Jack Thomas stated that in a conversation with Langston in Minturn, the accused man had exclaimed, while motioning to Shirey’s store nearby: “When in Hell is that damned old son-of-a-bitch going to die, or Raggedy Bill Smith [a nickname for Fairbelle’s divorce lawyer]... going to compromise that suit so I can take that woman and go on and attend to my business?”11 Thomas further said that “he have saw [sic] them [Langston and Fairbelle] in positions that I would hate to see any of my folks. … I have saw them in a room absolutely locked in.”12 Even though Thomas did not specify where he had seen them “locked in,” there is a good chance that it was in the Beech Hotel in Minturn. The “hotel” was actually the house where the Hill family lived, which Fairbelle and her mother also ran as a boarding house.13 Pearl Medlock, a neighbor of Shirey’s in Minturn, testified that Langston boarded in the Beech at some point in his sojourn in northeast Arkansas.14

That Langston was deeply in love with Fairbelle was made further apparent from the love letters and postcards he sent to her. Several of Langston’s cards were seized via a search warrant from Fairbelle’s home – the Hill house – and entered as evidence in the case against him. The cards were postmarked from March of 1909 to January and February of 1910, shortly before Shirey was murdered. In fact, in early 1910, Langston wrote to Fairbelle almost on a daily basis, largely from South Dakota, but also from Arkansas. For example, Langston sent a card to Fairbelle from Little Rock on January 12, 1910. It read: “Dearest BL. Everything OK. Will try and get back by Friday or Saturday. I went to the Majestic tonight and it was very good. Wish you could of [sic] been with me. Love to you. J.C.L.” The back of the same card bore the following verse:

Let’s you and I get married,

Our secret that will be,

I want a little sweetheart just like you

Don’t you want one like me?15

Within less than a month, Langston was sending Belle postcards from South Dakota, mostly from the town of Gregory, near his land. One card, dated Feb. 17, 1910, was mailed to “Miss Belle Shirey, Minturn, Ark.,” as Langston usually addressed them. It said: “[I]t is most awfully cold up here. Oh h[ow] I wish you could be with me. We have everything planned for the farm – even the cook if you will come. … Love you to ever. J.C.L.”16 

Two days earlier (February 15), the lovelorn Langston sent her not one, but two cards. In one, he told her how “sure lonesome and blue” he was without her and how “bad” he wanted to hear from her. He worried that she might be “sick” after not hearing from her for a while.”17 In the second card written on the same day, Langston again lamented not having a letter from her: “I am on my way to GR [Gregory] and am very anxious to get there so I can hear from you, or I hope I will. If there is nothing there from you[,] I don’t know what I will do. Please, answer soon and what is the trouble.”18 

Langston wrote often throughout the month of February 1910, sometimes twice a day, but apparently received no answers to most of these cards, if at all. That she had previously replied to his letters is suggested by Langston’s remark in a card from February 10: “Dearest BL. You are sure doing me fine. You are so prompt in writing [usually].” It is worth noting that this message was written on the back of a card depicting a man and a woman in a boat, embraced, accompanied by the phase: “Will you be mine?”19 On another card, postmarked February 12, and written the day before, Langston wrote: “My Dear – Why haven’t you written me? How all my air castles have fallen. What are we to do? Oh! It’s all my fault. How crazy of me – How I wish I had of staid [sic] with you another week. I am sure blue and almost sick. … If I only knew you wasn’t sick. Forgotten Q” (emphasis added).20 

It is clear that by February of 1910, Fairbelle had stopped replying to Langston’s communications. While Langston worked in Minturn the two may well have grown close, but the fair Fairbelle had indeed “forgotten” Langston, as he himself put it, almost as soon as he moved to South Dakota. While Langston anguished over why she did not write him back, Fairbelle had already met a new paramour and her soon-to-be husband - an Indiana merchant named Ora Byrket – while visiting Hot Springs, AR. With such overwhelming evidence of Langston’s affection for Fairbelle, the State of Arkansas could (and did) feel confident about having established a motive for murder. Yet, in the process of the trial against Langston, it became clear that he was already in South Dakota at the time of the murder. He had filed his intent to assert his soldier's claim on 160 acres of government-controlled land with T.C. Burns, the registrar of the U.S. Land Office in Gregory, South Dakota, on Sept. 8, 1909.21 

Burns filed a witness deposition to that effect in favor of Langston. It also appears that Langston resigned his position as a railroad telegraph operator (or was fired from it) in Arkansas sometime in January of 1910 22 and had moved to South Dakota sometime in late January or early February. One witness, a physician – Dr. H.A. Murnan – testified that he saw Langston at the Luellyn Hotel in Gregory on February 23, then again on February 24 and 26, as he was paying calls to a man suffering from appendicitis at the hotel.23Langston’s sister Luella and her husband L.Q. Lloyd, operated the “Luellyn” and Langston worked for them while building a homestead on his land. 

A number of other witnesses placed him in South Dakota – far from Minturn, Arkansas – before and around the date of Shirey’s murder as well.25For example, A.C. Ruble of the Gregory Light and Power Company testified that he was a guest at the “Luellyn” on March 4, 1910, and Langston had attended to him on that occasion. According to another witness, G.J. McKee, Langston was in South Dakota on March 9 and 10, 1910, occupied with building his house.26 Yet a third witness, Charles Klemann, who worked a dray line, swore that he saw Langston at Gregory’s railroad depot on the very day of the murder, March 8. 27 

Ultimately, the witnesses’ evidence that Langston was in South Dakota at the time of the murder was so overwhelming that, on Oct. 14, 1910, the jury had no choice but to acquit him. The charges against the three other individuals charged as accessories to the murder – Jesse Hill (Fairbelle’s brother) and her divorce attorneys W.P. Smith and W.T. Blackford – were dropped, too.28 No one else was tried for Shirey’s murder again, and the case went cold. Fairbelle herself was never formally implicated in the case, although rumors swirled. Meanwhile, the body of “Old Man” Shirey was buried in the Minturn cemetery and the Independent Order of the Odd Fellows (IOOF) placed an imposing monument over the gravesite. The inscription read: “Erected and dedicated by a grateful fraternity to a great benefactor. The Grand Lodge IOOF of Arkansas in sacred memory of Brother A.W. Shirey, Minturn Lodge No.257. He toiled. He saved to benefit his fraternity, the widow, the orphan. He is now at rest. His memory will live forever. His brethren cannot forget.” 

According to Shirey’s will, his wealth was to go to the IOOF and be used to build a sanatorium for the treatment of illnesses and an orphanage. However, Fairbelle and Shirey’s relatives successfully challenged the will in court. The courts subsequently decided to give 40 percent of the estate to the widow, 40 percent to the Odd Fellows, and 20 percent to be split between Shirey’s relatives. The Odd Fellows spent their share (and perhaps more) of Shirey’s estate covering legal expenses, while Fairbelle was able to maintain a certain lifestyle only for a short while. She remarried less than a month after Shirey’s death, seemingly having forgotten about both Langston and Shirey.

1 Leeanne S. Wisdom, “Shirey Murder Remains a Mystery,” Jonesboro Sun, 23 October 1983, 10B, Jonesboro Sun Microfilm 338 - October 1883, Dean B. Ellis Library, Arkansas State University.

2 Deposition of Levy Hutton, p. 4, State of Arkansas vs. J.C. Langston, June 22, 1910, Box 165, Folder 1, MSNE.0075 Walnut Ridge Court Records, Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives, Arkansas State Archives, Powhatan, Arkansas.

3 Deposition of Levy Hutton, p. 6, State of Arkansas vs. J.C. Langston, ibid.

4 Deposition of Levy Hutton, p. 10, State of Arkansas vs. J.C. Langston, ibid.

5 Wisdom, 1983, 10B.

6 Wisdom, 1983, 10B.

7 Deposition of John F. Bennett, p. 2, John F. Bennett vs. A.W. Shirey, September 16, 1907, Lawrence County Circuit Court, September 16, 1907, Box 43, Folder 42, MSNE.0075 Walnut Ridge Court Records, Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives, Arkansas State Archives, Powhatan, Arkansas.

8 The Southern Reporter, Vol. 111, Supreme Court of Arkansas’s decision on Shirey vs. Shirey in Supreme and Appellate Courts of Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas, July 8-August 12, 1908 (St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1908), 370.

9 “The Shirey Case,” Batesville Daily Guard, October 15, 1907, 1,, accessed 25 October 2019.

10 “Her Money Aids Man Accused of Husband’s Death: Former Girl-Bride Is Expected to Defend Divorce Co-Respondent,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 25 September 1910, 20,, last accessed October 25, 2019.

11 Testimony of Jack Thomas, p. 23, State of Arkansas vs. J.C. Langston, June 24, 1910, Box 165, Folder 1, MSNE.0075 Walnut Ridge Court Records, Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives, Arkansas State Archives, Powhatan, Arkansas.

12 Testimony of Jack Thomas, p. 42, State of Arkansas vs. J.C. Langston, June 24, 1910, ibid.

13 Testimony of Pearl Medlock, p. 253, State of Arkansas vs. J.C. Langston, June 24, 1910, ibid.

14 Testimony of Pearl Medlock, p. 253, State of Arkansas vs. J.C. Langston, June 24, 1910, ibid.

15 Deposition of James Easley, p. 175, State of Arkansas vs. J.C. Langston, September 27, 1910, Box 165, Folder 2, MSNE.0075 Walnut Ridge Court Records, Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives, Arkansas State Archives, Powhatan, Arkansas.

16 Deposition of James Easley, p. 176, State of Arkansas vs. J.C. Langston, September 27, 1910, ibid.

17 Deposition of James Easley, p. 174, State of Arkansas vs. J.C. Langston, September 27, 1910, ibid.

18 Deposition of James Easley, p. 176, State of Arkansas vs. J.C. Langston, September 27, 1910, ibid.

19 Deposition of James Easley, pp. 178-179, State of Arkansas vs. J.C. Langston, September 27, 1910, ibid.

20 Deposition of James Easley, p. 178, State of Arkansas vs. J.C. Langston, September 27, 1910, ibid.

21 Deposition of T.C. Burns, pp. 7-9, State of Arkansas vs. J.C. Langston, September 27, 1910, Box 165, Folder 2, MSNE.0075 Walnut Ridge Court Records, Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives, Arkansas State Archives, Powhatan, Arkansas.

22The Railroad Telegrapher,” Order of Railroad Telegraphers, Vol. 27 (St. Louis, MO: Woodward & Tierman Printing Co., 1909), 96.

23 Deposition of Dr. H.A. Murnan, pp. 5-6, State of Arkansas vs. J.C. Langston, September 27, 1910, Box 165, Folder 2, MSNE.0075 Walnut Ridge Court Records, Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives, Arkansas State Archives, Powhatan, Arkansas.

24 See State of Arkansas vs. J.C. Langston, September 27, 1910, passim, ibid.

25 Deposition of A.C. Ruble, pp. 22-25, State of Arkansas vs. J.C. Langston, September 27, 1910, Box 165, Folder 2, MSNE.0075 Walnut Ridge Court Records, Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives, Arkansas State Archives, Powhatan, Arkansas.

26 Deposition of G.J. McKee, p. 89, State of Arkansas vs. J.C. Langston, September 28, 1910, ibid.

27 Deposition of Charles Klemann, pp. 119-120, State of Arkansas vs. J.C. Langston, September 28, 1910, ibid.

28Jesse was presumed to be the person who purchased the suspected murder gun from a Walnut Ridge store, while attorneys Smith and Blackford were alleged to have tipped Langston that, if Shirey succeeded in divorcing Fairbelle, it would be on grounds of her infidelities, which would enable him to cut her off from participating in the division of his estate. This allegedly provoked Langston to murder Shirey before he had succeeded in divorcing Fairbelle and disinheriting her (see “More Shirey Sensations: Jesse Hill, Brother of Mrs. Shirey, Indicted on Charge of Murder,” Arkansas Democrat, July 29, 1910, 1; “Lawyers Held as Murderer Aids,” Decatur Herald, August 21, 1910, 1, both on, last accessed January 21, 2020).