Monday, November 2, 2020

Jack the Shooter terrorizes Little Rock (Part Two)

 By Brian Irby, archival assistant

This is a continuation of last month’s story about Jack the Shooter, a man who terrorized the City of Little Rock in 1912. To read Part One, click here.

“Jack the Shooter,” an armed burglar who had stalked Little Rock’s residents through the spring of 1912, attacking them in the safety of their bedrooms at night, remained elusive. He had confounded police  breaking into homes in the small hours of the night, shooting at the homeowners and then fleeing into the darkness. Since his first break-in at the home of C.R. Smith is April 1912, no one knew who he was, but everyone was on edge wondering where he would appear next.

For most of his spree he had remained a hapless burglar, brandishing a pistol to little effect, but with the May 19 death of the Coulter child, he was now a murderer. This latest violence caused panic throughout the city. Local pawnshops reported runs on pistols and shotguns as citizens, male and female alike, armed themselves. A gun dealer in Little Rock reported that he had sold 400 revolvers in the previous month. With so many people armed, mistakes were bound to happen. R.W. Keith, an incurable insomniac who lived on Broadway, grew frustrated at a loud barking dog who was keeping him awake. Around 2:30 in the morning on June 14, he went to the house of the dog’s owner to complain. The dog’s owner, fearing that Keith was “Jack the Shooter,” immediately opened fire, causing Keith to flee back to the safety of his home. Meanwhile, neighbors also arrived armed, and began firing at each other indiscriminately. Police were able to restore order after arriving at the scene.

Police Capt. T. M. Clifton remarked about the incident, “The fact that nearly everyone in the city is armed, and that so many people are prone to shoot first and investigate afterward creates a serious condition of affairs. There is not one man in a hundred who can shoot a pistol with any degree of accuracy.” His concluding advice was, “Be sure you are shooting at a burglar before you fire.”

People became suspicious of each other. Residents pointed fingers at suspicious neighbors. Little Rock Mayor Charles E. Taylor summoned the city to attend a public meeting on May 20. During the meeting, the mayor announced that they would be taking volunteers to help police patrol the city. The police station was subsequently flooded with volunteers. Chief Fred Cogswell told the volunteers that there was not a clear description of the killer, only that he was a white man of medium build who knew the layout of the city well.

The murder of Coulter’s son added a note of urgency to the growing alarm. City Hall sprang into action and offered a $300 reward for the capture of Jack the Shooter. Matching rewards from other organizations soon expanded the reward to over $1,000. On the evening of May 21, as many as 50 armed volunteers patrolled the city. Around 10 p.m. that evening, Deputy Constable Will Stein was patrolling on Broadway when he spotted two men lying on the ground. When Stein shined his flashlight on the men, they both jumped up and bolted. As Stein began to chase the suspects, townspeople quickly gathered on the street to watch the spectacle.

Due to the crowd, Stein was only able to capture one of the men, a man who identified himself as George Parker, who was visiting the city from Texarkana. As Stein was escorting Parker to the police station, the crowd grew more agitated. Several in the crowd demanded that they lynch Parker. Parker told police that he been trying to beg for money on the street but got scared of the growing armed police presence and chose to hide in the garden by lying down on the ground.  He claimed to have run only because he feared he would be arrested for vagrancy. Once again, police had many of the eyewitnesses come in to identify Parker. Many of them stated that he resembled Jack, but none were positive. Within hours of his arrest, police released Parker for lack of evidence.

On May 29, police arrested and charged Sam Brassfield, a former policeman who had been fired recently for dishonesty, with the murder of the Coulter child. There was little evidence connecting Brassfield to the crime, yet police still suspected that he might be worth the investigation. Many of his former colleagues suspected that he had been the man involved in the attacks. Police brought Brassfield to Marion Smith, the nanny who was caring for the Coulter child at the time of his murder, who identified him as the murderer.

Unfortunately for police who thought they had captured Jack the Shooter, the attacks seemed to continue, even while Brassfield remained in jail. On May 30, May Nolan, a nurse living on Sixth Street, awoke to a man entering her room through a window. She awoke her friend Daisy Andrews and then reached over and turned on the bedroom light. They both screamed at the intruder, who in turn fired two shots at them, both of which missed their targets, and then leaped out the window. E.M. Pfeifer, living on Gaines Street, a few blocks over, awoke to the sound of gunfire and then went outside to investigate. He saw a man running through his yard and fired two shots at him. The stranger ran off into the night, apparently unwounded by Pfeiffer’s pistolry. Soon after the incident at Nolan’s home, Minnie Cauley, living on 11th Street, reported that a man entered her home and assaulted her.

Police questioned Nolan and Andrews the next morning. Andrews claimed that she had clearly seen the intruder, describing him as a tall, slender man of dark complexion with a heavy mustache. Minnie Cauley gave a similar description of the man who entered her home soon after the suspect fled Nolan’s home. Curiously, Cauley reported that during the struggle with her attacker, his mustache came off and he seemed to be wearing a disguise.

As the attacks continued, local merchants saw an opportunity to advertise their wares on the back of the attacks. Fred Arthur, real estate agent in Hillcrest took an advertisement in the Arkansas Gazette, claiming, “Jack the Shooter has never invaded the peaceful quiet of Hillcrest. That is only one of the numerous advantages of a quiet, refined neighborhood.” Refined Hillcrest residents needed not worry about the madman running the streets only a few miles away.

As the month of June waned, the Pulaski County prosecutor convened a grand jury to investigate suspects. They ultimately indicted no fewer than six individuals on charges of breaking and entering in connection with the “Jack the Shooter” cases. Among those indicted was a Mexican national, David Birones. Birones had been arrested previously for prowling. Due to the recent “Jack” cases, police began watching Birones with the suspicion that he was behind many of the crimes. Specifically, he was charged with being the perpetrator of the break-in at the home of Mary Nolan on May 30. Andrews also positively identified Birones as the man who had invaded her home.

Meanwhile, Brassfield was charged with the murder of Paul Coulter. With the two main suspects in custody, police began developing a theory of the crime. Perhaps it was not several perpetrators, but possibly just two? Were Birones and Brassfield working together, with one operating on the east side of town, while the other worked the west? They found it curious that “Jack’s” crime spree seemed to stop once the two men were in custody.

On July 4, Birones was convicted of assault with the intent to kill and sentenced to 21 years in the penitentiary. While Brassfield awaited his trial, which was scheduled for September 1912, the prosecutor’s theory of the crime was destroyed when another attack occurred. On July 25, one Maud Summers discovered a man crawling through her window at 900 Center Street. She screamed and the suspect shot and wounded her. He then fled the scene. Meanwhile, police heard her screams and ran to the scene to catch a glimpse of the attacker running away. They quickly chased him into the home of Samuel Collins on 10th Street, who upon seeing the attacker coming into his house shot and killed the man. Detectives identified the attacker as James B. Brown, an attorney and businessman. Police found that Brown was disguised and was wearing women’s stockings and heavily perfumed clothes, and in his pocket was a pack of newspaper clippings about the Jack the Shooter cases. When looking into Brown’s background, detectives discovered that he had been picked up several weeks before and charged with prowling and breaking and entering but had been released due to a lack of evidence.

A search of Brown’s house revealed a trunk full of material from previous robberies: it held silk sashes, women’s handbags, jewelry, hosiery, numerous bottles of perfume and other materials that he used to disguise himself. Detectives also discovered “lewd pictures and questionable literature,” including several articles about recent crimes. Dr. G.W.S. Ish, a doctor who had previously treated Brown, came forward to tell detectives that he had treated Brown for several gunshot wounds over the previous months. Now, he recognized that the wounds were likely the result of victims defending themselves from his attacks.

Gov. George Donaghey pardoned Birones who had been convicted of some of the crimes now attributed to Brown and set him free. Meanwhile, Brassfield’s trial in the death of Paul Coulter came to an end when the prosecutor convened the jury and instructed them to return a verdict of not guilty. Brassfield was a free man, if only for a moment: he was immediately rearrested on the charge of impersonating an officer.

One particular legal case was affected by the death of James B. Brown. Robert Armstrong had been sentenced to death for the attack and assault on Ella Hardcastle in October 1911. After the crime, Hardcastle’s parents received a letter from an anonymous writer claiming “credit” for the rape. Police arrested Armstrong and charged him as the letter writer and Hardcastle’s attacker. Armstrong’s attorney, when examining Brown’s handwriting, thought it looked very similar to that of the anonymous writer. Could Hardcastle’s attacker have been James B. Brown? The strong possibility created serious doubts as to Armstrong’s guilt, so Donaghey also pardoned Armstrong. Was James B. Brown the infamous Jack the Shooter, or were there a series of perpetrators? The answer has been lost to history. It is likely that Brown was the perpetrator of at least a few of the crimes, but whether he can be held responsible for all of them must remain up for debate. It is notable that with Brown’s death, the attacks ended. For the time being, Little Rock residents could breathe a sigh of relief. They were safe. Armed to the teeth, yes, but safe.