John Middleton Clayton's Fight for Fair Elections

With the political and social climate in 1880s Arkansas, he found himself a wanted man – preferably dead.

To understand what’s happening in Iraq, look at 1880s Arkansas and the murder of Delaware County native John Middleton Clayton. Just as Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites are at each other’s throats to control that country, so did ex-Confederates and Unionists fight for political supremacy in the post-Civil War South.

In 1888, Clayton ran for Congress in Clayton County, Ark. But Democrats stole the ballots that would’ve sent him to Washington. When Clayton pursued an appeal, an assassin put a shotgun to his head. “Political violence was central to the fashioning and streamlining of patterns historians call the New South,” wrote historian Kenneth C. Barnes, author of Who Killed John Clayton?. “The single-party system, black disfranchisement and segregation by law—Clayton’s murder crystallizes in one dramatic moment what happened throughout the South with the creation of Jim Crow law.”

Born in Bethel Township, Clayton was one of 10 children of Ann and John Clayton, the latter a carpenter and an orchard keeper. In 1840, the elder Clayton was a delegate to the Whig Party’s national convention, which nominated William Henry Harrison and John Tyler. So enthusiastic was Clayton that, when his twin sons were born during the campaign, he named them William Harrison Clayton and John Tyler Clayton.

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Unfortunately, Harrison died a month after taking office, and Tyler—a conservative in a liberal party—was a big disappointment. “A family council was called, and the name ‘Tyler’ was stricken out of John’s name and the name ‘Middleton’ was substituted,” according to Clayton’s 1889 obituary. John Middleton Clayton, a relative, was a U.S. senator for Delaware.

A Mason and a Methodist, Clayton was well educated for his time and, by published accounts, a good public speaker and tough debater. In August 1862, he enlisted as a sergeant in the 124th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, which fought at Antietam and Chancellorsville. Clayton may have followed the example of his older brother, Powell Clayton, who’d moved to Kansas in 1855 and, in 1861, joined a Union regiment that fought primarily in Arkansas and Missouri. Powell Clayton eventually rose to be a general. In the course of things, he acquired land near Pine Bluff and, after the war, went into politics. He was Arkansas’ governor from 1868 to 1871. His brothers, William and John, moved to Arkansas to help manage their sibling’s property, which grew to 40,000 acres.

According to one account, Powell Clayton entered politics due in part to “confrontations with ex-Rebels that convinced him Unionists needed greater protection.” He helped found the Arkansas Republican Party and, as governor, responded decisively to the Ku Klux Klan. Clayton declared martial law in 14 counties and used the state militia to suppress violence. Among ex-Confederates, he was widely hated.

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Again, John Clayton followed his brother. In 1871, he was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives and, two years later, the Senate. In 1874, Clayton became involved in the so-called Brooks-Baxter War over who’d won the gubernatorial election. Clayton supported Joseph Brooks, a defender of black voting rights, and raised troops to support him. Brooks’ opponent, Elisha Baxter, eventually prevailed—a victory that meant the end of Reconstruction in Arkansas.

Clayton remained in politics. With support from black Republicans in Jefferson County, he became sheriff in 1876 and was reelected for five successive two-year terms. In 1888, he ran for the U.S. House seat for central Arkansas. When the votes were counted, he’d lost to incumbent Clifton Breckenridge by 846 votes—just two-tenths of one percent of all votes cast. The problem: Not all votes were counted. In Plumerville—center of a mostly black district in Conway County, northwest of Little Rock—a ballot box was stolen and destroyed. The fingerprints of leading local Democrats were all over the theft.

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In a subsequent investigation, federal elections supervisor Charles Wahl testified that, after the polls closed, he and a Democratic election judge had been left with the ballot box for more than a half hour by the senior judge (also a Democrat). On his way out the door—supposedly to find paper on which to make tallies—the senior judge, Tom Hervey, told the men, “If anything happens to it [the ballot box], I will give you to understand, I am not responsible for it.”

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As the men waited inside the closed polling station, a voice outside—which Wahl recognized as leading Democrat Oliver Bentley—asked if vote counting had begun. Wahl replied no. Moments later, four masked men burst into the room and ordered Wahl and the other man to face the wall. Seizing the ballot box from Wahl, one growled, “Goddamn you, turn it loose or I will blow your brains out. We will show you how Conway County goes.”

One witness confessed that he and other Democrats had ridden from Morrilton, about six miles away, seized the ballots and burned them in a wood stove. This was denied by the other implicated men—including Bentley—who said they’d merely ridden their horses into Plumerville on that rainy, miserable night to prevent black violence in connection with the election.

Weeks later, Bentley killed his own brother, George, in what was reported to be an accident. Decades later, George Bentley’s grandson recalled that his grandfather, who’d threatened to tell detectives what he knew, had been “accidentally” shot five times. In December, Wahl was shot through a glass door while playing poker. He survived and fled the area.

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Conway County had issues. During the Civil War, secessionist cotton planters in the Arkansas River bottomlands had fought a guerrilla war against Unionist small farmers in the hills. After the war, these two sides comprised the cores, respectively, of the Democratic and Republican parties. On the Republican side, the small farmers were joined by Union veterans and a growing black population. Between 1870 and 1890, the black portion of Conway County’s population grew from eight to 40 percent. This alliance helped the Republicans sweep the elections of 1884 and ’86. The numbers not on their side, Democrats resisted with violence.

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With a federal investigation of the stolen ballots underway by the end of the year, local Democrats were surely concerned. “Fear probably turned to panic when Clayton announced his intentions to come to Conway County in late January to investigate personally,” wrote Barnes.

Hervey, the Democratic election judge, was heard to remark that, if Clayton came to Plumerville to take depositions, he and his friends would “send him back in a wooden overcoat.”

Clayton rejected warnings to take a bodyguard. An armed guard, he felt, would intimidate black voters. So, on Jan. 25, 1889, he traveled to Plumerville with only Aaron Middlebrook, a black deputy sheriff. “Sensing hostility and danger in the community,” wrote Barnes, “Middlebrook told Clayton he would not stay in Plumerville and tried to convince him to return to Pine Bluff.”

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Clayton refused, but did take the precaution of sleeping in the middle room—actually, a windowless hallway—of Mary Ann McCraven’s boarding house on the edge of town. The owner of the only hotel in town had refused him a room.

For the next four days, Clayton worked in the side parlor, taking depositions from more than 100 mostly black voters who testified they had voted for him. Assisting with the depositions was W.D. Allnut, a local lawyer.

Meanwhile, in Little Rock, Republican and Democratic leaders had agreed on a deal that gave Clayton the election in exchange for dropping the fraud charges. “You have saved Clayton’s life,” observed one official.

Not quite: The Republicans refused to rescind the $1,000 reward for the actual ballot-box thieves. That left Bentley and others on the hook.

On the evening of Jan. 29, Clayton and Allnut ate dinner, then retired to the parlor to talk. A traveling salesman, E.H. Womack, was also in the room. When Womack rose to go to bed, Clayton took his chair next to a window covered with thin curtains opened slightly in the middle.

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In the 1970s, Plumerville resident John Mason repeated a story told him by his grandfather, Cyrus McCullough, one of several men indicted for attempting to kill Wahl. According to Mason, McCullough was also one of perhaps a dozen Democrats who’d gathered around a potbellied stove in A.D. Malone’s general store that January to draw straws. Whoever got the short straw would kill Clayton. The winner was Bob Pate, a Democratic saloon owner who had fought as a guerrilla during the war. He had been present when the ballot box was stolen and had organized the poker game at which Wahl was shot. “The fatal shot came through the window,” wrote Barnes. “The blast of buckshot almost severed Clayton’s head from his body, splattering blood and brains all over the floor and ceiling.”

Womack thought the lamp had exploded, but Allnut knew better. “Don’t you hear the blood running there?” he asked. “The blood is running just like water out of a jug.”

Three local black men came running to assist, but retreated when one became sickened by the scene. Outside, they saw Bob Pate standing nearby with his brother, holding a gun. Pate asked if the man inside was dead yet.

The investigation was a farce. Bentley, a deputy sheriff, was the presiding officer at the scene. He appointed a coroner’s jury that included Pate. Its verdict: “Death at the hands of unknown persons.”

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In the national uproar that followed, Arkansas Sen. James Jones denied the killing was political, only “the act of some poor wretch moved by considerations wholly personal to himself.” In West Chester, the editor of the Morning Republican newspaper observed that Arkansas Democrats seemed to regard the ballot-box theft “indifferently” and that none had spoken of “catching and hanging the murderer.”

In September, at their reunion in Wilmington, Del., Clayton’s fellow veterans of the 124th Pennsylvania declared it “to the disgrace of the State of Arkansas” that the killers, though well known, had not been arrested.

A federal investigation concluded that Clayton had won the election. After serving most of his term, Breckenridge was unseated in 1890. But he was re-elected later that year.

In 1891, Arkansas instituted a poll tax and a literary test. Voter turnout declined across the state—by 44 percent in Conway County. The county’s black population declined in the 1890s and ever since. By 1990, Conway County had roughly the same population as in 1890, but only half as many blacks. Since Clayton died, Conway has never elected a Republican to countywide office.

Today, the Shiite-led Iraqi government is refusing to share power with Sunnis, and extremists on both sides are blowing things up.

Mark E. Dixon welcomes comments. Write a letter.
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