Gunfight at Hot Springs

Hot Springs, 1910

The 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona is a well documented event and epitomizes what most view as the Wild West. But, there was a lesser known battle, actually two on the same day, in which the body count was significantly higher. It was the gunfight at Hot Springs, Arkansas on March 16, 1899. What makes the incident interesting was it occurred between two law enforcement agencies, with no outlaws involved…except maybe a few politicians.

To understand fully what led up to the conflict, one must know a little about the town’s history. Hot Springs got its name from geothermal springs in the area. A little village sprang up in the late 1820s around the springs, which were well known by local Indians for their therapeutic properties. It was originally known as Thermopolis. The springs drew many from far and wide seeking relief from their ailments in the soothing waters. Then came the gamblers, brothels and gaming establishments.

For years, as early as the mid to late 1800’s, the city had been conducting illegal gaming. At that time, two families controlled the activities: the Flynn’s and the Doran’s. The two factions constantly fought for control of the city’s gaming rights, a competition eventually leading to the famous Hot Springs Gunfight in 1899.

Hot Springs had become a popular destination for wealthy people from across the nation. Some were looking for more than just hot thermal baths. Certain factions in town were more than happy to oblige. The conflict arose from who was going to control the gambling. That would depend on who was mayor at the time.

Wyatt Earp

The mayor was able to choose the town chief of police. Gambling and prostitution either prospered or withered depending on who was in office. Liberals knew the influx of money from gambling and other enterprises filled the city’s coffers. Conservatives usually sided with peace loving, law abiding citizens who wanted the town cleaned up. It became an issue influencing every election.

Tensions had been building for several years prior to the shootout. In the mayoral election of 1897, William L. Gordon defeated incumbent W. Waters. Thomas C. Toler, who had been chief of police, helped Gordon win the election. As a reward he was reappointed to the job. Toler, 45, was an experienced lawman, having been hired as a deputy in the early 1870s.

There’ an interesting story about Toler. During the later 1880s the famed Wyatt Earp was in town gambling. He was having a run of bad luck, drinking and getting a little hot under the collar. When things started getting out of hand Toler was forced to run him out of town.

However, getting back to the story, Gordon and Toler had conflicting opinions about the matter of gambling. Toler liked Hot Springs better as an open town, Mayor Gordon didn’t. The two bickered constantly over the situation and Gordon decided to try and have Toler dismissed. But the city council backed Toler and Gordon just had to live with it.

In the 1899 election, the Democratic mayoral candidate, George Belding, was being supported by Garland County’s Sheriff Robert L. Williams. Belding had made a deal with Williams that if elected he would make Chief Deputy Sheriff Coffee Williams, the sheriff's brother, chief of police. That would mean the Williams brothers would be in control of the entire county.

In the past, Hot Springs had had its fair share of brawling and shootouts much the same as many others during that era. However, in the morning of that fateful day in March, 1899, independent Party leaders had met in the City Hall office of Police Chief Toler. Mayoral candidate C.W. Fry was present, along with several police officers.

What exactly was discussed during the meeting is not known, but it’s more than likely the police officers were bribed with the promise if Fry was elected Toler would be reappointed police chief and his current police force would retain their jobs. When the meeting ended, someone phoned Sheriff Robert Williams and informed him of what had transpired. Williams was fit to be tied.

Later that day Williams met up with his friend, Dave Young. The two talked about the meeting that had taken place at City Hall over lunch. At about the same time, Hot Springs Police Department Sergeant Tom Goslee, was having a piece of pie in a nearby café. Afterward, he went for a haircut. Goslee had left his gun back in his office, but he was still armed with a two-shot derringer.

Williams and Young finished their meal and walked to the corner of Spring Street, where they stopped to talk some more. Seeing Goslee come out of a barber shop, Williams called out to him. When Goslee came over Williams handed him a piece of paper which had the names of everyone who had been at the earlier meeting.

The names were those who opposed Belding being elected. Goslee’s name was on it. Williams wanted to know why he was siding against him. Goslee admitted he had been at the meeting but had not taken an active part in it. Sheriff Williams then called him a liar and a coward, crowding him for a fight in order to have him arrested. Goslee didn’t want a fight, but wasn’t about to back down either. Goslee made no secret he was supporting Toler which angered the sheriff even further.

When Williams moved his hand toward his coat, Goslee thought he was going to pull a gun and drew his derringer. “I want no trouble from you, as you are the sheriff of the county,” Goslee said, “but I will defend myself if forced to.” At that point, Young inserted himself between the two and said, “Boys, boys, this will not do.” As it was, the sheriff wasn’t armed and opened his coat so Goslee could see.

It was then Williams saw his son Johnny, come out of the City Hall Saloon. Johnny came over to see his father and gave him his pistol. The sheriff borrowed another one from another friend standing close by. The gunfight began. No one is certain of who fired the first shot. Most likely it was the sheriff as Goslee would have been an idiot to start a gunfight armed only with a derringer.

Regardless of who fired first, Goslee emptied his derringer and fled for cover. One bullet barely missed the sergeant’s head, embedding itself in a doorframe. Other bullets ricocheted off of a brick wall as the sheriff and Johnny kept up a hail of bullets at their target until their guns were empty. Goslee was unharmed as he escaped down an alley and sought refuge in the Sumpter House lobby. Fourteen bullets had been fired during the exchange.

Goslee remained there until Toler and another officer arrived to escort him to City Hall. The Garland County prosecuting attorney, David Cloud, took statements from both parties. Cloud believed Goslee and issued a warrant for Sheriff Williams’ arrest. This angered the lawman even further although he made bail. The trouble wasn't over. Less than three hours later the situation would come to a climax.

Toler met with Goslee and tried to defuse the conflict before more trouble erupted. He suggested the sergeant meet with Johnny and maybe buy him a drink. Meanwhile, he would try and calm Sheriff Williams down. Toler then called for a meeting in his home. In attendance were C.W. Fry, Sergeant Goslee, other ranking police officers and prominent town businessmen. The subject was how to make peace between the two law enforcement departments.

Toler later called for a meeting with Sheriff Williams at his office around 5:30 p.m. Williams reluctantly agreed but said it had to be a short meeting because he had a pressing engagement. Williams then contacted his brother, Chief Deputy Sheriff Coffee Williams requesting he meet him at the sheriff's office. Shortly afterwards Johnny informed his father, Goslee had called him to set up a friendly meeting. The sheriff suspected a trap and when Coffee arrived, he told him to accompany his son to the meeting. Coffee took a revolver out of his desk and stuck it in the back of his waistband under a brown suit coat. Coffee and his nephew then left for the meeting. Along the way they ran into Deputy Ed Spear, and stopped to talk. In the meantime Sheriff Williams was explaining the situation to his nephews Sam and Will Watt while strapping on his gun. The three headed for the meeting and were joined by Dave Young on the way.

After the meeting at Toler's house, the chief of police, Captain Haley and Goslee also headed for the meeting. Before long, they spotted Coffee, Johnny and Spear coming their way. walking north on the same side of the street. When the two groups met Johnny shook Goslee’s hand. As things seemed to be going well Toler and Haley walked down the street a bit and entered Lemp's Beer Depot, where Haley's brother-in-law, Louis Hinkle, was a bartender.

The joint had large open folding doors which allowed patrons to enjoy fresh air coming in from the street. Haley leaned against the bar to talk to Hinkle. Coffee and Spear had also drifted up to the open doors and were now standing only a few feet away from Haley.

Seeing Spear standing there, Captain Haley said, “Ed, I understand you have told people that if I put my head out, you'll shoot it off.” Spear denied the accusation which infuriated Hinkle. The bartender wasn’t going to stand for his brother-in-law being called a liar and grabbed him. Holding Spear with an arm around his neck he cut his throat with a six inch blade.

Spear struggled to free himself but Hinkle held on like a bulldog. Toler and Haley sprang forward to break the two apart, but before they got there Spear had managed to pull his gun and shoot Hinkle in the throat. The bartender staggered backward and Coffee shot him in the chest.

Hearing the commotion from outside, Goslee ran to see what was going on, but was shot twice by Johnny while running toward the fray. Goslee went down with one bullet striking just below the right knee and the other hitting him in the right groin, severing the femoral artery. The sergeant fired back at Johnny, who was about 35 away, striking him in the head. Young Williams crumpled, mortally wounded. Coffee shot the sergeant again, killing him.

Toler took a few shots at Coffee, but missed. Coffee took refuge behind a parked wagon and returned fire. Ed Spear, who amazingly was still alive, began shooting at Toler. Toler shot back several times, grazing Spear's right shoulder, but not knocking him out of the fight. Two bullets struck Toler at the same time. One hit him in the back of the head and another in the chest, killing him. Either wound would have been fatal.

Sometime during the melee Captain Haley had fled to a barbershop where he cowered until the conflict had ended. But more was to come. Toler, Hinkle and Goslee were already dead. Johnny lay dying on the sidewalk and Spear was badly wounded, but still alive.

There was one other man in town that would become a statistic…Detective Jim Hart. Hart had been over at the train depot keeping riffraff and con men from out of town. When he heard what had taken place he rushed to the scene. Believing everything was over he left his gun holstered. But it wasn’t. Sheriff Williams, gun drawn, walked up to Hart and grabbed him by his coat lapel. Williams yelled in his face saying, “Here’s another of those sons-of-bitches!” Then he shot Hart in the face instantly killing him.

The citizens of Hot Springs had anticipated the situation might end in a likely manner and wisely had recently formed a vigilante committee which became known as the Committee of Thirteen.

As news of the gunfight spread, it seemed as if visitors couldn’t get out of town fast enough. Of course, some were also being prodded along at the end of a bayonet towards the train depot by the vigilantes. The train depot was swamped as they were herded like cattle to catch the next train out. For a while the city was peaceful.

But it wasn’t to remain that way. In later years Hot Springs became a haven for vacationing mobsters like Al Capone, Frank Costello, Bugs Moran, Lucky Luciano and other infamous villains. Looking at the beautiful resort today, one could hardly imagine the bloodshed that once covered its streets.

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Comments 2 comments

jtmiddleton profile image

jtmiddleton 4 years ago from Grand Ledge, Michigan, the United State of America.

I thought Earp was a teetotaler. Something about drinking bad liquor as a youth made him distrust the spirits.


JY3502 profile image

JY3502 4 years ago from Florence, South Carolina Author

Some say that, but he also owned a few saloons. The Arkansas Gazette reported years later he had been drinking at the time, so it's up to the reader to decide what they want to believe. Thanks for pointing that out though.

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