The Hot Springs Shootout, also known as the Hot Springs Gunfight or the Gunfight at Hot Springs, occurred on March 16, 1899. Sparked by a dispute over which agency would control gambling in Hot Springs (Garland County), this shootout between the Hot Springs Police Department and the Garland County Sheriff’s Office resulted in the deaths of five men.
The shootout represented a continuation in the battle for control of gambling in Hot Springs and was preceded by the Flynn-Doran blood feud that lasted from 1884 until 1888. Frank Flynn controlled gambling in Hot Springs until former Confederate major Alexander Doran began opening gambling houses there in 1884. The first blood was drawn when Flynn challenged Doran to a duel. Flynn was shot once in the chest but survived. Subsequently, Flynn and Doran factions clashed, with murders and injuries on both sides. Finally, Doran was killed in 1888, ending the feud. Flynn remained in business and continued using the Hot Springs Police Department to collect debts owed to him, or to force competition to leave town.
By the mid-1890s, Mayor William L. Gordon had reappointed Thomas C. Toler, who had been chief of police for the city of Hot Springs during the Flynn-Doran feud. Hot Springs police chief Toler and Garland County sheriff Bob Williams openly clashed over which law enforcement agency would control illegal gambling activities in Hot Springs and the illegal profits, in the form of graft and kickbacks, associated with the gambling. When Mayor Gordon announced a crackdown on illegal gambling, Chief Toler openly defied the mayor, while Sheriff Williams publicly supported the crackdown even as he plotted continued kickbacks and illegal gambling.
On the morning of March 16, 1899, mayoral candidate C. W. Fry, Toler, and other members of Toler’s faction held a meeting. Following the meeting, a list of all those present was given to Williams, who was enraged by the secret meeting.
At approximately 1:30 p.m., Sheriff Williams and part-time deputy Dave Young encountered Hot Springs police sergeant Tom Goslee on Central Avenue in downtown Hot Springs. Williams began to abuse Sergeant Goslee verbally, and Goslee pulled a derringer on Williams, threatening to shoot him. Williams lifted his coattails to show Goslee that he was not armed. During this time, Johnny Williams (Sheriff Williams’s son and part-time sheriff’s deputy) strolled up and handed his father one of two .44 caliber revolvers he had. Both Sheriff Williams and his son opened fire on Goslee, who returned fire with his derringer as he fled the scene. No one was injured.
Around 5:00 p.m. on the same day, the two factions held a meeting at Lemp’s Beer Depot. Captain Haley and Sergeant Goslee of the Hot Springs Police Department met with Johnny Williams, Coffee Williams (Sheriff Williams’s brother), and Deputy Sheriff Ed Spear. Captain Haley’s brother-in-law, Louis Hinkle, was tending bar.
When Hinkle grabbed Spear around the neck and sliced his throat with a knife, Spear wrestled free and pulled his service revolver, shooting Hinkle in the throat. Coffee Williams then pulled a pistol and shot Hinkle one time in the chest. Johnny Williams quickly joined the deadly encounter, pulling his gun and shooting Goslee twice. Goslee returned fire, shooting Johnny Williams in the head. Coffee Williams then shot Goslee a third time, killing him.
Police Chief Toler, having arrived at the meeting at about the same time that Captain Haley fled the scene, was instantly fired upon by Coffee Williams and Spear. Toler returned fire, wounding Spear. As Toler tried to get behind cover, Coffee Williams shot him once in the head as Spear shot him once in the chest. Toler died instantly.
Sheriff Williams arrived at the scene just prior to Hot Springs police detective Jim Hart. Sheriff Williams, finding his son Johnny dying, walked over to Hart and said, “Here’s another of those sons of bitches,” and then shot Hart point blank in the face. Deputy Will Watt (nephew to Sheriff Williams), having also arrived on the scene, then leaned over the sheriff and fired two more bullets into Hart’s dead body.
With the shooting concluded, Toler, Goslee, Hart, and Hinkle lay dead, and Johnny Williams died around 9:00 p.m. Bystander Alan Carter had been wounded by a stray bullet, and Spear was badly hurt but would survive.
The following day, Bob Williams, Ed Spear, Will Watt, and Coffee Williams were charged with murder. All four were arrested but were released on bail. Eventually, Spear and Coffee Williams were found not guilty by reason of self defense. The trials of Bob Williams and Will Watt ended in hung juries due to conflicting testimonies from witnesses.
Although gambling kingpin Frank Flynn was run out of Hot Springs by a citizens’ commission formed by Mayor Gordon, illegal gambling in Hot Springs continued well into the twentieth century, as did corruption in both the Garland County Sheriff’s Office and the Hot Springs Police Department.
For additional information:
“Five Men Shot to Death: Pandemonium at Hot Springs.” Arkansas Gazette, March 17, 1899, p. 1.
“No Further Trouble Feared.” Arkansas Gazette, March 18, 1899, p. 1.
“Placed in Jail: Four Participants in the Hot Springs Riot Held Without Bail.” Arkansas Gazette, March 19, 1899, p. 1.
LeMasters’ Antique News Service