Shootout at High Noon on Main Street
a story about my Great Grandfather Edgar Blankenship
by John Dunn and Harley Dunn
Click on the outlined images and an enlargement will appear in a new window. Photos courtesy of my dad.
Edgar Blankenship shown here with his Winchester carbine and trusty hound.
I am inspired to tell this story thanks to our friend Mike Cumpston who spun a similar tale about a gun toting ancestor of his own. I got my middle name Edgar from the man who ended the career of a would-be bank robber in the rowdy little town of Protem, Missouri. On June 3rd, 1932 he shot dead a notorious thief and bully with his trusty Winchester. Much of this work is derived from my father's genealogical efforts regarding the history of the Blankenship family of my paternal grandmother's side and reprinted here with his permission and assistance. This work would not be possible without the photos he provided for his book on the history of the Blankenship family or the numerous historical newspaper clippings he unearthed and provided for us here.
Edgar Blankenship was born, as near as we know, somewhere in Camden County, Missouri, because that is where his father and mother were living at the time of their marriage. He was about five years old when the family decided to move to Taney County, Missouri, which is now home of the famed "Branson USA". Grandpa Edgar had brothers and sisters but they all died very young. He was the only surviving child.
Edgar could remember making that trip to Taney County in a wagon. The family settled somewhere near Kissee Mills, Missouri. His mother rode most of the way in the back on a make-shift bed because of her illness. This illness had been with her since she was a child and what exactly it was is not known for sure. Back in those days they called it "scroffet of the back". In September of 1900 she passed on.
In the time following his mother's death Edgar was known to "slip away to Lead Hill, Arkansas to attend dances and picnics and fights and other diversions." It was in Lead Hill in fact that he met his best gal, Minnie Alice Bell. On July 22, 1914, they were married.
A DEPRESSION-ERA OZARKS TOWN
In the early days Protem resembled the Wild West, the Old South and the traditional Ozark Hill Country all in one setting. The buildings bore the "old west" type of construction. Before the Civil War its cotton gins and slaves resembled the Old South. It is located at the forks of Shoal Creek and the old Yellville, Arkansas and Chadwick, Missouri highway. Cold water from the town's spring, combined with the offerings of the nearby stores, made it a pleasant place for "freighters" of both states to camp. The people who lived there were descendents of pioneers from the mountains of Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and Old Virginia. They were strong, energetic and individualistic.
A map of the Missouri/Arkansas border in Southwest MO, with Protem highlighted
By the turn of the century Protem was a thriving community. It had three general stores, a Post Office, a doctor's office, two blacksmith's shops, one drug store, several cotton gins, and a two-story schoolhouse. By the 1920's the businessmen had organized a bank, called simply The Bank of Protem, in the days when people used barter more often than "cash money". On one occasion a traveler stopped at the newly-formed bank and presented a check for $75. The banker had to lock the bank and borrow money from two of the general stores before he could cash the check.
The bank aided the financial convenience of the people, but it also opened the door to temptation. In 1924, eight years before Edgar's own incident, a man named Bob Ramsey entered The Bank of Protem and robbed it of $125 while most of the townsfolk were attending a picnic. Sheriff Boles and two deputies tracked Ramsey with bloodhounds, but unfortunately for the sheriff they split up during the search and Boles had to apprehend Ramsey on his own. Ramsey, with the help of two women, managed to free himself and killed the sheriff with a pistol. Later Ramsey was trailed to Carthage, Missouri and returned to Taney County for trial and conviction. The women were also tried and convicted.
The Protem, MO schoolhouse c.1931-32. The top story was used as a "normal school" and the ground floor as a grade school. Photo courtesy of Mrs. Johnnie Strain.
A chap named Henry Simmons was appointed to fill out Bole's term of office until 1928, when John "Daunt" Day was elected Sheriff. The papers of the day are filled with stories of Sheriff Simmons and his raids on moonshine stills. Perhaps this is why he wasn't permanently elected to the post...
Protem had many killings, knifings and shootings which nearly tore the community apart. In each case lawmen made every effort to bring the guilty to justice. Most of the time that proved a very difficult thing to do. Everyone in town, according to the old stories, packed a gun for self defense.
FROM DISTILLER TO FARMER TO LAWMAN
After they were married Edgar and his new bride decided to "head west". My father has often asked why, and the only reason anyone knows is that Edgar was looking for work. The Great Depression was in full swing and jobs were hard to come by. They walked and hitched rides across Arkansas until they reached the southeast corner of Oklahoma. In a little village called Bethel, on the Choctaw reservation, they stopped and rented a small cabin from the local Indians.
Edgar and Minnie Blankenship, holding baby Ollie, my grandmother.
Edgar and Minnie stayed there for a time and made several friends among the Native Americans. No one is sure what it was Grandpa Blankenship did for a living, but what he did on the side is long remembered: the fine art of distilling home-made fermented beverages, the kind that, according to my dad, reportedly "sparked more than one psycho-zoological episode" among his Indian pals. By June of 1915 Minnie was great with child: my own grandmother Olive Blankenship. Because of his unofficial business ventures Edgar was greatly sought after by the "reven'ooers".
Eventually someone reported his distillery enterprise to gub'mint agents and that just ruined the whole darned thing. Grandpa Blankenship had no choice but to leave his wife in the capable hands of their Indian neighbors and take an extended vacation into the Boston Mountains of western Arkansas. Later, when Minnie was able to travel after giving birth to her daughter, who had been washed and wrapped in soft deerskins, she rejoined Edgar in Arkansas in her home near Lead Hill.
A common Ozarks industry during the Prohibition days
This ended their dreams of "heading west". Edgar worked a while afterwards in the lead and zinc mines in Joplin, Missouri where several other men flocked to in order to find work. This was jokingly referred to as the "Missouri Gold Rush." Edgar worked in the zinc mines until it began to take its toll on his health and he gave it up and went back home. Times always seemed to be hard but the family lived the best they could. Edgar hunted and ran trap lines and Minnie learned how to harvest the wild things that grew in the woods and fields. There was always meat on the table of one kind or another.
While compiling his genealogy on the Blankenship family my father met an old man from Pyatt, Arkansas who remembered Edgar. He told my dad one time that Grandpa Blankenship was the "best damn shot with a rifle that he'd ever seen." He said that he "never missed what he shot at and liked to walk everywhere he went." We've been told that no matter how hard things were, Edgar was always willing to help out a friend in need. But, as the old man in Pyatt said, "he wasn't a man you'd want to mess with, neither!"
After leaving the Joplin zinc mines and a subsequent unsuccessful try at raising cotton Edgar decided he wanted to be a peace officer. The family moved to Protem in Taney County, Missouri just a few miles north of the Arkansas border. Edgar got on as a deputy or local constable in Protem who, as we have seen, urgently needed lawmen. The Depression had no end in sight and Prohibition was still the law, as Edgar was painfully aware. Outlaws like the Barkers, Bonnie & Clyde, John Dillinger and others were gaining fame in the Midwest. Back in those days Protem was the kind of town that made Dodge City glad that it was in Kansas!
"HEY EDGAR, WANT TO GO ROB A BANK?"
At some point in time afterwards Edgar made the unfortunate acquaintance of a young tough named Oliver Stephen Hart who's father died when he was young. Everyone around Protem just called him Ol' Hart. According to records my dad found in The History of Ozark County Oliver Hart was born September 9, 1892.
Oliver Hart & Family:
Standing: sisters Florence and Polly Ann; brother Sterling. Seated: sister Florida, Oliver himself, his mother Emily and just barely visible on the far right, his brother Jerome.
Oliver was one of ten children, nine of whom survived to adulthood. Recollections of him "show him to be a very good-looking young man and there were many folks in the area who liked him". But he was impetuous. He was "dashing and daring". He liked to drink and brawl and mix with the "dangerous crowd." He wasn't afraid of anybody or anything. It was inevitable that he and Grandpa Edgar would clash one day, because they say that Edgar Blankenship was the only man that Hart was "just a little bit afraid of."
Now, as a deputy, Edgar interpreted the law in a very lenient manner...that is, "sometimes he'd lean to one side, and sometimes he'd lean to the other." But there were some things he wouldn't do. The old fellow from Pyatt, Arkansas, who made my dad promise not to give out his name, used to hang around Edgar and told my dad that Ol' Hart had come up with the hair-brained idea to go rob a bank and wanted Edgar to "throw in with him." Edgar declined and told Hart that if he did indeed carry out such a fool scheme that he'd come after him.
Hart didn't take Grandpa seriously. Another fellow name of Burr Davidson took him up on the offer instead. Hart also talked some boys known locally as the Quick brothers (possibly related to Oliver's brother Jerome's wife's family) into joining them in the robbery.
In August of 1931 the Bank of Gainesville, in nearby Ozark County, Missouri, was held up at gunpoint. What follows is the original story from the Taney County Republican that told the story right after it happened.
BANDITS ROB THE BANK AT GAINESVILLE
Three men hold up the cashier and flee with almost $4,000
Trail is lost in the hills
Although the sheriff of Ozark County conducted a man-hunt with what resources he had available to him, Grandpa Blankenship knew right away who'd done it and turned Hart in. The resulting investigation led to the arrest of Oliver Hart and Burr Davidson, as well as their wives for being the "brains" behind the outfit, along with the arrests of several of the Quick brothers.
It also eventually led to the final confrontation of Edgar and Ol' Hart on the streets of Protem.
A HUNG JURY AND A DEATH THREAT
The trial took place in Gainesville. My father found the original newspaper article from the May 19, 1932 edition of the Taney County Republican that described the trial of Oliver Hart and Burr Davidson. It apparently ended as a hung jury, with 5 jurors voting guilty and 7 not guilty. Nothing else was found to indicate whether the jury was "hung" or that the men had actually been found not guilty, or that new charges were filed against them. This was probably due to the fact that in a couple of weeks later it wouldn't matter anymore.
THE HART-DAVIDSON TRIAL
Tried at Gainesville
Taney County Republican, May 19, 1932
Last week a number of Taney County citizens attended Court at Gainesville as witnesses in the Hart-Davidson trial.
O.S. "OL" Hart, Burr Davidson, and their wives were tried as accomplices in the robbery of the Gainesville Bank, which happened last August.
The trial occupied two full days and something over 100 witnesses were used. At the close of the State's evidence the Judge instructed the jury to sign an acquittal for the two women, holding that the State failed to connect them with the robbery at the bank.
At the close of the Defense's evidence the jury went out, and after a short deliberation informed the Court that they could not agree. They reported that they were standing five for conviction of the two men and seven for acquittal.
The State's side of the case was represented by Paul Boone, Prosecuting Attorney of Ozark County, General Rogers, ex-Prosecutor of Gainesville, and Tom Moore of Ozark. The Defendants were represented by Attorney J.H. Ingenthron of Forsyth.
Edgar's involvement with the investigation sent Hart into a murderous rage. Whatever Hart's dreams were of becoming another John Dillinger or Pretty Boy Floyd were dashed, and the "Hart-Davidson Gang" would never go down in history alongside the Barkers or Bonnie & Clyde. Hart sent the word out that "Edgar Blankenship was a dead man" and that he would kill him on sight if they should ever meet again.
Grandpa wasn't fool enough to think that Hart was just bragging. He knew that he meant what he said and that his life was very much in danger. And on the morning of June 3rd, 1932, Ol' Hart arrived in Protem.
According to the old man in Pyatt, who witnessed the confrontation, Hart came back into town and caught up with Edgar in some building or other that he can't recall, remembering only that Edgar didn't have a gun with him at the time. Hart pulled a pistol out of his coat and put it up to Edgar's head. The witness, who was just a boy at the time, told my dad that he was pretty scared and thought that Hart was going to shoot..."he acted like he was mad enough to do it." Instead he just cussed Edgar real bad and then hit him with that pistol. Edgar told him that if he intended to shoot him, then he'd better do it right now, because he would never get another chance. Hart just laughed and cussed him again, then walked off.
Knowing what was coming, Edgar tried to get help from Sheriff Day, but there were few automobiles and no telephones. The way it turned out though, Grandpa Blankenship was on his own, and handled the situation the best way he knew how.
Main street of Protem, MO circa 1932 where the shooting took place. The old schoolhouse is seen at the end of the street.
Pictured above is a photo taken of what was then Main Street in Protem, MO. The general store on the left, behind the Model A and the pig, advertises "Nehi Cola". At noon, on the third day of June in 1932, Hart walked out of the store. Across the street was a house that was undergoing some repair. Another man was outside the store chopping some firewood. Several other townsfolk were "hanging around" or otherwise going about their daily business.
Hart and his friend H. F. Owen decided to walk across the street and look at the house where a neighbor named Audie Reynolds was doing the repairs. They had just reached the edge of the yard and stopped beside a large shade tree (which you can just see in the background of the photo) when a rifle shot cracked. A bullet had struck Hart in the abdomen. He grabbed at his side and staggered towards the tree, but before he could get behind the cover of its trunk another shot was fired. Hart slumped to the ground with a second .30-30 hole in his chest.
Owen ran for dear life. Kermit Wood, the chap who had been chopping firewood (and who had previously declined Edgar's request for a ride to Sheriff Day's office) looked up and saw Grandpa Edgar standing in the alley between Hobart's Store and the house next door, somewhere in the photo's foreground, holding his Winchester in his hands.
After the first few stunned seconds some of the men in the street jumped up and ran to Hart's body, and one or two tried to approach Grandpa. He warned them not to come any closer, to just "leave me alone!" Which I assure you they did. Then, they say, Edgar just calmly put his rifle over his shoulder, waded across the creek and walked home.
Sheriff Day was finally sent for and he, the County Coroner, and the local Prosecutor (a Mr. Joseph R. Gideon) rushed to Protem where the coroner held his inquest beneath the shade tree where Hart lay dead. Someone had laid him on a big piece of cardboard, placed a pillow under his head, and covered him with a sheet. A "coroner's jury" was picked from the bystanders and seven people were called as witnesses. The following is a copy of the actual warrant issued for Edgar Blankenship's arrest.
Sheriff John Day apprehended Edgar, presumably at his home, and he was taken to the old county jail in Forsyth, MO. The prosecutor charged him with first degree murder. The judge set his bond at $10,000. The following are transcripts of some of the original newspaper clippings from the Taney County Republican regarding the incident.
O.S. HART SHOT AT PROTEM LAST FRIDAY
June 9, 1932
PRELIMINARY HELD BY JUDGE ARNOLD MONDAY
June 30, 1932
Judge Arnold held a preliminary in the case of Edgar Blankenship, charged with the murder of Oliver Stephen Hart at Protem around the first of the month. The only question at issue was whether the accused was entitled to bail and how large the bail should be. The state was represented by Prosecuting Attorney J. R. Gideon and J. H. Ignethson. The Defense by Sharpe &Y Blunk, and Tom Moore. [Editor's Note: ironically, these are some of the same attorneys who defended Hart in the original bank robbery trial.] Justice Arnold granted bail and fixed the amount at $10,000. We understand that Sheriff Day had taken the accused to Protem where he expected to get a bondsman. He is being held to answer at the October term of Circuit Court.
OBITUARY OF OLIVER STEPHEN HART
Date Unknown, early June, 1932
Oliver Stephen Hart was born to Mr. & Mrs. Dallas Hart on Sept 9, 1892 and grew up to manhood in Ozark County. On Dec 25, 1915 he was married to Miss Lou Duggins of Dugginsville, MO. To this union were born three children: Milo, now 15, and two daughters, Maude, 12, and Irma Lee, 9. He was a Royal Arch mason and had his membership at Lutie, Sampson Lodge No. 298 A. F. & A. M. After his marriage he moved to Taney County, five miles east of Protem where he was engaged in farming and stock raising. He died June 3, 1932 at Protem. He is survived by his wife and three children, his mother, Mrs. Emily Hart, two brothers, Sterling Hart of Dugginsville, and Jerome Hart of Jay, Oklahoma, five sisters, Pollyanna Hensley, Lou Hensley, Florida Farmer and Jane White. He was buried June 4, 1932 at the family cemetery on the farm where he was reared, at Dugginsville. Dr. Crockett preached the funeral sermon, after which the Masonic Lodge of Lutie took charge of the services.
The original jail house in Forsyth, MO where Grandpa Edgar was incarcerated following the shooting. It is believed he was held in the cell corresponding to the window just visible in the lower floor, far right, behind the hill.
Prosecutor Joseph R. Gideon, date unknown
Some of the locals after the trial. It is thought that the man on the far right wearing the light colored hat is Carl Woods, himself a known murderer and no'count.
Deputy Henry Simmons, Sheriff Day's predecessor, a deputy at the time of Edgar's arrest.
The trial was short and Grandpa was acquitted of any wrongdoing. Hart was buried in the family cemetery as noted in the above obituary. Most folks thought that this would be the end of it. But they were wrong.
The following April, in 1933, while Grandpa Edgar and Grandma Minnie and the rest of the family were attending church in Protem, some unknown person shot Edgar Blankenship in the back as he stood outside talking to his friends. My own grandparents--Edgar's daughter Olive and her gentleman caller Charles Dunn--were going together then. Charles once said that when he thinks back, it seems that there were men present that night who were never known to attend church before.
It's pretty obvious that people had an idea that "something" was about to happen. Charley (Grandpa Dunn's birth certificate says "Charles Dunn" but he always spelled it "Charley") said that he and Olive, or "Ollie" as he called her, were sitting up near the front of the church. He was 21 at the time and Olive was about to turn 18. He told my father that the congregation was just starting a hymn when the first shot rang out. One of the men who'd been standing outside the church came rushing in and yelled "They've killed Edgar! They've killed Edgar!" Then they heard a second shot.
Charley got up and ran outside and found Grandpa Edgar lying on the ground in terrible pain. Edgar looked up at the young gentleman who was courting his daughter and said, "Charley, help me take my shoes off, my feet are killing me..."
Left: Charley Dunn, my grandfather, age approx 16, photo taken c. 1928. Right: Olive Blankenship Dunn, my grandmother, date unknown.
Charley took Grandpa Edgar's shoes off, then he and some other men helped him into a car belonging to a man by the name of Em Woods. They took off for Doctor Threadgill's office in Forsyth, the county seat, but somehow, someone had already found a telephone and sent word to the doctor about what had happened. Dr. Threadgill immediately started for Protem, and the two cars missed each other en route.
Upon reaching Forsyth and finding the Doctor's office closed, they continued on to Springfield and delivered Grandpa to the Baptist Hospital. He was admitted to the emergency room but they found that the bullet had grazed his spine and had lodged in his liver. Removing it would only hasten his death. There was not much more they could do but make him comfortable and hope for the best.
Grandpa eventually recovered, but was left an invalid for the remainder of his days. Eventually he would die at his home not far from Protem. It is reported that he foretold the date and hour of his own death, and called his wife Minnie to his side, giving her instructions of his final wishes.
No one was ever arrested or convicted of this attempted assassination, although there were several suspects. Theories were legion. Each person interviewed expressed a different opinion of who the guilty party might be. As always, a reporter from the Taney County Republican was on hand the next day and published the following story in the newspaper.
EDGAR BLANKENSHIP IS SHOT AT PROTEM
April 27, 1933:
Sunday night between 8 and 9 o'clock Edgar Blankenship was shot from behind by an unknown person. Blankenship had been acquitted for the charge of murdering Ol Hart by a jury in the Circuit Court last week. Sunday night he had gone to church at Protem. It is very difficult to get accurate information as to what actually happened. Our report is mostly taken from such information as we have been able to get from the Prosecuting Attorney Gideon and Sheriff Pumphrey.
It seems that Blankenship left the church and walked out to where some of his friends, including Bill Davis, were seated. Davis had been a very important witness for Blankenship at the trial. Blankenship made a greeting of an intimate and a friendly nature to the group and turned to walk back into the church. When he turned, a man who'd been with or near this group stepped forward and shot Blankenship in the back, the ball ranging from the spine into the liver.
A second shot was fired but did not take effect. The victim was rushed to Forsyth, but Dr. Threadgill had gone to Protem on learning of the shooting and missed the car carrying the injured man. Blankenship was then taken to Branson, where after emergency treatment he was taken to an emergency hospital in Springfield. Up to last night he was still living but was in critical condition. The would had bled internally. The doctors considered his condition as very serious.
Much confusion is apparent in the reports of the shooting. Sheriff Pumphrey went to Protem that night as soon as word was received. He took blood hounds with him but no result was secured. The next day he and Prosecutor J.R. Gideon went to Protem for further investigation.
Though several personas were near when the shot was fired no information of much value was learned. It is claimed by those present that the man who did the shooting is unknown to them. Though he appears to have been with or near them, no description of any value or accuracy was learned.
It appears that the man who is supposed to have fired the shot had spoken to some of Blankenship's friends. One of the puzzling things of the situation is that the man who did the shooting should have put himself close to known friends of Blankenship. Though unknown to those present, he appeared to know who the friends of Blankenship were, and so stationed himself where Blankenship would be most apt to come out if he left the church. This is in itself a daring move, as it might have led to his being seized the instant he drew a gun.
In the confusion he made his escape notwithstanding that friends of the wounded man were near.
We never found out who shot Grandpa Edgar, though in later years it was quietly suspected that the shooter was one of Hart's relatives. Edgar was a tough and capable man, and not even an assassin's bullet could kill him. Or so the family legend goes...
Charley and Olive Dunn, at their 50th wedding anniversary, date approx 1985.
Rest in peace, Edgar.
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