Tom Dillard: Dinner guests include Joe T. Robinson, Maud Crawford, Leslie Stringfellow

If I had the power to summon the dead, who would I invite to a Halloween dinner? Since Halloween is all about fantasy, please indulge my imagination as I select my dinner guests -- as many people as my indulgent wife would agree to feed, but not so many as to make real conversation impossible.

A ground rule of this dinner is that, magically, all the guests speak English. This would allow me to invite prehistoric Arkansans, perhaps a representative from the first humans to arrive in Arkansas roughly 13,000 years ago. I would ask my guest to make what is commonly known as a "Paleo point."

This distinctive point, balanced and beautifully fluted, allowed the early arrivals to bring down even the largest prey. A few Paleo points have been surface collected in Arkansas, including one made of quartz crystal. I am not sure my wife would be willing to cook a paleo meal for him.

Hernando DeSoto, the Spaniard and first European to explore what would become Arkansas, would get an invitation. Given his reputation for capricious brutality during his rampage for riches on two continents, I would probably ask him to check his sword at the door.

My first question of DeSoto would be: "Did you actually make it to the Valley of the Vapors, or is that Chamber of Commerce hype?" Directly speaking with the explorer might be the only way to resolve this matter, though the modern consensus seems to be against a Hot Springs visit.

Only a handful of readers will recognize the name Jemima Jones, who would be an honored guest. Mrs. Jones was the mother of Scipio Africanus Jones, the most outstanding Black lawyer in Arkansas from 1890 till his death in 1943 and the main defense lawyer for the 12 Black men unjustly condemned to die in the aftermath of the Elaine race confrontation of 1919.

The problem is that Jemima's illustrious son was fathered by her owner; Jemima Jones was enslaved. Like generations of such women, she had no public voice and certainly no public forum. At dinner, I would raise a glass to her and ask if she had anything to say.

I wrote my master's thesis on M.W. Gibbs, the Little Rock resident who in 1872 became the first Black municipal judge in America, who would be an honored guest. Gibbs lived a long life full of accomplishments: anti-slavery lecturer, successful merchant in San Francisco during the gold rush; co-founder of the first Black newspaper west of the Mississippi. He made a fortune from coal mining in British Columbia; served on the Victoria, B.C., city council; opened a bank in Little Rock; and served as U.S. consul in Madagascar.

I bet he would be surprised at how much I know about him, such as the 14 black carriages pulled by black horses that carried mourners to Fraternal Cemetery for his funeral on a hot July day in 1915.

At least three murder victims would get invitations, simply to identify their killers. Mrs. Maud Crawford, a prominent Camden lawyer, disappeared in March 1957. A former legal partner of U.S. Sen. John L. McClellan, Crawford was well known and highly regarded. I suspect Mrs. Crawford would be more than willing to answer my question: "Were you murdered, and if so, was it Camden businessman Mike Berg?" Researcher and film producer Beth Brickell has published a convincing indictment of Berg, but her evidence has not convinced everyone.

My second murdered guest would be Green W. Thompson, a remarkable Black businessman and member of the Little Rock City Council from 1875 to 1893, who was killed with an ax as he stabled his horse on the night of March 20, 1902. I have spent many hours searching for information on the killer but, like prosecutors at the time, have found little. My suspicion falls on his much younger wife's reputed lover, though insufficient evidence prevented his prosecution.

Other murder victims who could be invited include firebrand secessionist and Confederate Civil War Gen. Thomas C. Hindman of Helena. He was not called "the lion of the South" for no reason, thus many people were suspected of shooting him in September 1868. Hindman, like DeSoto, would have to check his weaponry at the door. Though he might not be able to identify his killer, a disarmed Hindman would make sure the dinner conversation did not wane.

One of my guests would be little-known Leslie Stringfellow, a 19-year-old boy who died after a brief illness in Texas in 1886. The death of their only child left his parents deeply bereaved, and they soon began attempting to contact him through séances. After the family moved to Fayetteville, Mrs. Stringfellow published a book containing some of the 4,000 "spirit communications" received from their deceased son. No less a person than Sir Arthur Canon Doyle believed the book "one of the best documents I have ever seen." My dinner guest would be asked if he could validate Sir Arthur's faith in spirit communications.

Despite possible crowding at the dinner table, I would make room for Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe T. Robinson. One of the few Arkansans of that era to gain national political prominence, Joseph Taylor Robinson served as a congressman, governor, and U.S. senator. In 1928 he was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for vice president. While serving as majority leader in the Senate, Robinson died on a hot day in July 1937 as he worked to defend President Franklin D. Roosevelt's bid to "pack the Supreme Court" with New Deal supporters.

At some point following dinner, I would quietly draw Robinson aside and talk with him about his decision to kill a bill to create a Federal Arkansas River Valley Authority, analogous to the hugely successful Tennessee Valley Authority. I would explain to Robinson that many people over many years have told me this story, usually accusing Robinson of acting at the behest of Arkansas Power and Light Co. president Harvey Couch. What would he say in defense of himself? Regardless, can one trust a dead person to tell the truth?

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]. An earlier version of this column was published Oct. 25, 2015.