OPINION

OLD NEWS: Death comes for Yates Standridge, once feared Human Wolf of the Ozarks

Page 1 of the Oct. 14, 1960, Arkansas Gazette reporting the capture of furlough-jumper Joe Hilderbrand and his girlfriend Frances Standridge, a niece of Yates Standridge. (Democrat-Gazette archives)
Page 1 of the Oct. 14, 1960, Arkansas Gazette reporting the capture of furlough-jumper Joe Hilderbrand and his girlfriend Frances Standridge, a niece of Yates Standridge. (Democrat-Gazette archives)


Yates Standridge was a taciturn, violent son of Newton County whose many escapes from Arkansas jails, prisons, prison farms and prison camps in the early 20th century earned him the nickname The Human Wolf.

He made an impression on a great Arkansas Gazette police reporter, Joe Wirges, who covered some of Standridge's exploits in the 1920s. Forty years later, when one of the Wolf's distant relatives — 18-year-old Frances Standridge — helped a furlough jumper named Joe Hilderbrand elude manhunts in the Ozarks for months, Wirges revisited the legend of the Wolf.

From the foggy vantage of October 1960, Wirges recalled that Yates Standridge racked up three years, three months and 18 days of unexcused absences during what was to have been a 15-year term for two murders.

"After one escape he returned voluntarily the next day. But another time he was gone for 15 months before they caught him," Wirges wrote.

That particular AWOL ended in 1913 in Eufala, Okla., where the fugitive's odd answers to simple questions made his neighbors nervous. They figured out who he was but were afraid to confront him. Instead, they devised a ruse — a free picnic — and invited him. They also invited the sheriff and a posse.

Notified that Standridge had been captured in Oklahoma, Pulaski County Sheriff W.G. Hutton (see arkansasonline.com/1120bill) started to send deputies to fetch him — but then his office didn't have cash for their fares. It took a while for Hutton to find some money.

When Standridge finally arrived at the Rock Island station in Little Rock on July 9, 1913, a large crowd was on hand to see him swaddled in chains and shackles to the point that he could not walk without help. Reporting on that recapture, the Gazette called him "a human wolf" for the first time (see arkansasonline.com/1120wolf).

During subsequent flights from prison, he sought sanctuary in the hills north of Russellville, Clarksville and on toward Newton County. "People living in the area felt unsafe and left their homes," Wirges remembered. "Certain local officials were not interested in the $100 reward the prison offered nor the $400 additional the governor had promised. They took the attitude, 'well they had him, why didn't they keep him.'"

But after years of escapes and recaptures, finally the day came — Nov. 2, 1923 — when Standridge left prison to return no more. When last seen in the pages of regional newspapers, he was headed for his mother's place near Harrison.

He did not reappear in print until Aug. 10, 1938. On that day the Gazette reported, "Standridge dropped from sight when he left prison. Penitentiary officials heard nothing of him until two weeks ago when Oklahoma officials requested his birth date, needed in Standridge's application for an old-age pension."

Perhaps he shouldn't have applied.

AMBUSHED

He was murdered. Standridge and Mrs. Ada Johnson — a woman various newspapers would describe as his cousin or niece — were on the old Marble City Road outside Sallisaw, Okla., driving a wagon home from shopping in town, when someone blasted them with buckshot.

He died at the scene. Johnson died in an ambulance on the way to Fort Smith.

For context, The Muskogee Daily Phoenix interviewed Standridge's old adversary, former Pope County Sheriff John M. Hatley. Remember him? Standridge shot him in the shoulder in 1907. Hatley was retired. He had been a prison warden and also enjoyed a second career as a county sheriff in Muskogee, Okla.

He remembered that after Standridge left the Tucker state prison farm in 1923, he was seen in Russellville, where someone overheard him saying he had "one more man to kill" before he passed on.

"That was me," Hatley said.

So, when years later he found himself face-to-face with the old criminal in front of a drugstore in Sallisaw, Hatley felt a measure of alarm.

"My first thought when I saw him," Hatley said, "was to kill him, and then he grasped my hand, in a friendly handshake. He told me that he was through fighting the law, and I congratulated him."

Hatley recalled for the Phoenix that Standridge had told him once that his hide was just too tough for any ordinary bullet, "but it looks like ordinary bullets did the work fairly well over at Sallisaw on Monday. I was sorry to read about it, after he said he was going straight.

"Poor old Wolf," he added.

Hatley's rueful perspective was not shared by Sallisaw residents, it appears. They told the Phoenix tales of threats and insults. In one story, when Standridge's son Junior Lee was injured, and Dr. J.A. Morrow in Sallisaw was trying to treat him, Standridge threatened to kill the doctor if the boy died. He also threatened to kill the doctor if Morrow billed him. (What if that was humor?)

County Attorney Ed Armstrong said Standridge had scores of enemies in Sequoyah County, but "everyone who knew him was mortally afraid of him." Standridge had threatened the lives of six or seven neighbors, he said.

"We knew what was going on out there," Armstrong said, "but Standridge was so tough and so mean we couldn't get anyone to sign a complaint against him. They were afraid he would kill them, and so they kept quiet."

FOUR SUSPECTS

Sheriff Charles Hutchens had a theory that the shooting resulted from an argument over land 6 miles northwest of Sallisaw that Standridge was leasing from nearby Cherokees.

Suspicion settled first upon a 50-year-old Cherokee named "Black George" Ellis. Bloodhounds had trailed him from the ambush site to his daughter's home. Ellis admitted he'd been in the area that morning, but his home was only a half-mile from the scene.

Eventually, three other Sequoyah County farmers were charged with Ellis: George and Tom Dotson and Pervin Acker.

Armstrong doubted any jury in the area would vote to convict. But the state prosecutor sent Assistant Attorney General Owen J. Watts to Sallisaw to build a case. They tried, and failed, to have the four farmers bound over to circuit court, which might be less affected by local satisfaction with the murders.

Prosecutors did gather a few witnesses. Marries Dotson, the oddly named 19-year-old son of George Dotson, swore that his father and uncle were less than three-quarters of a mile away shortly before the shooting. But he retracted his statement.

And he denied it again on the stand at a preliminary hearing in a courthouse jammed by 500 spectators.

In testimony meant to arouse sympathy for Ada Johnson, John Golden, a neighbor, said he was the first person on the scene and found her awake and aware that she was dying. She was 29, mother to two daughters, Nole, 15, and Neoma, 12.

Golden also testified that Yates' wife, "Mrs. Standridge," arrived a few minutes later. She showed no emotion, he said, but went to her husband's body, took from it a purse and emptied its contents of money. Then she left.

Mrs. Standridge was not in court. Other neighbors had told the Phoenix that she lived in mortal fear of Yates and had not been allowed to leave their farm for eight years.

Ellis' daughter gave him an alibi. And an attempt to link a shotgun shell found at the scene to shells George Dotson bought in town failed when the defense objected that none of the witnesses was a ballistics expert.

Worst of all, a mystery witness failed to show. This was a Cherokee County resident named Hallmark who had told the sheriff that George Dotson and Acker offered him $150 to kill Standridge before giving the job to Tom Dotson for a lesser price.

Lacking sufficient evidence for trial, Judge J.T. Brockman freed the four accused farmers.

Thus unavenged, Yates Standridge, said to be 67, was buried in Arkansas at Hartman Cemetery in Johnson County. Survivors included his widow and two daughters, Mrs. Nancy Robinson of Broken Arrow, and Lorene Faye, 10, as well as the son, Junior Lee, 8.

One more fact to end our story of The Human Wolf: Cheering townsfolk literally carried his suspected murderers from the courthouse on their shoulders, as heroes.

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  photo  Yates Standridge in January 1908 with headlines snipped from 1923. (Democrat-Gazette illustration/Celia Storey)
 
 


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