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The Lynching of Benjamin Ward
1915 , The Norman Daily Transcipt Cleveland County, Oklahoma
Dr. Benjamin Ward son of Jeptha Ward and Flora Etheridge from Wise County, Texas Story of the lynching of Dr. Benjamin Ward after he murdered his wife Mable by John Womack from the Cleveland County, Oklahoma Historical Highlights Dr. B. E. Ward, a 37 year old physician and a native of Texas, migrated to Noble with his four year old son, Osler, in August 1912. It was later learned that Ward's wife had died at Blue, in Bryan County, under mysterious circumstances. Ward soon established a private medical practice at Noble--a community which already had two doctors and F. L. Parker. On March 30, 1913, after a whirlwind courtship, Ward married Mable Jeffress, member of a highly respected Noble family. Her father had been the local justice of the peace for several years and had passed away a year earlier. Owing to Ward's erratic behavior, his unsavory reputation in his personal life and his heavy loss of medical practice within a short period, the Jeffress family strongly opposed the marriage. In December, prior to the wedding, Ward was found guilty of practicing dentistry without a license and fined $50. On July 4th, following the wedding, the doctor was again arrested, brought to Norman by Deputy Sheriff W. A. (Gus) Leslie and found guilty of the same charge a second time. He was also convicted of carrying a gun without authority and of threatening the life of John Carman, a neighbor. Actually, Ward had terrorized several persons, including his wife, and had fired shots at a few people, but only one charge was filed. He was arrested, and held in the county jail until a sanity board was convened. At the hearing on the 15th Ward was found guilty and committed to the state contract sanitarium in Norman for "alcoholic insanity". After he spent a month or so drying out in the sanitarium, Mrs. Ward and a few friends, through an attorney, brought action to secure his release. Mrs. Ward contended that County Attorney J. D. Grigsby and County Sheriff Claud Pickard were persecuting the poor fellow. In pleading the counties case Grigsby Pickard and several medical doctors testified that men with homicidal tendencies (such as Ward) were like wild beasts when drinking and that they were a potential menace to society and should be restrained. Their objection to Ward's discharge were overruled, and Ward was again a free man. After his dismissal he continued his periodic drunken binges for more than a year, during which time Mrs. Ward became pregnant and gave birth to their only child, a son named Edgar, born about Jan. 1, 1915. R. C. "Doc" Manley, a veterinary surgeon, and his wife operated the Cottage Hotel on the south side of Chesnutt Street, a half block south of the Ward home. A daughter of Manley's reported years later that her father had gone to the Ward home on numerous occasions to help quell Ward. The doctor was known to have been insanely jealous and suspicious of his wife, and had even forbidden her to visit her mother. On Tuesday, May 4, about 3 p.m. the doctor began another of his drunken rampages and was heard to threaten the life of his wife again. As the afternoon and evening wore on, the outbursts became louder and more frequent. The neighbors attempted to rescue Mrs. Ward, but found all outside doors locked. She sometimes cried for help and begged for her life, and then again urged the neighbors to withdraw from the scene. About 8 p.m. someone phoned Sheriff Pickard to inform him that Ward was on another drunken tirade and that the sheriff's help was needed. Pickard jumped into his Model-T Ford runabout (roadster) and drove to the scene a block west and a half block north of the bank corner. While Pickard was enroute to Noble the situation became so critical the Ward neighbors felt justified in kicking in the front door and trying to rescue the woman. When they crashed through the front and bedroom doors they found the couple struggling on the bed. Ward was kneeling astraddle his wife's body and was seen to sink a 6 inch surgical knife into her chest. This was the blow that is believed to have penetrated her heart and caused her immediate death. Ward was grabbed by two or three men he tried to stab, but they suffered only superficial wounds before overpowering him. A call went out for short lengths of rope to hogtie the doctor until the sheriff arrived to take him into custody. A runner called on a Mr. Johnson who operated the livery stable around the corner south of the Ward home and explained the distressing predicament. Johnson immediately produced a coil of rope several feet long, assuming that it was going to be used to hang Ward in his own front yard. The rope was hurried to the scene where it was but into short lengths with which to hogtie the madman until Pickard's arrival. All during the struggle Ward continued to curse and scream. When Pickard reached the house he handcuffed the assailant, and the ropes were then removed and returned to the owner. Johnson was furious when he saw his fine lariat had been cut into pieces, instead of being used in one piece to string up Ward. The sheriff confiscated the murder weapon, a partly filled bottle of 188 proof alcohol and a loaded .45 caliber pistol for evidence, and booked the accused into the county jail at Norman, where he was charged with murder. Ward kept up his yelling, and much to the disgust of other prisoners who were trying to sleep, quieting down only after being threatened with a forced sedative. Mrs. Ward's funeral was delayed until Thursday and interment held the following day because of difficulty in locating her brother, Carey Jeffress, who lived at Buffalo, Okla. Other survivors included Ward; her baby son; her mother; brothers Clarence of Hickory, Okla., and Charles of Minco, and a sister, Mrs. George Graham. Two of Ward's brothers from southwestern Oklahoma, also attended the burial services and spent Friday and Saturday night in Oklahoma City. Since the Jeffress family was held in high esteem by the community, Sheriff Pickard was afraid and attempt would be made to storm the jail and lynch the prisoner. He hired extra guards each night of the remainder of the week. He also made a trip to Noble during the latter part of the week and made discreet inquiry as to the possibility of any mob action. All reports indicated there was no danger, and the guards were pulled off Saturday morning. Between 1:30 and 2 a.m. on Sunday, May 9, two or three automobiles loaded with men in overalls parked on the south side of Eufaula Street, just across the street from Norman's brick jail. As the men alighted, several put on slickers, pulled their hats down over their eyes and tied bandana handkerchiefs over the lower portion of their faces. Three of the number approached the jail and rapped on the door. Jailer H. C. Cottrell was asleep in the garret outside the cell block. When he heard the knocking on the door he sleepily called out, "Who is it?" A reply came from the leader, who was able to imitate Noble's deputy sheriff. "Gus Leslie, with a prisoner." Cottrell, clad in his underwear, climbed out of bed and opened the door. He was immediately overpowered by the three men. They first took away his keys and then escorted him back to his bed, where he was directed to get dressed for a walk. Next Cottrell was handcuffed and locked temporarily in an available cell while the mob leaders went about their business. Quietly, but cautiously, each member of the mob carried out his job as though he had rehearsed it. No lights were turned on in the jail. Only a few pocket flashlights were used, thus helping the men conceal their identity. Gus Goodson, a Noble area resident was languishing in jail awaiting trial on an adultery charge. As the group moved past his cell door searching for Ward, the leader recognized Goodson and scared him out of his wits when he called out jokingly, "Gus, we've come after you." After unlocking Ward's cell door the small group walked to his bunk. "Don't hurt me---I'll go with you," Ward pleaded. The prisoner was then gagged with a handkerchief, hogtied and bodily carried out, clad only in his underwear, to one of the waiting cars. All except Cottrell and the three members of the mob climbed into the cars and sped west across the railroad tracks, making a left turn down Jenkins Avenue en route to the highway section line a mile south of Lindsey Street. Here they made another left turn. On approaching the bridge across Bishop Creek the procession stopped, and the men unloaded their prisoner who was still gagged and tied. Meanwhile the jailer and his escorts walked to the corner of Jenkins and Lindsey where Cottrell's jail keys were returned to him and his handcuff keys place in his hip pocket. He was given a chew of his favorite tobacco and told he could go. Handcuffed, and realizing it would be useless to return to the jail, Cottrell walked another block to the Santa Fe passenger depot where the night clerk was on duty. Even though the two worked within a block of each other, they had never met. Cottrell related his story to the night operator who observed the handcuffs and remained skeptical. The clerk at first refused to unlock the cuffs. Cottrell then asked him to call the sheriff, which he did. After the jailer was permitted to talk to his boss on the phone, the sheriff asked the clerk to release Cottrell. Free again, Cottrell returned to the jail at once, and Pickard came by for further briefing on the event. Along with Deputy L. P. Barker, the men drove down Jenkins a couple of miles and turned east at the Bell corner. As they approached the creek bottom they observed Ward's body hanging, about three feet off the ground. The rope had been thrown over the limb of a large tree (subsequently identified as ash, an elm and a walnut, depending on the source). The tree grew north side of the road, just west of the bridge that is still used by University golf course vehicles and golfers. The rope was secured to a small bush about 15 feet away in a little ravine on the edge of the roadway. The body was lifeless, but not yet cold. The officers left it undisturbed, electing instead to follow the lynch mob's trail. Tire tracks pointed the way to the next corner (about 11/2 blocks south of present Constitution Street and U. S. Highway 77). There the road to Noble went south for a mile (Highway 77 was built ten years later), then east a mile, south going for two miles, and then east to the northwest corner of the Noble town site where the trail was lost. The lawmen returned to Norman where soon after daybreak they reported the matter to Justice of the Peace, J. P. Linton, Linton empanelled a coroner's jury composed of men of high integrity to examine the body and determine cause of death. Serving on the jury were Ike Sale, W. a. "Bill" Brill, W. J. Hess, J. F. Jepson, George W. Giles and Tom F. Boyd. The group examined the body closely, finding no signs of abuse, except, of course, that the victim had died of strangulation at the hands of unknown persons. The jury also absolved Sheriff Pickard and Jailer Cottrell from any complicity in the affair. Meyer and Meyer, Norman funeral directors, then took charge of the body and prepared it for burial. Ward's two brothers had intended to visit Ward Sunday afternoon. When they were notified of the lynching they caught the first available interurban to Norman, claimed the body and left for Chico, Tex., on the 3 p.m. train. Osler, Ward's 8 year old son by his first wife, was sent to his aunt and uncle, the J. F. Smith's of Waco, Texas. He left by train on Tuesday. The five month old son was taken and reared by the Jeffress family. While there is no doubt County Attorney Grigsby investigated the lynching, no concrete evidence ever surfaced during the lifetime of the participants that could produce a conviction. Public opinion was overwhelming in favor of the mob. One prominent citizen, C. E. Garee, later reported he was awakened by the noise and rumbling of some cars passing his home in northwest Noble shortly after midnight the night of Ward's abduction. He only surmised their mission as they sped toward Norman. Most Nobleites declined to discuss the event with outsiders for years, except to their closest friends. Several reputable persons known to Noble residents are alleged to have participated in the lynching. Rumors have floated around for decades in quiet circles. One story held that Key Boyd of Norman had been invited to participate in the affair, but that he declined. It would serve no useful purpose to suggest the names of those who did participate in the lynching as it might cause embarrassment to their descendants. The Norman Daily Transcript of May 10, 1915, summed up the week's tragedies in part: "A mastermind had evidently arranged all of the details of the execution for there was not a hitch in it in any way. Everything was quiet and orderly and every member seemed to know his duties in the affair. "There was not a mark of any kind upon his body showing that he had been mishandled before execution. ....That the party considered it an act of justice, and expiation, an execution, rather than a lynching is also evidenced by the fact that no more force than necessary was used. Their prisoner was manhandled in no manner, and no verbal or other abuse visited upon him. "While deploring the necessity that seemed to demand such extreme measures, the citizens of Noble (as law abiding a community as there is in the State of Oklahoma under ordinary circumstances) are almost a unit in approving the work of their fellow citizens, and there is not one of them but draws a sigh of relief that Dr. Ward has been put where he can do no further harm...it is almost a certainty that he would not have to suffer for it except to be placed in an asylum from which at any time, within a few years at most, he would obtain a release. "There is hardly a person in Noble he had not threatened and his release and return to that town was feared by every citizen. There was, too, but little condemnation of the act by citizens of Norman at all conversant with the facts; for, however much you may condemn lynch law, there are cases where it is almost justifiable; where it becomes a righteous judgment for inhuman and brutal murders for which there seems to be no adequate punishment under the law." While Ward was undoubtedly guilty of the crime for which he died at the hands of his fellow townsmen after another white paid the supreme penalty within five years of mob action, lynching ceased to be a factor in Oklahoma.
nfswindleadded this on 23 Mar 2011
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Benjamin E Ward
1877 - 1915
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