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Sheriff Tracks Down Story of Forgotten Lawman

By September 15, 2014August 2nd, 2022No Comments

This article appeared in the Evening Times and is reproduced here by permission.

Allen working to add name to memorial

By Mark Randall

Crittenden County Sheriff Mike Allen was surprised that he had never heard of William Fountain Beattie before.

Beattie was Sheriff of Crittenden County and was gunned down in April of 1881 while attempting to capture a fugitive in Crawfordsville who had escaped custody.

But for some reason, Beattie’s name has been left off the National Fallen Officers Memorial Wall.

Allen got a letter from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund informing him of the oversight and notifying him that they wanted to add his name to the National Memorial Wall.

Allen was intrigued and put his skills as an investigator to work tracking down Beattie’s story and is hoping to correct that injustice.

“I actually started at the Crittenden County Sheriff’s Department in 1981 – 100 years after the first known Sheriff of Crittenden County was gunned down,” Allen said. “It amazes me that I have never heard this story or knew about Sheriff William F. Beattie. My curiosity took over and made me start investigating this.”

Allen dug into court records and old newspapers, and thanks to the Internet and some genealogy websites, was able to piece together some information about Beattie’s life and what happened on April 21, 1881.

William Fountain Beattie was born Feb. 16, 1846 in Glad Spring, Virginia, to a wealthy plantation-owning family.

According to contemporary accounts, Beattie was a handsome and intelligent young man who showed a lot of promise.

Beattie dreamed of someday being the master of the plantation, but also had a keen desire for more education. Those dreams were interrupted by the Civil War.

He enrolled at Virginia Military Academy at age 18 on March 3, 1864, and two months later was part of the cadet corps that fought at the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864. Beattie later joined the 1st Virginia Cavalry on Jan. 28, 1865.

After the war, Beattie returned to the family estate and continued his education at Emory & Henry, graduating with a four year degree in 1869.

Beattie heard talk about vast tracts of available land capable of growing great crops of cotton in western Tennessee and eastern Arkansas and came to Crittenden County where he established a large cotton plantation and hoped to prosper as a cotton planter.

In 1878, Beattie was appointed Sheriff by Governor William Read Miller to fill a vacancy and was later elected in his own right.

“He was 32 when he was appointed,” Allen said. “So he didn’t have a whole lot of experience being sheriff.”

Beattie’s murder would make national headlines.

According to an account in The Daily Picayune, on April 21, 1881, Beattie went looking for Hays White, a Negro who lived in a cabin near Crawfordsville. White had been arrested in Crawfordsville the day before for breaking in to the W.L. Trexler store.

Emmett Sweptston, who had been left in charge of the store, had gone to supper and when he returned noticed that the front door of the store had been forced open and that someone was trying to get into the safe.

Sweptston went and summoned Turner Hendricks, a black constable, and the two men succeeded in apprehending White.

White was brought before a magistrate and sent to be held in the county jail in Marion.

Sweptston and Hendricks were escorting White to jail on horseback when White suddenly pulled a gun and turned and shot Hendricks in the side, knocking him from his horse. White then shot at Sweptston, but the bullet passed through his hat and only grazed his scalp.

Sweptston dismounted and fired at White, who had sought shelter behind his horse. White managed to maneuver his horse backward until he came alongside Sweptston and got the drop on him with his gun, and forced him to surrender.

White made Sweptston get on his horse and then turned to Hendricks, who had crawled behind a log, and asked him if he was hurt.

“Hays, you have almost killed me,” Hendricks replied.

“Almost?” said White. “Then I’ll fix you for good.”

White fired again and hit Hendricks in the arm.

Thinking he was dead, White made Sweptston start down the road.

Along the way they encountered Dr. George Stull, who was on his way home. Seeing him approach, White threatened to kill Sweptston if he said a word to the doctor. He told Sweptston that if the doctor asked about the shots, to tell him that they had fired at some snakes in the road.

Dr. Stull rode on and White made his escape into the woods.

Sheriff Beattie and a Deputy Maddox later located White in a cabin in Crawfordsville. Beattie had Maddox cover the outside while he went inside to arrest Hays White.

“He rode out on horseback from Marion looking for him,” Allen said. “And when he found him the man shot him dead.”

Beattie had barely taken a step inside when White shot him. The bullet struck Beattie in the right eye, killing him instantly. White came to the door and then opened fire on Maddox, wounding the deputy in the leg before fleeing into the woods.

The enraged local citizens scored the county for Beattie’s killer.

“Crittenden County is being thoroughly searched by an armed force of 300 men,” the Picayune reported. “And if the assassin is caught, he will surely be lynched.”

Beattie’s body was taken to Memphis and sent back to his parents in Virginia where he was buried in the old Glade Spring Cemetery. He was only 35 years old when he was killed.

Hays White was captured and stood trial. Public sentiment ran strongly against the accused murderer, but Beattie’s brother, George, addressed the crowd and asked that the law be obeyed and that White get a fair trial.

White was found guilty and was hung at 2 p.m. on the grounds of the county courthouse in front of 2,000 people – 1,500 of which were African-Americans.

According to a news account in the Harrisburg Telegraph, “the condemned man made a speech from the gallows, confessing the killing, but denying a knowledge that it was Sheriff Beattie until after he had killed him. A colored minister prayed for the condemned man on the gallows. White then sang a hymn, which was joined in by the colored people present.”

Unfortunately for White, although the gallows was six feet tall, the fall did not break his neck and he died of strangulation.

“It’s quite a story,” Allen said.

Allen said he would like to have a ceremony honoring Beattie when they add his name to the local Fallen Officer Monument in West Memphis.

“I talked to (Executive Director at West Memphis Chamber of Commerce) Holmes Hammett and we will get it done locally,” Allen said. “And nationally all I have to do is submit the forms. What I’d really like to do is get some of his family here.”