Volume 7, Number 1, Fall 1979
The story of the Jake Fleagle gang was compiled for presentation at the September 1979, meeting of the WRVHS. Information was drawn from news reports in the White River Leader (Oct. 16, 27, Nov. 13, 1930, and Feb. 3 and 22, 1931), written by Editor Rockwell Fletcher who was present at the time of the capture at Branson, and from an article originally written by Ralph C. Taylor for the Pueblo, Col., Star Journal and Sunday Chieftain, May 15, 1960, based on research of the Postal Inspectors reports. Also included are reports from two persons who were locally involved.
The following events occurred 50 years ago. There have been many changes in law enforcement methods and organization since 1930. The story would happen differently today.
On October 14, 1930, law enforcement officers captured bank robber-murderer Jake Fleagle at the Branson depot. Fleagle's crimes were committed in Colorado, and Tanya County law officers were little involved in either the search or the capture. The story is, however, of historical interest in the White River Valley, not merely because the final dramatic scene was played out in Branson, but because local people reacted in so many different ways to the realization that men accepted as neighbors turned out to be murderous fugitives.
On the morning of May 23, 1928, four strangers with guns entered the First National Bank in Lamar, Col., and ordered bank employees and customers to raise their hands above their heads. As the gangsters stuffed $290,000 into moneybags, the elderly president of the bank, A.M. Parrish, pulled a loaded pistol from his desk drawer and fired into the face of one of the bandits. Before Parrish could fire again, the bandits turned their guns on him and the banker fell dead, still clutching his weapon.
J. F. Parrish, cashier of the bank and son of the slain banker, rushed to his father. A second volley from the bandits guns, and the younger Parrish, too, lay dead. Then, taking as hostages the assistant cashier, E. A. Cosigner, and the bank teller, B. A. Lounger, the gunmen shoved the bags of cash into a waiting car and sped away. Someone had telephoned Sheriff L. B. Alderman, who picked up the chase eastward on Highway 50. A short distance from Lamar, the gunmen stopped to shove Lounger from their car, a move that enabled the sheriff to overtake them. The bandits, using Cosigner as a shield, fired at the sheriff and his deputy who were about 280 yards away. It was an uneven match. The bandits had rifles and the officers had shorter-range pistols. Sheriff Alderman and his deputy were not injured but had to give up the pursuit because rifle bullets had damaged two stark plugs on their car.
Quickly organized posses fanned out in every direction, but no trace was found of the gunmen. Witnesses were not able to identify them. It would be many months before the four would be positively identified as Jake Fleagle, his brother Ralph,
Howard Royston and George Abshier.
The four men fled to the horse ranch of Jake Fleagle, northwest of Garden City, Kansas. Royston, who had been shot in the face by Parrish, was in great pain. His anguished pleas for medical aid finally caused his companions to send Abshier to Dighton, Kansas, for help. Telling Dr. W. W. Weininger that a farm hand had been hurt, Abshier induced the doctor the doctor to accompany him to the Fleagle ranch. Dr. Weininger at once realized the man had been shot, and although he had not yet heard about the Lamar killings, he was certain to associate the two once he returned to Dighton and heard the news. After Royston's wound was treated, the murderers decided to dispose of the two men who could identify them. They took Dr. Weininger to a lonely canyon 22 miles north of Scott City. After blindfolding him and telling his he could return to Dighton after they were out of hearing, Jake Fleagle shot him in the back of he head with a shotgun. In removing the blindfold to see if the doctor was dead, Fleagle got some blood on his hands. The doctor's body and his car were then pushed over a cliff by Fleagle and his companions. In the process, the blood-stained fingerprint of Jake Fleagle was left on one of the car windows.
The hostage bank cashier was also blindfolded and told that he could return to Lamar after his captors were out of hearing. Jake Fleagle shot him in the back of the head with a revolver.
Now began the long search, which would involve law enforcement officers from coast to coast, last for two and a half years, and contribute heavily to awakening cooperation among the various law enforcement agencies. Chief among the searchers were Postal Inspector Charles W. Pfaffenberger and the chief of police of Colorado Springs, Hugh D. Harper, who was loaned to the Colorado Bankers' Association for as long as it would take to track down the vicious killers and bring them all to justice. You will meet some of the other lawmen as the story progresses. Suffice it to say, that, once involved, each officer stayed on the trail to the conclusion at Branson, so that the final confrontation took on the proportions of a law officers' convention.
Sheriff Alderman was scouting western Kansas in a low-flying airplane when he sighted Dr. Weininger's body and the wrecked automobile. That crime was soon linked with the bank killings. The interior of the doctor's car had been wiped with a damp cloth to remove fingerprints. However, R.S. Terwillinger, fingerprint expert of the Garden City police department, did find one fingerprint on the outside of one of the rear window. That was the lone tangible clue through which officers hoped to identify the murderous quartet. Terwillinger removed the glass and photographed the fingerprint. A copy was sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C. Copies were sent also to police all over the country with the admonition to commit the print to memory.
On June 22, 1929, nearly a year later, a mail train on the Southern Pacific Railroad was held up at Hay Point near Pittsburg, California, and $17,000 in cash was taken out of the United States mail. A man calling himself William Harrison Holden was arrested at Stockton, California, as a suspect in that holdup, but was not held. His fingerprints, forwarded to the FBI, were identified as those of Jake Fleagle, who had been sent to the McAlester, Oklahoma, Penitentiary in 1916 to serve a year for second degree robbery.
An FBI expert noticed something familiar in the pattern of the right index finger. He searched his memory for an association but it was days before he linked it with the Kansas-Colorado fingerprint. Police now knew that the right index fingerprint from the doctors wrecked car belonged to Jake Fleagle.
Garden City police recalled the Fleagle's living on an unproductive homestead nearby. There they found Jakes father; mother and a brother, Fred All three had large sums of cash on them and had made large deposits in a Garden City bank in previous months. They said Jake had made the money on the stock market and had sent it home to the family.
Lengthy questioning of Fred Fleagle brought the admission that mail addressed to a certain box in Garden City was from Ralph Fleagle. Postal Inspectors put a close watch on the box and this surveillance was rewarded when a letter arrived bearing a return address of a post-office box in Kankakee, Illinois. A watch was put on the Kankakee box and when Ralph Fleagle called for his mail, he was apprehended without a struggle.
Placed in the Colorado Springs jail, for many weeks Ralph Fleagle denied knowledge of the Lamar bank holdup. Finally he told the prosecuting attorney he would identify his companions if the authorities would agree not to request the death penalty. The promise was made, and through Fleagle's information, Howard Roystan was arrested in San Andreas, California, and George Abshier was picked up in Grand Junction, Col. These suspects also were taken to Colorado Springs and confessed to the bank robbery after extensive questioning. The three bandits were tried, and the prosecutor, true to his word, did not ask the death penalty for Fleagle. However, the jurors decreed death for him, as was their right, and also ordered the hanging of the other two.
More than two years after the Lamar slayings, Abshier and Royston died on the State Penitentiary gallows at Canon City the night of July 10,1930. One week later, Ralph Fleagle was hanged. None of the men gave information about Jake. The search for Jake Fleagle continued.
At the time of the three hangings, Jake Fleagle had been residing more or less openly, for about eight months, in the tiny state line community of Ridgedale, Mo., under the name of Walter Cook.
The "Cook brothers" were peaceful, roughly clad chicken farmers living quietly in an oak-shaded white cottage beside Highway 65, a mile or so north of the Missouri-Arkansas border. The matter of greatest concern to them, apparently, was the setting of eggs for their white leghorn hens. Neighbors and friends said the boys always seemed "such nice fellows". They were genial, obliging and always had plenty of money to spend. True, they didnt work much. Walter (Jake Fleagle) took care of the 160 chickens and "Lee" worked a little on the highway. They dressed in the rough fashion of the hills and never "showed much money", except in a few poker games played in the shabby frame cottage when rain slowed work for the highway crews.
Lee didnt look "a great sight" like his brother, but many brothers do not resemble each other and the hardships of hill life are apt to carve faces into rugged wrinkles. Lee had brown hair and was heavier than Walter. He had a sort of knot on the front of his neck and one on the back, from an old scar. He had a ready smile and did most of the talking. Walter, it was understood, was suffering from lung trouble and had to rest. He sunned himself on
the porch of the cottage, fed and watered the chickens, and walked in the deep forested canyon which ran along the back of the house under a protecting ridge. There were no close neighbors and there was little to disturb his "rest cure".
Members of the highway crew who were building the new route past the place did call at the house frequently. One of the road crew who spent a night at the house said he was shown a revolver under the mattress of the bed.
Walter always had his .45 Colt on him and at one point drew it from his shirt, then put it back again and grinned. No one thought anything about the matter. Horseplay was popular in the hills.
Once a visitor discovered a machine gun in the Cook home. "Whered y get that, Walter?" he inquired curiously, inspecting the weapon.
"Got it when I was in the World War," Cook explained casually. "Its just a keepsake."
Walter spent some of his time reading published accounts of Jake Fleagles escapades. Among the stack of papers found in the hideout when officers raided it shortly after Fleagles capture were a number of detective magazines. One of them, a recent issue, gave a detailed account of the bank robbery at Lamar, Col., and of how the gang leader had for two and a half years eluded the law in its relentless efforts to track him down.
There was a picture of Hugh D. Parker, the chief of police of Colorado Springs, whose search continued. There were also pictures of Jake Fleagle, a profile and a full face view. These had been defaced with a sharp instrument so anyone seeing them would not recognize Walter Cooks resemblance.
A savage police dog was kept chained to a steel wire that ran from a front yard tree to the
ramshackle frame building used as a garage. When visitors approached, he ran forward, wire singing as he pulled at his leash and growled. The neighbors wondered a bit at such precautions against chicken thieves.
Blanche Cary, whose parents, William and Alta Kay Cary, ran the Ridgedale store then located two miles further north on 65, has some very strong memories of the Fleagles. In later years, William Cary would hold a postmasters commission for his store, but in 1930 he merely picked up neighbors mail in Hollister and brought it out, as a convenience. Blanche recalls:
"The Cooks lived in the Collins house. The Collins had sold out and left without people knowing anything about them. The Cooks would come to the store. We were about the only store for quite a few miles out there. I dont believe they got any mail through us. Theyd come for groceries and gasoline.
"Hed call them Walter and Lee. But they were hard to identify. Seemed like each time they cane to the store they had on different clothes and their hair had changed.
"I sold Jake a french harp. He came in one evening and wanted to look at them and I opened my big mouth and said, Arent you Walter Cook? he said Yeh," and I said, Hell, I never know you. Hell, I guess that was just exactly what he wanted to hear! My dad told them that time and again, Hed always have to ask them who they were.
"Theyd always offer a $20 bill in payment. He couldnt always make change, so wed tell them to pay next time. They always did.
"Theyd come to the canning factory behind the store to talk to their friends and several times theyd leave their car at the store, out by the kerosene tank. Went somewhere at night and would come and get it before morning.
"They didnt do a whole lot of talking. They were people of few words. I heard a lot of stories, but the fact is that the two men lived out there in that house, they came and went, and so far as I know nobody knew what they were up to. Nobody questioned it. Nobody thought about it. They had some chickens and they said their wives were teaching, or one of them was supposed to have been a nurse, and they would come later."
While efforts were being made to locate Fleagle, another bad man", one Harry Lee Watson, who had built himself an expensive secluded home in the wooded hills of Texas County and was making it a hangout for high-powered bandits, was arrested. It was learned through Watson that Jake Fleagle was hiding out in the vicinity and visiting nearby towns to obtain supplies, and that he might be mailing letters on the Missouri Pacific Line between Carthage, Mo., and Newport, Ark.
Samples of Fleagles handwriting, obtained from the Fleagle ranch, had revealed that the outlaw used a distinctive letter D, and when on July 30, 1930, Governor Adams of Colorado received a letter pleading for clemency for Ralph Fleagle, authorities quickly spotted the telltale D in the "Dear Sir: of the letter.
Immediately circulars of Jakes handwriting were mailed to postal employees all over southwest Missouri. Finally one of Fleagles letters was detected on the Carthage to Newport mail train, addressed to a man in California. Postal inspectors were forbidden to open mail, but they delivered the letter arid required the recipient, an old buddy of the long-missing Fleagle, to open it in their presence. Jake wanted to meet his old friend, and asked him to insert a classified ad in the Wichita, Kansas Eagle. The friend, agreeing to work with the postal inspectors, inserted the ad. Jake responded by writing his buddy to meet him in Yellville, Arkansas, on October 14, 1930.
In the meantime, midwestern lawmen had not been idle. Apparently a comprehensive check was being made of stores and postoffices along the rail line. Blanche Cary relates what then happened to her mother at the Ridgedale store:
Several weeks before Fleagle was shot, Dad and my sister and I were visiting relatives in Oklahoma for four or five days and mother stayed behind to take care of the store. The postal inspectors came by and talked to mother and showed her some pictures, and asked, "So you recognize any of these men? She said, 'Well, this one looks like one of the Cook brothers.
"The inspector didnt say, Thats who it is. He said, "We sure thank you. Were looking for the bank robber, Jake Fleagle, and we think were pretty close to getting him. It would be best if you just keep our conversation quiet.
"Mother kept it quiet all right. She was scared to death. She didnt tell anybody about it. She didnt even tell Dad or us after we got back home, for fear we would let something slip."
On October 13, at least 25 lawmen--postal inspectors, detectives, railroad agents from St. Louis and Little Rock, police officials from Colorado and Los Angeles, virtually every man who had participated in the long search and the apprehension of Ralph Fleagle and Royston and Abshier converged on the White River Line, Detectives were deployed along the line between Aurora, Mo., and Cotter, Ark. Several were detailed to be at the Branson station. Eight men were to be on the passenger train that passed through Branson before noon.
Tourists, then as now, were much a part of the Branson scene, and. predictably, family stories surface from time to time that add a new dimension to the Fleagle story. Several years ago Jerry and Mary Morrisey retired to Branson. They recall that Jerrys parents and. brother were in Branson at the time;
The Morriseys had enjoyed their tour through the ruggedly beautiful Ozarks, aflame with the reds and. golds of fall, but on October 13, 1930, driving north on Highway 65 through Arkansas was an exhausting experience. When they crossed Lake Taneycomo on the Main Street Bridge, the almost new White River Hotel was a welcome sight. John and Elizabeth Morrisey, of Topeka, Kansas, and their grown son, Joe, who was on vacation from his job as a bank examiner in Muskogee, Oklahoma, checked into the hotel, anticipating a good nights rest.
They had scarcely extinguished the lights, however, when the hotel erupted in a commotion that was to continue for hours. Men moved swiftly and far from silently, back and forth down the halls, talking in loud voices filled with tension.
By morning, the sleepless travelers were in no mood to explore Branson. They loaded the car and departed for home. In Topeka blazing headlines revealed the source of their sleeplessness. The White River Hotel had, for that one memorable night, been headquarters for all those lawmen, bent on bringing the career of the notorious bank-robbing, murdering Fleagle to an end.
Jake Fleagle, alias Walter Cook, and Lee Cook, drove through Branson Tuesday morning at 10 or 11 oclock. Jake bought a ticket back to Hollister, and the two men waited in their Ford sedan until the south bound train arrived. Fleagle was clean shaven, but shabbily dressed. He wore an old. felt hat, blue overalls and a blue serge coat, and he had on a pair of heavy, dark-rimmed glasses.
On the train were five police officers, two from Kansas City, two from Los Angeles and one from Colorado Springs, and also three postal inspectors. The men who had been following Fleagle for so long had studied the bandits photograph and physical characteristics so that when he got off the train someplace along the White River Division that morning he would be known at once.
Through the coach window they spotted Fleagle coming up the Branson platform. The officers moved toward the passenger car entrance. As Jake came into the vestibule and was about to take the first seat, facing back through the car, they approached and ordered him to "Put em up", but Fleagle reached for his gun. One report says he had his finger on the trigger. One of the officers fired into his stomach. Fleagles gun hand was grabbed by another officer, and though he was said to have struggled fiercely, he was soon handcuffed and put in leg irons. The lone bullet had emerged from Fleagles back and was later found embedded in the sill of the coach window.
It all happened in a moment. Occupants of the train scarcely realized what had happened and there was little or no commotion or excitement among them.
Before he lapsed into unconsciousness, the wounded man admitted he was Jake Fleagle, but answers to other questions were evasive.
Dr. Guy B. Mitchell, and the Whelchel ambulance, were called and the bandit was taken to Dr. Mitchell s office. After an hour, he revived enough that it was decided to take him to Springfield for hospital treatment. He was again carried to the ambulance and left
Branson under heavy guard. at 1:30 p.m. for the Springfield Baptist Hospital.
With Fleagles consent, Dr. Mitchell and Dr. C. W. Russell of Springfield performed an operation in an attempt to save his life, but the .38 calibre bullet had cut off the blood supply to Fleagle's bowel and poison had set in. Jake died Wednesday morning without discussing the case, other than to claim to have come into Branson on the local freight on the 13th, and to have spent that night down around the depot. He never mentioned the house south of Hollister or the partner who had lived with him there.. In his last hours of delirium he alternately called for his mother and cringed in fear that the officers still were hunting him.
The officers who had been on the train refused to reveal which one of them had fired the shot that brought Fleagle down. It had been an organized effort all along and no one was going to be given individual credit for the capture. Detective Lieutenants Chester A. Lloyd and Harry Wilde, of Los Angeles, did however telegraph their headquarters from Branson as follows:
"Man got on train this station. Put up fight. Pulled gun. Lloyd grabbed gun arm. Wilde forced to shoot him. May die.
(Signed) Wilde and Lloyd."
There were people in Branson who recognized the wounded man as Walter Cook. The officers, never revealing any prior knowledge of the location of the hideout, drove at once to search the house. Lee Cook was not there. He had apparently been waiting to board the train at the Hollister station. Then the train failed to arrive on time and word spread of a shootout at the Branson station, Lee drove away in the Ford sedan.
At the house, the officers found linesmans tools including pole climbers and wire cutters, tacks which could be used to stop pursuing cars, and that stack of papers and magazines. There were also some expensive suits of clothes.
The inside walls of the house were covered with building paper. Tearing away the paper revealed a veritable arsenal of guns and ammuniton between the studding. In case of sudden attack, the defenders needed only to poke their hands through the paper to grab a gun.
The house, situated right beside the highway, with the tangled ravine just outside the back door, seemed to have been well chosen for the outlaws purposes. The goings and comings of the occupants would be unlikely to excite suspicion and there was an ideal escape route should the road be cut off.
No money was found on the place and Fleagle had only some small change when he was shot. After the police left, curious neighbors collected pieces of the tarpaper for souvenirs. They also tended the chickens and the anxious dog.
After Fleagle's death, his fingerprints were taken and sent to the FBI, where the right index print was found to be identical with that lone print from the window of the slain doctors automobile.
Jakes mother claimed his body and took it Kansas to be buried beside her other bandit son, Ralph. And later his father appeared to arrange for an auction of the animals and household effects, minus all those guns, which the law had confiscated.
Mrs. Cary had at least two more visits from the postal inspectors. Almost immediately after the shooting, the inspector came by the store to thank her for her help in confirming Fleagle s identity and
whereabouts. Only then did she tell her family of her fearful travail. For Mrs. Carys safety, any indication of her assistance was carefully screened from press releases, and the incident was not mentioned to neighbors, some of whom seemed to have disapproved of all those outside policemen coming in and killing "Cook".
Many months later, an inspector came back to Ridgedale to the Carys store, to tell them that Lee Cook had been caught. The officers did not identify Lee Cook further, nor give any particulars about his career or capture.
By that time the story had been told and retold by many neighbors and written up in the papers, and Mrs. Cary told her family to simply forget she was ever involved in it.
The affair had several strange repercussions and sidelights. Bankers in Nebraska, faced with 16 bank robberies in 16 months, offered a bounty of $3,000 for "each bank robber killed in the act", and in Texas a bounty of $5,000 was offered, and paid five times in five years. The danger of such a. solution became apparent when two men were found to have been lured into bank robbery in Fort Worth so that four other men might collect $10,000 for killing them.
In Stone County, an embezzler hiding out from his Kansas City pursuers was spooked by the Fleagle capture and when he disappeared from his already known hideout home, police suspected that he, too, was a member of the Fleagle gang. He was lucky that in his apprehension he was not also gunned down.
And in Montague in southwest Christian County, a Law Enforcement League was organized in November, 1930, in order to "forestall the possibility that crooks and criminals might make the Ozarks their rendezvous while cities are busily engaged in ridding themselves of their public enemies". The movement was "to investigate suspicious newcomers in the community and ascertain their business in coming to the Ozarks".
And, of course, the whole Fleagle affair was immortalized in verse and song. On January 22, 1931, the White River Leader carried on its. front page the words to a Bud Billings Ballad, advertised inside the paper as available on a Victor recording, detailing "The Fate of the Fleagle Gang".
Copyright Ó White River Valley Historical Quarterly
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