“Officer Uses a Pistol Fatally,” an Arkansas Gazette headline stated on March 5, 1905. The incident that led to this headline was the catalyst for one of the state’s longest-running and bloodiest feuds.
On March 4, 1905, Walnut Ridge (Lawrence County) city marshal Robert Lee Ridgeway shot Jesse Edward (Ed) Bagley, son of wealthy farmer Isham J. Bagley, three times. Bagley was reportedly drunk and resisting arrest when Ridgeway, acting in his legal capacity as law officer, shot and killed him. At a coroner’s inquiry, Ridgeway was found innocent of any wrongdoing. At the time of the shooting, Isham Bagley and his other two sons were “in the country” (that is, in the vicinity). It was reported, “When they learn of the tragedy, it is feared, other trouble will follow.”
Ed Bagley’s entire family had a reputation for violence. Concerned for his own safety, Ridgeway resigned as marshal and moved out of Lawrence County. A couple of years later, thinking hard feelings had died down, Ridgeway returned to Walnut Ridge. Alf Bagley, brother of Ed Bagley, shot and killed Ridgeway on October 24, 1908.
At his trial, Alf Bagley used as his defense the fact that a blood feud had existed between his family and Ridgeway ever since Ridgeway had killed his brother. Bagley was acquitted of all charges; however, during the trial, Dr. John C. “Jack” Hughes testified against Bagley. After Hughes’s testimony, Alf Bagley began making threats against him. On September 24, 1910, Hughes fired six shots at Alf Bagley, shooting off one of his fingers. No charges were filed.
On October 28, 1910, Alf Bagley fired a pistol through the front window of Hughes’s office in Walnut Ridge, hitting no one. A short time later, someone shot and killed Bagley on the town’s streets. When Alf’s father, Isham Bagley, was walking to downtown Walnut Ridge later that same day, reportedly to buy a new pair of shoes for his son’s funeral, a shot was fired from the second-story window of the Rhea Hotel (owned by W. C. and Lizzie Burel). The shot hit Isham Bagley in the back. As he spun around, a second shot was fired, striking him in the face, killing him. No one saw who fired the shots.
A newspaper headline stated, “Assassin Kills Father and Son at Walnut Ridge Last Saturday Afternoon.” Dr. Hughes was arrested for both shootings. He admitted to shooting Alf Bagley in self-defense but firmly stated that he had nothing to do with Isham Bagley’s murder. A coroner’s jury believed him and recommended that he not be prosecuted for either shooting. Several grand juries were convened, but all refused to indict Hughes for the shootings.
On August 4, 1912, another attempt was made on Hughes’s life. As Hughes was returning from a professional call that night, a man stepped out of the shadows and shot at him twice, striking his buggy both times. No arrests were made.
On October 9, 1912, Wolford “Wolf” Benningfield shot and killed John Bagley, son of Isham and brother of Ed and Alf. Before dying, John Bagley said that he did not know why Benningfield shot him, as they had always been good friends. A Little Rock (Pulaski County) newspaper carried an article with the headline “May Be Fourth of Family Slain,” and many suspected that the Bagley-Hughes feud had something to do with the killing. Benningfield was charged with murder in the first degree and tried at the Lawrence County Courthouse, where he was eventually found guilty of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to twenty years in the Arkansas state penitentiary.
On September 22, 1914, J. Solon Crook, a Walnut Ridge real estate agent and cousin to Wolf Benningfield, was shot and killed while sitting in his home near the front window. A coroner’s jury stated that Crook died at the hands of an unknown assailant.
Nine years after Ed Bagley’s death, in what many considered an attempt to end the killing spree, Hughes was indicted for the murders of Alf and Isham Bagley on October 23, 1914. Hughes was taken to Little Rock to keep tensions in Walnut Ridge low. On the night of November 15, 1914, a fire destroyed the Hotel Rhea, site of Isham Bagley’s murder, and eight other businesses located on the same block. On December 3, 1914, L. A. “Kirby” Bland was arrested for the murder of J. Solon Crook, and Lizzie Rhea Burel (owner of the Rhea Hotel) was arrested for being an accomplice to the murder of Isham Bagley by allowing Hughes to ambush Bagley from a window of her hotel.
Hughes was tried on December 16, 1914. Hughes offered strong evidence that he was in his office, 200 feet away from the Rhea Hotel, when Isham Bagley was shot. The jury deadlocked 8–4 in favor of acquittal, so the judge declared a mistrial. The next day, Dr. Hughes and Lizzie Burel were both released on $5,000 bail each. And on December 18, 1914, Kirby Bland was released when a Lawrence County Grand Jury failed to indict him.
On April 24, 1915, Hughes was retried and acquitted in the shooting death of Alf Bagley, and on November 1, 1915, a decision was made in the Independence County Circuit Court (Hughes had requested the change of venue) not to prosecute him due to lack of evidence in the murder of Isham Bagley. The Independence County Court stated in part, “The case was brought to this county last spring after Hughes had been tried and acquitted on another first degree murder charge for killing Alf Bagley, son of I. J. Bagley. Hughes claimed self-defense in the first charge and denies that he killed the elder Bagley. There was nothing but circumstantial evidence against him. The cases were brought to this county on a change of venue at the request of the defendant. The killing of the Bagleys was the result of a prolonged Lawrence Co. feud in which several men have been killed at various times.”
In September 1916, Governor George Washington Hays pardoned Wolford Benningfield, the only man tried and convicted of any of the shootings. Benningfield had served less than four years of his original twenty-year sentence. The Bagley-Ridgeway Feud was over. Seven people had died, including four members of the same family.
For additional information:
Henry, Wayne. “Blood Feud at Walnut Ridge.” The Hotel Rhea (from the Lawrence County Historical Society Journal). http://thehotelrhea.com/blood-feud-at-walnut-ridge/ (accessed August 28, 2020).
“Hughes Found Not-Guilty.” Walnut Ridge Times Dispatch, April 25, 1915, p. 1.
“May Be Fourth of Family Slain.” Arkansas Gazette, October 10, 1912, p. 1.
“Officer Uses a Pistol Fatally.” Arkansas Gazette, March 5, 1905, p. 1.
LeMasters’ Antique News Service
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