Joe Hilderbrand (1935–1998)
As a fugitive from Arkansas justice in the 1960s, Joe Hilderbrand gained notoriety and even a measure of national acclaim by evading a horde of lawmen with airplanes and bloodhounds who chased him and a girlfriend through the wilds of the Ozark Mountains after he failed to return to Cummins Prison Farm from a furlough to visit his ailing father. It was one of the largest manhunts in Arkansas history. Legends accrued around the mountaineer—that he was innocent of any serious crime and a scapegoat for incompetent and embarrassed law enforcement agencies. Life magazine did a piece on Hilderbrand and the young woman, Frances Standridge, who helped him evade the posses. At least four ballads were written about Hilderbrand and performed at folk-singing gatherings in the 1960s—the most notable among them “Foothills of the Ozarks” by Glen Orhlin of Mountain View (Stone County). Their recordings are stored in Ozark folksong collections at Missouri State University in Springfield.
Joseph Lyttle Hilderbrand was born on October 18, 1935, in Dover (Pope County), the next-to-youngest of five children of blacksmith Lidel Joseph Hilderbrand and Bertha Freeman Hilderbrand. He received little education and at the age of nineteen married Ola Standridge, a forty-year-old neighbor. He worked as a “shade-tree” mechanic.
Hilderbrand’s troubles began in 1958 when he was accused of robbing a honeymooning Iowa couple near his home in Pope County and leaving them tied to a tree. One later account, perhaps from sympathizers, was that he took only $1.02 from the pair. Hilderbrand always maintained that it never happened. He was sentenced to three years in prison. In 1960, when he was nearly eligible for parole, he returned home to Pope County on a furlough, allowed because his father was ill at the time.
Hilderbrand failed to return home after the furlough in September 1960, and after a few weeks, authorities attempted to retrieve him. Seeing them coming, he disappeared out the back door of his father’s house and disappeared into the woods, where he lived for several months by hunting and foraging, as well as eating food left by family members and sympathizers.
Although he was still married to Ola when he fled into the mountains, Hilderbrand’s fame was enhanced by his romantic partner in the chase through the hills, Frances Standridge, the eighteen-year-old niece of his wife who joined him in the woods in September 1960. Hilderbrand allegedly told his wife that he was going to live with Frances for five years. Both his wife and his father were briefly jailed for allegedly helping him escape.
Over nine months, law enforcement mounted periodic searches for Hilderbrand, stepping up their efforts after Frances joined him. Meanwhile, Hilderbrand became the subject of many romanticized accounts in such national publications as Life magazine. He was finally tracked down after a taskforce of more than forty law enforcement officers from various agencies, posing as squirrel hunters, chased him and Frances across several counties before cornering them near Treat in northern Pope County.
Upon his return to prison, Hilderbrand claimed a mental illness and was sent to the Arkansas State Hospital for evaluation. The doctors kept him there for six months before deciding, in August 1961, that he was fit to return to the prison. However, the night before his planned return, he absconded from his second-floor room using a rope made from bedsheets. Orienting himself by the Arkansas River, he made his way back to Pope County within six days and remained at large for the next fourteen months. He was captured again in October 1962 and returned to prison. Hilderbrand was paroled in 1964.
Hilderbrand’s last prison escape was in 1972 after he was charged with rape and jailed. He absconded from the Pope County Jail, leaving a note for the sheriff that promised he would return to the hearing, which he did; the charge was later dropped. He continued to live in the Dover area and work on cars.
Hilderbrand died on April 13, 1998, in Dover, where he is buried in Bradley Cemetery.
For additional information:
“The Birth of Ozark Ballads: Hiding in the Hills, a Convict and a Girl Are Immortalized in Song.” Life, November 14, 1960, pp. 60–66.
Lancaster, Bob. “Outlaws Embellish History of Arkansas from Earliest Days.” Arkansas Gazette, August 4, 1991, pp. 1A, 17A.
Oral History of Leroy Donald by John Thompson. Arkansas Gazette Project, David and Barbara Pryor Center for Oral and Visual History, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, March 9, 2000. https://pryorcenter.uark.edu/alltranscripts.php (accessed December 12, 2022).
Rice, Joe David. “The Outlaw of the Ozarks.” About You (AY), Little Rock, December 25, 2018.
Little Rock, Arkansas
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