K. Wymand Keith (1924–1998)
K. Wymand Keith was the nom de plume of Leonard Claude Bowen, the author of Long Line Rider: The Story of Cummins Prison Farm. A native of Oklahoma, Keith was a repeat criminal offender who spent four years at Cummins Unit in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Despite being pardoned by Governor Francis Cherry, Keith returned to a life of crime before settling down in the 1960s. For many years, Keith was the only former Arkansas inmate to have an account of prison life published by a major trade press.
Keith was born on November 16, 1924, in Henryetta, Oklahoma, to Claud Monroe Bowen, a native of Van Buren County, Arkansas, and Nellie Anna Brown Bowen. Keith grew up on a farm in Oklahoma, where he was the fourth of seven children, five of them girls. Keith claimed his father was a sharecropper and part Native American (though listed as “white” on censuses). By the time the United States was involved in World War II, the family had moved to Madera in central California. On May 21, 1943, Keith enlisted in the armed forces, where he was trained as a paratrooper. He was discharged on November 2, 1943.
In 1944, Keith married Evelyne Eunice Finley, a dietician. The couple had a daughter. Keith ran into legal trouble after leaving the army. Previous to his arrest in Arkansas, he was convicted of statutory rape in California and incarcerated there. In Arkansas, he was convicted of check forgery on October 27, 1949. He was sentenced to serve five years at Cummins, but he was paroled on October 11, 1953, and pardoned by Governor Cherry a month later. Keith’s father died in California in 1951 while Keith was serving time in Arkansas.
According to Contemporary Authors, Keith also was imprisoned at Fort Leavenworth as well as prisons in Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Oregon. In December 1953, just a few weeks after his pardon, Keith was again arrested in California for check fraud. Keith was declared “criminally insane” in California. While that might have helped his cause in California, he continued to be arrested in various states. Keith apparently never served time after 1965.
Keith came up with his pen name in 1961. “K. Wymand Keith” was a play on the phrase “Keep Wide of Kansas,” which was advice to criminals thinking of passing through the state. In 1961, Keith married for the second time to Joyce Bates Cook, a bookkeeper and native of Idaho, where the wedding took place. While Keith was going by his pen name at this time, he did not acknowledge his previous divorce as asked on the marriage license. The couple had a son before divorcing in 1980 in California. Keith remarried in 1988 in Nevada, though that marriage ended in divorce in 1991.
Keith developed his writing skills while incarcerated. He studied creative writing via correspondence and worked as an editor for prison newspapers. By the time Long Line Rider was published, Keith had relocated to Rockford, Illinois. Keith described himself as a “grocery store manager, a construction superintendent, a laboratory technician, a peach thinner, a hitchhiker, a hobo, and a convicted hot check artist.”
In 1968, Cummins superintendent Tom Murton unearthed skeletons buried on prison grounds. He believed that the remains were those of murdered convicts, and he thought there were more bodies buried at Cummins. The official report issued by the Winthrop Rockefeller administration, which included forensic evidence, determined that the bodies showed no signs of violent death and that they were from a pauper’s grave. In 1971, Keith said he would return to the prison to search for more bodies, although it is doubtful he was ever allowed to do that.
According to ad copy for Long Line Rider, Keith was well into writing a second book, but he apparently never published it. He died on July 28, 1998, in Sparks, Nevada. It is unclear where he is buried.
For additional information:
“Bowen Says He Will Return to Dig for Bodies.” Northwest Arkansas Times, July 12, 1971, p. 8.
“K. Wymand Keith.” In Contemporary Authors, Vol. 226, edited by Julie Keppen. Detroit: Gale, 2004.
Keith, K. Wymand. Long Line Rider: The Story of Cummins Prison Farm. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971.
Steinmetz, Tucker. “Ex-Inmate’s Novel Aims at Cummins.” Arkansas Democrat Magazine, May 16, 1971, p. 3.
Colin Edward Woodward
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