Monti H. Sandels (1851–1890)

Tennessee native Monti H. Sandels moved to Fort Smith (Sebastian County) as a youngster and became a lawyer. President Grover Cleveland appointed him the U.S. attorney for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, where he established a reputation for prosecuting outlaws and sending them to the gallows. He resigned that position to take a seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1889, but both he and his wife were soon stricken by disease and died within two years. His death at age thirty-nine occasioned an outpouring of praise and grief by his colleagues on the court and by the Arkansas Gazette.

His father, the Reverend John Sandels, was a native of Ireland and was educated at Trinity College in Dublin. He migrated to the United States and was professor of ancient languages at Kenyon College in Ohio, where he studied theology and took his orders from the Episcopal Church. He and his wife, Catherine Hines Sandels, moved to Williamsport, Tennessee, where Monti Hines Sandels was born on August 13, 1851. Sandels’s early education was mostly from his father. When Sandels was eight, the family moved to Fort Smith. One brief biography said he “became the virtual head of his reverend father’s family at the early age of eleven years.”

He studied law at the Fort Smith firm of Circuit Judge John H. Rogers and William H. Walker. He opened his own firm, and in October 1879 married Bettie Bliss Johnson of Fort Smith. They had two children.

In November 1885, President Cleveland appointed him the prosecutor for the Western District. The legendary Isaac Parker was the judge. Sandels prosecuted members of the notorious Starr Gang, described by the Gazette as “made up of murderers, horse thieves and criminals of high and low degrees.” The newspaper reported that Sandels rose from his sickbed on the morning of the trial to prosecute Jack Spaniard for murdering Sandels’s young friend, lawman William Irwin, at Webbers Falls, Oklahoma. The Gazette described Spaniard as “of fine physique and handsome, a half-blood Cherokee.” He was hanged.

Sandels was nominated for justice of the state Supreme Court in 1888 when Justice William W. Smith, in failing health, resigned. He was elected handily and the next year reelected for a full term by the largest margin of anyone running for statewide office that year. Accounts by his colleagues on the court and in the bar suggested that both he and his wife were suffering from disease—perhaps tuberculosis or smallpox—when he assumed the job early in 1889.

He died at his home at Fort Smith on November 12, 1890, a few days short of a year after the death of his wife. He is buried in Oak Cemetery at Fort Smith, a national historic landmark. His sister, Kate Sandels, reared his two children.

The court assembled three months after his death and recorded eulogies. Chief Justice Sterling R. Cockrill said Sandels had arrived at the court eager to address the crowded docket that had the court years behind in rendering decisions: “He came to the bench earlier in life than men are commonly called to such duties, served less than two years without enjoying a day of robust health, and yet his extraordinary mental gifts and characteristics, and the certain fulfilment of the promise they gave of a great judicial career, make his loss stand like a shadow in the land.”

George B. Rose of the law firm that today is known as the Rose Law Firm was effusive about the young judge, saying, “Rarely in the history of the State have we had occasion to mourn so great a loss….He was one of the few who are born to be great judges. He was a natural jurist. He seemed to know the law by intuition….He was a strange man, stoical, undemonstrative, self-restrained to a very extraordinary degree, and yet there was about him a something—a charm of manner, a depth and sincerity of feeling unexpressed but yet understood, an utter unselfishness, that drew men strongly to him.”

For additional information:
“His Labors O’er: Judge M. H. Sandels Answers the Final Summons.” Arkansas Gazette, November 13, 1890, p. 1.

“Monti Hines Sandels,” Record of Proceedings of the Arkansas Supreme Court, Saturday, February 28, 1891.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas


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