Oscar Chitwood (Murder of)

Oscar Chitwood was murdered on December 26, 1910, at the Garland County Courthouse in Hot Springs. A deputy sheriff who was with Chitwood at the time of the murder claimed that a lynch mob killed Chitwood, but other witnesses contradicted his account. The murder remains officially unsolved.

On August 17, 1910, Garland County sheriff Jake Houpt and his chief deputy (and younger brother) Sid Houpt attempted to arrest Oscar Chitwood and his brother George Chitwood for stealing horses. The Chitwood brothers resisted arrest, and a gunfight broke out on the grounds of the Garland County Courthouse. When the fight ended, George Chitwood was dead, and Jake Houpt was mortally wounded. Oscar Chitwood escaped, although badly wounded. Sid Houpt was unharmed.

Oscar Chitwood surrendered to sheriff’s deputies John Rutherford and Ben Murray on August 20. The deputies, worried that local vigilantes might kill Chitwood before he could face trial, transported him to the state prison in Little Rock (Pulaski County) for safe keeping. Although every available witness testified that George Chitwood fired the bullet that killed Jake Houpt, Garland County prosecutors argued that by participating in the gunfight, Oscar Chitwood was responsible for Jake Houpt’s death. The prosecutor charged Oscar Chitwood with murdering Jake Houpt and held him without bail.

In preparation for the trial, Garland County retrieved Chitwood from Little Rock and moved him to the Garland County jail on December 7. Chitwood’s lawyer convinced Judge Henry Evans to move the trial to neighboring Saline County, as Chitwood would be more likely to receive a fair trial there. Meanwhile, Governor George Washington Donaghey named Sid Houpt the new sheriff of Garland County.

On December 26, 1910, Deputy John Rutherford reported that, at 1:45 that morning, he entered the county jail with plans to remove Chitwood and escort him to the city jail, near the railroad tracks, for a train trip to the state penitentiary in Little Rock, where he would await the trial that was to be held in Benton (Saline County). Rutherford stated that, at about 2:00 a.m., he exited the courthouse with Chitwood. He said that as he passed into an enclosure (the site of the execution of a black man named Harry Poe in September that same year), a group of armed, masked men confronted Rutherford and gunned down Chitwood, disappearing into the darkness moments later. Initially, newspapers uncritically repeated John Rutherford’s claims that masked men “lynched” Oscar Chitwood. Even today, Chitwood is often listed as a lynching victim.

Rutherford’s story quickly fell apart, however. Other than Rutherford, nobody ever testified to having seen the lynch mob. Numerous witnesses who lived near the courthouse claimed that a group of men could not have murdered Chitwood and gotten away unseen. Prisoners at the county jail claimed that they saw deputies Rutherford and Murray murder Chitwood as he screamed, “For God’s sake don’t kill me, let me stand trial.” Garland County prosecutor J. B. Wood charged John Rutherford and Ben Murray with murdering Oscar Chitwood. The court ordered Sheriff Sid Houpt to hold both men without bond to await grand jury proceedings.

On April 15, 1911, a grand jury indicted Rutherford and Murray for the murder of Oscar Chitwood. The same grand jury indicted sheriff Sid Houpt for “the crime of escape” because he violated court orders to hold Rutherford and Murray without bond and allowed both men to live at home while awaiting trial. The grand jury also indicted Houpt on charges of corruption, claiming that he protected illegal gambling operations in Garland County.

John Rutherford’s trial for murder began on May 22, 1911. The prosecution argued that Rutherford murdered Chitwood on behalf of the Houpt family. Rutherford’s lawyers argued that he was innocent, and that the county was only prosecuting Rutherford to damage Sid Houpt, who many reformers believed protected gamblers. On May 31, 1911, the jury found Rutherford not guilty. Sid Houpt was eventually found guilty of corruption and removed from office, but he was never charged with murder. The county dropped all charges against Ben Murray.

For additional information:
Allbritton, Orval E. Hot Springs Gunsmoke. Hot Springs, AR: Garland County Historical Society, 2006.

Allbritton, Orval E., and Nan Merchant. Leo and Verne: The Spa’s Heyday. Hot Springs, AR: Garland County Historical Society, 2003.

“In Fusillade with Mountaineer.” Hot Springs Sentinel-Record, August 18, 1910.

“Jury Holds Rutherford Not Guilty of Murder of Oscar Chitwood.” Arkansas Democrat, May 31, 1911.

“Rutherford Relates Story of Killing.” Hot Springs Sentinel-Record, May 28, 1911.

Christopher Thrasher
National Park College

Last Updated: 02/25/2021

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