DUAL MURDERS "HORRUNDOUS
In 1917 the Baxter Bulletin called the shotgun slaying of Ellen Cockrum and her daughter" the most horrendous murder of the century." Yet, when the killer was finally apprehended and brought to trial, he twice walked out of the Baxter County Courthouse scot-free although he freely admitted gunning down two defenseless women.
The meandering of the White River serves as the west-south boundary of Baxter County. except for the rugged mountain range lying west and south of the river in the Ozark National Forest. To the outsider this north boundary of the Leatherwood Mountains appears lonely and forbidding. To those who call the pristine wilderness their home, it is a place of infinite beauty with clear springs, high peaks and a trillion or more trees. Almost a world - and a law - unto itself.
Strange as it may seem, the Leatherwoods were almost as populated long before the Civil war as they are today. Being far removed from the few heavily populated areas, the Leatherwoods were a favorite target of the Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers. One of the bushwhacker leaders had his headquarters in the Leatherwoods. By the end of the war the area was divested, but the settlers started anew determined to rebuild their homes and their lives in the primeval forest.
The Cockrum family was one of the earliest settlers, aiming around 1850. Sometime in the 1880's the little village of Ellar was established on the wagon road coming up from Shipp's Ferry on White River. Across the river was the thriving village of Haney- named for the Haney family. Mrs. Ellen Cockrum was the Postmaster at Ellar- so named because that's how most of her patrons pronounced her name. She was young, pretty, dressed in the latest fashion and at first she was very popular. Several baby girls were named Ellar in her honor.
In 1889 Doc Kirkland and sons came from Paris, TN to build a schoolhouse for the growing community, soon a thriving little town sprang up around the fine school building. As the new town grew, Ellar declined to the point it no longer needed a post office. By now Ellen's husband, Doc Cockrum, had left the county. As it often happens to a pretty woman without a man of her own, the other ladies became jealous and suspicious of Ellen. When the post office was moved to the new town they agreed they needed a new postmaster and a new name. Lone Rock, for the tall, strangely out of place column of rocks jutting out of the woodlands. L.C. Kirkland was appointed postmaster.
Without a job or a husband and with a young daughter to support, Ellen moved across White River to the railroad boomtown of Norfolk, where she operated a boarding house for a while.
Ellen was now 45 years old but still a beautiful woman and her daughter Mae were living back at Lone Rock. Mae now l8 years of age, had met and married William Smith about a year before he became one of the first draftees from Baxter County during World War 1. Expecting their first child, Pvt Smith went off to serve his country.
The 30th day of November 1917 was an unseasonably warm day - known to the old timers as a "Weather breeder." Fearing bad weather was on the way, Ellen and Mae decided to go to the general store across the river at Haney. Midafternoon they re-crossed the river at Shipps with their purchases. The ferryman was the last person, other than their killer, to see them alive. Ellen and Mae had been reported missing by Mrs. Ira Wilber, who, along with her little girl, was staying with the Cockrums.
Four days later their bodies were found in the woods atop the river bluff where they had sat down to rest after the climb up from the river. Sheriff Hurst and Prosecuting Attorney Edgar Douglas left for the scene early on Wednesday morning. Dotson Brewer, Coroner arrived on the scene the same time as they did and convened a coroners jury. As the scene unfolded the two women's purchases, still wrapped in butcher paper and tied with a string lay on a tree stump nearby. Ellen had been sitting under a rock ledge when she looked up into the barrel of a 16-gauge shotgun. Mae's body was found, face down, almost a quarter of a mile away. She had been shot at such close range there were powder burns on the back of her clothing.
Mae's heartbroken young husband was called home from Camp Beauregard, France to attend the double funeral held at the Lone Rock Schoolhouse with burial in the adjoining cemetery.
Baxter County Sheriff, R.W. Hurst had no suspects but to the inhabitants of the Leatherwoods. Everybody was a suspect. Even Pvt Smith. How did they know he had been at Camp Beauregard the day of the killings? (This scenario doesn't seem to hold up due to the fact that the young husband was in France at the time.) And what about Doc Cockrum? Just because nobody had seen him in years didn't mean he hadn't sneaked back. Of course it didn't have to be one of their husbands. It could be any man - or woman.
Mamie remembered how scared and jumpy everybody was. She was afraid to go out on the back porch by herself to get a drink of water. Mrs. Mamie Lancaster Doshier of Gassville was 15 and lived at Lone Rock when the killing occurred. She recalled many people didn't like the Cockrums, especially the women folks of Lone Rock, but Ellen had a heart of gold. She was the first one there during a birth, sickness or death at the neighbors. It seemed only natural when Mrs. Wilber left her husband that Ellen took her in.
The investigation was hampered by the snow that began to fall shortly after the bodies were found. Old timers say if the bodies hadn't been found when they were, nobody would have known what happened to the women until spring.
The snow continued through December, January and February. At times roads were completely filled with deep drifts. Several times trains had to halt travel because the snow lay too deep on the tracks. Mail and supplies were delivered by boat until the river froze over. That winter became known not as 1918 but as nineteen hundred and froze to death. Odus Doshier recalled that finally Bud Bayless, the mail carrier, got through by boat- with a wagon tongue hastily added to a team of horses could pull it like a sled over the snow. Old timers say the only good thing about the snow was you could always tell if somebody was following you - by their tracks.
* It was remembered that some time prior to the killing, the women had been implicated in alienating the affections of the wife of Ira Wilber and she had eloped with another man. Mr. Wilber was insanely in love with his wife and reconciliation was effected and Mrs. Wilber returned home. Suspicion was directed to Mr. Wilber and he was arrested and incarcerated in jail. He at once wired Williams & Seawel of this city and employed them to defend him. Circuit court convened in Mountain Home had already convened and Mr. Williams went over and remained there until after an indictment was returned against Wilber charging him with murder in the first degree.
It developed that immediately after the murder he had confessed to his father-in-law and to his brother-in-law that he committed the crime, and went into details with them in regard to the murder.
In February Dan Woods and Lige North were arrested for the double murder. The bitter cold weather hadn't cooled the hot heads so the suspects were taken to the Marion County Jail for safekeeping until the March term of Circuit Court.
The Case was called for trail in March 1918 and both the state and defense announced ready for trial. The courtroom was crowded with anxious spectators who felt that a verdict of guilty, was inevitable. Ira Wilber was on trial for the murder of Ellen. Mr. Seawel, who has long been regarded as the best criminal lawyer in the State, who owing to his knowledge of law, and his great oratory, has as a prosecutor sent men to the gallows and as counsel for the defense, has doubtless liberated the guilty, was present.
In his opening address he stated he would admit the guilt of his client, but would be able to prove that owning to the great wrong done him by the murdered women he became insane and was insane at the time he committed the crime. He placed expert witnesses on the stand to substantiate his statement.
The evidence was closed and arguments made by the council for both the state and the defense and the case submitted to the jury. The jury was out for about one hour and came back with a "Not Guilty" verdict.
While the crime was a heinous one, under the circumstances the verdict was a just one. There is no greater criminal that the despoiler of a home, and it is too often the case they cannot be reached by the law.
In September of 1918 the trial of Ira Wilber for the murder of Mae Cockrum Smith and her unborn child was held in Baxter County courthouse. Ira was charged with First-degree murder. He had to chase Mae a quarter of a mile, before he was able to reload his double barrel shotgun and chase her down through the thicket. He shot her in the back and at such close range that there were powder burns on the cloth of her dress. The jury still came back with a verdict of "Not Guilty by reason of Insanity."
After the trial Bill Smith went back to France to his company to serve his country. He was mortally wounded while on the front in France. Bill never returned to Arkansas to live, because of the death of his bride, Mae. He told his brother, Lewis that he knew who had killed her and if he returned, he would kill the culprit himself.
Sources: Mary Ann Messick in Feb of 1981 set down an accounting of the mother and daughter in Baxter County. Beth Cockrum; John Cockrum; Vera Reeves; Mountain Echo Feb and March 1918.