In late January 1889, in the small town of Plumerville, Arkansas
a group of leading citizens gathered around the potbellied stove i
Malone's general store to plan a cold-blooded murder. They drew
straws, resolving that the man who received the short straw would kil
John Middleton Clayton, a Republican leader who had come to Ar
kansas during Reconstruction days. In the preceding fall, Clayton had
narrowly lost his race for the U.S. Congress after a band of masked
white Democrats stole at gunpoint the Plumerville ballot box, which
contained the majority of the county's black Republican votes. When
Clayton arrived to investigate the stolen election, local Democrat
feared they would end up in a federal penitentiary and thus took des
perate measures. On a cold winter night shortly thereafter, the man
who had drawn the short straw and a partner stood for some time o
the muddy soil outside the window of Clayton's room in a Plumervill
boardinghouse, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Finally, a
Clayton sat down at a table next to the window
to
pen a letter to hi
children, a blast of buckshot burst through the window, ripping th
curtain into shreds, killing him instantly. By the next morning, the
footprints made by the killers' rubber overboots - one pair old, on
new - had frozen solid in the muck.
The murder of a congressional candidate brought headlines in na
tional newspapers for Conway County, Arkansas. Newspaper report
ers, Pinkerton detectives, and state and federal officials investigated th
vile crime. But because the most prominent and socially respectable
citizens of the county provided alibis for one another, no assassin was
ever found. Arkansas history books henceforth treated Clayton's kill
ing, one of the most famous political murders in the state's history, as an
unsolved mystery.
Detectives failed to solve the murder ofJohn Clayton. Only carefu
historical analysis can explain who killed him and why. For this com
munity, the sensational murder was just the climax of a cycle of loca
political violence that had begun in the Civil War. But an examination
of Conway County's experience sheds light on more than just a murder
it also reveals how the use of illegal political violence was central to the
fashioning and streamlining of patterns historians call the New South
the single-party system, black disfranchisement, and segregation by
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