On December 25, 1863 in the midst of the great Civil War, Union General Ambrose Burnside was removed as commander of the Army of the Potomac after serving in the role for just two months.
In France, Charles Pathé, French pioneer of film and record industries, was born and British novelist William Makepeace Thackery (“Barry Lyndon”) died in London.
As the Civil War raged in and around Johnson County, a Christmas-day baby was born in Clarksville to Thomas and Rebecca Powers, natives of Tennessee and South Carolina respectively, who were among the pioneer families who had homesteaded the area when it was little more than a steamboat stop on the unpredictable Arkansas River.
John Hall Powers, who at the age of 19 went to work as a deputy for Sheriff E.T. “Bud” McConnell would serve in that capacity until, at the age of 25 in 1888, he succeeded W.S. Jett as Johnson County Sheriff.
An extremely popular sheriff who was involved in a number of turn-of-the century exploits and arrests, but it was the end of his career on the wrong end of a bank robber’s pistol that secured his place in Johnson County lore.
The date was February 5, 1902. Powers, who was married to Sarah Ann McConnell Powers, also had a separate apartment that was located on the second floor of Mitchells Drug Store near the Clarksville Bank that he utilized as a resting place when he was on duty.
The day had been another uneventful Wednesday and Powers and deputy Joe B. King had retured to the loft for some much needed rest after making their final patrol just after 9 p.m.
The lawmen were asleep when at just after 2 a.m. a thunderous explosion rocked the nearby bank below them, the result of a gang of four robbers effort to use nitroglycerin to blow open the bank’s safe.
As the sheriff rushed towards the bank, still in his long underwear, he was fired upon by a lookout hiding in an alley between the bank and his apartment.
Powers had grabbed grabbed his .38-caliber Colt revolver and yelled at Chief Deputy King to get the shotgun, as he ran downstairs from the apartment above the drug store to the alleyway that connected Main and Cherry streets.
Powers was greeted by a gunshot coming from the rear of the bank and returned fire after a second shot came his way, he chased a suspect down the alleyway and when he he came back he found a second suspect when another explosion, this one much louder, rumbled much of the block as the robbers set off second detonation.
The second suspect fired at Powers, who chased the man out of the alley way and into the street.
When Powers entered the bank he was confronted by a third bandit, who got two slugs into he brave sheriff.
Powers was able to make back to the stairway that led to his apartment, where to citizens and deputy King Two neighbors and deputy King, who had been delayed when his shotgun jammed, rendered aid to the sheriff.
King and the other man were able to get Powers up the stairs and into his bed while the other man went for a doctor.
Medical attention was given to the fallen sheriff within seven minutes of his shooting. Despite the best efforts of the attending physician and several doses of morphine, Powers slip into a coma and perished before the sun came up.
Governor Jeff Davis appointed Joe B. King sheriff and the newly appointed lawman spent most of his three years in the position in trying to bring he men who had killed his friend and mentor to justice.
The bank robbers, later identified as James Wallace Fred Underwood, George Durham,and John Dunn, stole $1,200 to $1,500 in silver, or the equivilent of $40,000 today, but most of the gold and currency at the bank was destroyed in the blast according to newspaper reports.
King was resolute in his efforts to find and prosecute the robbers. Three of the men were tired for the crime and two of them, Underwood and Durham, were hanged in what has been described as “private execution” in Clarksville in June of 1903 within weeks of their convictions.
Wallace was found not to have fired a weapon acquitted for the murder, but convicted for the robbery and sentenced to life in prison/ Within a year he had escaped the state penitentiary and was never hear from again.
Dunn, the man who was thought to have actually fired the shot that killed Powers escaped. Twenty-eight years and seven sheriff’s later, Sheriff Fred Russell received a tip received a tip that a man living in Las Vegas and going by the name of James Brown may have been Dunn. He was arrested, extracted back to Arkansas and released on a $5,000 cash bond. A judge later ruled that there was insufficient evidence to the true identity of the man and he was released.
The fourth conspirator was never bought to justice.
Powers had served as sheriff for 14 years. He had previously served as the town marshal of Clarksville and as a constable and city marshal in Spadra.
A 10-foot-tall, granite and marble monument to Powers still sits at historic Oakland Memorial Cemetery in Clarksville. The monument was constructed a year after Powers’ death and paid for by citizen donations, costing about $1,500 in 1903.
Sheriff John Hall Powers was honored by inclusion in 2013 at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington D.C. at the 25th annual Candlelight Vigil, during National Police Week.