Oct. 12, 2009

By Jacob Quinn Sanders
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

History had very nearly forgotten H.L. Smith and John A. Bratton.

More than 122 years after Smith and Bratton were ambushed and killed after arresting one member of a violent family of then-famous outlaws, their names do not appear on any memorial to law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.

There is no shortage of reasons. Surviving records are incomplete. They came from small, rural Calvert Township in Grant County. Newspaper errors from Little Rock to San Antonio to Iowa gave each man the wrong name at one time or another.

Now all that may change. Two last names discovered by an amateur law enforcement historian in Texas have inspired ongoing re- search into whether Smith and Bratton’s names belong etched on public monuments in Washington, D.C., and Arkansas.

“It’s so tough sometimes,” said Lisa Curry, a Sherwood police dispatcher who coordinates the fallen officers’ memorial event at the Arkansas State Capitol every year. “It’s so long ago, but you want the sacrifice these people made to be remembered. It’s worth all the work in the world to find that information.”

Grant County Sheriff Robert Shepherd said he knew of no county law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty there since Grant County was established in 1869.

“Now, of course, I don’t go back that far,” he said. “If there’s something I can do to honor the right people, all someone has to do is ask me. Let’s get a look at all the information and we’ll go from there.”

Finding the correct information, however, is not always simple. Establishing certain facts often means looking back through a fog of information for evidence that may no longer exist, if it existed at all.

A letter from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund in Washington, D.C., to Pulaski County Sheriff Doc Holladay dated Sept. 25 asked for his help locating any information on two names: T.L. Smith and James Johnson, both killed near Little Rock on Feb. 1, 1887.

The memorial fund found the names in small newspaper items in February 1887 scattered throughout the country. Texas, Chicago, Iowa, New York — newspapers in each place ran similar brief versions of the same story.

Where those newspapers found Johnson’s name is lost to history. The Arkansas Gazette reported the name T.L. Smith — perhaps explained as a simple error — in its edition on Feb. 2 but had no name for the second man killed. In an article three days later reporting the arrest of a father and son, Wyatt and Mann Sneed, in the shootings, the Gazette gave the second dead officer’s name as John Bratton.

The Gazette articles mention that both came from Calvert Township, Grant County — not Pulaski County, as the memorial fund researchers had thought — to arrest Mann Sneed on a charge of carrying a pistol.

But to chisel names into a memorial requires confidence that the names are accurate.

“We do re-engrave names when we find an error, but we prefer to get it right the first time,” said Carolie Heyliger, research manager for the memorial fund.

Her organization has 260 pending cases to review, including about 80 from the 19th century. The essential criteria for inclusion on the national memorial are simple: There must be proof that the person killed was an actual law enforcement officer performing official duties at the time of death.

“I don’t think there’s much question that the circumstances are right in this case,” she said. “But we need to know who they actually were.”

The 1880 U.S. Census is one place to start. It lists no one named T.L. Smith, nor anyone with a variation like Thomas L. Smith, living in Grant County at the time, though H.L. Smith is there. The Census shows both a J. Johnson and a J.A. Bratton.

That was also seven years before the shootout.

To find out whether any of those men died in 1887, probate court records on microfilm at the Arkansas History Commission could help sort things out a little more.

On April 18, 1887, a woman named Mary Smith appeared in probate court in Grant County to seek official custody of the assets left behind when her husband, H.L. Smith, died. The judge granted her the $184.50 she requested.

Surviving Grant County records at the main courthouse in Sheridan show that a special election was held in February 1887 to replace Calvert Township’s elected constable, H.L. Smith, who had been killed.

Johnson’s name appears nowhere in the records.

Precisely a year after Mary Smith’s hearing, a Jane Bratton appears in the same court to ask for control of the estate of her late husband, J.A. Bratton, whose name appears in one entry as John A. Bratton. The surviving court docket notes only that the Bratton estate is less than $300 in personal property. The judge acceded to Jane Bratton’s request.

But the Bratton court record is from 1888. Would a widow wait so long to take control of her dead husband’s estate?

The answer seems to exist in Calvert Township personal property tax records from 1887, also on microfilm at the commission’s Little Rock archives. In every year leading up to 1887, J.A. Bratton appears under his own name. In 1879, for example, he owned three horses worth $40, six head of cattle, valued at $30, 10 hogs priced at $1 each and $20 more in miscellaneous personal property. He paid his taxes every year.

In the record for 1887, the records show only the J.A. Bratton Estate, an indication he died sometime that year.

No existing records, however, confirm that Bratton was a sworn law enforcement officer. Newspaper accounts refer to him as Smith’s deputy.

The 1887 Calvert Township personal property tax records are also where H.L. Smith disappears. Only an M.E.P. Smith appears — his widow, Mary, perhaps — listing assets similar to what H.L. Smith owned in previous years, including two horses valued at $160, five head of cattle worth $40 and a $40 wagon.

The Sneeds, in contrast, were largely poor. Wyatt Sneed listed his only asset as $190 in cash in 1884 while one of his sons, Dink Sneed, had total personal property worth $17.

The Sneed family had also gained itself quite a criminal reputation, won in part for an open and bloody feud with the Rhodes family. Dink and Wyatt Sneed had been convicted of killing a man named Jacob Rhodes at least a year before Smith and Bratton died, fruitlessly appealing the verdict to the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1886.

Some of the Sneeds had moved to Union Township in Pulaski County, near Alexander. While back in Grant County, Mann Sneed was seen with a gun and a witness reported it. Sheriff W.C.C. Dorough issued a warrant and sent Smith and Bratton to Union Township to arrest him.

The details of the shootout remain hazy. One Gazette article said Mann Sneed’s mother asked if he could come by her one-story cottage to say goodbye. Another article suggests his sister-in-law got Smith and Bratton to take him there.

When Smith and Bratton arrived and walked inside, according to the newspaper accounts, a Sneed with a gun faced them from almost every direction. Smith was hit first and fell instantly. Bratton fired multiple shots and hit Mann Sneed at least once before going down.

The Sneeds escaped. Smith and Bratton died where they fell.

The Gazette article promised impending justice.

“The tragedy created great excitement in the neighborhood and a posse was at once summoned to capture the Sneeds who had fled upon horses,” the Gazette reported the next day. “At last accounts they were easily traced by the blood that flowed from their wounds. Sheriff Worthen has two of his best deputies conducting the pursuit. The Sneeds will doubtless be captured.”

Mann and Wyatt Sneed were arrested several days later and indicted on two counts each of first-degree murder on March 18, 1887, according to Pulaski County court records, which spell their last name as “Snead.” The Sneeds petitioned for a change of venue, which a judge denied.

On Nov. 11, 1887, a jury announced it could not agree on a verdict for Wyatt Sneed on one of the two murder counts. Less than a month later, prosecutors dropped the remaining charge.

Mann Sneed’s name disappears from the court dockets for almost two years, until he petitioned again for a change of venue on one of the murder charges he faced in October 1889. The same judge granted this request, setting a trial for January 1890 in Faulkner County. While the Faulkner County records no longer exist, Pulaski County prosecutors dropped the remaining murder charge on March 10, 1890.

According to surviving records, there were no convictions in the killings of Smith and Bratton.

“These men deserve a final justice,” said Curry, who serves as an adviser to the committee that maintains the official list of Arkansas law enforcement officers for the state memorial on the grounds of the Capitol. “They did their service. We might have a little more to do to properly serve them.”

  1. […] A regular source of mine mentioned a letter his office got from a national organization for cops killed in the line of duty. The group was trying to research two names to see whether they belonged on a national memorial. The two men died in 1887. […]

  2. […] get back into work today from my furlough and one of my messages tells me a story I wrote last year is the basis for two lawmen killed in 1887 getting added this year to the Arkansas […]

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