Racing to the Precipice: Tulsa's Last Lynching

By Randy Hopkins –


Tom Owens, also known as Roy Belton, courtesy of the Tulsa Tribune

 

The words passed down a dark, narrow stairway through the corridors of the Tulsa County Courthouse and into the jammed streets outside — “We got him, boys, we got him!” Cheers erupted from a thousand nighttime spectators, gaining volume as a nineteen-year-old white man everyone then called Tom Owens, hands bound, was led outside by armed, masked men. Hatless, smooth cheeked and slender, Owens puffed on a cigarette he had calmly hand-rolled in his recent hiding spot in the cage called the county jail’s negro dungeon. While there, he asked to be shackled and handed a six-shooter so he could contest his expected captors. He was said to revel in the idea. Now, wavy brown hair blowing around his face, he was shoved into a large Hudson automobile, a vehicle which itself had just been liberated from the control of the Tulsa police. The youth - he was said to have scarcely looked his age - showed no fear and uttered not a whisper of protest.[i]

The Hudson led a parade, followed first by the machines used by an organized gang of fifty masked men who had quietly driven through the heart of the city to descend on the courthouse shortly before 11 p.m. on Saturday, August 28, 1920. Two ambulances joined the queue on Boulder Avenue. More autos fell in line, not by the score but the thousand, eager followers cramming their running boards. Celebratory gunfire added glamour to the procession. Through West Tulsa and onto a deeply rutted road past Red Fork they wound, to a spot where the road made a sharp turn in the dismal woods.

There, the parade halted and masked men jerked their prisoner from the car. They asked him questions and he spun them yarns. Lightning and thunder added to the uproar. “What did you kill Nida for?” a rifle bearing man demanded. Owens said he did not. “What made you make that confession if you didn’t?” persisted his inquisitor. “I said that to save the girl.” They asked him for any last words. Owens requested a message be sent to his mother in Knoxville, Tennessee. In the process, he revealed his true name was Roy Belton. “Tell her, I died to protect a girl, that’s enough.” One paper reported that he said to save “my girl.”

Cries of “rope, rope” rang out all around. But there was no rope. No one had brought one along. So the still unruffled prisoner, henceforth known as Roy Belton, was shoved back in the Hudson and the parade commenced anew, the foot-bound spectators jumping from running board to running board for advancement in the melee. Down a tree-hung road to the west, a vital rope was finally secured and a new staging area located near where the road was darkest and most dismal. A band of armed men - some masked and some not, some in civilian clothes and some in uniforms - held back the crowd of at least two thousand gathered in an open field a quarter-mile back. They were described as a melting pot of men, women, and children from all walks of life.

The masked men in charge of the captive chose a spot marked by a large advertising sign and the Federal Tire Company’s marketing effort was soon adorned with a noose. When preparations were complete, the order “let ‘em come” was yelled and the audience was given leave to move forward, tramping through mud and slush, shoulder to shoulder, until they reached a ditch beyond which they were again barred. On the rise of a hill beyond the ditch, Belton was seen chatting amiably with his soon-to-be killers. Hands freed, he was passed a paper, produced a tobacco bag from his own pocket and rolled his last smoke. His hands were steady. He puffed contentedly.

After the noose was affixed, six masked men put their weight to the rope. Roy Belton entered his final plea, “I’m innocent,” with the last syllable uttered while he was on tiptoes and drawled without the slightest terror. An eyewitness newspaperman wrote, “Either he was insane or he rode to death the gamest man that ever faced the gallows.” An uncanny stillness descended, broken by a distant hound’s long, moaning howls. Lightning still played. After five minutes, a convenient undertaker listened to his heart and recommended five more. A large, masked man, dominant among the group, yelled, “All you hijackers take a look at this.”[ii]

Pandemonium was loosed when the body finally dropped. The guards relaxed their grip and a mad dash ensued. Like locust, souvenir hunters stripped their dead target nearly nude. The recently found rope was itself cut into bits. A convenient ambulance arrived and a stretcher was loaded. As if on cue, the county sheriff, who had been brushed aside like chaff scarcely thirty minutes earlier, arrived to resume custody of his prisoner. The ambulance returned to its undertaking parlor, where Roy Belton was put on display for the eager and the curious who lined up to see his corpse deep into the next day.

Before the viewing was complete, Tulsa’s top law enforcement officers reassured the public with echoing statements. Tulsa Police Chief John A. Gustafson, who had been present at the killing along with most of the Tulsa Police Department, declared:

"I do not condone mob law, but Tulsa has a peculiar situation and the sentiment here is not so prejudiced against this kind of lynching as it might be in some other community….I believe this will be a good object lesson to that class of criminals and do more to stop hi-jacking than anything else that could have happened." [iii]

Tulsa County Sheriff James Woolley, who had delivered Belton to his killers, chimed in:

"I am unreservedly against mob law; the courts were made to convict and sentence the criminal, but I believe that Belton’s lynching will prove more beneficial than a death sentence pronounced by the courts. It shows to the criminal that Tulsa men mean business."[iv]

They would be proven wrong.

Tulsa County Sheriff James Woolley Courtesy of the Tulsa World

 

Almost exactly one week earlier to the hour, the Hudson lurched onto the road at a sharp curve just past Red Fork, nearly colliding with a vehicle driven by a local garage owner named Houser. While the Hudson gathered speed toward Sapulpa, Houser heard cries of anguish. Stopping to investigate, he came upon Tulsa taxi driver Homer Nida, age twenty-five, lying beside the road bleeding from a gaping stomach wound. The good Samaritan rushed the wounded man to the Tulsa Hospital. Before losing consciousness, Nida revealed that he had been transporting two men and a woman, when one of the men clubbed him with a pistol and shot him as he begged for mercy.[v]

The brutal crimes, soon to include murder, occurred at a dramatic moment for Tulsa law enforcement. Earlier that very day, Tulsa Police Commissioner James M. Adkison had declared an all-out war on crime and undesirable characters. Tulsa Police Chief John Gustafson, Adkison’s appointee, and close associate promised a clean-up so complete it will look like “a treatment from an electric vacuum cleaner when we get through.”[vi] Adkison and Gustafson were men who meant business.[vii] Nine months later they would bear a central responsibility for the disaster long called the Tulsa Race Riot and now the Race Massacre. On May 31, 1921, Adkison and Gustafson commissioned at least four hundred special police deputies and set them loose upon the city. Gustafson testified that the police “armed” 250 of them, confirming that the Tulsa police department sponsored the “looting” of the local hardware stores that evening.[viii] Adjutant General Charles Barrett, head of the Oklahoma National Guard, reported that the special deputies helped “inciting” the outbreak, did “most of the shooting” and formed “the most dangerous part of the mob.” He wrote that the state guard’s first task was to prevent them from interfering with fire department efforts to put out fires that “many of these officers were accused of setting.”[ix]

For now, Commissioner Adkison and his chief of police were faced with an immediate challenge to their first big anti-crime campaign. A dragnet was thrown and arrests were not long in coming, though the big break was fortuitous. A young man named Roy Belton, but who used the alias Tom Owens, talked to excess and attracted suspicion as he hitchhiked out of town.[x] Arrested on Sunday, August 22, he was taken to the hospital where Nida, amidst spasms of pain, declared him “the man.”[xi] Taken to the Tulsa County Attorney’s office, Belton chattered through various versions of events, with a flat denial giving way to the story that had gotten him arrested - that a girl attempted to inveigle him into stealing a cab but he resolutely refused to have anything to do with the plot. He followed this by identifying Marie Harmon as his date Saturday evening, during which date he heroically disarmed a gun and knife-wielding robber, perhaps to explain wounds on his face and hand. The papers quickly reported that he was the teller of weirdly contradictory and fantastic stories. He later claimed that he intended to marry Harmon.[xii]

Dubbed the “woman in the case,” the quickly scooped-up Harmon first claimed to know nothing. After grilling by the police and a spell in a cell adjoining Belton, she admitted her presence in the cab. On Tuesday, August 24, the woman described as twenty-seven years old by the Tulsa Tribune signed a statement explaining that she was married to an oil field worker and that she was introduced to Belton, then using his alias, a “few days” before by George Moore, who roomed at the apartments where she and her husband lived. On the fatal Saturday, Moore brought him back to the apartments where Belton proposed the three of them take a trip to Texas to which Harmon agreed. She thought they were picking up a car in Sapulpa for the sojourn and claimed to be shocked at the violent turn. She fingered Belton as the gunman who shot Nida after brutally manhandling him. She said he threatened to shoot her when she tried to run.