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. She also told the police where to find the stolen Hudson, which led to its discovery.[xiii] Her husband, if there was one, never put in a public appearance.[xiv]


Marie Harmon courtesy of the Tulsa Tribune

Belton refused to be upstaged and provided his own oral confession later Tuesday, confirming Moore, age nineteen, was the other man in the cab and Raymond Sharp, Moore’s roommate, was in on the deal. Sharp, age seventeen, was arrested and also confessed.[xv] The papers reported that Gustafson was “bending every effort” to capture Moore. Gustafson reported “hot clews” and a well-laid plan to capture the man he said was a police character with a long record.[xvi]

The details of Belton’s and Sharp’s confessions vary with the published tellings. The thrust was that the conspiracy was birthed at the rooming house at 1111 East Admiral in Tulsa, where Harmon, Sharp, and Moore maintained rooms. Somehow Belton entered the picture - the three males were originally from Knoxville, Tennessee and the surrounding area - and the group dynamics produced a plan to steal a taxi and set off for California by way of Dallas. The three men stalked Tulsa taxi stands as well as locations to hide a body. The trio aimed big and finally targeted a Cadillac driven by William Cranfield that stood at the Hotel Tulsa. They had to fall back on Nida’s Hudson when Cranfield detoured to a barbershop for a close shave.[xvii] Sharp, a grocery clerk, provided the gun and money for buying bullets.[xviii] Instead of accompanying the gang, he was to pick up Harmon’s clothes and take them by train to Dallas, where the successful thieves were to unite. Belton said Moore was assigned the pistol, but suffered an “attack of yellowness.” Belton took over, hitting Nida with the weapon. Belton then claimed that the gun broke and accidentally fired while he was fixing it, though Nida and Harmon said it was intentional.[xix] Belton vouched for Harmon’s innocence.[xx] Sharp said she knew of the plot to steal, but not the planned shooting.[xxi] The newspapers differed on Nida’s rendition of Harmon’s role.[xxii]

The confessions were not without issues. Belton’s was impacted by fears of being lynched and his police interrogators were the fear mongers. According to Assistant County Attorney A.E. Montgomery, Belton, still harboring behind his alias, sent word for him Tuesday afternoon. Arriving at the city jail where he was then detained, Montgomery found him sitting in Gustafson’s office. Belton asked Montgomery for an “absolutely private” talk. Once they were alone, Belton asked if there was any chance of violence against him if he made a statement. Montgomery assured him he would be absolutely safe.[xxiii] This exchange was quickly reported in the Tulsa World and constitutes the first mention of possible mob violence against the prisoners by the mass media of the times, the daily newspapers.[xxiv]


Sharp, meanwhile, was stricken by acute appendicitis while in custody, but refused an operation until his father arrived from Tennessee. He signed his confession in front of Montgomery and Gustafson while “writhing in intense pain” and was in agony during his early morning arraignment on Saturday, August 28, when he and Belton were charged with capital murder. He had to be carried out on a stretcher when he and Harmon were removed from the county jail shortly after Belton was “delivered” - then slang for a jailbreak.[xxv] There is no sign that any of the defendants had legal counsel before the lynching.


Tulsa County Attorney Thomas Munroe brushed aside Belton’s protestations of Harmon’s innocence and charged her with robbery.[xxvi] There also were published suggestions that she was the “woman in the case” in a number of other county “escapades” and the authorities promised a rigid investigation.[xxvii] After the lynching, Tulsa County Deputy Sheriff Noah Langley reported that:

"[a] Mexican woman whose husband was killed at the Hickory mines several weeks ago by a joyriding party of two men and two women, said she recognized the picture of Marie Harmon, one of the murder quartet, printed in the Tribune, as being one of the women in the murder car that night.”[xxviii]


In the week that followed his shooting, Nida’s condition swung from grim to hopeful to bleak, while Myrtle, his wife of less than four months, maintained a bedside vigil. Public outrage at the cold-hearted crime grew, especially among other Tulsa taxi drivers with whom Nida was popular.[xxix] The taxi drivers had long had much to resent, caught between the police, who eyed them as tentacles of the liquor trade, and the highwaymen, who eyed them as easy pickings. The Tulsa Tribune detailed twenty instances in the past two years when cabbies had been robbed or assaulted, though the Tulsa newspapers had not seen fit to publicize most of the incidents when they occurred. The drivers claimed there were more attacks than those reflected in the police records.[xxx] They were later assumed to have formed the heart of the lynch mob that organized near Swan Lake.[xxxi]

The public was also greeted with suggestions that Belton might somehow get away with his crimes. A “wealthy sister” was said to be arriving from Missouri, though after the lynching it was reported that the whole family was in dire financial straits and the sister had suffered a nervous breakdown.[xxxii] Headlines also warned that Belton nee Owens was planning a plea of insanity. Belton contributed to the news cycle by sending a note to a former roommate asking him to testify regarding occasional “fits of insanity.[xxxiii] The odds of such an escape must have seemed great, since the newspapers painted an aura of eccentricity about Belton from the beginning. His photo, next to that of “Mrs. Marie Harmon,” greeted the public in Friday’s Tulsa Tribune, glaring out at them from hooded eyes.[xxxiv] In custody, his demeanor alternated between fear, defiance, collapse, and back to defiance. His placid reaction to approaching death - either he was insane or the gamest of men - impressed the press eyewitnesses.

The more likely contributor to his final mood swing was that he had been drugged at the Tulsa County Jail. The Tulsa Tribune, using his newly discovered name, reported as “established fact…that Belton was under the influence of a strong drug at the time he was taken from the county jail and lynched.” An unidentified physician was called when Belton “collapsed” after word reached him that a mob was forming. This alert reached him in advance of the mob’s arrival at the courthouse, since the caregiver gave him “a hypodermic dose of morphine early in the night.” By the time the mob arrived, “the dope had taken effect and Belton was defiant.”[xxxv] The drugging would explain what happened when one of his killers “struck him a fearful blow in the back of a head with the butt of a revolver” in payback for clubbing Nida. Yet, Belton “gave not the slightest evidence that he felt the blow [and] his countenance did not change.”[xxxvi] Information about the drugging was provided to the Tulsa Tribune by county jailer Robert Terrell, who gloated over his prisoner’s suffering and played a dubious role in his delivery.[xxxvii]

By Thursday, August 26, Nida’s death seemed imminent and rumors of lynching gathered steam. The Tulsa Tribune reported in bold type that Sheriff James Woolley knew about them and had posted two added armed guards at the county jail.[xxxviii] Several armed sheriff’s deputies stayed at the jail for two nights, though they were not there on the fateful Saturday.[xxxix] Nida’s death in the wee hours of Saturday, August 28, supercharged the speculation. Later that morning Belton and Sharp were arraigned for murder at a well-attended hearing. Harmon was reported as being too ill to attend. Belton put a further bulls’ eye on his back with his defiant attitude in court, or at least it was portrayed as such in the news.[xl] Woolley himself engaged in barbershop banter about a lynching that morning.[xli] The county jail reverberated with the rumors, reflected in Marie Harmon’s daylong hysterics - she was “fast losing her mind” - and Belton’s breakdown early that evening.[xlii]

Tulsa law enforcement officials were on notice and all the protections should have been in place. Police Chief Gustafson promised that his police force would be ready at the county’s call.[xliii] The testimony of Tulsa Tribune reporter William Randolph is the more chilling for these assurances. Having been assigned by managing editor Victor Barnett to check reports of a possible mobbing, Randolph left the Tribune building around 10 p.m., an hour before the delivery. After talking to a “nightstick swinging negro policeman” on Greenwood who had not heard any rumors and a downtown cabbie who had, Randolph walked by the police station on West Second Street between Main and Boulder Avenues. He found “everything was quiet, nothing going on, there was two or three men standing out front, there was no excitement.” Moving on to the nearby Tulsa County Courthouse, he found:

"It was dark down the stairs on the first floor. I walked through, walked into the entrance into the sheriff’s office there and that was dark and then I walked over to the County Attorney’s office and that was dark, but the boys sometimes stay in the back and I shook on the door. I didn’t rouse anyone."

Walking outside, Randolph talked with other newspaper reporters already there awaiting action. He saw two figures inside by the sheriff’s office who disappeared from view.[xliv] At the time, all known sheriff personnel were locked inside the fourth-floor jail.[xlv] The two figures may have been part of the mob that took control of the courthouse’s roof before the delivery, as Woolley later discovered.[xlvi] They were the only signs of life in the soon-to-be stormed building.

Nonetheless, the unguarded courthouse still left the inmates protected behind a barricade impregnable to a mob. Without use of the elevator, which had been taken to the fourth floor and disconnected, the only access was a dark, narrow stairway culminating at a locked barred door behind which stood a locked wooden door.[xlvii] Knowing witnesses colorfully described the ease of defending the jail. Jail trustee Harry Northrup testified, “We could have shot the legs off of forty men there and never batted an eye and never been in the least bit of danger.”[xlviii] The jailers also placed Belton in the jail’s “negro dungeon” in hopes that if invaders made it that far, they would overlook him in the darkness.[xlix] Without Sheriff Jim Woolley’s timely arrival after they assembled, the mob could never have achieved its goal. Rather than defending the inmate he was sworn to protect, Woolley permitted himself to be disarmed and marched up the stairs where he ordered his prisoner to be delivered to his killers.[l]

The ease with which Woolley succumbed stirred immediate suspicions that he connived with the mob. Tulsa County Attorney Munroe arrived ten minutes after the prisoner had been taken and declared that he failed to see any evidence of preparations to defend the jail or to receive any satisfactory explanation from Woolley.[li] In the state capitol, Governor J. B. A. Robertson raged at the news, his anger doubled by word of Oklahoma’s second lynching that same weekend - this one of an African-American teenager effortlessly removed from the Oklahoma County Jail.[lii] Robertson posted rewards, dispatched detectives, and ordered the Oklahoma attorney general to seek removal from office of the limber-tailed Tulsa and Oklahoma County sheriffs.[liii] Robertson’s outrage was matched by Tulsa District Judge Owen Owen, who immediately summoned a grand jury, and County Attorney Munroe, who charged Woolley with collusion and promised another rigid investigation, though conceding that it would be highly unpopular.[liv] Assistant Attorney General C. W. King was assigned to Tulsa and issued subpoenas for a pre-grand jury court of inquiry to begin in early September.[lv]


The Honorable Owen Owen courtesy of the Tulsa Tribune

Two adversaries quickly entered the field against Robertson, Munroe and the investigations. Two days before the lynching, Tulsa Daily World owner and publisher Eugene Lorton returned from summering in Arkansas.[lvi] The World’s editorial page returned to the bloodthirsty tone last seen in late 1917, when it howled for the murder of union organizers.[lvii] Now, Lorton’s paper wrapped a cloak of respectability and good citizenship around actual murder. The paper’s first editorial after the lynching defended it as a “righteous protest,” and dismissed “moralizing” critics as “unsophisticated” and “not familiar with Oklahoma affairs.” The editorialist bugled:

"There was not a vestige of the mob spirit in the act of Saturday night. It was citizenship, outraged by government inefficiency and a too tender regard for the professional criminal, registering an indignant protest." [lviii]


Eugene Lorton courtesy of the Tulsa World

With a critical election approaching, Lorton - then a Republican with political ambitions - turned the lynching into a political broadside against Robertson and the Democratic Party for leniency with the pardoning power. That was the “blackest” stain upon the state, not the occasional “summary punishment of [criminals]” or “citizens [taking] the law into their hands for the purpose of executing a just punishment.” The “hideous travesty!” was the Democratic Party-controlled state government, called the “bourbon machine,” not Oklahoma’s weekend of two lynchings.[lix] Lorton’s editorial page directed withering criticism to Sheriff Woolley, a Democrat, but offered not a word on the performance of the Republican-controlled city police.[lx]

The second adversary was an unfolding conspiracy of silence. What had been the “Talk of the City,” gave way to a “widespread disinclination to hark back to the happenings,” followed by “serious obstructions” to the investigation.[lxi] The impact was felt even before the grand jury assembled. The attorney general’s detectives produced a list of five men who “know and saw the different members of the Tulsa police force keeping [the] crowd back so that the mob could finish their work unhindered,” including Gustafson.[lxii] The men were said to know a great deal and would talk if asked. King subpoenaed them.[lxiii] All but one, Whitie Weissinger, simply ignored the summons and he claimed to know nothing.[lxiv] Another witness, a jail inmate and trustee named O. A. Sexton, pleaded not to be questioned and warned, “If I go down here telling everything I know, they will lock me up, they will give me hell.”[lxv]

Nonetheless, King was able to secure nineteen depositions, including Woolley’s, and they provide critical evidence of how the Belton lynching actually unfolded. This includes the pre-lynching contacts between city and county officials and the likely ringleader of the mob - William Cranfield, the Cadillac-driving original target of the hijackers; the incriminating behavior of Chief John Gustafson and the Tulsa police officers; and the equally incriminating behavior of County Sheriff James Woolley.

Tulsa County Deputy Sheriff Noah Langley testified that two days before the lynching two taxi drivers visited the county jail in search of Woolley, who was absent. Langley knew one of the men by the name of Cranfield, and stated that he “talked like they was going to do it.” After Nida died, Langley was approached by Cranfield’s younger brother who he knew by the nickname “Yellow Hammer,” who also boasted of lynching plans. William and Yellow Hammer Cranfield make several appearances in the attorney general’s file, including being listed along with three others as “ring leaders of this mob.”[lxvi] Langley dismissed their threats because the jail was impregnable. He told King, “There ain’t a chance to get a man out of that jail if you wanted to prevent it” and “it couldn’t have happened if they had taken the right precautions.”[lxvii] Woolley fired Langley the day after he testified.[lxviii]

William Cranfield and his companion, identified only as a taxi driver, then pursued a private meeting with Assistant County Attorney Montgomery, who had been publicly identified with the investigation and the cracking of the case. The two said that they “wanted to lynch Tom Owen [sic] alias Belton.” They reported that they had policemen in their group and “that the police had agreed them to help them lynch this boy and that they had some good citizens in addition to that.” The identities of the police and good citizens, if any, were unrevealed, but their existence would help explain the boldness of the two taxi men in approaching county officials. The conspirators also explained that “they had been up to Mr. Woolley’s office but couldn’t find him in but that they were going back and see Mr. Woolley.” (emphasis added). Refusing to countenance the scheme, Montgomery tried to call Woolley, but he was not there, so he reported the incident to the day jailer Robert Terrell and told him to tell Woolley, which Terrell promised to do.[lxix]

Terrell appears to have functioned as a “cut-out man” for communications related to the lynching. Woolley testified that Terrell never mentioned Montgomery’s warning to him and Terrell failed to disclose it when fairly asked during his examination by King.[lxx] Montgomery’s was not the only phone call that Terrell neglected to mention. According to jail trustee Harry Northrup, Terrell took several calls at the jail on the fateful Saturday night, as many as four, that Terrell said were from Gustafson. The first was around 8 p.m., reporting that a mob was coming. A similar call was made “just before it happened.”[lxxi] It is not surprising that Gustafson would be closely monitoring the situation. Before and after becoming chief, he headed a detective agency - most of his professional career involved private detecting - with a self-publicized specialty of infiltration and intelligence.[lxxii] He was also skilled in the art of ambush, having masterminded the bloody Deep Fork Valley ambush in 1917.[lxxiii] He had been closely involved in the Nida investigation, including Belton’s confession that was intimidated by threats of violence. He said he told the jail to call the police if there was trouble and he was at the police station that night giving orders, both signs he knew something might be up.[lxxiv]

Given that Gustafson appears to have been on top of the situation, where were the Tulsa police? Gustafson promised that his force would be ready at the call. The looming assault was so well publicized that a thousand spectators had time to get there before the delivery.[lxxv] Yet, Tulsa Tribune reporter Randolph found the police station sleepy quiet just minutes before. Gustafson himself told the World that the call for help from “the jailer” came in at 10:30 p.m., one half-hour before Belton’s seizure by the mob.[lxxvi] The courthouse was only four blocks from the police station. Yet, in spite of the red flags and Gustafson’s promise of readiness, the police only arrived after the Hudson had rumbled away.[lxxvii] Woolley claimed that the first police arrived after County Attorney Munroe, who appeared at least ten minutes after the fact.[lxxviii] Somehow, when the police did begin showing up to confront the armed mob, the first responders were two Black officers normally assigned to Greenwood, possibly the only two then on the force.[lxxix]

After it was too late, the police force suddenly exploded into action. Gustafson was on hand to commandeer at least one private auto, demanding the driver transport officers to the lynching. By the time the captive was on tiptoes, most of the Tulsa police force had made its way to the site according to Gustafson himself. Gustafson was seen standing “within a few feet” of one of the masked men.[lxxx] Having been ordered by Gustafson not to interfere so as to avoid bloodshed, Tulsa’s police spent the evening “doing all they could to prevent disorder that might lead to gunplay.”[lxxxi] Tulsa Tribune reporter Randolph said that:

"a bunch of police held us back with guns and while we were standing there there was a big crowd that gathered that filled that whole street, there must have been over a thousand people, and they were just pushing and surging back and forth."[lxxxii]

The crowd managers must have been very effective. Not even the potentially chaotic move of the operation in search of the forgotten rope disrupted the proceedings for long. To the extent the police provided administrative services for the lynching, their efficiency stands out starkly beside their earlier slothful performance. Their ineffectiveness quickly returned. Not a single arrest was made for the murder most of the Tulsa police had watched happen.

A few hours later, Gustafson explained the county officers waited too long to call and “we got there just a little late.” He declared it a “work of fate” and blessed the whole affair. He proclaimed, “It is my honest opinion that the lynching of Belton will prove of real benefit to Tulsa and vicinity.”[lxxxiii]

King’s investigation also placed Woolley in a bad light, with the grossest of negligence as his best defense. Born and raised in Texas, Woolley arrived in Oklahoma around 1889. A Democrat, he served two terms of as Tulsa county commissioner (1910-14) and two terms as county sheriff (1915-16, 1919-1920). Immediately after the lynching, he explained that he would consider resigning if his friends recommended it.[lxxxiv] These friends likely included influential Tulsans and longtime Democratic party stalwarts W. Tate Brady and S. R. “Buck” Lewis. Woolley’s wife, Texana Dawson Woolley, was co-chair of the Tulsa County Democratic Party Women’s Club along with Rachel Brady, Tate’s wife. Lewis’ mother was also a member of the extended Dawson clan that settled around Dawson, Oklahoma, and during his first term in office Woolley hired Buck’s younger brother Carl as his undersheriff.[lxxxv]

S.R "Buck" Lewis courtesy of the author

Woolley appears to have been the teller of tall tales, a trait that might have served him well on the campaign circuit. He repeatedly marketed the tale that Marie Harmon’s terror of being lynched was so great that her hair turned white. This turned out to be false.[lxxxviii] He testified that County Attorney Munroe had applauded the lynching, a doubtful claim given Munroe’s immediate and relentless attempt to remove him, a fellow Democrat, from office.[lxxxix] His description of the flaccid city police responses to his call, however, is consistent with the way matters unfolded. Woolley testified:

"So I went up to the office and I called the police station. I says "There is a mob here" I says “Have you got any men down there?” And they says “I will see.” So they fooled around there a while. Pretty soon he called up and answered and said “They are all out.” I says “Where are they?” And he says “I don’t know.” I says “You have them to call me just as quick as they get in because this mob is here.”"[xc]

Woolley’s original published version of events was that he was not expecting the delivery, that he was absolutely unprepared and that “the men who entered the courthouse were in my office and had me covered before I knew what was up.”[xci] He also admitted that he viewed his prisoner’s guilt as certain and for that reason was unwilling to risk his own life.[xcii] Woolley’s “sudden surprise” tale was revised under oath. In the version he told King, Woolley left town earlier Saturday evening to monitor an American Indian stomp dance in Sperry.[xciii] Returning home about 10 p.m., his wife reported an unknown woman’s call warning that “they was gonna mob that fellow tonight.”[xciv] Rushing to the courthouse with his son-in-law, Woolley found the mob already gathered, which he had earlier described as consisting of two to three hundred men, many armed with shotguns and pistols.[xcv] Attempting only to jawbone them into leaving, Woolley retreated to his office where he made no effort to call his other deputies to defend the courthouse.[xcvi] Instead, he called the jail and cautioned the staff to try not to kill anyone.[xcvii] According to night jailer A.E. Basham, who soon became a former jailer, that was about fifteen to twenty minutes before the mob showed up outside the fourth-floor jail, suggesting that the instructions were not issued at gunpoint or under immediate duress.[xcviii] Robert Terrell said Woolley’s instructions included “you boys be careful and not get excited” and “be sure and don’t get excited now.”[xcix]

Woolley testified that while sitting inside his office, he heard the men trying to pry open the elevator gate. The mob was still insufficiently emboldened and required exhortations from their leaders. Woolley said the ringleaders yelled, “Come on, you are yellow back sons of bitches” and, “You have got a yellow streak up your back,” which undermined Gustafson’s and Woolley’s claims that the public was so incensed that there was simply no stopping them.[c] Still showing no instinct for self-preservation, Woolley left his office, weapon holstered, and was immediately disarmed at the point of three weapons, two .45-caliber pistols and a shotgun.[ci] The leveling of three weapons was significant for that triggered the state’s “riot” law, under which all participants in the riot, including any police or “good citizens,” were as guilty of murder as if they had put their own weight to Belton’s rope.[cii] Back in the sheriff’s office, Woolley’s son-in-law called the jail to report that the mob had Woolley and “to look out.” Woolley led the gang upstairs, ordered his armed men inside to open up and hand over the mob’s target.[ciii] When he testified about this, Woolley could not remember either of his lynched prisoner’s names.[civ]

The mob accompanying Woolley to the fourth floor were masked save one - its leader.[cv] Basham described him as a large man of authority; Slick Woolley commented on his commanding voice.[cvi] When other members of his band were shouting and waving weapons, he backed them up along the wall and ordered them to wait. He followed with calm assurances that if the jailers turned over Belton nee Owens, no harm would befall them.[cvii] Trustee Northrup testified that he was the one holding the gun on Woolley, yet he showed not the slightest concern that he might be identified. His confidence was not punished. Despite his long years of residence and service in Tulsa County, Woolley was unable to identify a single person associated with the lynching, either at the jail or around the noose.[cviii] If William Cranfield was the unmasked leader, perhaps Woolley rationalized it as fair justice for Roy Belton to fall into his hands.

In spite of having a gun pressed against his belly, the death threats, and the damage to his reputation, Woolley’s subsequent investigation could not have been more passive. He told King, “Well, I have inquired around but nobody never will talk to you none, they kind of catch on what I was after and shut right up.”[cix] Like the police, the sheriff’s department never made a single arrest.

King’s depositions were the high point of the investigation. Armed with them, King filed a petition to remove Woolley from office with the Oklahoma Supreme Court. This halted his court of inquiry just before reaching his planned grilling of the police.[cx] The supreme court wanted proof that it was not possible to get a fair trial in Tulsa and a hearing was scheduled. The depositions did not address that issue and King dismissed his petition before the hearing in order to pursue Woolley’s removal via the Tulsa grand jury.[cxi] Unintended consequences of the supreme court detour arrived when the Tulsa papers broadcast that the attorney general had “quit” the suit and that the supreme court had ruled that Tulsa would provide a fair trial.[cxii]

The headline of the Tulsa Tribune for September 10, 1920

To notions of quitting and defeat were added “absolutely, idiotic incompetency,” which was Tulsa Judge Owen Owen’s livid response to the discovery on the grand jury’s opening day that a lowly (and apparently unsupervised) clerk had used the wrong subpoena forms in summoning grand jurors. This necessitated a ten-day delay until September 23 that killed both momentum and public trust. More than one hundred witnesses had shown up to testify and most would not be back. [cxiii] Meanwhile, news of the whole affair migrated to the newspapers’ back pages.

When the grand jury finally got underway, most of the witnesses summoned to testify stayed away. Those who did appear could not definitely identify a single member of the mob. Prosecutor King promised contempt citations for the “no shows,” but by Tuesday, September 28, the game was given up.[cxiv] Apparently realizing that they could not force admissions even if they hauled witnesses to court, assuming the police would do any hauling, and that their case against Woolley was as strong as it was going to be, Munroe and King threw in their hand. Once again, the investigation ended before reaching the role of the Tulsa police.[cxv]

On Wednesday, September 29, the grand jury revealed that it had turned up empty-handed in its search for the mob. The police were cleared of any wrongdoing. The jury voted 8 to 4 to return an accusation against Woolley, one vote short vote of the required nine to force a full removal trial. The newspaper promptly labeled Woolley’s close shave an exoneration and clearance. Judge Owen Owen seemed crushed by the result.[cxvi]

The headline of the Tulsa Tribune for September 20, 1920

Tulsa voters got their chance to speak on November 2, 1920, and it was a Republican tide.[cxvii] The election removed County Attorney Munroe by sixty-seven votes and, with that, the end of the Nida case loomed. On November 17, an “old friend of the Sharp family,” sitting US Congressman and lawyer Representative J. Will Taylor arrived from eastern Tennessee to “assist in handling the case.”[cxviii] Popularly called “Hillbilly Bill,” the first- term Congressman would earn a reputation as an influential wheeler and dealer within the national Republican party.[cxix] At the beginning of January 1921, Munroe’s Republican successor, Thomas Seaver, took office. In mid-January, Tulsa County Commissioner-elect Ira Short was approached about facilitating a bribe of Seaver to secure Marie Harmon’s freedom. Short reported that the sum of “between $5,000 and $10,000” was mentioned, with the money to be provided by “an Indian.” Short, who would bear a shotgun while standing beside Tulsa Sheriff Willard McCullough in defense of the Tulsa County Courthouse and Dick Rowland on May 31, 1921, refused to participate and later reported the effort to the attorney general’s investigators.[cxx]

On January 18, 1921, it was announced that Seaver intended to dismiss charges against both Harmon and Sharp. Harmon’s dismissal came first, with Seaver arguing that Munroe had promised her immunity for her admission that she was aware of the planned car theft.[cxxi] That deal, however, was conditioned on Harmon testifying against her codefendants.[cxxii] When he dismissed her, Seaver told Harmon to “leave Oklahoma and remain away,” though he wanted her back if Moore was ever caught and tried. There was no similar condition imposed regarding Sharp. Eight days later, Seaver freed Sharp, who was presumably long since treated for appendicitis, on the ground that Sharp’s confession could not be used and there was no one to testify against him. Seaver explained the delay between the two dismissals as due to waiting for Sharp to raise “sufficient money to take him back to his home in Tennessee.”[cxxiii]

No one was ever tried for the murders of either Homer Nida or Roy Belton. The sputtering legal system, the Tulsa Daily World’s editorial justification for lynching, seemed again on display. Ironically, Roy Belton’s claim to have saved “the girl” turned out to be accurate - his life had distracted the mob from Harmon and his death had drained prosecutorial ardor.


The voters cast their highest vote totals in the sheriff’s race. Woolley lost the last of his four election tilts with Republican Willard McCullough by a 1,305 vote margin, far and away the largest of their contests.[cxxiv] Woolley had expressed reliance on the advice of friends. If his friends such as Tate Brady and Buck Lewis played a role in persuading him to ignore his legal duties, their advice cost Woolley his political career.[cxxv] Meanwhile, McCullough came out of the election with a firm desire never to repeat Woolley’s surrender of a prisoner, but the actions of Tulsa law enforcement in the Belton lynching meant that many would not trust him to prevent it. Other people, inclined to similar violence, found comfort in the official sanction and the entertainment seekers knew where to assemble when the next rumors blossomed.

The Belton lynching may, however, have done more than simply set the stage nine months later when an even more vivid target appeared. The attempted lynching of Dick Rowland may, in modern parlance, have been a case of “getting the band back together.” State District Judge Redmond S. Cole advised the US Justice Department one week after the Tulsa Race Massacre that:

"Beyond peradventure of a doubt the same group of roughnecks and hoodlums who mobbed Belton last September planned this outrage. As near as I get it some 15 or 20 of them went to the Courthouse; it was known throughout town what they expected to do."

Further, Cole recommended where to start the investigation that he assumed would ensue:

"There is a party in Tulsa known among the underworld as Yellow Hammer who is supposed to have been the leader in the Belton mob and who was whitewashed by the Belton grand jury. It is common talk around Tulsa that he was one of the ring leaders in this bunch; his correct name is Cranfield.”[cxxvi]

If Yellow Hammer Cranfield and associates were involved, what of the police and “good citizens” whom his brother William Cranfield had reported were in on the plot to lynch Roy Belton? Were they also in on the plot to kill Diamond Dick Rowland?


Endnotes: [i] This synthesis of the lynching is based on (a) the work product and investigative documents preserved in State of Oklahoma v. James Woolley in the District Court of Tulsa County, Attorney General Civil Case No. 1017, box 23, record group 1-2, Oklahoma State Archives, Oklahoma Department of Libraries, Oklahoma City, OK (hereafter cited as AG Civil Case 1017-page no.); (b) the transcript of a court of inquiry conducted by Assistant Attorney General C. W. King, “In the Matter of the Investigation of the Conduct of the County Officials of Tulsa County, Okla,” September 1920, transcript, State of Oklahoma vs. James Woolley in the District Court of Tulsa County, Attorney General Civil Case No. 1017, transcript: box 23, record group 1-2, Oklahoma State Archives, Oklahoma Department of Libraries, Oklahoma City, OK (hereafter cited as “Court of Inquiry, witness name, page no.”); and (c) articles published on August 29 and 30, 1920 by the two principal Tulsa newspapers, the morning Tulsa Daily World and the afternoon Tulsa Tribune. At least two Tribune reporters and likely one from the World were eyewitnesses to the lynching. The melodramatic flourishes are largely theirs. “Mob Lynches Taxicab Slayer,” Tulsa Tribune, August 29, 1-3; “Call Jury to Find Lynchers,” Tulsa Tribune, August 30, 1920, 1-3; “Mob Lynches Tom Owens,” Tulsa Daily World, August 29, 1920, 1, 9. “Probe Belton Lynching,” Tulsa Daily World, August 30, 1920, 1, 3. [ii] Ibid. [iii] “Mob Lynche