- A DARK HISTORY: The Hot Springs Confederate monument was erected 12 and 21 years after lynchings took place in the same location.
The stone Confederate soldier stands with his hands gripping the barrel of a rifle whose butt rests on the ground by his foot, and he is equipped with a bedroll, canteen and bullet pouch. The sculpture is 6 feet high, set upon a base 12 feet high, so the soldier can easily overlook the plaza bounded by Central, Ouachita, Market, and Olive streets in downtown Hot Springs. This simple monument bears the years "1861–1865" on its north face, above the words "CONFEDERATE SOLDIERS." The Hot Springs chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy began raising funds for the monument in 1907, but these efforts lagged until 1929, when the chapter received the promise of $1,000 from the statewide UDC, payable at $200 a year. In 1933, the city council passed an ordinance allowing the UDC to place the planned monument at what was then still called the CoMo Triangle, and the monument was formally dedicated on June 2, 1934.
Hot Springs had actually been spared much of the direct violence of the Civil War. Worried that Little Rock might fall in 1862, Governor Henry Massie Rector briefly relocated state records there for just over two months, making Hot Springs the de facto Confederate state capital. While Hot Springs was never occupied by Union soldiers, a Feb. 4, 1864, skirmish is listed in the official records with an asterisk indicating that no substantial reports are on file, meaning it was likely the most minor of affairs. No doubt, local men served in Confederate units, though the Ouachita Mountains region, not being so invested in the institution of slavery as other parts of the state, also lent many men to the Union. These men may have seen violence, but their town escaped rather unscathed during the Civil War.
However, during the early 20th century, Hot Springs twice erupted into the kind of violence that had its roots in the issues left unresolved by the Civil War, and both times, it happened right where that monument to Confederate soldiers stands today. Will Norman, a black man, was murdered there on June 19, 1913. Norman had worked as a servant for the family of C. Floyd Huff, a prominent man who had served as county judge from 1898 to 1900. After Huff's daughter, Garland, was found stuffed in a closet with her head bashed in, suspicion immediately fell upon Norman, and newspapers prominently claimed that little Garland had "battled off the advances of Will Norman" despite the fact that no one had witnessed the attack and the victim was never able to relay her story before dying later that day.
According to the Arkansas Gazette, as news of the event quickly spread, "crowds began to gather, armed in open manner, and the woods were honeycombed with grim-visaged men," numbering in the thousands, "determined to seek out and find the brute and silently acquiescing in a general scheme to make short work of him when he was found." Two men found Norman outside of town, and upon their arrival at the jail, and a group of 500 men quickly surrounded their buggy and took Norman themselves. Judge Huff gave his boys permission to attend the lynching after they asked, "Father, may we go see that negro lynched, please?" At the intersection of Ouachita Avenue and Central Avenue, Norman was hanged and his body riddled with bullets, after which it was cut down and burned. By the following day, people were picking through the ashes for bones to keep as souvenirs, and ashes were being gathered into matchboxes and sold.
The next lynching in Hot Springs took place on Aug. 1, 1922. Gilbert Harris, nicknamed "Bunk" or "Punk," had reportedly shot Maurice Connelly, a young businessman and nephew of the county judge, during a botched robbery attempt the previous evening. Harris was quickly arrested, and an armed mob soon surrounded the jail. At the news that Connelly had died, the mob grew angrier, its members openly discussing plans to lynch Harris. The mayor and local circuit judge promised a speedy trial and condemnation, but later that morning, the mob broke into the jail and took Harris from police custody, dragging him to the CoMo Triangle, right in front of the resplendent CoMo Hotel that had been completed six years earlier and would have been filled with summer visitors. There, according to the Arkansas Democrat, "Harris was hoisted about 20 feet in the air while the great crowd yelled and cheered. He only lived a few minutes. The body was allowed to hang perhaps half an hour and then was let down. Negro undertakers came for the body, but the mob chased them away."
According to one eyewitness, Roswell Rigsby, Harris' body was dragged behind a truck until being cut loose in front of a "negro mortuary." Connelly's body, however, achieved a more dignified rest. Hundreds attended his funeral at St. Luke's Episcopal Church. At Hollywood Cemetery, where he was buried, stood about two dozen hooded and robed members of the Ku Klux Klan, lining the path from the cemetery gates to the gravesite. They filed to the grave following the bugler's playing of taps, placed a floral wreath, and kneeled in prayer before departing.
In 1934, the lynching of Gilbert Harris was but a 12-year-old memory, while the lynching of Will Norman had happened only 21 years prior. Very likely, people in the crowd at the dedication of the Hot Springs Confederate Monument remembered the work of the mob in those two instances — and some may even have participated (3,000 to 4,000 men had reportedly participated in the hunt for Norman, which would have been a quarter of the town's population at the time). Of course, people have typically been lynched in the same prominent public locations so useful for the installation of monuments, places with maximum visibility. However, what is relevant to the debate over the future of Confederate memorials is just how much history these monuments hide, and nowhere can this better be seen than in Hot Springs, where a stone Confederate soldier stands guard over the site of two lynchings, perhaps warning passersby to move on, not to investigate the real history of that plot of land. His very presence changes the story of the town in ways we cannot deny.
Dr. Guy Lancaster is the editor of "Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas, 1840–1950," forthcoming from the University of Arkansas Press.