February 14, 2017

Spurned Love and Family Feuds: The El Dorado Court Square Shootout

Rick Riordan once wrote, “No one can hate you more than someone who used to love you.” In every culture, in every part of history, this push and pull, the very thin line between love and hate, is always present. And I think we can all agree that those two emotions are the most powerful drivers in our universe. Those that we love the most are also those who are capable of maiming us, hurting us, pushing us out of the light and into the dark.

Humanity, from the beginning of time, has always displayed evidence of love mixed with hate in many aspects of history, particularly the gunfight that took place in the El Dorado court square during October 1902.

Gunfights are a staple of American history, most notably with the OK Corral. But Arkansas has her own legendary family feud and gunfight, although the small match that kicked off this particular historical powder keg didn’t stem from the usual male bravado and lawlessness (although it evolved into that).

Photo courtesy of Arkansas Parks & Tourism

It began with love gone wrong.

On September 17, 1902 William Puckett arrived in El Dorado to marry Jessie Stevenson. We don’t know a lot about this couple other than they were engaged, and Jessie worked for a local photographer, Bob Mullens. When William arrived at Bob’s studio trying to find Jessie, her photographer/boss became enraged. Bob claimed that Jessie was engaged to him, not William and proceeded to attack him.

William turned to El Dorado city marshal, Guy B. Tucker (grandfather of future governor Jim Guy Tucker), for protection. William and Jessie were quickly married, and as the newlyweds attempted to board a train to leave El Dorado, Bob showed up and rushed threateningly toward them. Guy Tucker was present, along with his constable Harrison Dearing, and they arrested Bob.

William and Jessie rode the Arkansas railways away from Bob and toward their happily-ever-after unscathed. However, Bob’s disturbing behavior and spurned love was decidedly not a happily-ever-after scenario, it was the beginning of a bloody battle and family feud. The day after William and Jessie left town, Bob Mullins confronted constable Harrison Dearing, and Dearing shot and killed Bob.

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At this particular juncture the Parnell family, who had been longtime friends with Bob, became enraged about the shooting. They claimed that not only was Bob’s death unjust but somehow a result of a vendetta against them. They claimed that Tucker and Dearing, former business partners, had a grudge against the Parnell family and their recent store construction downtown. So in their summation, Bob’s death was not a result of his overzealous and violent stalker reaction to Jessie marrying another man, but a result of a business grudge.

On October 9th at 4:30 p.m., Tucker, Dearing, and a Parnell rival Frank Newton were downtown on the El Dorado court square when they encountered Tom, Walter and Jim Parnell. Arguments ensued, weapons were pulled and gunfire erupted. Tom Parnell was killed. Constable Dearing and Walter Parnell exchanged rapid fire, killing each other. Guy Tucker was shot six times but miraculously survived. Union County sheriff H.C. Norris arrived to break up the two groups as crowds gathered around the bloody spectacle.

The weeks that followed were full of tension and strife, with townspeople choosing sides between the Tucker and Parnell families. Guy Tucker was sent a jug of strychnine-laced whiskey. Tucker confronted John Parnell, and after a heated exchange, he shot and killed him. He was accused of murder but later acquitted. Turmoil followed, and more shootings, but by 1905 the feud subsided.

The town of El Dorado commemorates this event with a re-enactment on the court square, known as the “Showdown at Sunset.” And while the guns and old world style feud live long in the town’s memories, it all began with love, however misguided it may have been, that quickly led to hate.

I’m sure that I’m not the first to wonder what happened to William and Jessie after they escaped the angry Bob Mullens on that train platform. Did they have a good life? Were they aware of the turmoil they left behind?

This piece of Arkansas history is a good reminder of how quickly the match of love can burn, and how far and how quickly that fire can spread.

Liz Harrell

Arkansas Women Bloggers member Elizabeth Harrell is a native Arkansan, author, and freelance writer. Her book, My (not so) Storybook Life, was published in 2011. Her blog projects have been featured in At Home Arkansas, Apartment Therapy, Design Sponge, and Better Homes and Gardens. Visit her at https://elizabeth-harrell.com .