March 9, 2021
Whole Number 106
LETTERS REGARDING JOHN U. SPARKS
OKLAHOMA COWBOY AND MURDERER (ca. 1865-1909)
Rarely in our research regarding the Sparks family and its many branches have we come across a Sparks of whom we could not be proud. Every family has its occasional black sheep, however, and we believe that when one appears we should not pretend that such an individual never existed. For this reason, we are publishing two letters that tell the story, although an incomplete story, of one John U. Sparks, an Oklahoma cowboy, who was convicted of murder and died at Fort Supply, Oklahoma, in 1909. As we read these letters, however, we realize that John U. Sparks was more a victim than he was a criminal.
These letters were copied for us by one of our members, Mrs. Billy L. Boyle, of Woodward, Oklahoma, where John Sparks was buried. Mrs. Boyle is in no way connected with the family of this John U. Sparks - - she happened across these letters in her research in Oklahoma. Mrs. Boyle has learned that John U. Sparks came originally from Illinois; his prison records indicate that he claimed to have no relatives, although we know from the following letters that he did have family.
Helen R. Campbell, herself an Oklahoma pioneer, was an elderly lady in her eighties when she wrote these two letters in 1949. She remembered a cowboy whom she had befriended in her youth and fifty-eight years later, "with little but memories left," she set out to learn what had happened to the young man whom she remembered with such affection and sadness. Her letters tell a touching story.
Long Beach, California
March 20, 1949
To the Superintendent
Hospital for the Insane
Fifty-eight years ago I lived in El Reno, Oklahoma. I was then twenty-two years old which makes me now past eighty. As you no doubt know, Oklahoma was pretty wild and woolly in those days, especially on the southern border. I was alone and living in a little shack back of a restaurant. There were two saloons just a few steps from my door facing on the street and it was no unusual thing for me to hear shots and the sound of a bullet that just missed the corner where I slept, a man running through the alley and in the morning his hat on my doorstep.
One hot September afternoon, I heard a succession of shots a block away on Choctaw Ave. where there was almost nothing but saloons. I ran out to see what it was all about but soon found it safer inside. People were running hither and thither and in a few minutes they came through the alley in front of my shack with a prisoner, a cowboy. He had come in from the range with some cash and had sat in on a poker game in a room back of one of the saloons with men who had got him drunk and then stripped him of every cent of it. He was still sober enough to realize what had happened and proceeded at once to get revenge in true western fashion by shooting up the town. The only law we had there then was Federal law and when the U.S. Marshall walked up to him and attempted to arrest him and take his gun away, he shot him through the stomach, and the Marshall died that night. The cowboy ran, of course, but was out distanced by men on horseback, one of them being the proprietor of the saloon where he had been robbed, one Jake Schweitzer, who shot him through the left arm.
They laid him on the floor in an empty store building that served as a court house then. There was so much excitement and so many threats of lynching that I left my little shack for the night, but the next day, all day long, I could hear the man moaning. Finally I could stand it no longer and went into the building where he lay to see if I couldn't do something to help him. His meals were carried to him from the restaurant, but there was no one to give him a drink of water. The blood hadn't even been washed from his arm and hand and later the wound became a seething mass of maggots.
"At least he is human," I thought, and even though I was a target for all kinds of sneers and criticisms, I got the officers to bring a bed with springs and a mattress, their wives brought towels and clean nightshirts and each meal time I would go into the restaurant and carry his tray to him. If there came a day when I couldn't do that, or was late, he refused to eat until I came.
His arm was amputated. Gradually he recovered his health and was removed from the makeshift courthouse to a makeshift jail. I was no longer permitted to carry him his meals, but went to see him quite often. I was going on such a visit one afternoon when I met the man whom I married three months later. Like most newlyweds, my husband was jealous of my attentions to the prisoner and so my visits ended.
The cowboy had no means for hiring a good lawyer. He was defended in a sort of way by a half-drunken pettifogger named Jennings, father of the Jennings brothers, desperadoes. I had written letters to his family for him, but do not remember anything about them except that they were very poor and ignorant. His name was JOHN SPARKS. He was sentenced to the Federal prison in Leavenworth for life, as I remember, then transferred to the Oklahoma prison after Oklahoma became a state. I do not remember where, but I was in El Reno and Oklahoma City about eighteen years after all this happened, ca. 1908, and wrote to the warden of the prison inquiring about him and was told that he had gone insane and had been sent to the insane asylum at Norman. On account of his physical handicap he had been given the job of running the elevator in the prison and I think it must have been the monotony and confinement in contrast to the free life of the range to which he had been accustomed, that drove him mad.
Now I am an old woman and have little but memories left and if you do not have to go too far back in your files, would be glad to get some information, some news, as to whether John Sparks is still living, still insane, or maybe he is dead. He was about my age and I was twenty-two.
Thanking you in advance for whatever you can do for me, I am,
Very truly yours,
Helen R. Campbell,
3946 Gaviota Ave.,
Long Beach, California.(7)
Long Beach, California
April 25, 1949
Dr. D. W. Griffin,
Central State Hospital,
I have just received a letter from Dr. H. L. Johnson, Superintendent of Western State Hospital at Fort Supply, Oklahoma, which contains the information I have been seeking concerning John Sparks. Yes, he was at one time an inmate at Norman, was transferred to Fort Supply May 20th 1908 and died there October 15, 1909. That was nearly forty years ago. I am sure death must have been a blessed release to him. He sent for me the night before they took him away to Leavenworth. He said he wanted to say "Goodbye" and to thank me for what I had done for him, and he told me he would much rather have received a death sentence than to have been sentenced to life imprisonment. I can understand that. I wonder that he survived so many years of it and it does not surprise me that it wrecked his mind.
Poor chap! He was not at heart a criminal, least of all a murderer. It was Jake Schweitzer who should have been sent to prison. It was in the gambling den at the back of his saloon that Sparks was made drunk and robbed of his last cent. (Some said he was drugged.) It was Jake Schweitzer who shot him after he had shot the deputy Marshall and started to run. It was Jake Schweitzer who took up a collection amongst the gamblers and others of the underworld to defray the expenses of the murdered man's funeral and then went about boasting that if it had been left to the church people, he would have been buried without even a pair of socks on. It was Jake Schweitzer, too, who, in addition to doing a big business in the best saloon in town, owned a substantial interest in the red light district, which occupied a considerable area just to the northwest of town, on the road to the military reservation.
I remember how those women used to advertise their calling by appearing on the streets dressed in gay colored Mother Hubbards fastened only at the neck and worn over elaborately trimmed white petticoats. The place where they held forth resembled a big hay barn and the cattle sheds at a county fair more than anything I can think of. The women were housed in a long row of lean-to sheds, each containing a single room and bed and each had the name of its occupant on the door, "Mamie," "Daisy," "Dolly," etc. I know what I am talking about for in the spring of 1889 I came to El Reno to be with my father who was a Christian minister and who organized the first Christian Church in El Reno. It was neccessary for me to be earning, so a girl friend and I opened a dress-making shop and we did a lot of work for those women. Sometimes they would hire one of those old fashioned two-seated carriages and drive about town and it is more than once I have seen Atty. Jennings, he who was supposed to defend John Sparks, carrying drinks out to them from the back end of a saloon. It was many a sad story we heard from them. And such was El Reno in the early nineties.
I want to think you for going to so much pains to gratify the whim of an old lady. It was mighty nice of you. I am sending a copy of this letter to Dr. Johnson and thanking him, also.
Yours very truly,
Helen R. Campbell,
3946 Gaviota Ave.,
Long Beach, California. (7)