Akin's comprehensive history of executions becomes a book
Akins at the Fort Smith National Historic Site
When Jerry Akins spent eight weeks sweating at Fort Chaffee in the summer of 1957, little did he know he would one day become a permanent resident and published historian of Fort Smith.
A native of Missouri, Akins made the first half of his career in Kansas City. In 1975, he made his second visit to Fort Smith where he fell in love with Northwest Arkansas in general and Fort Smith in particular.
In 1980, he was invited by Charlie Dawes, principal chief of the Ottawa Tribe of Oklahoma, to participate in Fort Smith's River Festival as one of the Indian dancers.
"That was the first time I had been on the inside of putting something like that together. I wanted to be a part of this, a part of making Fort Smith what I perceived it to be - the fun part, rodeos and such," he said. "Boy, I didn't know what that would lead to!"
Later that year, he moved to Fort Smith, working at Bekaert Corp. as an electrical technician until his retirement in 1995.
When Miss Laura's Social Club opened as Fort Smith's Visitor Center in 1992, Akins became one of the original volunteers to show visitors through the first bordello listed in the National Register of Historic Places. To accurately give the history of "The Row," he began to study state, county and Fort Smith history, a constant journey he continues today.
The start of a writing career
In 1995, he met Thomas Adams Smith IV, descendant and namesake of Gen. Thomas Adams Smith, for whom Fort Smith was named. After receiving information from Smith that had not been published locally, he wrote an article about Gen. Smith, which was published in The Journal of the Fort Smith Historical Society.
In 1998, the late Amelia Martin, editor of theJournal, asked Akins to write a series of articles about the executions by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, now known as Judge Parker's courtroom.
"Well, that will take years," Akins said he replied to Martin.
"Good!" Akins said was her response.
He was disappointed to learn that a full and accurate account of executions at Fort Smith had not been written. It would call for extensive research in newspaper accounts of trials and executions and in court documents from the National Archives in Fort Worth. The assignment became a life-long interest.
His pursuit of the original sources was tenacious and thorough.
"Once I started, I never took another book off the shelf," Akins said. "The best source were the local newspapers. They made mistakes, but in time they corrected them."
Akins started with accounts of the executions in original, local newspapers. Then, he worked backward, reading about the condemned subjects' trials and, earlier, their capture. For court proceedings before 1888, his sources were records of pre-trial hearings.
Local papers went to great lengths to attempt to disassociate the executions from Fort Smith's reputation, instead trying to shift the lawless connotation to the Indian Territories, Akins found. One local editor even predicted in print that outside papers would sensationalize a multiple hanging, he said. "Sure enough, the Kansas City Star's headline was 'Population of Fort Smith Reduced Considerably.'"
Publishing over many years
His comprehensive reports were published in The Journal over many years as a series titled "Hangin' Times." They continued after the death of his original editor, Martin, when Carole Barger became editor of The Journal. When the full series had been published, Barger championed the idea of turning it into book form. After a two-year journey of editing and seeking a publisher, the book was accepted by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, a division of the Central Arkansas Library System.
Immersing himself in history
Akins has been an active volunteer with Fulfill-A-Dream, Belch Chili Pod, the Fort Smith Historical Society and the Oak Cemetery Tales of the Crypt. For nearly 10 years, he has managed the records of criminal cases, newspapers and other materials at the Fort Smith National Historic Site.
Another research quest ahead
Journal editor Billy Higgins recently asked Akins to research and write a series on the early settlement of Fort Smith. Beginning in 1812, leading up to the establishment of the Fort in 1817, the founding of Crawford County in 1820 and Sebastian County in 1827, the series will continue with more of the growth of Fort Smith and the surrounding area. This series will run in The Journal, published semi-annually in April and September. For subscription information, check the website of the Fort Smith Historical Society at www.fortsmithhistory.org.
Opportunities to purchase a signed book from the author:
May 12, Noon to 3 p.m.
During Van Buren Old Timers Days
Gunslingers Mall, 618 Main Street, Van Buren
May 26, Noon to 3 p.m.
During the Bass Reeves Statue Dedication
at the Fort Smith National Historic Site
June 2, Noon to 3 p.m.
Fort Smith Museum of History
June 15, Noon to 1 p.m.
at the Fort Smith Public Library
The book also is available in area bookstores and gift shops,
www.uapress.com or at 800-626-0090.