Fraud on the Border: The Western District play is an expose of old Fort Smith
Playwright reveals not only hell but fraud on the border
in The Western District, an exposé of old Fort Smith
In this town that reveres its historical lawmen and judges, audiences may not be ready for the shocking truths told in a new play by Brandon Goldsmith. But all of it is historically accurate, documented by detailed accounts in the Congressional Record.
“For 14 months and 20 days,” a tagline of the play referring to 1871-72, “the Western District Court of Arkansas becomes the most corrupt courthouse in the entire United States.”
Through a crooked conspiracy between the federal court, the U.S. Marshal and townspeople, the government was defrauded via inflated deputy marshals’ expense accounts, padded with payments to imaginery posse members. And that was only part of the heist.
Total expenditures paid to the Arkansas court in that time were $403,266.49. A Congressman said that these court expenses “were more than the expenses of all the New England States, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio combined.” Marshal Logan H. Roots’ yearly salary was $6,000; somehow he received $54,650.35. In today’s dollars, those sums represent millions.
For this robbery of Uncle Sam, no one ever was convicted, Goldsmith learned. The loot was pocketed by 1870s Fort Smithians, citizens and lawmen alike. Roots’ ill-gotten fortune was the founding capital deposit for a bank that became today’s First National Bank. Fortunately, today’s modern bank has a sense of humor about its distant history and is a sponsor of the play, Goldsmith noted.
Goldsmith, now an adjunct professor at UAFS, ‘followed the money’ through extensive research. The characters, from judge to marshals, court clerk, mayor, businessmen and even saloonkeepers, portray the fraud (with explicit, period cussing). The conspiracy bamboozled federal investigators and a grand jury. “They got away with it,” he explains, “because everyone in town was in on it and making money.”
To take more kickbacks, Roots encouraged the deputies to “work up business,” allowing them to make arrests in Indian Territory without a warrant. Deputies brought prisoners to the court’s commissioner, who falsified backdated warrants, paying them up to 30 days for expenses. The deputies kicked back to the court officers. “This led to an increase in arrests for trivial crimes, turning the court into a nuisance,” Goldsmith explained.
Audiences will love how the problem was ended.
The Western District premieres Sept. 28 at the restaurant 21 West End, its actual setting. In 1872 it was “The Hole in the Wall Saloon,” then converted into a rough courthouse. 21 West End will serve drinks and dinner. Several cocktails have been created that will reflect what Fort Smithians were drinking in the period.
A special label wine is being created. Plays will be staged through Oct. 14 at venues including The New Theatre, King Opera House, Fianna Hills Country Club, Taliano’s and Weiderkehr Winery. Performances scheduled, with dinner or bar service, are listed at “The Western District” Facebook page or the TheWesternDistrict.com. Tickets can be purchased online.
Dates and Locations:
Sept. 21-23 World Premier
21 West End Restaurant, Fort Smith
With dinner and period drinks. The 21 West End restaurant is the historic location of this corrupt court of the Western District in the time in which the play is set.
The New Theater
Staged in the 1911 New Theater in downtown Fort Smith.
King Opera House
Van Buren, Ark.
See the play in the restored Van Buren theater.
Fianna Hills Country Club
The Hall at Taliano's
Dinner with special wine menu at the historic Weiderkehr Weinkeller Restaurant.
This article appears in the September 2018 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.