By Jonita Mullins
Three Rivers History
When a federal court was established in Muskogee in the spring of 1889, it quickly changed the culture of the town. Lawyers moved to the city from all over the region to practice before the new court. In a short time, many of the marshals who had served the court in Fort Smith, Ark., arrived in Muskogee. Soon those marshals were bringing in the wanted outlaws who roamed the territory to have their day in court.
Wayman Jackson was among the first attorneys admitted to practice before this court, moving his practice from Fort Smith. He quickly built a reputation as one of the most successful lawyers in the Southwest.
There were many outstanding deputy marshals who served the court in Muskogee, most of them also from Arkansas. One was James “Bud” Ledbetter. He began his law enforcement career as a detective for the railroads, which were frequent targets of outlaw gangs. Ledbetter helped to guard payroll shipments and government payments to the tribes.
He worked under U.S. Marshal Leo Bennett in Muskogee and earned a reputation as a fearless gunman and “bloodhound” tracker of criminals. Ledbetter was known to stay on the trail of an outlaw for days and even weeks, and he rarely failed to make an arrest.
One such outlaw arrested by Ledbetter was the leader of the Jennings Gang — Al Jennings. His gang was not particularly successful in its train-robbing attempts, but it had killed a clerk during a store robbery, so the U.S. marshals were determined to capture the gang members and bring their crime spree to an end.
In late November 1897, deputy marshals converged on the Spike S Ranch near Bixby where the gang was hiding. In the ensuing gunfight, Jennings and two other gang members were wounded, but not seriously. They were able to slip away from the ranch and they made their way south through the Creek Nation.
Ledbetter caught up with the Jennings Gang at Carr Creek near Onapa in McIntosh County. On Nov. 29, 1897, Ledbetter led a posse to the gang’s hideout and a gunbattle ensued. Al Jennings took a bullet in his thigh, but he and three other men managed to escape.
Ledbetter captured all four a few days later and brought them to the federal jail in Muskogee. Dr. F.B. Fite removed the bullet from Jennings’ leg at the Martha Robb Hospital on South Main Street.
The gang was brought to trial in May 1898, and Wayman Jackson represented Jennings. All of the members were convicted. Jennings was sentenced to life in prison, but he later received a presidential pardon and went on to run for governor of Oklahoma.
Jackson’s young son, Wayman Coleman Jackson, would later recall playing with a rusted Winchester rifle that had belonged to Al Jennings. Perhaps it had been payment for legal services by the luckless bandit.
Reach Jonita Mullins at email@example.com.