“The Western District,” a new play about Fort Smith in the 1870s when the federal courthouse was moved from Van Buren, makes “True Grit” seem like a children’s story.

The play by local historian Brandon Chase Goldsmith tells the true story behind the founding of the First National Bank of Fort Smith and the real reasons why President U.S. Grant sent Isaac C. Parker to Fort Smith to clean up what had become the most corrupt court in the nation.

Under Judge William Story, who had been appointed in 1871, Deputy U.S. Marshals were making over $1 million in today’s money “working up business,” cooking the books, kicking contributions up to the judge and dragging local businessmen into the scheme as “returning marshals.”

It took two congressional investigations to figure out how the Western District of Arkansas was using up more money than the rest of the courts in the entire United States.

There were warrants being backdated, a scandal in itself, along with lawsuit dismissals for sell, grand juries ignored, threats of assassinating Secret Service investigators, and a suspicious morphine overdose in St. Louis of a carpetbagger banker. Jesse Haymaker had denied the corrupt deputy’s acquisition of his bank to launder money.

The typical U.S. federal court in the early 1870s ran on $15,000 to $20,000 a year. Goldsmith found in the Congressional record for the Western District in 14 months in 20 days starting in 1871 used $400,000 — $8 million in today’s money.

Goldsmith, an adjunct communications professor at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, spent nearly three years doing research for the play. He’s also written a 50-page book to go along with it. It all started out to just give some tips on public speaking to waiters at 21 West End. Managers showed Goldsmith a mural honoring the story that this location at the west end of Garrison Avenue was once the Hole in the Wall Saloon, and the first location for the Western District of Arkansas to hold court in 1871 after it was moved from Van Buren.

Research into that initial story of the saloon goes back to 1833 when some soldiers were sold some “Indian whiskey” and shot a cannonball through the wall. Goldsmith found the abstracts for the circa 1840s building originally owned by John Rogers, one of the founders of the city.

Managers at First National Bank of Fort Smith, executive producer of the play along with the Fort Smith Historical Society, opened up the bank’s vault to show Goldsmith all the original documents associated with the bank, including the original charter of the National Bank of Western Arkansas, predecessor of FNB Fort Smith. It shows the name Logan Roots, a U.S. Marshal for the early Western District of Arkansas, with 291 shares worth $29,000; and R. C. “Dick” Kerens, the chief Deputy U.S. Marshal who owned a livery stable and mail/stage route, with 132 shares worth $13,000.

Roots was Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s quartermaster during the Civil War and was put in charge of transferring the Western District of Arkansas from Van Buren to Fort Smith in 1871.

As the corruption in the court spiked, Roots was in Washington, D.C., making arrangements with Congress. Kerens took over as chief deputy for Roots just as the Goingsnake Massacre of 1872 went down. It was the worst loss of life for the Marshals Service in one day. Eleven people were killed. Eight deputies died.

With Roots’ help, Kerens was set up with the overland mail route to San Diego. It became worth about $150 million in today’s money when it was developed into a railroad. Kerens later becomes ambassador to Austria. Story resigned before articles of impeachment are drawn and moves to Colorado where is voted in as lieutenant governor.

Roots helped start what becomes First National Bank of Fort Smith, and after the corruption is uncovered he moves to Little Rock to start Southwestern Bell and Merchants Bank.

“These guys become not only the richest guys in Arkansas, but some of the richest in the nation,” Goldsmith said. “Because of the statute of limitations, after the grandy jury, all of these people got off scott-free.”

Money pilfered through the Western District of Arkansas during its heyday of corruption would also be used to build the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Goldsmith said.

As an aside, some of the players in this scheme also were also involved in the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad. Almost a decade later after it went bankrupt in 1872, it would come back to haunt Republican candidate James G. Blaine in the 1884 election against Grover Cleveland through what are known as the “Mulligan Letters.” Between 1864 and 1876, James G. Blaine wrote a series of letters to a Boston businessman, Warren Fisher Jr., that indicated Blaine had used his official power as Speaker of the House of Representatives to promote the fortunes of the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad.

Roots’ brother was chief engineer of the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad. Blaine got a $100,000 “bonus” from the railroad when he was Speaker of the House, Goldsmith noted.

While much of the history in the play had been exposed in some fashion before, Goldsmith says, the new history that is being revealed is that the Hole in the Wall Saloon — now 21 West End — served as the first location for the court when it moved from Van Buren. There are also revelations about Haymaker, and how Roots started the bank, as well as new insights into why Parker came to Fort Smith.

"People had the pieces but this brings it all together," Goldsmith said.

Special wines, beers and liquors

During research for the play in search of a name of a doctor to use in the play, Goldswmith enlisted the help of UAFS’ Pebley Center Archivist Shelley Blanton, who discovered a wine recipe by a “Dr. Post” when she opened up a book.

Post Familie Vineyards at Altus in turn made four wines to commemorate the play — Cynthiana, Cynthiana Rose, White Niagara and Red Muscadine. Those who pay $100 for tickets to the debut will each receive a bottle.

Goldsmith also read newspaper reports of a “white beer” being produced in 1872 by J. Freiseis, the brewer who took over Knoble’s Brewery in Fort Smith. Fort Smith Brewing Co. recently made the Western District Wit beer, a Belgian-inspired wheat beer, to commemorate the play. The beer was released Saturday at the brewery in Chaffee Crossing.

Michael Chronister at 21 West End and Goldsmith have also developed 10 drinks based off storylines and characters of the play.