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Photo by Shawn Hoke.

Magazine | Okiecentric

The Prisoner of Wilshire Boulevard

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Posted 06.23.12

A dark-eyed beauty named Anna Lowe stepped off the train in late January 1920 at Henryetta, just south of Tulsa, but she wasn’t there for the scenery. Within hours, she was discussing marriage with a stranger named Jackson Barnett. He was a shy, somewhat passive man who had become the richest Indian in the world. There was one complication.

Since he was a restricted Creek Indian, Barnett needed permission from his legal guardian to marry Anna or anyone else. Although no court clerk in Oklahoma would issue the couple a marriage license, Anna was persistent.

Later, Anna and several friends enticed Jackson into a car “to see his oil wells,” but they were soon speeding north to Kansas. When Anna mentioned marriage, Barnett only grunted. On the other hand, he didn’t jump out of the car. They were married eight days later by a justice of the peace in Coffeyville, some 124 miles away from the modest Oklahoma cabin which belied Barnett’s fabulous wealth.

When the press discovered this, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson Barnett became front-page news all over the country. Of course, Barnett’s legal guardians had no intention of giving Barnett up to an “adventuress” who had had a past even darker than her eyes. Private detective reports those guardians acquired hinted about swindles perpetrated by Anna Lowe and even prostitution. Yet this was lost on Jackson Barnett.

Barnett’s fame dated back to 1917, when his personal income from oil in the Cushing Oil Field rocketed to $47,000 a month, an annual income of $9.4 million today. Ironically, Barnett was one of the Creeks led by militant Chitto “Crazy Snake” Harjo who unsuccessfully opposed partitioning Creek Nation land among its individual members. Naturally, after Harjo lost, his followers were allotted some of the worst, rockiest farmland in the Creek Nation. Funny then that when the Cushing Oil Field fifty miles west of Tulsa roared into life during World War I, half of the oil leases were on allotments owned by Harjo’s followers.

Many considered Barnett a simpleton—until he made fools of two senators in Congressional hearings. And almost from the beginning of his new life as a wealthy oilman, Barnett had been besieged with requests for gifts. His white guardian and the county judge who had final say over Barnett’s affairs were tight fisted, as were many legal guardians of Oklahoma Indians who cynics say plotted and planned to obtain large probate fees. Whatever the real reason might have been, Barnett’s requests for his own funds were often rejected. And during the early years of their marriage, Anna had dozens of arguments with her husband’s court appointed guardian in Henryetta.

Little wonder that after several years together, the couple shook off the Oklahoma dust and left for a tony Los Angeles neighborhood within a stone’s throw of Hollywood on Wilshire Boulevard. Of course, back in Oklahoma, the looting continued. While the Barnetts were married, state and federal officials gave away about one million dollars of Jackson Barnett’s money, some of which went to Anna.

Finally, in March 1934, federal Judge William P. James annulled the Jackson’s marriage, citing the “kidnapping” to Kansas, questions about Anna’s moral character and evidence of her collusion with others to pilfer Barnett’s estate. The judge cancelled a $200,000 gift from Barnett to Anna. Although he allowed Anna to continue as Barnett’s “caretaker,” she was briefly jailed in Los Angeles for contempt of court at the conclusion of one lawsuit.

Jackson Barnett died peacefully in his Wilshire Boulevard mansion, on May 29, 1934, six days after Bonnie and Clyde met their destiny on a Louisiana back road. Despite suspicions that Anna had poisoned him, the autopsy revealed that Barnett died of natural causes. That didn’t stop the authorities from evicting the widow.

Yet Anna garnered wide public support for her efforts to avoid eviction. Prestigious Los Angeles civic clubs and the wife of District Attorney Burton Fitts stood beside her, despite Anna’s occasional irrational rants against those who championed her cause. Finally, some four years after Jackson Barnett died, Anna was given thirty days to vacate the mansion.

Although the governor of California supported her, the eviction began early on the morning of Sunday, October 30, 1938. Anna was tear-gassed even as she threw a hatchet at the invaders from the grand stairway as she was being dragged away. She spent the rest of her life fighting for a share of the Barnett property that never arrived.

The estimated value of Barnett’s estate at the time of his death was about $3.5 million, some $55.4 million in modern money. Despite all her efforts, Anna had only helped Barnett spend about fifteen percent of his assets. Another twenty-five percent was paid to his heirs, thirty percent to lawyers and the rest went for taxes, court costs and administrative fees. Anna received no inheritance at all. She lived with an unmarried daughter in a small Los Angeles bungalow until her death.

And the Hollywood mansion where Jackson Barnett spent his dotage happily directing Wilshire Boulevard traffic from the front lawn was eventually scraped away for a commercial building.


Excerpted from Old West Swindlers (Pelican Publishing, 2011), by Laurence J. Yadon and Robert Barr Smith.