Dogs Playing Poker

by Brian Ted Jones

06/20/2013

A fine October Saturday in 1966, in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma. A residential neighborhood within this community of a thousand souls. Peace and quiet. Folks chatting, dogs barking, kids flying by on bicycles. A 48-year-old man named Pete McLemore says goodbye to his wife, Goldie, and leaves the house. He’s headed for work; he’s a security guard at the local glass factory. McLemore’s also the Fort Gibson treasurer, and has been for 16 years. He’s a well-known figure. He waves at friends as he heads down the driveway to his car.

A pickup truck rolls down the street, but McLemore doesn’t see it, his view obstructed by a nearby magnolia tree. Inside the truck are two men. The passenger is Bill Bennett, the Fort Gibson mayor. The driver is Johnny Scott, the town’s 32-year-old marshal.

Johnny exits the truck with a 9mm pistol taped to a rifle stock. A few witnesses would later say Johnny also held a piece of paper in his hand—a warrant, perhaps, for McLemore’s arrest.

Others say he just started firing.

McLemore, a World War II veteran, hears the shots. Something happens in his heart, something bad, but he doesn’t have time to think about that. He darts for his car, bullets flying all around him. He kneels by the driver’s side door, fumbling for the latch. He keeps a 12-gauge automatic shotgun in the vehicle, so it’s there when he needs it. He needs it now.

But not because Johnny Scott was any great shakes as a gunfighter. In fact, in spite of his job in law enforcement, Scott displayed zero talent as a marksman. McLemore would later say that he was “just spraying all around.”

“He shot about 20 to 25 times at me. I don’t know how he kept from hitting me.”

But that’s how it went. Pete McLemore—huddled, scared, caught wildly off-guard, and subjected to heavy fire—didn’t suffer a scratch. Johnny Scott was nowhere near that lucky. McLemore nailed his young assailant three times—in the chest, the arm, and the leg. In fact, maybe Scott was lucky, in that McLemore—excellent shot that he was, even under stress—wasn’t shooting to kill.

“I never shot at his head,” McLemore would say. “I shot for the bulk of him.”

And where was Mayor Bennett in all that haze? We don’t know.  McLemore thought he saw three other shots come at him from a separate attacker, but that’s likely just battle fog. Witnesses clearly observed the gunfight between Scott and McLemore, but didn’t identify any other participants.

The cops, though, found Bennett carrying guns away from the scene. They arrested him on the spot, along with Pete McLemore. They’d have certainly arrested Johnny Scott, too, had he not already been in an ambulance, gunning for Muskogee General.

McLemore soon joined him. At the county jail, deputies discovered that all the excitement had given the poor man a heart attack.

Five days later, Muskogee District Attorney Paul Ferguson announced a set of charges related to the shoot-out. They raised a few eyebrows. McLemore and Scott were both charged with “dueling and agreeing to a duel.” Bennett was charged as an accessory. Ferguson also charged McLemore with shooting with intent to kill. It was the first time in 42 years anyone in Oklahoma had faced prosecution under the 1910 anti-dueling statute.

Even as he encountered surprise and amusement from the press, Ferguson defended his position. He explained that the law allowed a prosecution for dueling to stem from “threatening words or even mere implications of violence.”

Pete McLemore thought little of the accusation.

“There was no damn duel,” he said. “It was a planned attempt on my life.”

***

The U.S. Constitution was just 16 years old when the republic’s third vice president killed its first secretary of the treasury. In true gangster fashion, Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in the belly. POTUS No. 7, “Old Hickory” Andrew Jackson, was a renowned duelist, wounded so often he was said to “rattle like a sack of marbles.” He’s the only president (we know of) to have actually killed another man in a duel. Thomas Hart “Old Bullion” Benton (not the painter; rather, the first senator from Missouri) killed a rival named Charles Lucas in a duel on Bloody Island, on the Mississippi River near St. Louis.

American naval commander Stephen Decatur died in a duel— betrayed by his second, Commodore William Bainbridge, who had always been jealous of the younger, more famous Decatur, and arranged the duel’s set-up to maximize the odds of each participant’s death.

Speaker of the House (and later senator) Henry Clay fought a duel with John Randolph, who at various times had served as congressman, senator, and ambassador to Russia. Two sitting representatives, William J. Graves of Kentucky and Jonathan Cilley of Maine, fought a duel in Washington, D.C., actually while on break from their legislative duties. This gunfight prompted Congress to pass a law making it illegal to issue or accept a duel challenge within the nation’s capital.

Senator Gwin and Congressman McCorkle dueled in 1853; Senator Broderick and former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of California David S. Terry dueled in 1859. Even Abraham Lincoln, who is generally considered something of a sweetheart, got mixed up in dueling way back in 1842. Fortunately, some friends intervened to call off the affair. In the ranks of American political history, perhaps only adulterers are better represented than duelists.

***

There’s a flipside to Socrates’ notion that those who least desire power are best equipped to wield it: Those who most desire power will most reliably behave like perfect beasts once they get it. These sorts of men do not take insults lightly. Like the princess in the story of the pea, they can sense the tiniest imperfections in the way others regard them. And like most dynamic men, they are built with short fuses.

Take the Fort Gibson matter, which all started in January 1966 when the Fort Gibson Utility Authority sent Pete McLemore his regular water bill, but with an unwelcome addition: a $6.60 tab for “sewer services.” McLemore contested the charge (he had his own septic tank), but the authorities said he had to pay up or get his water shut off.

This sat uneasily with McLemore—he’d fought for his country in a war, he’d worked hard all his life, and he didn’t appreciate the government making him pay for something he hadn’t bought and didn’t need.

He also knew how to juke the system. He let the municipality go ahead and shut off his water (making up the difference by tapping a nearby well), then led the town fathers down a series of legal rabbit holes—lawsuits and writs of mandamus—which challenged the very basis of the Utility Authority’s right to exist.

Right after McLemore went to court, Bennett called for a town meeting—of all Fort Gibson’s 1,000 residents—for no other purpose than to discuss the Pete McLemore issue.

That is some weapons-grade orneriness, on both men’s parts. We don’t know what slights and insults had passed between these two in the years before 1966. But as the American newspaperman Jacob Riis would point out, it is not the final strike from the stonecutter that splits the rock in two, but all that came before it.

HE KEEPS A 12-GAUGE AUTOMATIC SHOTGUN IN THE VEHICLE, SO IT’S THERE WHEN HE NEEDS IT. HE NEEDS IT NOW. 

Legal wrangling notwithstanding, the courts ordered McLemore to pay the bill. One judge helpfully suggested he pay it “under protest,” so he could stay out of trouble and still wage his crusade. McLemore wasn’t trying to hear any of that. He was prepared to see the inside of a jail cell over this business.

And he did. On June 9, 1966, Fort Gibson Marshal Johnny Scott arrested Pete McLemore for not paying the sewer bill. McLemore bonded out quickly, but it wasn’t the last time that summer he’d be jailed over his protest. And always, it was Johnny Scott slapping on the handcuffs.

Unlike McLemore and Bennett,Scott was a newcomer to Fort Gibson politics, having first been elected to his post in 1965. If McLemore was your grumpy old Tea Party grandpa, Scott was your right-wing brother- in-law, the guy who bitches loudly during Thanksgiving dinner about government handouts while Medicaid pays health insurance for all the children he’s fathered. One paper described Scott as a “235-pound former blacksmith,” and he apparently liked to throw his weight around. Another newspaper report speaks of violent threats and even incidents of “gun waving” between the two enemies. Scott also managed, by late August of that year, to get actual human blood on his hands.

That blood came from Buster Vann, a 71-year-old black man whom the papers described as a “Fort Gibson welfare recipient.” He died of a cerebral hemorrhage after Johnny Scott bashed him over the head with a blackjack—three times—while trying to arrest him for public intoxication.

In response to this killing, District Attorney Ferguson charged Scott with manslaughter. A lesser man might have decided he was in enough trouble at that point, but not Johnny Scott. A month later and he’s sneaking up on Pete McLemore’s house in broad daylight.

***

For every Aaron Burr ruined by success in dueling; for every “Old Hickory” rendered highest honors in spite of his prowess at organized murder; for all the men whose spots in history are assured, regardless of any reputational damage suffered from dueling; and for all the men who could have been anything—president, speaker, chief justice, or general— had not a snarl of vanity earned them a heart full of lead. There must be unthinkable numbers of aldermen, burgesses, sheriffs, and county commissioners whose own small-time affaires d’honneur either barred, or did not bar, their political advancement.

That’s the thing about dueling, as with adultery: It either matters, or it doesn’t. A politician can survive it, or he can’t. As Americans, we tend to retain certain rigid ideas of what’s allowable in our officials, and what’s disqualifying—while indulging them anything, so long as it’s not weird or out of character. Before Clinton, no adultery. Before Bush, no DUIs. Before Obama, no drug use. We forgive these men because their sins are human and appropriate to the times. Such failings may even have political advantages: We see our flaws in their flaws and we sympathize.

***

What we won’t allow, though, is outlandishness. District Attorney Ferguson dusted off the anti-dueling statute when the police reports hit his desk, probably because he honestly thought that law best covered the situation as presented. In the end, though, he decided to drop it—likely a wise choice.

As for the men who faced those charges, Mayor Bennett quickly snaked out of his trouble. McLemore, whose health deteriorated rapidly after the shooting, was clearly dealt some form of prosecutorial mercy— his charges for shooting Johnny Scott went away completely. Even Scott walked, though he would eventually be convicted for the death of Buster Vann. For that crime, he received a four-year prison sentence, which he was able to overturn on appeal because of procedural hiccups at trial. But his career in Fort Gibson politics was over.

So was Pete McLemore’s. He quit as treasurer, claiming he feared Scott or Bennett would try to kill him if he set foot in City Hall. Instead, his wife, Goldie, ran in his place, and ultimately tied votes with her opponent. She won a coin toss to succeed her husband, but would die a few years later in 1973. Pete held on only five years longer.

Scott likely died in 2000: An obituary for one “Johnny Scott” ran in the Sequoyah County Times on January 20 of that year. His age at death was listed as 65; the math works out exactly. Strangely, the obituary also contains this sentence: “He was sheriff of Muskogee County during the early 1960s.”

That’s flatly incorrect. The sheriff of Muskogee County from 1958 to 1990 was a man named Bill Vinzant. He was actually a responding officer the day of the shoot-out. He may even have been the one to put Johnny Scott in that ambulance.

***

We Americans are a tribe of stunning contradictions. The greatest force for peace and justice the world has ever known; but our country is a crime scene, our wealth built on a holocaust of Indian slaughter and African slavery, and we alone have used the atomic bomb against our fellow human beings.We present interesting proof of La Rochefoucauld’s claim that hypocrisy is an homage vice pays to virtue. Just look at the governor’s oath in the Kentucky, which to this day requires an incoming official to swear he has never taken part in any mortal duel; but the very rules of American dueling were written and promulgated by another governor, John Lyde Wilson of South Carolina.

We might flatter ourselves that we’ve turned some corner in human evolution, that we’re beyond the growl of primitive impulses, that we’ve outgrown those creaky old procedures of violence. We think on our blood-soaked, dueling past, and those men with their pistols and rapiers, counting off steps and deputizing seconds, appear to us like dogs playing poker—ludicrously bound up in protocols and conventions, while the naked animal truth shines clear, in all its fullness of absurdity.

We’ve outgrown nothing. On September 11, 2012, the BBC reported that a man named Gediminas Stauskas of Drumgrannon Road in Northern Ireland admitted to killing Audrius Aukstuolis. The men were both Lithuanians. Stauskas received a five-and-a-half-year prison sentence for the killing.

Aukstuolis had pursued Stauskas’s girlfriend. Stauskas threatened to kill Aukstuolis over the issue. They agreed to meet and settle their dispute. They got together in a parking lot. Each man brought a weapon: Stauskas a knife, Aukstuolis a screwdriver.

They apparently arranged the whole thing using text messages.


Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 11. June 1, 2013.