July 2, 1996
This sketch of Henry T. Armstrong, murderer of Isaac Fell, appeared in a Perry newspaper during the trial at the Noble county courthouse in 1909. The courthouse building at that time was a two-story wooden structure. The present three-story stone courthouse was built in 1916, three years after Mr. Armstrong’s execution on the courthouse lawn.
The previous Northwest Corner related some of the facts about the public hanging of Henry T. Armstrong in 1909 on the lawn of the Noble county courthouse park. That gave rise to the legend of his ghost haunting the area even to the present day. There is still more to be told concerning this interesting story.
The nickel-plated .44 caliber six-shooter used by Mr. Armstrong to dispatch Isaac Fell on a rural Noble county road in 1908 is now part of the permanent collection on display at the Cherokee Strip Museum in Perry. The museum also has the clevis, a U-shaped metal shackle, through which the noose was looped for Mr. Armstrong's hanging. This particular piece is not yet on display.
Relatives of the murder victim recently made contact with residents of this area in a quest for information about the murder and subsequent events relating to the crime. Mrs. L. W. Johnson of Winfield, Kan., granddaughter of Isaac Fell, visited here in April and became acquainted with Gary and Jeanie McCray of Morrison, who live on the farm where Mr. Fell's body was stashed after the slaying. The Johnsons visited the site and spent some time at the Cherokee Strip Museum here to learn more about the story.
Mrs. McCray now corresponds with Mrs. Johnson and finds her to be an interesting lady, still touched by the fate that befell her grandfather in 1908. Mrs. McCray says the well has not been used for drinking water since that fateful day. A spring tooth implement now stands guard over the well site, and it still contains water.
The hanging was distasteful to many in Noble county for several reasons. Capital punishment itself was controversial, then as now, and the fact that it had to be held in the courthouse park did not set well with local civic boosters. But, as an article in the Perry Republican reported on September 9, 1909, the law required that a defendant be sentenced in the county in which he was tried, and execution of the sentence had to occur at the county seat. Perry folks accepted it because that's the way it had to be, under the law.
The same article added: "The hanging will take place on the east side of the jail, where a high fence will be erected, and within it, in view of the condemned, the gallows. The public will not be permitted to see the death throes of the prisoner, only a jury of twelve summoned by the sheriff, he and his deputies, and representatives of the press will be admitted inside the enclosure." Although the newspaper's account seems to indicate it was not officially a "public" execution, an estimated 80 persons saw it take place. There was not the air of a Roman holiday in the courthouse day. It was a sad and difficult day.
Sheriff Austin C. Nicewander and his deputies, including Tom Phillips, were under great stress during the months of the trial and the interval leading to the execution. They were required to provide adequate security for the prisoners, Mr. Armstrong and Albert Mitchell (who wound up in an insane asylum), during their incarceration, maintain public order while feelings were running strong against both men, then oversee construction of the gallows and take steps to insure that no demonstrations break out during the execution.
A "death watch" was placed on Mr. Armstrong after the sentence was announced by District Judge W. S. Bowles. Joe Kern, Stick Dale and Tom Jamison each stood eight-hour watches on the condemned man's cell to prevent a suicide attempt before the execution could be carried out. Judge Bowles was commended by the newspaper for the dignified, orderly manner in which the trial was conducted.
The Republican, which billed itself as the "official paper of Noble county and city of Perry," did a competent job of covering the story from start to finish, beginning with the arrest of Henry Armstrong and Albert Mitchell in December 1908, a few days after the slaying. Mr. Fell, the victim, lived with his wife and three children on the Ed Mossman farm about ten miles northeast of Perry. The Fell children were ages 6, 4 and one year old at the time of their father's death. One of the children became Mrs. Johnson's grandfather. The murder apparently was provoked by a business deal that went sour between Mr. Fell and the two accused assailants. The newspaper called the crime one of the most sensational in this part of the U.S.
Henry Armstrong was described by the newspaper as "a dark, greasy looking individual with long black hair tinged with gray, and (he) wears large round ear rings." His home was in Pawnee. Albert Mitchell, 20, was single and lived with his parents four miles south of Morrison. Whether he died in the asylum or was released after care and treatment is not known.
Although the Republican, published by J. W. Casey, covered every aspect of the story in a thorough, professional manner, its competitor, the Perry Enterprise Times, with a much smaller circulation, gave only superficial coverage. Thanks to the Perry Carnegie Library's excellent microfilm reader/printer and its file of Noble county newspapers, I recently had the pleasure of spending several hours reading some of the vivid details of this story in Mr. Casey's paper. The reader/printer also made possible a quality reproduction of a sketch of Mr. Armstrong drawn for the newspaper at the time of the trial, nearly 90 years ago. Our Cherokee Strip Museum provided photos of the gallows along with information about the murder weapon and the clevis used in hanging Mr. Armstrong. I am indebted to the Oklahoma Historical Society for permitting me to use the photos.
As usual, researching this story was a fascinating trip back in time to visit some of the interesting people and events from the early days of Noble county's existence. The hours required to prepare this report were well worth it, to say the least. And thanks to Rick Kukuk of Moore, whose question in a Northwest Corner column a few weeks ago led to all this renewed interest in the story of the ghost of Mr. Armstrong.