The Great Escapes: Paragould historian uncovers truth about 100-year-old murder case

(Source: KAIT)
(Source: KAIT)
Published: Jul. 21, 2016 at 8:04 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 22, 2016 at 2:53 PM CDT
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James Henry Trammell's 1911 mug shot (Source: Erik Wright)
James Henry Trammell's 1911 mug shot (Source: Erik Wright)
(Source: KAIT)
(Source: KAIT)

PARAGOULD, AR (KAIT) - A century-old murder case in Paragould was solved a couple of years after it happened. The suspect was arrested and indicted, but more than 100 years later, there is still no conviction for the murder of Charles Gragg.

Erik Wright, an award-winning historian and Paragould resident, set out to discover what happened to murder suspect James Henry Trammell after he seemingly vanished in 1911.

"They barely had time to get him on the dockets for a murder trial and he was gone," Wright said.

Wright, who moved to the area from Arizona four years ago, has a thing for stories of a Wild West nature. Many asked him to write stories on Paragould when he moved to town, but he was initially skeptical about uncovering any interesting crimes from Paragould's past.

"As naive as I was, I didn't think anything happened here," Wright said. "When people are interested in Old West stuff, they need to realize it happened right here too."

The story starts in 1909 on Pruett Street in Paragould. The scene of the crime is still there today, but you likely won't notice it until you go behind Pruett Street. The store front of what many know as Hamilton Hardware is now Community Title and Escrow. But long before that, and even before it was Hamilton Hardware, the building was home to the Elk Cafe.

"It's still here. It's this place in downtown Paragould that links the two continents, and I think that's an amazing thing," Wright said.

Wright explained that James Henry Trammell and his brother John Monroe Trammell, both of Rector, were in Paragould on a hunting trip.

"It was at night. It was right before Christmas in December of 1909, and there was a bad winter storm," Wright said.

They went into the Elk Cafe and ran into a man named Charles Gragg. An argument ensued.

Wright has a couple of different theories on why the two got into an argument. He said it's possible that Gragg made joking remarks to Trammell when he was handing out advertisements for a saloon he was operating in Memphis.

There's also a chance the two argued over a woman named Zula Ward.

Regardless, the argument turned deadly.

"And Trammell pulled out the pistol and shot Gragg in the face," Wright said.

Trammell then made his first great escape by jumping out of a back window at the Elk Cafe and making a run for it.

"It was said he went down to the bottoms east of town and he hid out there for a few hours, and then he booked it down to Jonesboro," Wright said.

Trammell ran down the railroad tracks from Paragould to Jonesboro and wound up at Frisco Crossing, near what is now Nettleton Avenue.

From there, Trammell boarded a train to Memphis, but still didn't quite feel safe enough, so he made his way to California.

Trammell lived in California under the alias Arthur Hoil until 1911. He was working as a rail car operator when he was arrested by San Francisco Detective Arthur McQuaide.

Wright theorized that Zula Ward, who was mentioned in an article in a San Francisco newspaper around the same time, might have turned Trammell in.

Trammell was then extradited back to Paragould.

"And that was that," Wright said.

Or so it should have been. Wright searched through volume after volume of court documents at the Greene County Courthouse, but James Henry Trammell's name only appears one time.

An indictment record from 1911 states that Trammell "unlawfully, willfully, maliciously, and feloniously" killed Gragg in 1909.

"I think he knew, he was smart enough to know this was a serious charge," Wright said.

Wright explained that Trammell then made his second great escape, this time from the Greene County Jail.

Trammell was never heard from again; at least, in these parts.

"I have great memories of him," Paul Neary said. "He maintained a very strong southern accent, and he was the only American that I knew until I was about 16 or 17."

Neary is Trammell's Australian grandson.

"He was older when he came to Australia. So he was an old, he seemed to be an old man when I was a boy," Neary said. "Having an American grandfather was unusual for Australian kids."

Of course, they'd heard stories about why Trammell moved half a world away.

"We knew he'd been in some problem. We thought it was a bar room fight, and his father and brother told him that if it went to trial, he wouldn't get a fair trial if he stayed in Rector," Neary said. "So they gave him a wad of money and told him not to come back."

He listened. James Henry Trammell died in Australia at the age of 86 in 1966.

But it wasn't until Wright connected the dots, tracked Trammell to Australia and contacted his descendants, that everyone found out the real story.

"What happened in this building in 1909 changed the course of history for this family," Wright said.

"It's like one of those little twists of fate, him meeting my grandmother in this rural area of Australia, and producing this family of people who have this strong connection to Rector, Arkansas," Neary said.

It's not known exactly how Trammell made it from Arkansas to Australia.

Wright thinks that while Trammell was living in California, he may have learned about steamships going over to Australia and traveled by ship.

For Neary, he remembers fantastical stories that his grandfather would tell about crossing the Bering Strait while it was frozen over.

No matter how Trammell escaped, if he hadn't, a family living in Australia right now wouldn't be alive today.

Neary said visiting Arkansas is on his bucket list. Wright plans to write a book soon detailing Trammell's story. He already received a first place award from the Arkansas Press Association on his articles detailing the crime.

As for Gragg, Wright had difficulty finding any documents on him or any of his family. At one point, a family member did put up reward money for the arrest of his murderer, but after that, not much could be found.

Copyright 2016 KAIT. All rights reserved.

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Posted by Region 8 News on Friday, July 22, 2016

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