Monday, July 27, 2020

Johnny Horton 'Son' Busted

Don't Mess With Billie Jean
Written by Robert A. Waters

On that night in 1981, The Old Hangin’ Tree Tavern was packed like never before. Virginia Iler, owner of the joint, had placed ads on KZUN, the local country music station in Spokane, Washington, promoting the appearance of country-western singer Johnny Horton’s son. While the wavy-haired stranger sang with the stage band, Mrs. Johnny Horton sat in the back of the smoky bar. The singer, sometimes off-key, wailed out the “The Battle of New Orleans,” “Springtime in Alaska,” and an original song about his memories of the country music icon who’d died in a car crash twenty years earlier.

At 48, Billie Jean Horton was not there to revel in her son’s success. She had flown up from Louisiana to confront the imposter.

Still as beautiful as she was when she met her first husband, Hank Williams, she sobbed silently as the impersonator sang. Her bodyguard, Jim Howard, later told reporters that “you can imagine how Mrs. Horton felt. It’s like resurrecting the dead to sit there and have to listen to this composition he gave from the stage of his life as he remembered it with the late, great Johnny Horton.”  Particularly so since none of it was true.

To make the surreal episode even more unreal, the imposter stopped his songfest long enough to get married. He’d met a 29-year-old woman from Coer d’Alene, Idaho, and brought in a cake and a preacher to tie the knot. To the cheers of the crowd, he solemnly kissed his bride. After the ceremony was over, the groom continued his concert while the bride sat beaming.

It had all started two weeks earlier when a stranger called Iler and said his tour bus had broken down in Spokane and he wanted to arrange a booking at her tavern. Iler invited the man, who called himself Johnny Horton, Jr., to meet with her. He quickly convinced her of his identity and she hired him. But Iler and members of the band soon became suspicious.

When Billie Jean got a phone call from Mrs. Iler, the bar-owner explained the situation and asked if Johnny Horton, Jr. was her son. Billie Jean heatedly let Iler know she’d had no male offspring with the dead singer. Having successfully sued record companies for years to receive royalties from the estates of Hank Williams and Johnny Horton, Billie Jean was in no mood to let an interloper make money off her husband’s name. While she was younger, she’d known hard times, but now she was wealthy, and she decided to fly to Spokane to confront the fraudster.

As the final song mercifully faded into the suffocating smoke-filled darkness, a group of official-looking men, including the bodyguard and two Spokane County deputies, asked Horton to accompany them to a nearby office. Inside were icy-faced Billie Jean and Mrs. Iler.

Horton quickly confessed that he wasn’t Billie Jean’s son.

He had no identification, except a union card for a man with a different name. He had no tour bus, no home except for a one-night room at a cheap hotel. In fact, he was a drifter and grifter from Texas. He claimed his name was David Jonathan Horton, Jr., but even that was questionable. “I’ve been singing professionally for about nine years,” he said. “When times got bad, I drove heavy equipment.” At that, Billie Jean lit into the fraudulent wannabe singer with a volley of foul language, advising him that he may have a civil suit coming his way.

After the confrontation, investigators advised Billie Jean that no crime had been committed and the drifter was free to go.

On learning that the man she’d married was not the son of the famous singer, Horton’s bride stormed out of the tavern and disappeared, never to be seen again. The rueful groom, out of a gig and a night of wedding bliss, said, “I think she married me for the name rather than for myself.”

Billie Jean flew back to Shreveport, satisfied the imposter had been exposed. Mrs. Iler told patrons she’d learned a lesson about not taking people at face value. And Horton (or whoever he was) continued his misdeeds. “It turned out he had a prison record, and was on parole at the time,” Billie Jean told a reporter. The fraudulent singer later ended up serving time in a California prison for committing real crimes.

Click here for more about Johnny Horton.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

"This Gun Talks!"

Bizarre Case of the “Grandma Bandit”
Written by Robert A. Waters

The Wiltshire Boulevard branch of the California Bank in Los Angeles was crowded on that Friday morning in 1952. Behind the counter, Marguerite Evert politely greeted each customer. Next in line was a “little old lady” who wore a black jacket and green scarf. The woman quietly pulled a wrinkled-up brown paper sack from a shabby leather purse. Shoving it toward Evert, she said, “Be quiet and give me the money in the cash drawer.”

Evert was astounded. She hesitated, and the robber poked the barrel of a pistol through the bottom of the bag. “This gun talks,” she said, “and I know how to use it.” With that, she pushed a red envelope toward Evert. The teller took $1200 out of her drawer and handed it to the woman. Placing it in her envelope and putting the brown bag back in her purse, the robber casually walked away. No one noticed as she ambled to the door, strolled down the street and flagged down a cab.

Evert was so flustered it took her more than a minute to ring for the bank manager. Soon the place was swarming with cops, but they had missed their prey. The old woman was nowhere to be seen.

In the next few weeks, as she robbed bank after bank, California news hounds gave her an appropriate nickname: “The Grandma Bandit.”  Both local police and FBI agents joined the hunt, but it was a local bank manager who finally caught her.

It was nearing Christmas in the United States National Bank in Arcadia, fifteen miles east of Los Angeles, when a woman walked up to teller Lorene McGehee. “Give me all your money,” Grandma said. “I’m desperate.” McGehee, incredulous, turned to William H. Lloyd, her manager, and said, “This woman wants to rob me.”

Grandma didn’t hesitate. She turned and sprinted to the door. But Lloyd was quicker. He grabbed her and jerked the paper bag from her hands. A toy pistol fell to the floor. As Grandma begged Lloyd to let her go, bank employees triggered an alarm and soon the robber was in handcuffs. Checking her purse, cops found sixty-three cents.

Fifty-three-year-old Ethel Arata was no normal bank robber. She had once been an heiress, the daughter of Robert Catts, who lost 20 million dollars in the stock market crash of 1929. A syndicated news article written by Sam Cohen and Ruth Reynolds stated that “she once studied voice abroad and sang with the Duncan Sisters in their ‘Topsy and Eva’ company.”

Arata informed detectives that she was a Robin Hood robber, stealing from banks to give to the poor. She claimed to have given some of her proceeds from the robberies to a destitute couple who wanted to return home to Minnesota for Christmas.

Cops learned that Arata had been born to privilege in Philadelphia in 1900 and spent her childhood in private grooming schools. In 1903, Robert Catts divorced his wife and married an actress, Dorothy Tennant. In 1913, Oja McWhorter Catts, Ethel’s mother, overdosed on prescription drugs and died. In 1929, the stock market crash bankrupted her father. He died in 1942, leaving Ethel nothing.

Ethel had married four times. She’d had one child, a boy who died as an infant. In 1948, Ethel was committed to a mental institution for alcoholism. According to Cohen and Reynolds, after leaving the institution “she resumed her drinking, became hysterical and tried to kill herself by jumping from a fourth-story hotel window. Two weeks after this suicide attempt, she was found sprawled in a stupor amid a litter of wine bottles in a Hollywood rooming house. She spent five days in jail for disorderly conduct.”

When arrested for the bank robberies, Ethel was living in a dive hotel in Monrovia, California. Detectives learned that she had gambled her money away and not given it to poor people as she claimed.

A federal grand jury found her guilty of bank robbery and she was sentenced to ten years in Federal prison. Ethel Arata was paroled in 1957, two years after her conviction, and disappeared into the mists of history.

NOTE: Much of the information for this story was obtained from a news article written by Sam Cohen and Ruth Reynolds and published in several newspapers on April 10, 1955. The article was entitled: ‘Grandma’ Sentenced as Bank Robber.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Defending the Homeland

Storms of Battle
Written by Robert A. Waters

My great-great-grandfather fought as a soldier for two different countries. (Near the turn of the century, when he died, that was not unusual for old men in the South.) Here is his story.

Peter Boyer Perry was of French descent, but the family moved to England around 1066. In the early 1600s, Peter's ancestors settled in Virginia, later moving to South Carolina. At least two of his great-uncles fought with Frances Marion, the "Swamp Fox," during the Revolutionary War.

Peter was born in Lancaster County, South Carolina on April 11, 1823. In 1846, he enlisted in the U. S. Army and was sent to fight in the Mexican-American War. The injuries he received during this conflict would afflict him for the rest of his life.

Perry was assigned to Company I, Palmetto Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers Infantry. He initially served under the command of Colonel P. M. Butler, then later under General Winfield Scott. According to Perry's military records, during the Siege of Veracruz, he contracted chronic dysentery due to a bout with yellow fever.

After fighting in several battles, Perry fell grievously wounded at the storming of Chapultepec, a closely guarded city that sat on a 200-foot-high hill. General Scott had ordered his men to take this strong-post as a gateway to Mexico City, two miles away. In the book, A Pioneer and a Patriot, the author, D. Hackett, writes that Perry "was wounded by a spent grapeshot cannon shell. He was injured on his right side with five broken ribs, and a piece of steel was embedded in his right eye. Though he was left for dead, Peter survived. He was able to rejoin his unit that night and continued to fight as the Army made their (sic) way to Mexico City." (He refused to go to a field hospital because he'd observed that only one out of five injured soldiers came out alive.)

Early on the morning of September 14, 1847, American forces raised the U. S. flag over the Grand Plaza in Mexico City. According to family legend, Perry was the soldier who raised that flag.

Perry suffered from his war injuries for the rest of his life. "The injury to his right side," Hackett writes, "left him with painful pleural adhesion, and later, his right eye had to be removed."

He was honorably discharged in Mobile, Alabama, on June 25, 1848.

Peter and his new wife, Elizabeth Duke Perry, moved to Alachua County, Florida in 1853. The couple later moved again, this time to Marion County where he would reside the rest of his life. Peter farmed a 20-acre spread without ever owning a slave.

In a 1985 article in the Orlando Sentinel, the author wrote that "as peaceful as this small Marion County community is today, it's hard to imagine the original settlers barricading themselves into the schoolhouse to fend off attacks from Seminole Indians. But that's what they did and it is for one of those early defenders, Peter Boyer Perry, that the town is named. Perry, a South Carolina native who had served with the U. S. army in the Mexican War, picked up the name Pedro (Spanish for Peter) during his days fighting south of the border. Perry's role in helping settle and defend the community led to the town naming itself after him." 

On July 21, 1861, the long-simmering conflict now known as the Civil War broke out when the United States of America invaded the newly-formed Confederate States of America. The Union Navy quickly blockaded ports around Florida in an attempt to keep supplies from entering the state. For the next four years, the Federals tried to gain control of the interior of Florida, but had little success as most Floridians supported the Confederate cause. (At the end of the war, Tallahassee was the only Confederate state capitol not occupied by the Union army.) 

In July of 1863, at forty years of age, Perry walked 100 miles to enlist in the Confederate army. At Lake City, he joined the 9th Florida Infantry Division, Company F. 

Perry fought courageously during the Battle of Olustee (near Lake City). On February 20, 1864, the Union army, under the command of Brigadier General Truman Seymore, was once again attempting to gain control of inland Florida, particularly Tallahassee. The Confederates were commanded by Irish-born Brigadier General Joseph Finegan. The Rebels had located a narrow stretch of dry ground to defend. Behind them, impenetrable swamps and bays surrounded a lake called Ocean Pond, and on each side was a pine barren that offered little cover for the advancing attackers.

As the battle began, Finnegan lured the Union troops into that indefensible position. After several hours of bloody fighting, Seymore's army fled back to Jacksonville, their major stronghold in Florida. Out of slightly more than 5,000 men, the Union army suffered 1,861 casualties to Confederate losses of 946 men.

After the Battle of Olustee, Peter Boyer Perry was promoted to 1st Sergeant and, with General Finegan's Florida regiments, ordered north to join General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Finegan's troops landed in a hornet's nest, fighting almost continuously for the next year. Perry fought in the following battles: the Battle at Cold Harbor; the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road; the Battle of Ream's Railroad Station; the Battle of Globe Tavern; the Second Battle of Ream's Railroad Station; and the Battle of Hatcher's Run. (Many of the smaller battles were part of the fighting that took place during the Union's victorious siege of Petersburg.)

Finally, on April 9, 1865, Lee met with Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse to surrender. Peter Boyer Perry signed the surrender documents and oath of allegiance to the United States of America. Confederate Major General William Mahone spoke of the Florida brigade: "A mere handful remains of the little band, they have been wasted by the storms of battle and by disease..."

Perry was given a written parole document. He walked 700 miles from Virginia back to his Florida home. In Marion County pioneer documents, he is listed as a farmer, minister of the gospel, school teacher and postmaster of the town of Pedro. He and Elizabeth had 13 children.

That a man could withstand years of war and severe injuries, including blindness in one eye, as well as chronic dysentery and pleurisy, and still prosper in life showed the mark of high character. All of his children and grandchildren led successful lives, including my grandmother, Henrietta Fidelia Perry Crumpton. She took in strays and always had food for the "hoboes" who wandered by her farmhouse. She was sympathetic to the down-and-out and took care of my grandfather (who was also blind in one eye from a World War I injury) and many elderly relatives. She and my grandfather, as well as my parents, taught me that God and family are the most important things in life.  

In 1875, "Peter applied for 'A Declaration of Pension for an Invalid' for his military service in the Mexican-American War. It took seven years and a Special Act of the 47th Congress for Peter to be approved..." His pension of $4.00 was later increased to $8.00. In 1895, his pension was raised to $12.00. By this time he'd had to sell his 20 acres of land when, due to old age and his lingering injuries, he became unable to work.

Peter Boyer Perry died on January 7, 1899, aged 75. He is buried at the Pine Level Cemetery in Sumter County.


A Pioneer and A Patriot by D. Hackett. Many military documents concerning Peter Boyer Perry are photocopied and published in this book. 

A Small but Spartan Band by Zack C. Waters. This award-winning book details the history of the Florida Brigade in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

A Wilderness of Destruction by Zack C. Waters. Unpublished book.