A SOFT LIGHT graces the polished oak frame displaying the bright badges of the original 13 Arkansas Rangers. The badges hang in a corner of the Old State House Museum in Little Rock. Photos—mug shots, in police parlance—accompany each. Look at badge No. 9 and the deadpan mug next to it. That’s Ranger E.E. Frazier, mostly known as Bert. If his son, Elbert Frazier of Jonesboro, gets his wish, that badge will be joined by Bert Frazier’s No. 9 shoulder patch, plus journals, news clippings and other memorabilia of Bert Frazier’s career as a pioneering lawman.
This place is the right place. The Old State House Museum holds the historical artifacts of the Arkansas State Police. What’s necessary is for Elbert Frazier to make the right connection. He tried once and, he admits, failed. He has to try again, he says. “At some point, no one will take care of it,” Elbert, 71, says of the collection. “It has to be handed off. Things fade away as time goes by.”
Then he remembered what someone told him: Bert Frazier wasn’t afraid of the devil himself.
“I can see why,” Elbert says. “I can see why.”
SQUIRRELS SCAMPER outside Elbert’s window as he lays out on an old oak kitchen table the things his father saved, the clippings and journals and reports of crimes committed and solved from the 1930s through his retirement as chief of police in Jonesboro. Thumbing through the journals in his kitchen, Elbert recalls being surprised at the range of territory and the long hours the 13 original Rangers spent covering crimes.
“Hard to imagine the condition of roads in the 1930s and 1940s.”
In truth, it was mostly owing to booze and those roads that the Arkansas Rangers first got their start. As Michael Lindsey writes in The Big Hat Law, there were efforts all across the country to create state police forces, dating back to 1905 in Pennsylvania. In Southern states, where there was a preference for local control, those efforts faced obstacles.
Legislation to create a state police force in Arkansas failed several times until 1935, when Gov. J.M. Futrell found an opportunity. A move to repeal Prohibition in Arkansas was gaining ground in the General Assembly. Legalizing alcohol would provide a tax benefit to the state, but the judicial system couldn’t adequately enforce the new laws. Futrell’s solution was to create a state police force. Coupled with the rise in automobile usage and the corresponding growth in traffic deaths—45 in 1923; 347 in 1934—the need for a force had become compelling.
The governor promised to sign a bill legalizing alcohol sales if the Legislature would pass a bill to create the state police. If not, he would veto the alcohol bill. And so it was done: Act 120 of 1935 created the Arkansas State Police Commission and the Department of State Police. What kind of men would be Rangers? The commission sought men with previous police experience. Futrell had his own idea.
“They should be gentlemen,” he said, “incorruptible, highly intelligent.”
One of those gentlemen, incorruptible and highly intelligent, was Bert Frazier of Hardy in Sharp County, a former schoolteacher who at the time was working as an agent of the state revenue department.
Reading through the minutes of the commission taken on April 30, 1935, where Bert’s name first appears, one can get a glimpse of the era: The first two state police vehicles were 1935 V-8 Fords, bought from Shoemaker-Bush Co. of Little Rock for $579.63 each. On May 7, 1935, members of the commission discussed “the killing of the two outlaws Clarence and Freddie Busche, which occurred last evening, and the part played therein by Hansford E. Russell of Faulkner County. Superintendent Albright was directed to ask Russell if he’d be interested in applying for work on the Ranger force.”
On April 17, 1936, the commission decided that because the Ranger force was so small, it should limit itself on the highways to thorough investigation of all fatal traffic accidents and general patrol “in vicinity of unusually large gatherings.”
E.E. Frazier appears at least twice more in the minutes. In September 1939, Sgt. Frazier was put in charge of state police headquarters in Newport. He was promoted to lieutenant in July 1941.
“HE TOLD MANY stories,” Elbert says of his father. “I wish I’d recorded them.” Elbert does recall, at about 8 years old, going with his father to a bar on Front Street in Newport. Bert Frazier was a U.S. marshal at the time, out to make an arrest. The suspect was having a steak and beer and asked to finish. Bert Frazier agreed. When the suspect was done, he thanked the marshal, was handcuffed and taken to jail.
Absent recordings, Elbert has the collection and the memories. One of the artifacts is a copy of the January 1949 issue of Master Detective, a crime magazine whose stories include “2 Dead Girls in 2 Trunks” and “Riddle of the Slain Schoolteacher.” Another of the stories is “20 years—For a Crime He Didn’t Commit!” Frazier takes the magazine out of a manila envelope and lays it out on the kitchen table.
The case involved a 1939 burglary and robbery in Tuckerman. Sgt. Frazier, based in Newport, worked on the case with Jackson County Sheriff Edwin McCall. Mickey Songer of Walnut Ridge was arrested by McCall. Frazier doubted Songer’s guilt, based on plaster casts he’d taken of footprints at the scene. Songer’s feet were too small, Frazier argued. Nevertheless, Songer was tried, convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Frazier interviewed Songer before he was taken to the penitentiary. Songer begged for help; Frazier promised to keep working the case.
In February, a suspect was arrested in a robbery in Paragould. Frazier deduced this was the Tuckerman criminal and, according to Master Detective, went to the suspect’s home, trudging “through three miles of swamp to reach the desolate shack,” where he found shoes that matched the footprints. After a confession and a retrial of Mickey Songer, the prisoner was found innocent and released. For many years afterward, the grateful Songer sent Christmas regards to Bert Frazier, some of which are in the collection.
ELBERT FRAZIER HAD a less dramatic brush with the law—a speeding ticket—in 1965. He was making a burger run to the Totem Pole on Johnson Avenue. “I wrote a check, thinking my dad wouldn’t find out about my law infraction. He did. He gave me the look, told me never to do it again. To this day, I slow down for green lights. My dad had seen too many fatal accidents.” Bert Frazier would say about the highway from Newport to Tuckerman that he’d worked a fatal accident at each mile.
“I saw him as the perfect role model,” Elbert says. “As a law officer, he would not break the law. Don’t criticize people, he used to say, because you don’t know their circumstances.”
His father’s career in law enforcement was normal to him, Elbert says, and growing up, he was unaware of any resemblance to his father. But once, as an adult, he walked into a restaurant and was approached by a woman “who recognized my resemblance to him and asked me if my name was Frazier. I introduced myself, and she told me that she knew I had to be Bert Frazier’s son because I looked so much like him. Physically, we were both above average in height, and we also shared the same facial features.”
But while there’s a great deal that can be learned from the files, other details arise only in conversation. For example, despite the fact that Bert was blind in one eye—he’d gone hunting as a boy, and a thorny branch snapped back, hitting him in the eye—he was named Best Shot in a competition of the Arkansas Peace Officers Association four years in a row. He was so good, he could shoot his .22-caliber rifle and plug a coin tossed into the air.
“There was a guy in Swifton who had one of the coins with a hole in it, but he wouldn’t give it to me,” Elbert Frazier says.
Which eye was blind?
“I never knew,” Elbert says. “His eyes were the same.”
ABOUT TWO YEARS ago, ready to turn over the Frazier collection to someone else, Elbert Frazier went to Little Rock. He wound up at the Old State House Museum, where he told someone about the collection. “This guy pointed to the exhibit and showed no more interest. I didn’t push it. I’m too polite. It’s the school teacher in me.”
He was in the right place, anyway. Jo Ellen Maack, curator at the museum, says the state police were once interested in building a museum, but the idea fell through when the agency learned “the cost it takes to preserve artifacts and the day-to-day running of a museum.” So its collection went to the Old State House Museum, artifacts that include two cars, weapons, uniforms, radios, sirens, gas masks and a bomb suit from early days “that looks like something from a really bad 1960s sci-fi movie.” All of this is in storage in Little Rock, Maack said, and can be viewed online at the museum’s website.
Maack said she knows a little bit about Elbert Frazier and the collection. “Of course, we would love to have his artifacts. We know how to care for, catalog and put them on the web for anyone in the world to see.”
A new, expanded exhibit on the state police might be done in the next couple of years, Maack says. It’s possible something of the Bert Frazier collection would be displayed.
Displayed or not, the invitation is open, she says of the Frazier collection.
“It will be lovingly cared for.”
Frank Fellone is a mostly retired Arkansas newspaperman who still can’t resist the appeal of a good human-interest story. He tries to spend as much time as possible outdoors, but wishes his backyard were less populated with squirrels. His idea of a good time is taking a cane pole and night crawlers out to a pond at dusk when the bream come to the bank.