Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Murder and Mayhem: When In-Laws are Out-Laws


Jube Lee Whitson (left) and unknown person,
location unknown, before 1935. (Courtesy of Ed Mason).
From a young age, my great-aunt's brother-in-law was a criminal. In time, Jube Whitson would be convicted of murder and sent to prison, then eight years later escape from prison, and two years later, be killed rather than be taken prisoner again.

Early life

Jube Lee Whitson was born July 20, 1888. At age 16 he was working at the Harley Pottery in Nashville, Tennessee, where my great-grandfather, William Woolsey Lacy, also worked. Jube was only 17 when he married Sallie Rawley in Jackson County, Tennessee. Justice of the Peace John P. Mayberry, a neighbor and Confederate veteran, officiated. And by age 19, Jube was a young father on the run from the law. My great-grandmother (Martha Jane Lacy) wrote in a letter to her son, Edward Jackson Lacy, in January 1908:

"Jube Clinton Jim Flat is [illegible]. Well tha say the government has ofered hundred dolars reward for Jube. But I tell Alvin [Lacy] the sed about Jube is the best for he is mean. He come over here to see if he cood get Alvin to take him to the [Cookeville] depo. He sad he had him to the place where you are. He sed you coud go thare on the train to where you are [Eureka, California]. If Jube ever comes out thare dont hav now use for him. Tha say that have teliphone to ever station so he cant pass but he may slip thru."

A week or two later, Thomas H. Byers, a cousin to Jackson Lacy who lived in San Francisco, wrote Jackson, saying:

"I got a letter from F. D. Byers the other day. He was teling me all a bout Jube Whitson. It would be a good thing if tha could cetch him and stop his way of geting a long in this world."

In June 1908, Tom Byers' brother, W. A. Byers in San Francisco wrote Jackson Lacy, saying

"Jub Whitson cut a gut [expression derived from when a hunter or farmer does a poor job of dressing an animal] dident he? I told Anderson Byers when he was here that Jub was dangeres and I was a fraid of him."

Little is known about Jube's service in the "Great War" (World War I). He registered for the draft on June 5, 1917, while he was in Denver, Colorado. A year later he shipped out as a private in the 46th Engineers, Co. C, leaving from Hoboken, New Jersey aboard the Sierra. Four months later, the war ended. Whatever self-discipline Jube might have picked up in the military was not enough to keep him out of future trouble.

Earning a reputation for ruthlessness

Even when Jube was in the neighborhood, people were reluctant to turn him in. They were probably afraid of what he'd do to them once he got out of jail. One time Jim (James Isaac) Flatt was taking a wagonload of railroad crossties to Cookeville when Jube stopped him to catch a ride. Jim began to tease Jube, saying he could turn him in and collect the reward. In response, Jube cut Jim's throat and threw him off in a ditch, leaving him for dead. Jim's brothers got their guns and went after Jube but failed to find him.

Jim Flatt recovered, but from that day on, folks called him "Cutthroat Jim."

Convicted and sent to prison

By the early 1920s, Jube Whitson had divorced his first wife Sallie and moved to Oklahoma. Whitson's crimes have never been completely chronicled, but the one that sent him to prison was the murder of his second wife, Ada. (Adah Larkins Whitson.)

Jube and Ada had moved to Muskogee in the summer of 1925. Pauline Binkley, age 28, had worked as a housekeeper for the Whitsons while they lived in Tennessee, and she accompanied them when they moved.

The killing of Ada Whitson took place on September 20, 1925, a few miles east of Muskogee. Jube and Ada were sharing a picnic and hunting in Cherokee County, Oklahoma, when, as Jube claimed, he tripped and fell and his gun went off, killing his wife. Investigations began immediately. On the evening of September 30, Pauline Binkley confessed to officers at Tahlequah, the county seat for Cherokee County, that she knew Jube wanted to rid himself of his wife. Pauline said she helped Jube obtain the gun he used to kill his wife, knowing what Jube planned. Jube denied this, of course.

But Ada's family was not buying that explanation. They pressed the law for justice.

While Jube Whitson remained in the Cherokee County Jail, officials grew nervous. The jail was not considered a particularly secure one, and they feared Whitson would try to escape.

The Cherokee County court worked feverishly to clear its docket before the Christmas holidays, holding nightly sessions to make that happen. Jube's murder trial only took a few days. The prosecution claimed that Jube was accused of slaying his wife Ada to marry Pauline, and to collect the life insurance on Ada. Counsel for both sides in the case finished their closing arguments at 3 AM on a Tuesday morning. Jube was convicted of first degree murder, and Pauline was convicted of being an accessory to the crime. Each of them were given life sentences and sent to the maximum-security state prison in McAlester, Oklahoma. New Year's Day, 1926, would be Jube Whitson's first full day in prison.

Escape!

For some reason, after the lovers had served several years of their sentences, someone pressed for more details on the murder. Pauline Binkley was brought before the Pardon and Parole Board at the state prison. She was told the Board was inclined to consider clemency for her if she cooperated in providing details about the murder. But all Pauline could say was, "I don't know anything about the shooting of Mrs. Whitson except the things I was told." Parole was denied.

Parole was highly unlikely to be a part of Jube Whitson's future. The only way he would see the outside of a prison would be by escaping. It took some time for Jube to find a way to break out of prison. With the help of his son, Fred, Jube planned his escape. 

Jube's escape took place on September 11, 1933. According to Ray Flatt, after serving eight years of his life sentence, Jube was outside the prison on a work detail one day when he got down on his knees, pretending to look at something. When the guard knelt to see what Jube was looking at, Jube hit him over the head and ran. Fred was waiting, and when he got the signal from his father, he drove by and picked him up. The two returned to Middle Tennessee.

In 1932 and 1933, the U.S. Bureau of Investigation began publishing personal details to help in finding and identifying fugitives. Jube Whitson was described as being about 5'10" in height, 151 1/2 pounds, medium build, gray-black hair, green eyes, and a medium complexion. He had three vaccination scars on his upper left arm, while on his right arm he sported tattoos of a nude woman, a sailor, an American eagle, a flag, and a wreath. His residence was listed as Muskogee, Oklahoma; his occupation, florist; and nationality, American.

Jube spent the next two years in hiding, but people would still see him in public. One person who saw him was my uncle, Wesley Flatt, a great-nephew to Cutthroat Jim. Wesley was only a young boy when he and his father, Ermon Flatt, were walking in the woods one day after Jube's return. As they came around the curve of an old wagon road, they met Jube walking the other way. As Jube approached them, he brought his shotgun down from his shoulder, perhaps as a precaution, but perhaps to intimidate whomever he encountered. But when he saw it was Ermon Flatt and his boy, he said, "Good morning, gentlemen," and put his gun up again. Some folks believed Jube might have been hiding out in one of the big caves nearby.

Jube Whitson is killed

In June 1935, Jube met his end. Acting on a tip from someone living in the countryside of Putnam County, Tennessee, the law caught up to Jube.

Early on a Friday morning, the transfer agent for the Oklahoma prison and two deputy sheriffs from Putnam County waited beside a corn field seven miles northwest of Cookeville. Jube had been living with Ras and Hazel Rippetoe. Hazel was a cousin to Jube. Jube always carried a semi-automatic pistol, for, as he had told relatives on more than occasion, he would never be taken back to Oklahoma alive and any officer attempting to arrest him would have to beat him to the draw. 

The lawmen had left Cookeville at 1:15 AM and silently made their way to the Rippetoe farm, where they concealed themselves in the tall grass. They were prepared to wait all day, if necessary, for their chance to apprehend Whitson. But the day had just begun when they were presented with an opportunity.

At 6 AM, Jube and three of the Rippetoe children--Doyle (age 16), Audrey (age 14), and Willard (age 11)--were chopping out corn. Working this early in the morning was easier than working in the heat of a summer day. When Jube came near enough, the officers leapt up, demanded his surrender, and told him to raise his hands. Jube wasn't about to be captured, though. He tried to draw his gun, a German Luger. The transfer agent fired two blasts from his shotgun. One of the deputies fired his shotgun into the air over Whitson's head, and took another shot at Whitson's hand, hoping that would prevent Whitson from drawing his pistol.

Whitson fell, mortally wounded in his left breast. The officers sent the Rippetoe children to tell their parents what had happened. The children also watched over Whitson's body until an ambulance from Cookeville could arrive to recover the body. Whitson was buried in the Morgan Pippin Cemetery on the Gainesboro Road in Putnam County.

Ironically, Jube's death certificate showed him as "widowed." (True, but he was responsible for becoming widowed.)

Some different details of a desperado's demise

As with many examples of oral history (and even with "eye" witnesses) details will differ. In 2001, Dennis Rippetoe's father, Willard (Bill) Rippetoe, said his father was an eye-witness when Jube Whitson was killed. Bill told Dennis that while Jube was in prison he became a "trustee" and was allowed to go to town for supplies. It was on one of these trips to town that Fred came along and helped him escape. (To me, the idea that a convicted murderer serving a life sentence would be allowed to go to town for supplies doesn't sound very plausible.)

According to Bill Rippetoe, Jube had raised his hands when the lawmen opened fire. (Perhaps Jube raised his hands, then went for his gun.) Eneloit Smith (great-niece of Cutthroat Jim Flatt, and niece of Bert Flatt and Earlene Lacy Flatt) had heard that Jube was shot in the back. Perhaps he had started to run. As an escaped murderer, Jube Whitson may very well have been wanted dead or alive.

A final word

As I grew up, I often heard my mother quote from the Numbers 32:23 from the Bible, "Be sure your sins will find you out." Jube Whitson's sins finally caught up to him, but he had left behind him a trail of malice and tragedy.

A special thank-you to Ed Mason for research materials.

More details surrounding Jube's murder of his wife can be found in Fireworks: The Lost Writings of Jim Thompson (see books.google.com search results here).


Sources

  1. Lacy family letters, 14 Feb 1905, 18 Jan 1908, 20 June 1908.
  2. State of Tennessee, Jackson County, Marriage License for Jube Whitson and Sallie Rawley, 23 Feb 1906.
  3. WWI Draft Registration Cards, Fold3.com.
  4. U.S. Army WWI Transport Service, Passenger Lists, Fold3.com.
  5. Records for Adah Larkin Whitson, Findagrave.com.
  6. St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri), 1 Oct 1925, page 11.
  7. Times-Democrat newspaper, 4 Nov 1925.
  8. The Democrat-American (Sallisaw, Oklahoma), 25 Jun 1926, page 12.
  9. Fugitives: Wanted by Police. Vol. 1 and 2. Washington, DC: United States Bureau of Investigation, 1932-1933. Vol. 2, No. 11, pp. 19-20, 1 Nov 1933.
  10. Miami Daily News-Record (Miami, Oklahoma), 4 Apr 1935, page 3.
  11. State of Tennessee Certificate of Death #13703, Jube Lee Whitson, 14 Jun 1935.
  12. Cemetery marker, Jube Lee Whitson, Findagrave.com.
  13. The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee), 15 Jun 1935, page 2.
  14. Putnam County (Tenn.) Herald, June 1935.
  15. Email from Eneloit Smith (Doyle Eneloit Williams Smith), February 2001.
  16. Conversation with Wesley Flatt, October 2001.
  17. Email from Dennis Rippetoe, November 2001.
  18. Email from Bettie Sue Goolsby, June 2003.
  19. FamilySearch information for Hazel Whitson Rippetoe, retrieved July 18, 2021.

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