A sign out front reads “Miss. Laura’s Social Club,” and we learn that this ostentatious Victorian was once a house of ill repute. It is the only bordello on the National Registry of Historic places. Inside, crimson and velvet adorn the walls. A bearded man becomes our guide and introduces us to this “Gateway to the West” by describing a colorful past of crime and violence.
We receive an email from a reporter in Fort Smith, Arkansas. She is doing an article on The Nomadic Project, and asks to meet us in town. Since we know so little about the area, we decide to go first to the town’s visitor center. We meet the Times Record reporter at a place called “Hell On The Border.” As it turns out, this was once the town’s most popular meeting spot…the jailhouse.
We learn that warring tribes, disoriented settlers, and fleeing outlaws, flocked to the area, making Fort Smith a breeding ground for crime. We browse exhibits and watch a film on a notorious man called “Hanging Judge Parker.” In the midst of all this violence, Judge Parker sentenced more people to death than any other judge in U.S. history. With a judge’s heavy hand, the town built a twelve man gallows. Despite the large town gatherings created by the gallows, I am most interested to learn that the judge himself never attended a single execution.
After being escorted to the gallows on a private tour by a park ranger, we enter a poorly lit room that was originally built as a basement for military barracks. It was here that bodies were packed tightly. They used straw on the floor to absorb the horrid stench. This is the original jail room, which remains just as it did in 1872. Although these two small areas were packed to the brim with prisoners, they only received half a bucket of water for washing and one chamber pot per room. Within these whitewashed walls, memories echo from a past that should not be forgotten. A past that gave this town the title “Hell on the Border.”
With a Fort Smith history lesson under our belt, we take a tour through what is left of Hot Springs’ beautiful bathhouses and I set up my easel near the apex of this famous spout. I finish my painting of Missouri and we meet up with owners of the Cantrell Gallery in Little Rock. They take us to dinner at a four star restaurant called Gypsy’s, where we enjoy a night of great food and stimulating conversation.
Rolling out our bed-mats in the Element, I stop to think back to the “Roman rule” and mass murder that took place in Western Arkansas. With a judge, who was so quick to pass judgment, how many were rashly and unjustly executed?