Interviews and video: Oklahoma History Center tells true-crime stories with 'Wanted: Dead or Alive' photo exhibit
An abbreviated version of this story appears in the Sunday Life section of The Oklahoman.
Oklahoma History Center exhibit 'Wanted: Dead or Alive' showcases true-crime stories and photos
In 1955, former sex worker June Wanda Bartram took her crush on Assistant Country Prosecutor Carroll Freeman to the next level, enlisting her maid and two men to kidnap the attorney, who managed to talk his way out of the abduction.
The same year Bartram was arrested and charged with plotting a kidnapping, Oklahoman Forrest Roy Colson donned an elaborate "Man from Mars" costume to rob a series of supermarkets in California's San Gabriel Valley.
"He came up with this whole outfit ... and he had a shotgun and two six-shooters and the whole mask and the Highway Patrol kind of bloomer pants and the high boots. He was covered from head to toe - gloves and everything - and he would hold up a grocery store, come back home and kind of chill out here in town since his family was from here, and then he'd go back. The $55,000 that he stole would be about $500,000 right now, so that was some pretty serious money," said Jim Meeks, curator of exhibits at the Oklahoma History Center. "But then he got shot and died."
The Oklahoma Historical Society's mission is to preserve and share the history of Oklahoma and its people - and in the case of the photography exhibit "Wanted: Dead or Alive," that mandate even goes for the Sooner State's more nefarious denizens.
On view at the Oklahoma History Center through Feb. 29, the exhibit includes 38 black-and-white images, including mugshots, crime scene locations and newspaper action photos dating from before statehood in 1907 through the mid-1950s.
"It's not sugar-coated history. It's the dark belly that actually happened around here," said Rachel Mosman, photo and digital assets manager for the Oklahoma Historical Society.
The images in "Wanted" come from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the University of Oklahoma Western History Collections and the National Archive. But most of them are from the Oklahoma Historical Society's vast photographic archives, which number about 12.2 million images - from an 1843 daguerreotype to early 21st-century digital images - that capture all aspects of life in Oklahoma across the decades.
She said the historical society accepts donated photos from people, communities and companies, especially when the images have captions or identifying information. Many of the photos in "Wanted: Dead or Alive" are taken from the Oklahoma Publishing Company Photography Collection, about 1.5 million images dating primarily from 1928 to 1998 that the newspaper donated to the historical society in 2012.
The exhibit taps into the popularity of true-crime podcasts, docuseries and movies like "The Irishman," "Cold Case Hammarskjöld" and the upcoming "Killers of the Flower Moon," Oscar winner Martin Scorsese's adaptation of David Grann's best-selling book that is supposed to start filming in Oklahoma later this year.
"This is history and it's true crime," Mosman said. "We also helped David Grann tell his story. ... With Martin Scorsese, I just worked with his assistant ... and she actually came here and worked in the archives, sat here in a desk in my office and worked on it. It was so rad."
For Meeks, the photo collection offers nearly endless opportunities for presenting history in a way that will make it interesting even to people who think they aren't interested.
"It wasn't exactly my favorite subject in high school, but now that I work here, I'm trying to make it fun and interesting," Meeks said. "We have a lot of events here that go on during the day, we rent out various spaces. On numerous occasions, I've seen people emptying out on a break and instead of maybe running off to the bathroom or someplace to get a snack, they actually come over and start looking at this exhibit and reading the labels and learning about our history."
After it closes at the Oklahoma History Center, "Wanted: Dead or Alive" is scheduled to travel to the Museum of the Western Prairie in Altus, the Chisholm Trail Museum in Kingfisher and the Dobson Museum in Miami.
Although it references well-known criminals like Belle Starr, the Doolin-Dalton Gang, Bonnie and Clyde and Pretty Boy Floyd and their Oklahoma activities, Meeks said he took aim at some of the less famous gangsters, robbers and ne'er do wells with the exhibit.
"I wanted to avoid the big names because we've already talked about them. ... So, I wanted to find some lesser-known people, some that had interesting stories or quirky one. There's quite a few quirky ones," he said.
"One of the stories that initially roped me in was there was this story about a (1914) prison break from McAlester. It was so convoluted as to how it got around to this. There were seven people killed, and one of the guys was the prison photographer, the Bertillon officer. They're the guys that do the mugshots and they look at your scars and tattoos and they measure your cranium and how tall you are and all those things. ... Then, other weird little things started kind of branching out from there."
Prior to statehood, Indian and Oklahoma territories became havens for outlaws and criminals because of the flexible borders, in-flux populations, looser laws and lack of enforcement. Prohibition, the Great Depression and oil booms and busts all created a fertile environment for criminal behavior. For instance, Meeks said that Oklahoma experienced an epidemic of bank robberies in the 1930s.
"I'm sure there was a lack of opportunity, except for 'we know where they keep the money.' ... There are interesting stories about people but there's also places. I found three instances where the Spencer State Bank was robbed just in the early '30s," he said. "There was a story in Tulsa that a lot of people were moving there in the early days for the oilfields, and they were coming from all over the place, some from other parts of the U.S. and even abroad. Some of the Barkers, I think, came from Missouri originally, and they moved down to Tulsa for the jobs in the oilfield that didn't really materialize for them."
The exhibit includes photos and stories of Arizona "Ma" Barker, whose sons led the Barker-Karpis Gang and became some of the first criminals to be named "public enemies"; of Al Jennings, a train robber who later became a silent film actor, while one of his prison buddies became the well-known author O. Henry; and of Ralph Roe and Theodore "Ted" Cole, Oklahoma bank robbers who eventually were sent to California's famed Alcatraz prison, where they escaped and were never seen again.
"Apparently, for years after people would commit robberies and say, 'Oh, yeah, we're Roe and Cole,'" Meeks said. "But they were most likely drown and they never found the bodies."
Such is the life - and death - of crime.
"Wanted: Dead or Alive"
When: Through Feb. 29.
Where: Oklahoma History Center, 800 Nazih Zuhdi Drive.
Information: 521-2491 or www.okhistory.org.