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History

December 21, 2013

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Race driver Frank P. Fox helps clean up Hot Spring

TERRE HAUTE — Automobile dealer, race car owner and driver, real estate developer and horse breeder, Frank P. Fox carved a significant niche in area history.

He also made an impact on Hot Springs, Ark., a spa town with a history of gambling and other illegal activity dating from the 1870s to March 16, 1899 — the day of the fabled “Hot Springs Gunfights” — and beyond.

The legendary gunfights resulted in five deaths and the arrest of Garland County Sheriff Bob Williams and deputies Ed Spear, Will Watt and Coffee Williams for murder. Spear and Coffee Williams were found acting in self defense and not guilty. The trial of Watt and Bob Williams ended in a hung jury. Gambling in Hot Springs soon resumed.

Born in Monroeville, Pa., in 1878, Fox worked in Pennsylvania oil fields as a youth. Later, he tested his luck in Kansas City, Mo., and Kiefer, Okla., before locating in Bridgeport, Ill., to manage an oil company.

Though successful in the oil business, automobiles became Fox’s first passion. In 1908, when he had the opportunity to acquire the Pope-Hartford automobile franchise in Terre Haute, he seized it. He located the business in a garage at 811-815 Ohio St.

When Fox relocated to Terre Haute, the heyday of its famous Four-Cornered track was over and the facility was used for auto racing. The fairgrounds where the track was located extended from Brown to Fruitridge. Land east of North 34th St. and south of Locust was leased to the agricultural society by William Riley McKeen. Fox bought that land from McKeen for $1,000 an acre and platted Edgewood Place subdivision in 1921.

Fox’s love for autos nearly got him in trouble. When private detective William J. Burns — later the first director of the U.S. Justice Department’s “Bureau of Investigation” – suspected that John and James McNamara of Indianapolis were responsible for dynamiting the Los Angeles Times building on Oct. 1, 1910, he asked Fox to help transport the brothers and associate Ortie McManigal to the west coast.

The request, made in April 1911, sounded innocent enough but it required Fox to become an unwitting accomplice to a crime.

James McNamara was secretary-treasurer of the International Association of Bridge & Structural Iron Workers. Certain that no Indiana judge would grant extradition of an important union leader based upon the mere discovery of dynamite on their Indiana farm, Burns kidnaped the three suspects and Fox drove them to Chicago.

Fox was interrogated but never seemed in danger of being charged with a crime. And, on Memorial Day 1911, he finished 22nd in the first Indianapolis 500.

Represented by attorney Clarence Darrow, the McNamaras subsequently pled guilty to bombing the newspaper building, which killed 21 and maimed 17 others. Their pleas were extracted after a dictograph invented by Terre Haute scientist K. Monroe Turner was placed in the defendants’ cells, allowing police to overhear incriminating conversations with visitors. Detective Burns became a national hero.

Fox did not qualify for the 1912 Indianapolis 500 and spent most of the ensuing year building a new race car. Appropriately named “The Gray Fox,” it finished sixth in the 1913 Indy race. Howdy Wilcox was the principal driver but Fox turned a few relief laps.

In late December 1912, while conversing with several acquaintances in a Terre Haute hotel lobby, a man known to him as “John Ward” called Fox aside and told him that the two of them could make “big money” playing roulette on a fixed wheel at the Indiana Club in Hot Springs – where his brother-in-law Joe Denton was assistant manager.

Fox agreed to participate in a scheme to split his winning with four others and, on Jan. 3, 1913, traveled by rail with Ward to Hot Springs. En route, a diamond valued at $1,200 disappeared from Fox’s shirt but the incident did not incite suspicion.

Before the gambling began, Fox was asked to deposit $20,000 with the croupier to cover the anticipated cost of chips. Believing it to be a “house rule,” he gave the dealer a check. Within 15 minutes, he won $26,700. When he asked for payment his check was questioned and he was asked to show currency equating the value of the check.

“If you give me a marker for what I’ve won,” Fox said, “I’ll hustle back to Terre Haute and get you cash.”

Fox was gone for less than 24 hours, returning with $20,000 to give to the croupier in exchange for his check and a due bill for $46,700. After a few hours, he asked for payment and “a man was sent to the bank to get cash.” While he was gone, Ward went to the roulette wheel with the due bill, played once and told Fox he had lost the $46,700.

Finally realizing he had been swindled, Fox vowed “to stay in Hot Springs” until every conspirator to the scheme was behind bars. “Ward” later was identified as Walter Worth, owner of a Linton liquor store.

The Fox case made the front page of major newspapers throughout the U.S. during 1913, a century ago. The victim was referred to as “an Indiana hotel millionaire.” Hot Springs businessmen decided the support of illegal activity to attract tourists was not such a good idea.

Largely due to his gambling losses, Fox sold his dealership and interest in the Ohio St. garage to Henry Schultz, Ralph Peterson and Frank Hinshaw on March 1, 1913.

It took Fox five trials and more than four years to secure justice in Hot Springs. The mastermind behind the roulette conspiracy turned out to be Ed Spears, the deputy sheriff whose throat was severely cut during the Gunfights of 1899.

On Oct. 30, 1917, Fox and Terre Haute attorney John Hickey were notified that the Court of Appeals had affirmed the verdict against Spear, who operated a cigar store and pool room, in the U.S. District Court.

Crippled by an auto accident, Fox invested in Hereford cattle and standardbred horses and acquired a 640-acre farm near Oaklandon on the outskirts of Indianapolis. Perhaps his most famous harness horse was the pacer LaPaloma. Clair Wolverton was Fox’s trainer. Though Fox continued to own race cars, horse racing became a new passion.

Angered that there were few chances for juvenile pacers to win money, he established the “Fox Stake for Two-Year-Old Pacers” in 1927.

After sustaining injuries in another accident, Fox sold The Fox Stake, now the oldest, most prestigious harness race of its kind in the U.S. He failed to recover from injuries incurred in the second accident and died, at age 53, on April 19, 1931.

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