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Hope History – Doctor, Federal Agents Have Fatal Shootout on Elm Street

In 1944, in the upper floor of this Elm Street building, Dr. Walter Gladwin Allison was shot to death after pulling a gun on a pair of federal agents over illegal morphine prescriptions.

Anyone who’s been following the news probably knows that America has been in an opioid crisis for several years now. Back in the 1990s, pharmaceutical companies did their best to convince the general public that the opioids being prescribed (mostly Vicodin, OxyContin, and Percocet) were not dangerously addictive.

As such, pharmacists began prescribing them in greater numbers, and, by the turn of the millennium, the increase in opioids being prescribed had led to an epidemic of misuse by a large portion of the population. It got so bad that, by 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services declared that opioid use was a public health emergency.

In that funny way that history has of repeating itself, this is certainly not the first time that the country has wrestled with this particular crisis. Opium addiction has bedeviled the country almost since its founding.

Soldiers in the Revolutionary War were given opium for battlefield injuries. Benjamin Franklin, famed inventor and one of the founders of our country, had a documented addiction to opium later in life. Laudanum, a mixture of opium and alcohol, became a go-to prescription as the country flowed westward. Anyone who’s seen Tombstone may recall Wyatt Earp’s wife struggled with laudanum addiction.

During the American Civil War, opium and tinctures made from it were frequently given to wounded soldiers, which caused a rash of addictions both among soldiers who returned home relatively whole and those whose injuries caused them to need the constant embrace of the potent pain killer.

Women, it seems, were more prone to addiction than their male counterparts. With morphine becoming more commonly used after the Civil War, and the introduction of the hypodermic needle as part of the kit of just about every physician in the United States, women were prescribed morphine for menstrual cramps, morning sickness, and just about every other “women’s ailment” for which they sought relief.

According to the Smithsonian, by 1895, 1 in 200 people were addicted to opium in America, with the most common addict being upper-class or middle-class white women, making up about 60 percent of all the opium addicts across the country. This was considered the peak of the epidemic, as medical journals began to warn of the growing spread, and some doctors began to try to reverse the rampant overuse of opioids among their patients.

Even as medical practitioners tried to steer away from the use of morphine to combat pain in the early 1900s, many towns across the country began to see an uptick in the smoking of opium and the use of heroin among both the older addicts and those new to the drug scene. Heroin had been invented as a less addictive alternative to morphine, proving twice as effective at managing pain, but ultimately proving to be just as addictive.

As the addiction rate rose, the federal government stepped in to regulate the opium trade coming out of the Pacific. In 1909, prices of opiates in the country skyrocketed after Congress passed a bill banning the importation of smokeable opium from overseas. In 1914, the Harrison Narcotic Act would aid President Woodrow Wilson in cracking down on many doctors who were seen as prescribing opiates to keep patients addicted. Many cities opened clinics for those addicted to narcotics around 1919, but they were largely closed two years later by the Narcotics Division of the Treasury Department.

Hope, like many cities across the country, was not immune to these events. As late as 1944, at least two local doctors (W.G. Allison and R.E. Lewis) were prescribing morphine illegally to their patients, with another (James E. Cox) in nearby Rosston. Allison’s would prove to be the case that made headlines.

Walter Gladwin Allison’s early life was spent in Bee Branch, Arkansas, in Van Buren County. His parents, Dr. and Mrs. W.M. Allison, lived in Bee Branch for many years after Walter moved away. Born in 1869, four years after the Civil War, Walter came of age in an era that saw widespread use of morphine to treat the pain of those suffering battlefield injuries. His father, no doubt, saw it as the most effective way to alleviate the pain which afflicted his patients.

Pursuing a career in medicine himself, Walter would have been about 26 years old at the height of the 1895 opioid crisis. Though records of his life are scarce from that point on, such as whether he served in the first World War (unlikely, as he would have been almost 45 when it began in 1914), what is known is that he began a clinic in Hope sometime before 1944. The clinic was on Elm Street, less than a block from the railroad tracks, on the upper floor above where the antique store now resides. Later, his son-in-law and daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Max Cox, would run a pharmacy downstairs, in what later became the antique store.

In early May of 1944, Dr. Allison was arrested by Federal Agent William Schaffer of Little Rock, charged with violating narcotics laws by illegally prescribing morphine to his patients. A week later, Allison was arraigned by United States Commissioner Thelma Owens in Texarkana. He pled innocent to the charges, and was released on a $1,000 bond.

At around 10:30 a.m. the morning of May 25, 1944, Schaffer and Narcotic District Director Joseph Bell arrived at Dr. Allison’s office on Elm Street. They intended to question him about some prescriptions that they had seized. According to Bell’s account, Allison told the federal agents that he needed to open his safe to retrieve some records, claiming that it made him too nervous to open the safe with people watching.

The pair stepped through the door of Allison’s office as the doctor turned back from the safe, pistol in hand. “None of us will have to worry about this any longer,” Allison is reported to have said. Bell, noticing the gun, leapt forward and grappled with the now 75-year-old doctor. In the struggle, Allison pointed the gun at Bell’s chest and fired, ripping a hole through the sleeve of Bell’s coat.

While the pair struggled, Schaffer hit the doctor over the head with his gun, attempting to subdue him. Allison, undeterred from his course, shot Schaffer in the arm. In spite of the melee between Allison and Bell, Schaffer shot the doctor four times, killing him instantly and bringing an end to the altercation. “There was no other way of stopping him,” Bell later commented.

 While Dr. Allison’s case may be sensational in a small town like Hope, the new opioid crisis continues to shine a light on the legacy of addiction in the country. As recently as October of this year, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge announced an allocation of $216 million in settlement money paid by opioid manufacturers and distributers (namely Cardinal, McKesson, AmerisourceBergen, and Johnson & Johnson) that would go towards cities and counties effected by addiction in Arkansas.

If you or a loved one are suffering from opioid addiction, call the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357, or find treatment near you at FindTreatment.gov

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