Heroes & Scoundrels


Charles Stewart Parker: Community Leader, War Hero, and Accomplished Botanist

Charles Stewart Parker was born in 1879 in Corinne, Utah Territory, a non-Mormon transportation hub in the northern part of the state near present-day Logan, Utah. He was born to John Byron Parker (a previous Nostalgia Hero) and his wife Odella Parker nee De Reyno. John Byron worked in Corinne as a barber where he cut hair for travellers who stopped over in the town. 

Railroad companies skipped over Corinne when they rerouted which quickly turned it from a boom town into a ghost town, as was common in the American West. The Parker family picked up and moved to another boom town, Eureka, Nevada, in search of new clientele for John Byron’s barber business. According to the census, Charles gained two siblings while living in Nevada, one in 1881, and another in 1883. The family had both Black and white ancestry and they were often characterized by census takers as “Mulatto.” 

In 1883, when Charles was six years old, the family of five moved to Spokane, Washington. He attended public schools where he was a standout athlete in track and football. He graduated from Spokane High School as part of the class of 1898. After graduation, Charles headed to Washington D.C. where he attended classes at King Hall seminary, a theological training school associated with Howard University. He fell in love with Annice Marguerite Lewis and they married in D.C. The newlyweds returned to Spokane in 1901 before Charles could finish school due to health issues. 

Once back in Spokane, the couple moved into the family home at 2826 West Dean Avenue and Charles found work as a shipping clerk at the Crane Shoe Company. Beyond work, he became an active member of Spokane’s Black community. He was a leader of a congregation, the St. Thomas Episcopal Mission, where he would often read sermons and participate in ceremonies. In 1908, Charles and fellow Black leaders began planning for the centennial celebration of President Abraham Lincoln’s 100th Birthday and he was appointed secretary of the Lincoln Centennial Association. In 1909 Charles co-founded the Nonpartisan Colored Improvement Club, which is likely the first non-religious and non-partisan organization in Spokane dedicated to advocating for the rights of Black Spokanites. 

In 1908 Charles partnered with another Charles, Charles Barrow, the son of Spokane pioneer and former slave Peter B. Barrow Sr., to found Spokane’s first Black-owned newspaper, The Citizen. Charles Parker served as the paper’s editor from 1908 to 1913 when the paper ceased printing. After the newspaper stopped printing, Charles continued to work at X-Ray printing, a black-owned print shop, while also pursuing agricultural education at Washington State College in Pullman, WA. Parker’s interest in agriculture and botany was spurred by his involvement with the Deer Lake Irrigated Orchard Company, a Black owned fruit orchard located north of Spokane. Parker was a co-owner and treasurer of the company. 

In June of 1917, just two months after the United States entered World War I and one month before Spokane conducted its first draft lottery, Charles enrolled in the United States Army (joining his brother who had served in the United States Navy for over a decade). Charles was sent to Fort Des Moines in Iowa to attend officer training specifically for Black candidates. In October of 1917 he received an officer’s commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 366th Infantry Regiment and was quickly promoted to 1st Lieutenant. In June of 1918, the 366th departed for France where they were active in combat at Alsace and at Meuse-Argonne, the principal offensive for U.S. forces in France. Charles led his platoon to the frontlines under heavy fire and through thick fog of noxious gasses. In a letter from the front to a friend back in Spokane, 1Lt Parker remarked that “the question as to whether the American negro will stand the pressure of trench warfare is no longer a problem. He has been called to the bat and hit a home run the first inning.” Parker and his troops advanced into Germany where they remained until the Armistice was signed. 

1Lt Parker returned to Spokane in May of 1919 where he was met with a celebration from his friends, family, and the local NAACP chapter. Soon after he returned, the Department of War awarded him with the rank of Captain for his heroic leadership on the Western Front. 

In 1919, Charles was awarded a professor position at the Tuskegee Institute, a university for Black Americans in Alabama founded by Booker T. Washington. While teaching, he continued to pursue his own education culminating in a doctorate degree in plant pathology from Penn State University in 1932. After graduation, he was hired as a professor at Howard University where he was Chair of the Department of Botany for sixteen years. The Charles S. Parker Herbarium on Howard’s campus is named in his recognition. 

During his academic career, Charles returned home to the Pacific Northwest in search of distinct flora native to the region. He collected thousands of specimens which he documented in two journal publications. Some of the specimens he collected are still held at Washington State University’s Marion Ownbey Herbarium. Charles’ contributions to the field of botany were recognized by renowned botanist Harold St. John when he named a species of pea plant after him (Lathyrus parkeri St.John). 

Charles Parker was a product of Spokane’s public schools. He was an influential community leader and he served his country selflessly in World War I. He became an accomplished botanist and left a lasting legacy at Howard University. In 1950, at 71 years old, Charles passed away in Seattle, Washington.  


Jimmy Arnston: Bad Boy Bandit

On a cold morning in December 1931 a train sped across central Washington carrying passengers from Portland to Spokane. Sheriff George G. Miles of Spokane County was on the train escorting a wanted convict back to Spokane to stand trial. The monotony of the central Washington landscape may have lulled the Sheriff into inattention. The convict, Jimmy Arnston, quickly picked the lock on his handcuffs and dove through a window of the moving train. The conductor abruptly stopped the train. Sheriff Miles and a bounty hunter jumped from the train car and gave pursuit. Firing shots as they ran, they chased the convict over snowy hills. He was apprehended and the journey to Spokane continued. Arnston later recalled that “it didn’t take any nerve to jump off.”

Arnston was a hardened young man. He was only twenty-six years old and he had already spent nearly one quarter of his life incarcerated. Born in Seattle in 1905 as Clarence Eugene Miles, he had a challenging childhood. At just thirteen years old he was sentenced to five months at the Seattle Parental School, a sort of juvenile hall and boarding school combination. A second sentence to the parental school, this time six months, followed shortly after. In July of 1923, Arnston turned eighteen years old. Four months later, the 5’3” 105 pound convict arrived at the Washington State Penitentiary for his first of many visits to the institution. His sentence was set for five years for a robbery committed in King County. He was transferred to the Washington State Reformatory in 1924 and ultimately released on parole in 1928. 

After his release from prison, Arnston returned to his criminal activities with renewed vigor. He organized a gang of criminals that police described as the most skilled gang of “safe cracksmen’’ in the Northwest. He also developed a reputation as a smooth operator, described by newspapers as “swanky and dapper in the underworld.” Spokane became a favorite target of Arnston and his gang. Detectives identified the gang as the main suspects in multiple Spokane burglaries including those of the J.C. Penny Store, Garden Dance Palace, and the Kilmer & Sons Hardware Store. Spokane Police arrested Arnston in connection with the Garden Dance Palace case in February 1931. He was charged with holding a merchant policeman at gunpoint while his gang made off with $1000. Authorities were shocked when a Spokane jury acquitted Arnston of burglary and robbery on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

When Arnston leaped from the moving train in December of 1932, he was wanted in Spokane yet again, this time for the brazen robbery of the Blumauer-Frank Wholesale Drug Company. In September of 1931, Arnston led a gang of robbers who broke into the drug company building, bound and gagged the night watchman, and stole narcotics. According to the Spokesman-Review, the drugs were “worth $15,000 at bootleg prices.” Authorities had their suspect, this time they just needed to secure a conviction. Arnston’s trial began promptly in early January 1932. The prosecution’s star witness, the night watchman of the drug company, testified that he was certain it was Jimmy Arnston who stole the drugs and threatened his life. He identified Arnston in the courtroom and exclaimed “that is the man who held the gun on me, sitting over there with the black hair. I know him by his size, his voice and his eyes.” In a dramatic piece of testimony, the watchman told the court that Arnston had threatened to kill him while holding a gun to his head. Once the robbers had pilfered the drugs, “they tied my hands with tape and put a gag in my mouth and then tied a handkerchief over my face. They laid me down on the floor and tied my feet,” explained the watchman. 

The testimony was damning but Arnston’s attorney waged the best defense he could. His lawyer was a straight shooter with the jury. He told them “we are not going to try to prove that these men are angels, their records show differently.” Although he was in town the night of the robbery, the defense argued he could not have been involved because on that evening he was busy getting drunk at Liberty Lake. According to Arnston, him and a few friends had three gallons of alcohol which left them too drunk to move and certainly too drunk to commit robbery. 

Despite his compelling alibi, on January 6, 1932 Arnston was convicted of robbery and burglary in Spokane County Superior Court. He was sentenced to twelve years in prison and immediately sought an appeal to the Supreme Court. While awaiting his appeal, Arnston was held at the Spokane County Jail.

Sheriff Miles placed Arnston in the most secure cell block of the jail. Arnston was not happy with his accommodations. Using a three-inch piece of a hacksaw blade he sawed his way through his cell bars and was cutting through the outer walls when a deputy sheriff discovered him. “Arnston had woven a rope from mattress cloth to help him in his daring try for freedom,” explained the local newspaper. The Sheriff was understandably frustrated. He placed Arnston in the cell adjoining the jailor’s office and locked an Oregon Boot on him, a strange and inhumane prisoner restraint.

On February 18, 1932, Arnston was transported to the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla to serve between ten and twenty years. Sheriff Miles was relieved to see Arnston go. Now the “bad boy bandit” was someone else’s problem.
As Arnston approached his first holiday at the penitentiary, his desire to escape grew. In the middle of a long winter night he made his first attempt. Arnston squeezed and contorted his five and a half foot, one hundred pound frame as he forced himself forward into a narrow ventilator. He crawled through the narrow duct work quietly—keeping a good pace as he raced against the rising sun. He reached the outside of the prison building while it was still dark and he scurried across the yard to his last obstacle, the towering prison walls. Using a crude ladder he scaled over the prison walls and set off in full stride like a track athlete clearing the final hurdle. Just ten months after arriving, and three nights before Christmas, Arnston was scurrying across the Eastern Washington landscape—cold winter air chilling his liberated body.

Arnston did not travel far that night. He could feel the rising sun approaching so he hunkered down for the evening with the prison, his old home, still in sight. Daylight came but Arnston laid low. He may have been trying to get in touch with associates who could assist him or perhaps he was just exhausted and needed a day to rest. Arnston was on the move again the next morning. He stole a car in Walla Walla and headed north toward Spokane. He drove thirty miles before arriving in Dayton, Washington where he abandoned the car. He found an old barn where he could spend the night.

He awoke on Christmas Eve with his sights set to the North. He headed out, this time on foot, and walked along the highway with his thumb up, hoping for a ride. Passing cars ignored Arnston, a good decision on their part. The passing cars, the cold drizzly winter weather, and perhaps the impending holiday, sucked up Arnston’s energy and drive. Dejected and frustrated he entered a service station in Newhope, a town north of Dayton. He was hoping to warm up and get a bite to eat. Unfortunately for Arnston, the service station worker recognized him immediately. After Arnston departed, the worker called the local Sheriff who quickly caught up with Arnston and arrested him.

Arnston was returned to the state penitentiary on Christmas morning. On the drive back the sheriff asked if the escapee regretted his decision. Arnston replied, “if I had to do it over again, I would walk the same road, but do it differently.”

Arnston was serious. Three years later, in 1935, he and seven other criminals (including a former Nostalgia Scoundrel, Red Jackson) succeeded in one of the most famous prison escapes in the history of the Washington State Penitentiary. The crew of convicts tunneled some forty-five feet below the prison foundation in search of freedom. Newspapers explained that they “dug a hole through the cement floor of a cell and worked from there, concealing the hole with a board covered by cement, which was cemented in nightly. They used old clothing for working in the hole and the dirt was discarded by being flushed through the sewer.” Arnston was captured soon after he escaped, but some of his collaborators remained at large for days.

Arnston picked up an additional two years in prison for his escape attempts, but he earned parole in 1941 before his full sentence had expired. After release, Arnston returned to the west side where he married and settled down. He seemed to get control of his life until 1949 when he was yet again sentenced to prison for burglary, this time stealing from the Seattle American-Italian Club. Those eight and a half years outside prison were the longest stretch since he arrived at the parental school when he was thirteen years old. He could not escape recidivism though, and this time it cost him his life. In 1951, Arnston contracted tuberculosis and  died inside the prison where he had spent more than one quarter of his life.  

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