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Quincy Byrum Hurst Sr. was a lawyer, banker, and politician whose battle to protect and legalize gambling in his hometown of Hot Springs (Garland County) resulted in a historic conflict with Governor Winthrop Rockefeller in the 1960s. Hurst began his political career as a reformer in the famous GI Revolt of returning soldiers from World War II, led by future governor Sidney S. McMath, but he ended his career in the service of the state’s “Old Guard” politicians and as the lawyer of two major figures in organized crime. He served twenty-two years in the Arkansas Senate and ran for governor, unsuccessfully, in 1972 while he was under investigation for bank fraud. In 1974, he was convicted in Missouri of misusing bank funds in Arkansas and Missouri and sentenced to federal prison.
Born on September 21, 1918, in Hot Springs, one of four children of the Reverend Floyd Roy Hurst, who was a Church of God preacher, and Clara Cash Hurst, Q. Byrum Hurst was a bright student and an impressive speaker in high school, leading the school’s debate team to the state championship. He became an accountant in a Hot Springs municipal office and went to law school at night. In 1941, at the age of twenty-three, he got a law license. U.S. District Judge John E. Miller of Fort Smith (Sebastian County) appointed him a commissioner (what would later become known as a federal magistrate). He left that position to become director of the Garland County Rural Price Board under the wartime U.S. Office of Price Administration. He later resigned and served in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1945. Hurst married Hazel Earline Barham of Hot Springs, and they had a son and three daughters.
After World War II, Sid McMath—a Marine hero in the Battles of Guadalcanal and Bougainville—organized returning veterans to clean up Garland County government, which was under the firm control of a corrupt political boss, Leo P. McLaughlin, the mayor of Hot Springs. Hurst ran for county judge on the GI ticket in the Democratic Party primaries in 1946. McMath, who ran for prosecuting attorney, was the only GI who won, as McLaughlin and others paid huge blocs of poll taxes and used the receipts to vote. The defeated candidates then filed as independents for the general election, and Judge Miller threw out 1,607 fraudulent poll tax receipts. All the GI candidates for local office won, including Hurst.
Hurst was not reelected as county judge in the 1948 election, but he quickly revived his political career. He was elected to the state Senate in 1950 from Garland and Saline counties and remained in the Senate until 1972. Although a lively debater as a young man, Hurst was a quiet force in the Senate and a consistent ally of the establishment, including the state’s six-term governor, Orval E. Faubus. Hurst rarely engaged in debate. By the time his own bills reached the floor, he had already privately told his fellow senators what he wanted them to do. On the floor, he would say: “Gentlemen, you know what this bill does. Appreciate a good vote.”
Casino gambling, which had flourished under the protection of McLaughlin, continued after his ouster because many in the county thought it was good for the local economy. Periodic crusades against gambling in the early 1960s led to cursory Arkansas State Police raids under Governor Faubus, but arrests were never made. Winthrop Rockefeller, a Republican, ran for governor in 1964 and criticized Faubus for turning a blind eye to illegal gambling. In 1966, Rockefeller, who had lost the 1964 election, ran again and won, and attention focused on the gambling issue as he prepared to take office. Rockefeller said that if gambling became “obnoxious” to local people, he would see that the law was enforced.
Hurst drafted a bill to legalize gambling at private clubs in Hot Springs and to create a state crime commission under the governor to regulate it. There would be one casino for every 15,000 residents of the county, and the state would collect eight percent of the proceeds in taxes. Hurst persuaded three state senators from Pulaski County—Max Howell, Dan T. Sprick, and Oscar Alagood—to join him as sponsors. Hurst told the Senate that the governor had said to him, “Q. Byrum, if you can pass that bill through both houses, it’ll become law—I won’t veto it.” Rockefeller claimed that Hurst and his allies had misunderstood him. The bill barely passed in both houses. Editorials in the Arkansas Gazette, which had backed Rockefeller, demanded that the governor veto the bill, and he announced that he would. Later that year, Rockefeller’s new State Police director, Lynn Davis, a former agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), raided Hot Springs gambling establishments, destroyed gambling equipment, and ended open gambling in the city.
Both in Faubus’s last term, and after the debacle over the legalization bill in February 1967, Hurst made efforts to prevent the State Police from interfering with gambling, but the efforts failed. In the Joint Budget Committee in 1965, Hurst and Howell had planted language deep in the State Police’s appropriation bill, which few legislators actually read, that had the effect of making gambling off limits to the state agency. Senator Robert Harvey of Swifton (Jackson County), who handled all appropriation bills as chairman of the budget committee, alerted a young senator, Charles George of Cabot (Lonoke County), to ask him about the language when the bill came to a vote. Harvey feigned befuddlement, and the Senate promptly deleted the offending sentence. Hurst and Howell would try similar tactics in 1967. One Hurst bill, which was defeated, attempted to abolish the State Police’s Criminal Investigation Division. Hurst’s son, Q. Byrum Hurst Jr., said his father never gambled and only thought it was important for the economy of his community.
As a young man before World War II, Hurst had developed a friendship with Owen Vincent (Owney) Madden, a famous underworld figure from Manhattan who left New York in the mid-1930s after serving time in Sing Sing Prison for murder. Settling in Hot Springs, Madden married a local woman and remained a famous if shadowy figure, running a nightclub, a racing wire, and, reputedly, some gambling interests. Hurst became his lawyer and closest friend. When Jimmy Hoffa, the former president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, was being investigated by the Senate racketeering committee headed by Senator John L. McClellan of Arkansas in 1961, Hoffa telephoned Madden to ask him to find him a lawyer that he could trust. Hurst became Hoffa’s attorney during the Teamsters investigation, though not for the subsequent trial. Hoffa, who had been involved with organized crime at the union, was convicted of jury tampering, attempted bribery, and fraud in 1964 and imprisoned for thirteen years. He subsequently disappeared. Hurst gave the eulogy at Madden’s funeral in 1965 (he was the only speaker), describing him as a soft-spoken man who tried to help everyone he could.
In 1972, Hurst opposed Governor Dale Bumpers for a second term in the Democratic primary before his own business activities scuttled the campaign. Hurst had developed interests in a hotel and other properties and acquired controlling interest in several small banks. In 1972, a deputy U.S. attorney in Little Rock (Pulaski County), Bobby Fussell, began investigating Hurst’s bank loans. When it became clear that he was unlikely to convict Hurst in Arkansas, Fussell had himself appointed a special U.S. prosecutor in western Missouri, where Hurst had a bank, and had Hurst indicted there. With a federal investigation hanging over him, Hurst received only sixteen percent of the votes in the Democratic Party primary.
In 1974, Hurst pled guilty to lending $210,417 from his banks in Missouri and Arkansas to friends and relatives and converting the proceeds to his own use. He was sentenced to one year in prison on each of five counts, to be served concurrently, and fined $1,000. Hurst was granted his wish to spend his year at the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, because he was in poor physical condition. He surrendered his law license and never practiced again.
Hurst died on December 4, 2006, and is buried in Morning Star Cemetery in Hot Springs.
For additional information:“Ex-Senator Hurst Dies in Spa City.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 5, 2006, p. 15B.
McMath, Sidney S. Promises Kept: A Memoir. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003.
Nown, Graham. Arkansas Godfather: The Story of Owney Madden and How He Hijacked Middle America. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2013.
Obituary of Q. Byrum Hurst. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 6, 2006, p. 16B.
Pierce, James A. “From McMath to Rockefeller: Arkansas Governors and Illegal Gambling in Postwar Hot Springs, 1945–1970.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas, 2008.
Ernest Dumas Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 4/13/2016
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