October 04, 2006

Today's Oklahoma History Lesson

Rummaging through an old family scrapbook recently, I came across a yellowed newspaper clipping headlined "Henry Wells, Old-Time Bank Robber, Dies at 82." The Tulsa World reported from Bartlesville nearly 43 years ago that "Henry Wells, 82, an old-time outlaw who robbed 32 banks, died Thursday night in a Bartlesville hospital. Wells, a familiar sight here with his handlebar mustache, was tried 14 times but convicted only once. ... In later years, although it was rumored he had caches of loot hidden, he lived on an old-age pension and side bets on pool games.

"Wells, a 6-foot, 200-pound man, took credit for preventing Charles (Pretty Boy) Floyd from kidnapping Frank Phillips, Bartlesville oilman, in the 1930s. He said he tipped Phillips' employees at Woolaroc Ranch that the kidnapping was planned. 'It was the only time I ever ratted on any of the boys,' he said. 'But I told Pretty Boy I'd rather somebody would have kidnapped my daddy than Frank Phillips.'" (Phillips is pictured above at Woolaroc.)

Tucked in the scrapbook alongside the newspaper clipping I found something else of interest -- a note my great-grandfather, Don Tyler, had written the week after Wells's death:
Newspaper items under Bartlesville headline dated November 1, 1963 tell of the death of Henry Wells, 82-year-old confessed bank robber, and brought to mind an incident which I experienced as follows:

Some time in the early 1930s Mrs. Tyler and I were the guests of Jane and Frank Phillips at Woolaroc Lodge for dinner and after visiting some time on the porch we both decided to leave for home. To my surprise, Frank asked if he could ride in with us, although he had a limousine standing by with a driver. Frank never drove a car himself.

I thought it unusual at the time that he should ask to ride in with us under the circumstances. Subsequently as we descended in the middle of 39 hill on the way home we noticed a broken down truck was wedged across the road. When the lights flashed on this truck Frank immediately became very much excited and insisted that I drive onto the shoulder and get around the truck the best we could, although we almost turned over.

I didn't ask Frank to explain his action but elicited from his brother, L.E., the next day that Frank had had a number of threatening kidnapping letters, which were similar to the famous Urschell kidnapping in Oklahoma City.

Referring to Henry Wells again, he claimed that he prevented Charles (Pretty Boy) Floyd from kidnapping Frank Phillips, which ties into the above incident. Outlaws considered Frank a "sitting duck" while at the Woolaroc Ranch, considering the isolation of the ranch and Frank's immense wealth.
Two things of interest: First, even though Frank Phillips was an oil baron with hundreds of Phillips 66 gas stations, the man never learned to drive a car.

Second, it's interesting to note that some outlaws (like Wells) genuinely liked Frank Phillips. Frank himself was fascinated with Old West bad guys, and even threw an annual shindig at the ranch called the "Cow Thieves and Outlaws Reunion" at which the bad guys commingled with lawmen. Frank's ground rules for the event were that everyone had to check his guns at the gate and that the outlaws enjoyed a grace period while there at the ranch; lawmen could not arrest them on the premises (after all, this here's a party) but would have to try to apprehend them at another time and place.

Here's one more interesting photograph I found. On the right are Frank Phillips and his wife, Jane. Standing at left is K. S. "Boots" Adams, who took the reins of Phillips Petroleum when Frank stepped down. (Lincoln has a funny anecdote concerning Boots in this post.) Boots' son, Bud Adams, owns the NFL's Tennessee Titans (formerly the Houston Oilers).


  1. I think I need to read much more on Oklahoma history.

  2. Brandy,

    I just found your blog and will now be a "regular reader." I love all of the old history....I have been doing a lot of genealogy and have found out a lot of interesting things to say the least!

    Beth Beard

  3. I walked down the steps toward
    Clyde Lake for the annual party originated by Uncle Frank. Over by the bar were the real cowboys, Hughes, Gallery, Kanes, et al., complete with chaps and spurs that had probably been used during the previous week, when they had worked their many head of cattle. Great men and women, salt of the western earth. They would have fit in well at the original party.

    Past the bar, I was met by Bob Kane, dressed to the hilt as Uncle Frank-well done, and Popo Kane, donning a shirt that his father had given him; probably worn to this event in the early 30s, always the model of a perfect gentleman. The rest of the crowd was composed of the usual suspects.

    I was asked several times, "Is that gun real?" "I did not have chaps, so I strapped on a gun. This is as "western" as I could get." Being Oklahoma, and particulcarly Northeastern Oklahoma, "Oh" was about as much reaction as the gun garnered.

    After reading your blog, I guess I was supposed to check it at the gate.

  4. I came across your blog while doing my own genealogy search. Henry Wells was my great-great-great-uncle. My great-great grandmother was his sister Amanda Wells. Does anyone have any suggestions for continuing my search?

  5. Anonymous8:10 PM

    Henry well. Is my great grandfather

  6. Im henry wells grande daughter. My grandmother margret nightengale lived parsons ks in the 30 s met and My father earl nightengale later his mother died and he was adopted by grandmother in pawhuska Ok. I have photos of My father he looks like henry. My mame is shona johnson im looking for other relitives


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