Claude Cye Hager
Until this week, and after a decade of research, I didn’t know much about Claude. From my grandfather, Claudius Byron Hager, I knew only what he was told. He grew up believing his father died when he was three years old. His grandmother told him that Claude was part Cherokee, had been a traveling salesman, and was from Fort Smith, Arkansas. As an adult, my grandfather, who had changed his name in 1950 to Raymond Mieirs, wrote and received the information about his father from McAlester State Prison. His father’s photo and the information he had received he sent to his mother, with a letter saying he would never forgive her for lying to him about his father. My grandfather, never one to get angry or hold a grudge, stuck to his word, and never spoke to her again.
After reading through the information about his trial, the newspaper articles I have found, and slowly uncovering the facts of his parents, I have been able to piece the life of Claude together. It isn’t a happy story; in fact, it is shameful to many of us who are his grandchildren or great grandchildren. No one wants a murderer in their family. The True Story articles by Glenn Shirley depict the crime in its brutality, and it was brutal. However, Mr. Shirley got some facts wrong, and failed to include all the facts. Because this is personal for all of us who descend from this man, I feel compelled to set the record straight. Evidently, since she showed a True Crime story to her granddaughter when she was young, Minnie knew about Claude’s imprisonment. This suggests that he may have not entirely abandoned both his sons, but may have attempted correspondence with them. I suspect that Minnie, like my grandfather’s mother and grandmother, did not return that correspondence.
Claude Cye “Blackie” Hager was born October 16, 1889 to John S. Hager and Martha Jane Collins in Benton, Arkansas. Not much is known about his early life, but we know that Martha Jane Collins, divorced John in 1891 and is found in Hopkins County, Texas in 1900 with William Daniels. Her daughter Bessie born in 1897, and Lona, born 1899 or 1900 show that Martha and her two sons, living under assumed names in 1900 with her family. Claude had a younger brother, George W. Hager who was born May 1, 1891 also in Benton, Arkansas. The fact that Martha was hiding the boys, suggests that her life with John Hager was a difficult one. No one knows the whole story, but it isn’t hard to imagine the kind of conditions that would force a mother to run away and hide her children. According to members of the Daniels clan, John S. Hager was an abusive man.
The hardship of the boys lives forced to live under assumed names in order to hide them from their father was stressed even further by the death of their mother, and then apparently their father. In 1905, the boys were orphans, and guardianship was given to their maternal grandmother, Martha L. Magnum Collins in Benton, Arkansas. Their grandmother died in 1909, and Claude age 20, and George 17, apparently were left to their own devices. While we find George as a laborer in Hopkins County, Texas in 1910, Claude’s whereabouts are unknown. Both George and Claude appeared to have bounced around a lot. George is found in Hopkins and Benton, and I suspect Claude also moved around.
In 1915 Claude married Minnie Jones in Benton, Arkansas. By 1917, he and Minnie were living in Jasper County, Missouri, where he is working for a mining company. His physical description on his draft registration for World War I, lists his eyes and hair as Brown, and his build as medium. His prison record states he was 5’9 1/2”, with brown hair, and brown eyes, and of slender build, wt 144 pounds.
On December 3, 1918, Claude and Minnie had a son, Spencer M. Hager in Nebraska. The couple is found living in Kansas City, Kansas in 1920. Whether they legally divorced or not, Claude abandoned his wife and son and married Margaret Pauline “Bonnie” Adams on April 2, 1924 in Picher, Ottawa County, Oklahoma.
On May 7, 1925, the couple had a son they named Claudius Byron Hager. Apparently not all was happy with this marriage, as in the trial, Claude’s landlady testified Claude rented a house from her, and had gone with a local girl, who discovered he was not divorced and quit seeing him. The lack of testimony by his wife, Pauline, who later changed her name to Bonnie, suggests that the marriage was over. From my grandfather, I know that by 1928 or 1929, he was already living with his grandmother Margaret Adams. He and his elder half brother, Eugene Tyler, had been stealing milk bottles for food, because their mother had left them alone. Margaret found out, and came and got the boys.
Although at the time of the murder of Walter Harp, and the assault on his sister-in-law, Ethel Harp, he was employed as a miner, Claude must have wandered quite a bit. The sheriff of Ottawa stated he had known Claude for 7 or 8 years off and on. In his own testimony, he states he met the couple in Colorado. His testimony is further corroborated by Mrs. Ethel Harp, estranged from her husband, states she and Walter met Claude in Holley, Colorado where he was working in the fields harvesting. He suggested they come to Picher, Oklahoma, which they did in August 1928. They had an accident, and Claude worked on their car, and that was how they met Elmer “Tommy” Moore. Of this Claude testified, that he had met Harp and his wife in Colorado. The three were going to run some liquor for a fellow. He details the problems the vehicle had in detail (what was broken and how they fixed it).
The actual murder and assault story given by Claude, Ethel Harp and Elmer Moore are different. Before I discuss the testimony, the case is now a precedent in the state of Oklahoma. Because he was 40, and Elmer Moore 20, the state of Oklahoma upheld the legality of the difference in punishment between Claude, who it was assumed asserted influence on the younger Elmer Moore. Despite the fact that he had witnesses to his good character, had no prior record, in 1929 in his trial, and in 1930 in his appeal, the blame for the murder was rested falsely, entirely on Claude’s shoulders. In the states opinion, Elmer Moore, who had a prior conviction for robbery, was a young man who was led astray by the elder Claude Hager, and was only an accessory to the murder. The reality was the reverse.
Moore, who testified at Claude’s trial for the State, was given leniency and life in prison, and Claude, older, presumably wiser, was given the death penalty. Ironically, two days before the scheduled execution of Claude, Elmer Moore wrote a letter to the governor confessing that he lied in his testimony. In his confession he corroborated the affidavit Claude signed in 1928, and it is for this reason that Claude’s execution was commuted to a life imprisonment. The newspaper article in the Miami Newspaper and the articles written by Glenn Shirley omit this information, and give the erroneous information that Claude served 15 years in prison. He did not. He died of throat cancer on March 20, 1933. The further criminal acts of his partner in crime, Elmer Moore, suggest that besides being an alcoholic, Claude was a terrible judge of character.
Of the actual crime, which occurred August 30, 1928, Ethel Harp stated Elmer Moore was sitting behind her, and Claude sat behind Walter Harp. When they approached the schoolhouse, she was hit in the head and didn’t know anything else. Claude’s confession stated he awoke to a woman’s scream. When he awoke, Walter was slumped over the steering wheel, and Elmer Moore was hitting Ethel with the hammer in the head. Claude testified he grabbed the hammer and threw it out the window. When he got out of the car, Claude said he fell into a ditch, and Elmer Moore said “why you drunk son of a bitch”. Elmer drug Ethel out of the car and tried to throw her over the fence, and called for Claude to help. Claude did help him with the bodies of both victims. He fell trying to get back into the car, and Elmer Moore put him in the back seat where he again fell asleep.
While both Elmer Moore and Claude testified to the quantity of liquor consumed this day, they varied in the amounts. Claude testified that Moore brought nine bottles of beer and 2 ½ pints of whiskey, while Elmer Moore testified they had 6 bottles of home brew and a half pint of whiskey, and most of the alcohol was drank by Mr. Harp. Of the actual assault and murder he testified that he hit Mr. Harp only once with a wrench; and that Claude hit him over and over with a hammer while Ethel screamed. After, Claude drug Ethel from the car and hit her over and over, but he only hit her once. He also testified that it was Claude’s idea to rob them, and dump the bodies the day of the attack. His testimony of their escape was also brief. Elmer stated they drove out through Muscogee to Little Rock. The car had trouble near Morlen, Arkansas and they stayed a night, arriving in Little Rock on Friday or Saturday, and staying until Tuesday. They then went to Benton, Arkansas and on to Dallas. He returned home where he was caught, and that Claude had had possession of the rings the entire time. He also testified it was Claude who had the license plate changed on the car.
Claude’s affidavit again goes in greater detail of their escape. He said he awoke in Okay, Oklahoma where they had a flat, and he was still drunk. Somewhere along the road, Moore cleaned up the car and they went to Little Rock, where they got jobs in a mine. He worked two hours, Moore one day and two hours. He said he was sick, and told Moore he was going to his brother’s in Benton, Arkansas, but when he got there he found out his brother had moved to Dallas, Texas. When they got to Dallas, Moore tried to “soak” the rings at three places but couldn’t, so he shoved them in Claude’s overall’s and said to give them to his nieces. Claude and his brother worked picking cotton 27 miles from Dallas, and Moore did so for a week. Moore gave him two dollars to pay a negro to change the license on the car. Moore then left and left the car, but told his brother, his wife and children he had killed a man and woman, and was going to Washington.
In the newspaper article I found from July 16, 1930, the following is quoted “Unless the governor grants him clemency, Hager will go to the chair with bitterness in his heart against Elmer Moore, a lifer, who two days ago wrote letters to the state officials stating he alone had murdered Walter Harp in Ottawa county during a drunken fishing party. “He should have told that story a year ago instead of waiting until now when no one will believe him” said Hager. “I will go down. I want my friends to protest any attempt for clemency he makes. I want him to die here like me.” A July 17, 1930 article states, Claude was given a 60 day reprieve while they investigated the confession which exonerated Hager. “An investigator sent to the penitentiary by the Governor reported he believed Moore’s story was true.”
For my self, the last minute confession of Elmer Moore brings a little piece of mind. While he played a part in the brutal murder of Walter Harp, there is something to knowing that Claude was not a cold blooded killer. The fact that my grandfather was told he had died makes a bit more sense. I don’t doubt that perhaps his mother and grandmother failed to read the newspaper, and may not have known Claude wasn’t executed on July 16, 1930. Nor did they likely know that he died three years later, but then again, I guess I want to believe they had good reason to mislead my grandfather. I am also grateful to know that George Hager corresponded with his brother. His flight to his brother after the murder tells me something. In a life that was not easy, George was who he trusted, George was his family. To know he was not abandoned, despite his deeds, is gratifying. In his prison mug shot, the only photo I will ever have of Claude, I see my grandfather. Rather than the eyes of a cold blooded killer, I see sorrow, bewilderment, and the eyes of my grandfather.
For both his sons, ignorant that they had a sibling, the abandonment and knowledge that their father was a murderer must have had some impact. For his grandchildren, there is embarrassment, rightly so, in acknowledging this man and his acts. It is hard to embrace his life and his actions, to acknowledge not only his crimes, but his abandonment of his wives and children. Reading the transcripts of the trial, and the articles has helped me understand part of the story, and I hope this also helps the rest of my family. In a footnote, Elmer Moore was given parole, and arrested and sent back to prison after he was convicted of robbery in Leflore County, Oklahoma. In 1953, he ran away from a work party, whether he was found again, is unknown.
Newspaper Clipping: Condemned Man Gets Reprieve; Two Will Hang, The Southeastern Missourian, July 16, 1930, Missouri
Newspaper Clipping: Man’s Admission May Save Hager from Execution, Dallas Morning News, July 16, 1930, Dallas, Texas
Newspaper Clipping: Slayer Not to Die in Chair Tonite, Breckenridge American, July 16, 1930, Breckenridge, Texas
Newspaper Clipping : Arrest Men in Old Case, Breckenridge American, October 3, 1928, Breckenridge, Texas
Folder Contents, Box, 41, Folder 8, Published Books and Feature Stories Series, Glenn d. Shirley, Western Americana Collection, Dickinson Research Center, National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Transcript of Case, April 19, 1929, typed by Court Clerk: State of Oklahoma, Plaintiff, vs. Claude (Blackie) Hager, Defendant
Letter of Correspondence from Oklahoma State Penitentiary, McAlester Oklahoma, November 8, 1949, from the Warden, Nettie V. Brown, Claude Hager, Walter Wigger and Elmer Moore
Transcript of Appeal, Claude (Blackie) Hager vs. State, April 1930, Affirmed
Oklahoma State Case Law, Appeal Claude Hager vs. State, OSCN
Record of Guardianship for Cloud and George W. Hager 1905, Saline County, AR
Marriage Records of Benton, Saline County, Arkansas
Marriage Record of Ottawa County, Arkansas
World War One Draft Registration, Ancestry.com
United States Federal Census, 1900, 1920, 1930, Ancestry.com