The true story of the King Opera House ghost

Ty Thompson
Press Argus-Courier

According to Van Buren Legend, the ghost of a murdered man haunts the King Opera House on Main Street, but the true story of the murder is far different than what has been believed.

The story goes that an actor by the name of Charles Tolson was running away with the daughter of a local doctor whom he had fallen in love with. The doctor then rushed to the depot on horse and buggy and intercepted their departure and proceeded to beat Tolson to death with a horsewhip. 

According to Maryl Purvis, director of the A&P Commission in Van Buren, this story is far from the truth. 

The Murder

Charles Tolson was the owner of the Tolson Stock Company, a traveling acting troupe. He was married to Lorena Tolson, an actress, and mother to their son Frantz.  Tolson was a well-respected and locally famous actor in the area. 

On Sep. 3, 1903, Tolson Stock Company was finishing their week-long engagement at King Opera House in Van Buren. Tolson retired to the Collins hotel that evening with family before waking up to travel to the Frisco Depot for a train departing for Fort Smith.

Tolson and the 11 actors with his troupe arrived at the depot at 7:45 a.m. Tolson left his troupe to purchase tickets for the train. Abe Tibbets, who was hired to carry their luggage, stood with Tolson at the ticket purchasing window. 

Dr. Parchman, who had been waiting inside the depot in the waiting room, stepped outside and called Tolson's name. Some witness reports state that Parchman never spoke to Tolson. As Tolson turned, Parchman pulled a 44 caliber revolver out of his pocket and fired a shot missing Tolson. As he turned to run from the gunfire, another shot struck Tolson in the back above his hip. 

The force of the gunshot to his back forced Tolson to spin and face Parchman who fired one more shot at Tolson's chest. Luckily, the bullet made contact with a watch in Tolson's pocket, but the impact forced him to the ground. 

After firing the shots it was reported that Parchman turned and quietly walked away from the scene of the crime. 

Tolson was put on the arriving train to Fort Smith he was admitted to Belle Pointe Hospital in Fort Smith where he succumbed to his wounds the next day. On his death bed, Tolson declared that he had only given Allye good advice and considering Dr. Parchman as good a friend as he had in Van Buren.

Parchman shot Tolson that morning on suspicion that he was taking his 17-year-old daughter, Allye, away. He received this information the night before the shooting from a vinegar salesman named C.G. Murray. 

There is no proof that Tolson was running away with Allye as she wasn't even present on the morning of the shooting. The two did know each other, but nothing points to any inappropriate actions taking place on Tolson's part. 

"What we discovered what that Allye was a typical 17-year-old girl with a very overbearing father," Purvis Said. "She saw an opportunity to get away. I'm sure she had an attraction to Charles Tolson, but she really just saw an opportunity to get out of a small town."

Allye may have had plans to attempt to run away with the troupe, according to notes found in her purse, but nothing came to fruition.

J.C. Godley, the lead actor for Tolson Stock Co., told newspapers that Allye was stage-struck and Tolson had told her that she needed to stop hanging around and go home where she belonged.  

In her research, Purvis says that Murray himself had an interest in Allye. Several accounts reported to newspapers at the time said that Murray had a less than honorable interest in Allye and was jealous of her attention to Tolson. Allegedly, he had said to Allye that his wife was invalid in a Louisiana nursing home, and upon her passing, wanted to marry her. 

Purvis believes that once he saw that Allye had an attraction to Tolson and his troupe, he manufactured the story to make sure that Allye didn't leave.

After he shot Tolson, Parchman made his way home and contacted Sherriff Jim Pitcock to tell him what he had done. A warrant was issued for Parchman on the charge of assault with intent to kill. He was admitted to bail in the sum of $1,000.

"There was plenty of evidence to convict him, but he was very well respected in the state of Arkansas," Purvis said. "He hired a dream team of attorneys to represent him."

The Trial

Col. Oscar l. Miles, a very close friend of Dr. Parchman, stepped in as lead counsel. The trial began on June 24, 1904, with several of the witnesses missing, including Murray and Allye who had left Van Buren immediately after the shooting. 

According to a report from the Van Buren Argus, Col. Miles presented the case of the defense, briefly dwelling on the different degrees of murder and how justifiable murder would be his defense. His closing argument referred to Tolson as the would-be destroyer of Parchman's daughter's purity. 

The Fort Smith News-Record published Miles' closing argument. 

"In the event of an assault he had no right to expect to get off with his life," said Miles in his argument. "Numbers were against him, and criminal experience was his adversary. He hesitated not. Placing upon the sacrificial altar the accumulation of a lifetime, his home association, his liberty, his very life, he went forward to the discharge of his duty, calmly, coolly, without wavering or hesitation. Not as a murderer skulking in the nighttime to consummate an assassination, but rather as a good citizen, feeling and knowing the supporting and protecting care of the law."

After two ballots, the first vote being 10 for acquittal and two for guilty, the second vote found the defendant not guilty by reason of self-defense.

"He got away with murder," Purvis said. 

Aftermath

After the trial, Tolson's wife continued traveling with the acting troupe and remarried a year after the shooting. Allye was sent to live with a family member in Missouri, and never returned to Van Buren. Not much is known about Allye's life after the shooting, but she married in 1907 and is buried in Corpus Christi, Texas. 

Parchman tried lived a quiet life after the murder. According to Purvis, he received very little sympathy from the community, and many were outspoken in condemning him. 

Today, the story of Tolson lives on as a ghost haunting the King Opera House, he is buried in Oak Cemetary in Fort Smith.

An advertisement for a play featuring a photo of Charles Tolson.
The spot at the Frisco Depot where Tolson was shot by Dr.Parchman.
Charles Tolson's final resting place in Oak Cemetery in Fort Smith