“On street corners, young boys sold moonshine in six ounce Coca-Cola bottles for $1.25; prostitutes walked the streets and dope peddlers like Smiling Jack and Weasel tugged at people’s sleeves. Hamburger Row was filled with characters…”~ Plaque at Oil Heritage Park in Union County
This month at Haunted Kitchens we’re doing something a little different by featuring a guest writer! I met Jeff Ulmer just about a decade ago at a paranormal event I was doing. Jeff has a kind and welcoming energy to him. He’s also a lover of history and a paranormal investigator. After a few events of talking “shop” we became friends and have stayed in touch over the years.
Around the time I met Jeff I met Jennifer. She too, had a sweet nature and was a passionate investigator. Soon enough, these two fell in love, got married, and now have a beautiful little girl. See! The paranormal really does bring people together.
Jeff and Jennifer contacted me because the place they were living in at the time was plagued by paranormal activity. Strange whispers, objects moving, a sordid past… they didn’t need much more to get my attention!
Welcome to El Dorado, Arkansas. A town of roughly 20,000 people in the southern part of the state with the nickname “Arkanas’s Original Boomtown”, a nod to the, literal, oil boom of the 1920s. Where Jeff and Jennifer were currently residing is of great historical interest. An area known as “Hamburger Row”, deriving it’s name from a brief period of time during the town’s economic boom when hamburger stands lined the streets (Um… this sounds AMAZING to me!), is where our story starts.
To prepare for my call with Jeff I started digging into the town’s past. In addition to it’s deep roots with slavery and the Civil War, I found a rather seedy existence. Many in the paranormal field would speculate that these events will leave a stain on the land and surrounding buildings.
In 1921 the population sat at only a few thousand. In early January 1921 an oil well owned by Dr. Samuel Busey exploded with a thick oil that splattered clothes hanging on clotheslines up to a mile away! Within two years, thanks to the oil industry boom, the population exploded to over 40,000!
Historically, when a small town sees an explosion of population in such a short amount of time it’s not uncommon to see some poor decisions being made. Hamburger Row didn’t deviate from this and soon the area was known for drinking, drugs, and prostitutes.
The Daily Arkansas Gazette paints a rather grim picture of what life was becoming in the once small town when it wrote on Feb. 21, 1921:
“Hamburger Row, tolerated at first by the citizens as a unique institution, is fast losing its popularity. Not to strain too hard at the point the El Doradoans are getting sick and tired of “Hamburger Row.” It consists of rows of shanties and stands thrown up on both sides of the walk between the Garrett Hotel and the Rock Island Station, and what it lacks in architectural beauty is made up by diversification. The ground on which the shacks were erected belongs to the city, and from it the city services a certain amount of revenue, now badly needed. The tenants have paid their rent six months in advance.
“Hamburger Row” began its existence with everything spick and span, but as time rolls by some of the greasy soldiers of fortune who occupy it are expected to neglect sanitary rules and regulations. Unless the sanitary officers rule with an iron hand, “Hamburger Row” bids fair to become a place of evil smells and unsavory reputation.”
The town also had an infamous shootout, named The Tuker-Parnell Feud of October 1902. You couldn’t write a better drama. This feud didn’t actually start with the Tuckers and Parnells, but it certainly ended with them.
The genesis of the feud was when William Puckett had arrived in town to marry Jessie Stevenson. The problem was her boss, photographer Bob Mullens, had argued that he was to marry Jessie. During a heated argument over the young woman a fight broke out and Mullens attacked Puckett.
Being afraid, Puckett contacted City Marshall Guy B. Tucker for protection and he (Tucker) enlisted Harrison Dearing, constable, for assistance. Quickly married the newlyweds were boarding a train when Mullens rushed at them for his final revenge. Dearing, arrested Mullens, but Mullens was out on bail the very next day. Newly free, Mullens confronted Dearing, which resulted in another heated argument and eventually Dearing shooting Mullens, leaving him dead.
Now enter the Parnell family. The Parnells were close friends of Mullens and not a favorite of many town leaders, likewise, the Parnells were not a fan of them. As you can imagine, they went to defend their friend immediately and Marshall Parnell’s eight sons quickly joined in the vengeance.
On the day some of the Parnells were able to testify on behalf of Mullens things escalated to deadly levels. After the court hearing the Parnell brothers confronted Tucker, Dearing, and Parnell rival, Frank Newton. The intense words exchanged led to drawn guns and a confusing rash shootout leaving two Parnell brothers and Dearing dead. Tucker was shot six times, and amazingly survived.
In order to have charges dropped two of the remaining six Parnell brothers agreed to leave Arkansas. Angered by losing two more family members the Parnells publicly claimed that Tucker had rigged the justice system against them.
This completely divided the town and they not only started verbally attacking each other they also started physically attacking each other. You were either a Parnell supporter or a Tucker supporter.
Fast forward to August 1903. Tucker is sent a mysterious jug containing strychnine-laced whisky anonymously. Tucker was immediately suspicious of John Parnell as he had written a rage filled letter days before to the local newspaper expressing his frustrations of how poorly everything had been handled. Tucker went to Parnell and shot him, leaving him dead.
Tucker was brought in on murder charges, but was acquitted in 1905. Soon after he moved to a neighboring town to run a saloon. The violence continued as two of his comrades were murdered and Tucker was shot resulting in an arm amputation (this guy just won’t die).
Tucker eventually moved far enough away and as a result the violence and feud eventually faded. Some say the deaths surrounding this feud are estimated to be between 30-40 people.
That’s some past for a small town! Does any of this have to do with the odd experiences Jeff, Jennifer, and other tenants have been experiencing for years?
Jeff details his case here…
“My wife and I were just getting started and needed a low-rent apartment to get on our feet. I knew of some local studio apartments in a loft above an old friend’s novelty shop. I heard stories of the rowdy history of the building, but my wife and I are fond of history and historic things… which just so happen to be paranormally active sometimes.
In 1999, Lee Ann Herndon bought the buildings on South Washington Avenue as a new, larger location for her store. Upon purchase of the buildings, Lee Ann was told by the former owner that the south end of the buildings was once a bordello run by a notorious Madame. For a time, Lee Ann lived in one of the apartments above the shop with her daughter, the current property owner, Lacey Herndon. These buildings, along with Richie Grocery and the Old Presbyterian Cemetery across the street, are all that remains of the former “Hamburger Row”
The building was built using convict labor from the state penitentiary by lieutenant governor Pete McCall. The Crystal Hotel occupied the 2nd story while Shaver’s Hardware and Seed Co. was the retailer on the street level. The south end of the building was once a brothel run by a notorious ‘Madame’ on a lawless strip known as Hamburger Row.
In the 1920s there was a literal BOOM from the earth when wildcatters struck oil followed by an economic and population boom. Hamburger Row started as a place oil field workers could buy a hot meal after work. Eventually, it was rumored you could buy just about anything here. Hamburger Row made quite an impact on the area considering it only existed for nine months before the Food & Drug Administration shut down the vendors for selling tainted meat ending the lawlessness… or at least organizing it.
The Madame’s name was Betty Fortenberry. Madame ran the brothel for the New Orleans mafia by paying off local officials to turn a blind eye to their operations. While Madame served time in Louisiana at Angola maximum security prison farm (aka “The Farm”), she told officials she paid off several prominent El Dorado businessmen for years. However, a Grand Jury subpoenaed those men’s financial records and found no evidence of any such pay-offs. After prison, she moved to east Texas where she died in late 1992 or early 1993.
There have been too many paranormal happenings on this property to report in one blog article. And, some happenings are too personal to tell you about. But, I will do my best. The shop Lee Ann Herndon moved into the building below our apartments is named Oddities and sells various novelty items. You can find everything from bachelorette party supplies to incense and jewelry. The shop also sells some occult literature, Ouija boards, and other spiritual paraphernalia. Some spiritualists believe these not only can be used as tools to open portals, but are themselves portals. Entities can use these portals to cross dimensions.
The most prominent spirit presence is the Madame. She looked after Lee Ann and the tenants. We have lived in three different apartments in this same building. Our first apartment was the Madame’s former room. There is still a stash spot cut into the floor where Madame was rumored to keep bootleg liquor and a pistol in case any of the gentleman clients got rough with one of her girls.
One of the first paranormal experiences we had was when a tension rod holding a curtain separating rooms crashed down to the floor in the middle of the night. My wife and I both sprang from bed knowing something was up. The next day we found out someone had broken the glass door to the shop in an attempted robbery. That only happened one other time when my wife left an appliance on in the kitchen and fell asleep. We think Madame was warning us in both cases.
The most active apartment we lived in was the second one we moved into. The shower door was constantly opening and closing and there were disembodied voices all the time! A young man committed suicide, sadly, in one of the apartments and I think he was who messed with the shower (especially when my wife bathed). Once, I was talking about the fact the second apartment was so much more paranormally active in front of Lee Ann’s brother Paul. When he realized what apartment I was talking about, he proclaimed, “Oh! The whisper room!” He then proceeded to tell me a story about a time he stayed there and heard three distinctly different voices carrying on conversations in a whisper. He could not believe there was no one else alive in the building. I confirmed to him we heard them, too, at all hours. I remember a night the disembodied voices were so loud that my wife and I stayed awake listening like, “You hear it too, right?”
The most recent report I have heard of paranormal activity on the property was from an employee of the shop last week. The employee saw the full-body apparition of a tall, slender, black figure with a tail. Knowing it wasn’t good, the employee chased it out of the buildings while screaming at it. That sort of things happens from time-to-time here… especially on and around full moons.”
Jeff and Jennifer are inclined to believe that Madame is the main presence in the building, often sensed in times of trouble. I have to wonder, what about the whisper room? Shady dealings from an unsavory past? What about the dark figure with a tail?! Did the shootout of 1902 and the subsequent violence and death that followed leave a mark? Did it open a doorway for negativity to enter? Are the occult objects allowing something much more sinister to step through a portal?
Jeff did indeed tell me very personal experiences, which are not reflected in this post out of privacy for my friend, but it seems as though “Hamburger Row” is still hiding many secrets left to be discovered.
What do you think? Who or what is haunting this location and why? Let us know on our FB page.
The Hamburger Row Burger
Just in time for grilling weather Jeff and Jennifer provide us with an official “Hamburger Row Burger” recipe with just TWO ingredients for the meat mixture.
Why onion soup mix? The vendors on Hamburger Row used to cover their burgers with onions in an attempt to conceal the taste of rancid meat. This has been updated without the toxic meat so you won’t die and I won’t have to investigate you. Grill on!
- 1 pack of Lipton dry, onion soup mix
- 2 lbs of ground beef (I prefer 80/20)
- Any condiments and vegetables you like
- Mix one sleeve of Lipton Soup mix thoroughly into the 2 pounds of beef
- Patty to desired size
- Heat a gas grill to high or heat coals in a charcoal grill until they ash over and glow orange
- Cook burgers on both sides to your preferred doneness
- Place burgers in desired buns and top with condiments if you’d like
Recipe notes from Jeff and Jennifer: Hamburger Row Burgers were traditionally cooked over non-gas fueled fires. We prefer cooking them over charcoal briquettes. In the past, we have used ground venison in place of beef, but fat must be added to the venison to prevent crumbling on the grill.
A special thank you to: Jeff and Jennifer Ulmer for their contribution of writing and photos!
Kelly Ziegler who provided us with the photo of the secret hiding place in Madame’s old room.