Monday, September 21, 2015

Phantom Killer, 1946

In 1946 a killer murdered five people in Texarkana, the town that straddles both Texas and Arkansas. Four of the victims were young people parked in “lovers lane.” Like the best seductive mystery stories, the true-life events of the serial murders remain provocative 69 years later.

A popular movie from 1976 re-told the story in its own way. Although claiming to be a true story, it mixed fact with fiction, which didn’t get in the way of its box office appeal. A low budget movie, it earned many more times its production costs during its run in drive-in theaters.


Charles B. Pearce was the producer and an actor in The Town That Dreaded Sundown. The stars were Andrew Prine and Ben Johnson. Prine wasn’t given much to do, but Academy Award winner Ben Johnson’s presence lifted it above the usual B-movie category. In Town Johnson was following up another solid performance in a low-budget film, playing another lawman, Melvin Purvis of the FBI, in the 1973 version of Dillinger, starring Warren Oates.(1)

The poster for the film also makes the claim that “Today [the killer] still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Ark.” Reporter James Presley. lifelong Texarkana resident, tells the story of law enforcement in his 2014 book, The Phantom Killer, and how the case was solved with the help of an eyewitness to some of the murders. The law believed a man with the unusual name of Youell Lee Swinney was the Phantom Killer. Swinney was a lifelong criminal, spending most of his life in prison. He was out of prison in 1946 and living in the area when the murders occurred. He never admitted that he was the killer, but his wife, Peggy Swinney, described the crimes, claiming to have been on the scene when some of the murders were committed. Peggy denied direct involvement, going along because she said she was “scared to death” of Swinney. But police and prosecutors believed she participated in at least some of the killings and during her confessions to police was trying to mitigate her own role .

The Phantom Killer was published in 2014.

The problem the cops had was getting her to say it in court. Constitutionally, spouses cannot be compelled to testify against each other. She was not willing to tell her story to a jury. Even after Peggy divorced Swinney when he was safely in prison for life, she would not testify.
Pictures of the Swinneys from The Phantom Killer. Copyright © 2014 James Presley.

The story of the investigation is fascinating in itself. Besides the killer leaving very few clues, in those days crime scenes were often compromised by rubbernecking civilians, and even the police themselves. It made a hard job near impossible.

Swinney was a sociopath and a menace to society. The law felt it was a compromise having him in prison serving a life sentence for being a habitual criminal. Swinney had other plans. He was no dummy and contested his life sentence. He claimed he had not been represented by counsel in a 1941 prosecution and sentencing, which made him a habitual criminal in the eyes of the law. Although surviving documents of the case stated he had been represented by a lawyer, there was no name listed, and Swinney said there was actually no lawyer. Ultimately a judge did not agree. Swinney came close to being set free. Many in law enforcement and prison officials knew that although he was not convicted of the murders, Swinney was being held with no parole due to the belief that he was the Phantom Killer of Texarkana.

Unfortunately, as the book states, the law never went to the families of those who had been murdered and told them what they had done. I believe there was a legal reason they decided not to share with the families. Had they done so, that probably would have been grounds for an appeal by Swinney. So the story grew up that the killer had never been caught.(2)

During the time of the hysteria while the Phantom Killer still operated, Life magazine had a two-page article explaining the terrors in Texarkana.(3)


What could the reporter and photographer show, really? These pictures must have been frustrating for an editor. They seem somewhat placid considering the terror the town was reported to be in. From the June 10, 1946 issue.

I watched The Town That Dreaded Sundown on YouTube. I don’t know if it will be taken down due to copyright claims, but here is the link to the movie in case it is still up (no guarantees, though):


(1) Oates played his brother in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969). No need to feel sorry for Johnson, doing low-budget films at this stage of his career. He put on no airs nor asked for extra money because of his Academy Award. He did well for himself. He was a horse breeder during his whole acting career, and as Wikipedia puts it, “. . . shrewd real estate investments made Johnson worth an estimated 100 million dollars by his latter years.”

(2) There was also the eyewitness, a young women from the couple who survived the first attack. She claimed the attacker was a black man. The boy who survived said the man wore a mask. It added confusion to the case. I believe the hood worn by the killer in The Town That Dreaded Sundown is actually inspired by the real-life Zodiac killer, who operated in California in the late sixties. Zodiac is another killer whose identity is strongly suspected, but due to lack of evidence was never called to account for his crimes.

(3) At least the hysteria in Texarkana was earned. The case of the so-called “Mad Gasser of Mattoon (Illinois)” is considered a textbook case of mass hysteria. Occurring just a couple of years before the Texarkana events, whether there was actually an attacker or just a lot of fevered imaginations at work, it is still a fascinating story. Read about it in this article from the Oddly Historical website.

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