Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of the Ozarks region and surrounding area.

My Photo
Location: Missouri

I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written twelve nonfiction books, two novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Murder and Mayhem in Missouri; The Siege of Lexington, Missouri: the Battle of the Hemp Bales; and A Concise Encyclopedia of the Ozarks.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Cost of Hanging a Man

I occasionally hear politicians as well as everyday citizens gripe about the slow turning of the wheels of justice in our modern legal system, and often the critics point to how much more swiftly punishment was meted out in the old days. There's some truth to this contention, of course, and in some cases nowadays the wheels have ground almost to a halt. However, complaints about the slow pace of justice are nothing new. In early 1895, the Missouri state auditor issued a report stating that the costs of prosecuting criminals in the state were increasing at the rate of $50,000 to $75,000 a year without a proportionate increase in crime, and the Jefferson City Tribune editorialized on the subject, claiming that most of the increase was a result of "unnecessary delays" occasioned by continuances and changes of venue. The case of Wils Howard, who had recently been hanged at Lebanon, was cited as an example. "There was never any question as to Howard's guilt," said the newspaper, "and yet it required two years and cost the state some $6,000 to hang him."
On the night of April 27, 1889, Thomas McMichael, whom newspapers identified as a deaf mute peddler, was murdered near Vienna, Missouri, presumably for his money. The Missouri governor promptly offered a $350 reward leading to the arrest of the guilty party or parties. Wilson ""Wils" Howard was soon identified as the assailant, but by then he had returned to his home state of Kentucky, where he had previously been involved in the notorious Howard-Turner feud of Harlan County and had earned a reputation as a desperate character. The feud dated back to 1882 when Bob Turner was shot to death by Wilks Howard, uncle of Wils. After Wilks was acquitted, the feud escalated over the next few years, and Wils Howard killed at least three Turner allies before absconding to Missouri in 1886.
But after killing Thomas McMichael, Wils was back in Harlan County, and he promptly took up leadership of the Howard faction as the feud continued to rage, reportedly involving almost everybody in the whole county. On October 19, 1889, John Howard, brother of Wils, was shot and badly wounded at Harlan Courthouse, the county seat. In response, Wils organized a party of about forty men and threatened to ride in and take over the town, which was held by the Turner faction under the leadership of a local judge named Lewis. On October 22, the Lewis group, numbering about 50, attacked the Howard faction about a mile outside town, killing one instantly and wounding six others, including Wils Howard. A few days later, the Howard bunch retaliated, killing two men of the Turner faction.
In the spring of 1890. Judge Lewis asked for and received state troops to help preserve order, and the Howard faction clashed briefly with the troops. When the state troops went out to try to arrest Wils Howard and some of the other leaders of the Howard faction, Wils again fled the territory, this time going to California.
In California, Wils Howard was promptly arrested under the name of John Brooks for robbing a Wells Fargo stage and sentenced to eight years in San Quentin. Detective Imboden of Missouri tracked him down there and, with permission from the California governor, brought him back here in December of 1890 to stand trial for murdering McMichael.
After four continuances and a change of venue from Maries to Laclede County, Howard was finally convicted of murder in early 1893 and sentenced to hang on April 7. In the meantime, he was taken to St. Louis for safekeeping. Appeals to the Missouri Supreme Court and to the governor delayed the carrying out of the sentence, but Howard finally reached the end of his rope, both figuratively and literally, on January 19, 1894, at Lebanon. Before he was hanged, Howard admitted killing several men in Kentucky, but he proclaimed his innocence in the McMichael murder. Thus ended the long ordeal of bringing a desperado to justice.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Murder of Sheriff Cranmer and Hanging of John Turlington

On the evening of March 21, 1890, after a brakeman on the Missouri Pacific Railroad ejected John Oscar Turlington and another man from a train near Otterville, Missouri, Turlington took a pot shot at the brakeman. He was later arrested in Pettis County for carrying a concealed weapon and was jailed at Sedalia under the name of William West, but he was also charged in Cooper County for felonious assault and was scheduled to be transferred there on the more serious charge. While still in the Sedalia jail, Turlington met a young man named West Hensley, who was soon to be released, and he convinced Hensley to sneak a gun into him at the Cooper County jail in Boonville once he was transferred there. Hensley agreed to the desperate plan, and, after he was released and Turlington had been transferred and sentenced to six months in jail on the assault charge, he climbed a ladder at the Boonville jail on the night of June 13 and handed Turlington a pistol through the bars.
The next evening, June 14, Cooper County sheriff Thomas Cranmer and a trusty entered the jail to gather up the inmates' dinner dishes. When Cranmer opened Turlington's cell door, the prisoner walked up to the lawman, shot him point-blank with a .44 revolver, and made his escape out a rear door of the jail. The mortally wounded Cranmer managed to get the cell-block locked down so that others prisoners could not escape before staggering into his living quarters and collapsing. A large posse immediately formed, and Turlington, still going by the name William West, was recaptured later the same night.
After he was brought back to jail, there was much talk of lynching Turlington, but the sheriff had requested, before he died, that the people of Cooper County not take the law into their own hands, and a Baptist minister and other influential citizens were able to convince the mob that formed to honor the sheriff's wishes. A few days after his re-arrest, Turlington confessed his real identity and also admitted that he and man named Temple had held up a train at Pryor Creek, Indian Territory, the previous fall. In late July, Turlington was convicted in Cooper County Court of murdering Sheriff Cranmer, and his execution was set for September, later rescheduled for mid November.
The case was appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, but before the judges made a ruling, Turlington escaped on November 1, 1890, from the jail at Boonville by putting a dummy in his bed and tricking the jailer on duty into thinking he had retired for the night. He was able to sneak out and make his getaway before his absence was noticed. The fugitive was recaptured less than two weeks later in Caseyville, Kentucky, where, it was learned, he had killed two men about two years earlier. In fact, Turlington turned out to be a much more desperate character than Missouri authorities had at first realized, because he also had killed a man in Tennessee prior to the Kentucky killings.
Turlington was brought back to Boonville, where he again escaped on the evening of December 20 by soaping his body and slipping through a hole at the top of his cell and then rappelling to the ground using a rope fashioned from a blanket. He was recaptured the next afternoon.
In late January of 1891, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court's ruling, and Turlington was hanged in the jail yard at Boonville on March 16, 1891. Sources: Cooper County history, Sedalia Weekly Bazoo, and various other newspapers.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Murder of Sawyer Family and Hanging of Edward Perry

On Saturday morning, May 23, 1896, some people were passing the Sawyer residence about a mile east of Ava, Missouri, when they noticed an unusual number of flies swarming around the house's windows. Stepping closer to the dwelling, they smelled a terrible odor emanating from the home. Continuing on to Ava, they reported their findings, and the town constable and a deputy went out to the Sawyer home to investigate. Going inside, the two men were almost overcome by the smell of decaying human flesh, and they discovered the bodies of Lafayette Sawyer, his wife, and their grown son, Ernest E. Sawyer, stuffed under a bed and covered with bed clothing and a carpet.
Ernest Sawyer had been stabbed several times and had a broken jaw. It was determined that he had been killed in the barn after putting up a terrific struggle. It was thought the murderer had then gone to the house and killed the father with a blow to the head with an ax and a "second blow scattered the brains of Mrs. Sawyer over the bed." Ernest Sawyer's body was dragged to the house, and all three were placed under the bed. A note was found on the front window of the house saying that the family had gone to Ozark and would be back the following Monday or Tuesday. It was signed "E.E. Sawyer," but the theory was that the killer had probably written the note to try to allay the suspicions of anybody who might come to the door. Based on when the Sawyers had last been seen, it was thought the murders had probably taken place the previous Wednesday evening. The only motive anyone could come up with for the crime was robbery, although the Sawyers were not thought to have much money or other possessions. In reporting the story, newspapermen compared the crime in heinousness to the notorious murder of the Meeks family that had occurred in northern Missouri about two years earlier.
A young man named Edward W. Perry was immediately suspected of killing the Sawyers, because he had been seen late Wednesday in company with Ernest Sawyer and had not been seen since. "A worthless fellow," according to newspaper reports, Perry was originally from Bellville, Kansas, but he had an uncle who lived in the Douglas County area and he had "been loafing about Ava for several months."
On Sunday, May 24, the day after the bodies were found, Perry was arrested at his uncle's farm north of Ava. He was brought to Ava late that night and made a confession upon a promise of protection from the mob that was gathering and threatening vigilante justice. He admitted participating in the murders but also implicated two other young men, Louis Douglas and Jack Baker. He claimed Douglas killed the old man, that Baker killed the old lady, and that his only direct participation in the crime was in helping the other two gang up on and kill Ernest Sawyer. He said they had killed the family for their money, which amounted to about $80. They also stole the family wagon and team, according to Perry, and drove to Springfield, where they sold the wagon and horses for $45 and divided the proceeds.
Almost no one believed Perry's story, which one newspaper called a "bogus confession." Douglas was briefly arrested but was soon released when it was learned that he and Perry had only gotten together in Springfield after Perry had gone there following the crime, and Douglas had accompanied him back to Douglas County. There was still a lot of talk of lynching Perry, and on the morning of May 26, as talk mounted, Perry broke down and gave another confession, saying he might as well tell the whole truth, since it looked as if he was going to he hanged anyway. He said that he and his uncle had done the killings by themselves. However, when the uncle, Bill Yost, was arrested, he put up a convincing defense, and authorities felt that the second confession was just as bogus as the first and that both were just attempts on Perry's part to shift part of the blame for the heinous murders away from himself.
Perry and Perry alone was convicted of murder, and he was hanged about 2 p.m. on January 30, 1897, at Ava. According to one contemporaneous report, "The murderer's neck was broken by the fall," and "the execution was a success in every particular." At the time, this was the only legal hanging ever in Douglas County. I'm not sure whether there were any more legal hangings in Douglas County after this one, but I don't know of any.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Murder of Conductor Percy

On Monday evening, October 21, 1872, a young man about 18 years old boarded the night express of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad at Springfield. When the conductor, identified only as B. Percy, passed through the passenger car collecting fares, the young man had no ticket and no money to pay for one but said he would be able to obtain some money at Marshfield. The conductor allowed the lad to ride to Marshfield, but when the train arrived there, the young man still showed no disposition to pay. The conductor then took the young man's hat and left it with the ticket agent, telling the lad he could get the hat back when he came up with the money for his ticket. A few moments later, Conductor Percy announced "all aboard" and stepped onto the platform of one of the rear cars as the train started up. The young man scaled the platform from the opposite direction, immediately pulled out a pistol, and shot the conductor through the head. The desperado then jumped from the train and disappeared into the darkness. Because of the noise created by the train starting up, the shooting was not discovered until the train had traveled from the passenger depot to the freight depot about a hundred yards distant. The confusion and excitement caused by the discovery further aided in the shooter's escape. Percy died within twenty minutes, and the next morning his body was taken to Springfield, where he had lived, and turned over to his family.
Although the murderer fled into the night without being immediately pursued, a posse soon started after him and trailed him to a residence about seven miles east of Springfield, where he had stopped and been allowed to rest. The posse found the young man sound asleep inside the home about midday on Tuesday, tied him with a rope, and started back to Marshfield with their prisoner, who identified himself as V.T. Cornwell of Illinois. The editor of the Springfield Missouri Weekly Patriot expressed satisfaction that the man who had killed Percy was taken back to Marshfield rather than brought to Springfield because "our people are slow to punish such heinous crimes" whereas "the people of Webster have had some experience in this line." The newspaperman said he looked to Webster County to give Cornwell justice and that he thought it could best be dispensed at the end of a rope. What ultimately happened to the young killer, however, is not known.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Hanging of William Roland

In the wee hours of the morning of April 17, 1934, two detectives for the Rock Island Railroad, J.W. Whitted and Edwin C. Shane, were killed when they interrupted five black men in the process of robbing a freight car in Bland, a small town in the southwest part of Gasconade County, Missouri. Shane's body was found near the depot in Bland about 7:00 a.m., just a few hours after the crime, and Whitted's body was found near the same time at Eldon, Missouri, seventy miles to the northwest, still lying on top of a railroad car. Both had been shot to death.
Later the same morning, three black men were arrested at Redbird, a few miles south of Bland, and one was arrested at Belle, a few miles west of Bland in northern Maries County. All four reportedly admitted their participation in the robbery, but they all claimed that a fifth black man, whom they knew only as Shorty, had planned the crime and had done the killing when the detectives caught them robbing the car and ordered them outside. The four accomplices were found guilty of burglary and sent to the penitentiary.
On May 14, the man known as Shorty, later identified as William Roland, was arrested in St. Louis. A "professional train robber" and an ex-convict who had served ten years in prison for killing two Mexicans, the 44-year-old Roland confessed to killing the two railroad detectives and was taken to the Gasconade County seat of Hermann and placed in jail. He was tried just a week later (with two of his accomplices testifying against him), found guilty of murder, and sentenced to hang on June 29. The case, however, was appealed to the state supreme court, thus postponing the execution. The high court finally ruled in March of 1935 that the verdict would stand, and the hanging was rescheduled for April 12, 1935.
On the appointed day, Roland reportedly ate a hearty breakfast and then was led calmly to the gallows inside the jail at Hermann. Asked if he had anything to say, he replied in a clear voice that he did not, and the trap was sprung by the county sheriff. A reporter for the Bland Courier remarked that among the 100 spectators who witnessed the affair, "Only four women saw the Negro die. Four men, who had lost courage, left the jail before the trap was sprung." The newspaperman also found it an interesting coincidence that there were 13 steps leading to the scaffold, there were 13 wraps in the rope, the Friday of the execution lacked but one day being the 13th day of the month, and it took the condemned man 13 minutes to die.
After the hanging, the public was invited inside the jail, and another 100 or so people went inside to gaze at the corpse. Bits of the hangman's rope were handed out, according to the local reporter, "as souvenirs of the execution of one of the most hardened criminals of all time who had committed a dastardly crime right here in the heart of our little city."

Saturday, August 29, 2015

More on Lucy Vance

After posting the entry last time about the rape of Lucy Vance during the Civil War, I did a little more research on Lucy and came up with some additional information that I thought readers might find interesting as a follow-up to the previous post. Apparently she was a strong, pioneer woman, as last week's story would attest. Not every woman who was raped by Union soldiers would have had the strength and spunk to file a complaint about it to Union authorities.
Lucy was born in 1840 to J.S. and Martha (Noe) Huddlestone in Greene County, Missouri, near the James River bridge. The family moved to Taney County shortly afterwards and was living in Linn Township of Taney at the time of the 1850 census. Lucy's older brother was a merchant at Forsyth in the years just prior to the Civil War. Lucy married Calvin Vance around 1858, and at the time of the 1860 census, the couple was living in Ozark, Missouri, with a one-year-old-boy named John and an infant daughter named Viola who was less than a year old. Viola was probably the child who was in the house with Lucy when she was raped.
Calvin Vance apparently left home at or shortly after the outset of the Civil War, but whether he joined the Confederacy or the Union or simply took to the bush as a guerrilla is not known. In October of 1864, over a year and a half after his wife was raped by the Federal soldier, Calvin did join the Union Army at Springfield, but that doesn't necessarily mean he didn't also serve in the Confederacy early in the war. Switching sides late in the war, especially Southerners switching to the North as the tide turned toward the Union, was not unusual. Regardless, at some point near the beginning of the war, with her husband away from home, Lucy moved back to Taney County to be near her relatives, and it was during her sojourn in Taney County that she was violated by the brutish Union soldier.
Apparently, Calvin did not hold his wife's rape against her, which, of course, is only right, but some men might have. That's unfortunately probably still the case today. It's certainly still the case in many Middle Eastern countries. At any rate, Calvin and Lucy were living near Quincy, Missouri, in Fristoe Township of Benton County at the time of the 1870 census. They had two additional kids, younger siblings of John and Viola.
By the time of the 1880 census, the Vances were living in Sugar Loaf Township of Boone County, Arkansas, and they were still there twenty years later. Sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, Silas Turnbo, a folklorist and storyteller who gathered stories from early-day settlers in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri, interviewed Lucy about an incident involving a woman who lived on Bear Creek ten miles north of Forsyth when Lucy was growing up in Taney County. When Lucy was about twelve years old, the woman, the wife of Hiram Collier, killed a bear one day after she and her nearly grown daughter went out into their cornfield and, out of curiosity, looked into an abandoned cabin that sat in the middle of the cornfield. According to Lucy's story, they were surprised to see a bear perched on a ceiling joist. The bear was unalarmed, and Mrs. Collier and her daughter slipped out. The daughter ran back to the family's home and brought back a rifle. Mrs. Collier calmly loaded the weapon, stepped into the cabin, and shot the bear dead with a single shot. So, I guess Lucy wasn't the only strong, pioneer woman around in those days.
By 1910, Lucy was a widow and was living with her grandson in Sugar Loaf Township. She herself apparently died sometime before 1920.
Turnbo published some of his stories in two volumes printed in 1904 and 1907 but not nearly all of them. The entire collection is held at the Springfield-Greene County Library and is available on the library's website.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Civil War Rape

One of the tragedies of war is the mistreatment of women by conquering or occupying soldiers, and the Civil War, of course, was no exception. A case in point is the rape of twenty-three-year-old Lucy Vance, wife of Calvin Vance, in Taney County, Missouri, in late January of 1863.
On Tuesday evening, the 19th, three Federal soldiers came to Mrs. Vance's home and came inside uninvited. They asked about the whereabouts of her husband, and she told them he was in Arkansas. (He might well have been in the Confederate Army or in the bush as a guerrilla, but Mrs. Vance, of course, did not say so in her deposition about her ordeal a few days later.) The soldiers also asked about forage for their horses, and she told them she did not have any or know where any was. After a while two of the men left and went to a neighboring house to look for forage. Pretty soon, two different Union soldiers came into the house but stayed only a short while.
The man who had been there all along told Mrs. Vance he was from Iowa. Pacing back and forth across the floor, he looked out the door periodically and told Mrs. Vance he was looking for his company. Then, he began trying to get friendly with her, but she told him she wished he would leave and go next door to Mrs. Watson's and tell Mrs. Williams to come over and stay with her. It was nine o'clock, and she said was afraid to stay overnight alone. Instead of going next door, though, the man started trying to talk Mrs. Vance into having sexual intercourse with him. She told him no and ordered him out of the house. Instead of leaving, he apologized for having insulted her and offered her thirty dollars, which the woman apparently and, if so, understandably considered even more of an insult. She again refused and tried to get out of the house, but the man blocked the doorway.
Mrs. Vance then sat down with her baby in her lap, and when the man advanced toward her threateningly, she yelled. He told her, if she did not quit hollering, he would kill her. Then he pushed the child off her lap, put his arms around her waist, and picked her up. Carrying her to the nearby bed, he threw her on it and started choking her when she continued to cry out. As her cries subsided, he released her throat and put a hand over her mouth to muffle her sobs. "While in this condition on the bed," Mrs. Vance concluded in her deposition a few days later, "he had sexual intercourse with me."
As soon as the man left, Mrs. Vance went next door to Mrs. Watson's, and when she went back the next morning, she found that everything in her house had been carried off.
A week later, January 26, Mrs. Vance gave a statement to Federal authorities at Forsyth relating her nightmare. She described her assailant as a heavyset man about 5'11" tall with blue eyes, light complexion and hair, and short whiskers. He had a fat, round face with small eyes and a high forehead. He wore a blue Federal cap and overcoat. Despite the woman's relatively thorough description of her rapist, the man apparently was never apprehended or charged and probably never even identified.
Sources: Union provost marshals' papers and 1860 U.S. census.

hit counter
web hosting providers