Missouri and Ozarks History

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

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Location: Missouri

I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written seventeen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History, and Murder and Mayhem in Southeast Kansas.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Murder of Savilla Scott and Hanging of Frank McDaniel

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the hanging of Willis Washam in 1854 in Greene County, Missouri, which was the first legal hanging in the county. The last hanging in the county and, as far as I know, the only other legal one occurred over 80 years later in 1935, when Frank "Sonny" McDaniel was hanged for the murder of his paramour, Savilla "Billie" Scott.
The 28-year-old McDaniel had served a term in the Missouri State Penitentiary for burglary and larceny and another on in the Federal prison at Leavenworth for violating liquor laws. Around 1932, he came back to Springfield, where he was unemployed and spent most of his time loafing in pool halls. However, the 24-year-old Savilla, who was estranged from her husband, took up with the idler, moved in with him, and helped support him through her work as an "elevator girl" at a Springfield department store.
In March of 1933, the couple had been living together for about nine months, but they often argued over McDaniel's continuing attention to other women. According to testimony at McDaniel's subsequent trial, the two went to a dance together on the night of March 27, but they again quarreled, and McDaniel left early. Later, Savilla went home accompanied by her sister and brother-in-law, and the three found McDaniel there. Savilla announced her intention of leaving McDaniel, started taking down some curtains she owned, and otherwise began making arrangements to vacate the premises. "Let her go, I don't give a damn!" McDaniel reportedly declared when he saw Savilla making arrangements to leave.
But apparently he did care. The next evening he was driving his car around Springfield with 22-year-old Edward Warren, an acquaintance, as his passenger, when he spotted Savilla on the street, stopped, and offered to take her to her destination. Savilla got in, but instead of taking her where she wanted to go, McDaniel drove south of Springfield a few miles and stopped on a dirt road a short distance west of Campbell Street Road. He lit a cigarette and told Savilla he'd brought her out here to kill her. She asked why, and he said, "Because you did me dirty." After a pause, though, he dropped his head and said, "I guess I won't."

McDaniel then drove east of Campbell Street Road and stopped on another isolated, dirt road. Regaining his resolve, he ordered both Savilla and Warren out of the car. He told Warren to stay at the front of the car, and he took Savilla to the rear of the vehicle. Warren heard Savilla pleading for her life, and he went to the rear of the car to try to intervene. McDaniel ordered him back to the front, though, and Warren soon heard four or five gunshots. McDaniel came back to the front of the car and threatened to kill Warren, too, but he decided to let him live, warning that he definitely would kill him if he didn't keep his mouth shut.
Savilla's body was found early the next morning, March 29, by residents of the area. She had been shot four times in the head and five times in total. McDaniel was arrested later the same day and was called to testify at a coroner's jury the next day, March 30. He offered an alibi and said that Edward Warren could verify it, but, instead, Warren ended up being the main witness against the suspect.
McDaniel was tried without delay, convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced to be hanged on July 28. The verdict was appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, however, and the prisoner was transferred to the state pen at Jeff City to await the high court's decision. The defense's main contention in its appeal was that McDaniel's testimony at the coroner's jury amounted to being compelled to incriminate himself.
The supreme court didn't see it that way, suggesting that McDaniel was just a material witness at that point and that his testimony had been freely given. In early March 1935, the justices affirmed the lower court's decision and reset the execution for April 12, 1935. McDaniel was brought back to Springfield from Jeff City on April 11. Early the next morning, he went to the scaffold on the courthouse grounds in Springfield still protesting his innocence. "God bless you all," he said, just moments before dropping into eternity.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Dispute over Route of I-44

I vaguely recall when Interstate 44 was constructed through Missouri, and I tend to think of it as an event that happened at a fairly specific time in the past. But actually it took almost a decade to complete from conception until the last leg of the highway was opened. Planning for the highway began about 1956, and the final section of the road was not completed until about 1964 or 1965. Throughout this period, newspapers contained stories updating the progress on construction of the highway. The progress hit a brief snag in 1959, when a protest arose over the proposed route of the road through Lawrence County.
Plans called for the new interstate highway to roughly follow the path of Route 66 from Springfield to Halltown and then to veer southwest across country to the Mount Vernon area, from where it would then roughly follow the route of U.S. 166 to the Oklahoma state line. In the early summer of 1959, a group of citizens from Lawrence County organized in opposition to the plan. The protesters, numbering about 200, wrote letters to US Senator Stuart Symington and US Congressman Charlie Brown demanding that Congress take action to stop construction of the highway until its route could be reconsidered. The group felt that, instead of building a completely new highway that ran between and parallel to Route 66 and US 166, the government should utilize one of the old highways as much as possible in construction of the interstate. The protesters felt that to build a completely new highway when both Route 66 and Route 166 were perfectly good roads was "a serious misuse of money."
Those who supported a brand new road pointed out that it was a little late to be organizing a protest, since plans for the highway had been known for at least two years or so. In addition, supporters of the already-announced plan said that, contrary to what the protesters said, constructing a new highway was actually cheaper than trying to bring either Route 66 or Route 166 up to interstate highway standards because of all the expenses involved in building access roads, overpasses, cloverleafs, and so forth.
Nothing came of the last-minute protest, and plans for the construction of I-44 across Lawrence County continued as scheduled. Only a small section of Highway 166 was used temporarily as one lane of the new interstate.


Saturday, June 1, 2019

Sensationalist Reporting

I occasionally hear or read of someone complaining about sensationalism in the news media nowadays as if to suggest that this phenomenon is relatively recent. I agree that some news outlets and some journalists sensationalize the news just to try to attract more readers or listeners, but I strongly disagree with the implication that there was a time when such sensationalism didn't pervade the American media. If so, I don't know when it was. If anything, newspapers used to be much more sensationalist than they are today. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, almost nothing was off limits, including people's private lives. Suicide, for instance, was a subject that often made headlines. Nowadays, when a person commits suicide, newspaper accounts many times do not even give the cause of death, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, not only was the cause of death almost always given, but the incident was also usually recounted in detail, insofar as the reporter could learn the details. It was not until around the 1920s or so, when the medical community began reprimanding journalists for reporting suicides, suggesting that such coverage only caused more people to kill themselves, that sensationalist reporting of suicides began to subside.
People's romantic lives were also considered fair game, although there was often a sexist element in deciding which stories to pursue. If a wife cheated on her husband, that was considered fodder for a good newspaper story, but if a man cheated on his wife, that activity was often allowed to continue with just a knowing wink.
When the Rev. J. B. Tharp, a 60-year-old Baptist minister from Weir City, Kansas, arrived in neighboring Fort Scott in early February 1902 saying that his wife had left him and run away with a younger man and that he was looking for the fleeing lovebirds, the Fort Scott Daily Tribune deemed the story not just newsworthy but worthy of a major headline and a full account of the wife's treachery. In addition to preaching the gospel, Tharp sold eggs and butter out of his home, and people would call at his house at all hours to make purchases. His wife was about twenty years younger than he was and looked even younger, as she was said to be beautiful. She often conducted the butter and egg transactions; so Tharp took little notice when one young man in particular started paying frequent visits to the home. Tharp was often away from home on the preaching circuit, and the relationship between his wife and her mysterious paramour blossomed in his absence. Tharp had a friend who tried to warn him that there was a growing intimacy between his wife and the young man, but the old preacher paid little attention until it was too late.

Tharp was holding revivals in Missouri when he received a letter from the friend that his wife and the young man had run off together, taking the couple's 9-year-old boy. Tharp hurried home and found that not only had his wife and her lover fled with his son but they had also taken about $200 in cash that Tharp had saved up and also converted a horse and buggy and other property belonging to Tharp into ready cash and taken it, too.
Tharp scoured Weir City at first, but no one had seen his wife or her lover during the past few days, and no once seemed to know the identify of the young stranger she had absconded with. Tharp then went to Lamar, Missouri, where his wife's folks lived, but they had seen no sign of their daughter, they said. Returning to Kansas, Tharp stopped in Fort Scott to institute a search in that town. When reporters got wind of his story, they rushed to interview him and to broadcast the story of his forlorn search.
Not finding his runaway wife in Fort Scott, Tharp left, saying he was headed to Kansas City to look for her there. The preacher did, indeed, overtake his wife in Kansas City a week or so later, but the paramour was not with her. Tharp retrieved some of the money his wife had taken from him, but he decided not to press charges against her. He refused to take her back, because he said he wanted to go his own way, and he allowed her to go her own way, too, and to keep their young son. "He returned to his home in Weir City," concluded the Daily Tribune, "and she will probably take up life with the man whom she loves better than she does her own husband."
And that's the kind of story that made sensational headlines in the "good old days."

Sunday, May 26, 2019

First Legal Hanging in Greene County

The first legal hanging in Greene County, Missouri, took place on August 25, 1854, when Willis Washam was hanged from a gallows erected just north of Jordan Creek near present-day Benton Avenue. This was near the same location where two black men, Mart Danforth in 1859 and Bud Isbell in 1871, were later lynched.
Washam's trial was held during the July 1854 term of Greene County Circuit Court on a change of venue from Taney County. Washam had been charged with killing his stepson a year or so earlier. Details of the case, are sketchy, since the only extant accounts of the case (at least the only ones I've been able to find) were written years after the fact. Greene County Circuit Court records do contain a few details about the legal proceedings against Washam but few details of the crime itself.
According to the 1883 History of Greene County, Washam, who lived on Bee Creek, near present-day Branson, went down to the creek to fish one day with the stepson, who was about 14. After a while, they separated, and Washam returned to the house alone. The boy did not return, and he was found a few days later in the creek with a stone tied around his neck and signs of violence on his body. His wife accused Washam of having killed her son, and he was arrested and taken to Forsyth.
Washam managed to escape and struck out for Arkansas on his "famous horse, which he called 'Tom Benton'" with his and his wife's 8-year-old son. Washam worked for a while in Arkansas but returned after a few months when the young boy started pining for his mother. The wife appeared to welcome Washam back home and told him the charges against him had been dropped, but after he fell asleep, she sneaked off to Forsyth and turned him in. Washam awakened and started off again on Tom Benton, suspecting that his wife had betrayed him, when he was overtaken and re-arrested. The Taney County sheriff later claimed Washam had offered to give Tom Benton to him if the lawman would let the wanted man escape. Washam, on the other hand, claimed the sheriff had offered on his own to "look the other way" if Washam would turn over his horse to him, without Washam bringing up the subject. At any rate, Washam was brought back to Forsyth, where he took a change of venue and was transferred to the Greene County jail in Springfield.
According to the county history, Washam's attorney, Littleberry Hendricks, made a "hard fight" for his client but to no avail. After Washam was convicted, Hendricks moved for new trial. After the motion was turned down, he moved for an arrest of judgment, but that motion, too, was denied. He planned, at first, to appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court but instead decided to try to get the judgment set aside at an upcoming adjourned term of the Greene County Circuit Court. At the hearing, two days before Washam's scheduled execution, the judge refused to take any action in the case, and the execution went off as scheduled on August 25.
An immense crowd gathered at the gallows to witness the event, people pouring into Springfield from as far away as Warsaw. Washam made a short speech before he was hanged in which he declared his innocence and said he could have gotten off if he'd been able to hire big-time lawyers.The county history claimed that during his speech, he said, "My old woman was sworn my life away, but I am ready to die."
Samuel Fulbright had assumed the duties of sheriff just a few days prior to the execution, and he was called upon to act as executioner. Several years later, Fulbright killed himself by poison, and a story circulated that a nagging guilt over the prospect that he had hanged an innocent man contributed to his suicide. The county history, however, discounted the story as silly. A story also arose when Mrs. Washam died several years later that she confessed on her deathbed that she herself had killed her son and cast the blame on her husband. The author of the county history said he had tried and failed to corroborate this story and that he was convinced that it, too, was a fabrication. He said he thought some unscrupulous attorney had made it up to use as an example of someone being wrongly executed in an attempt to get his own client acquitted.
The Washam case was recounted in the Springfield Leader in late April 1886 in the aftermath of the lynching George Graham near present-day Grant Beach Park. (By the way, the Graham case, which is a very fascinating case, is the subject of my next book, Bigamy and Bloodshed: The Scandal of Emma Molloy and the Murder of Sarah Graham, to be released in October by Kent State University Press as part of its true crime series.) The 1886 newspaper account of the Washam case was very similar to what the county history had said three years earlier.
In early May, 1886, a week after the Leader account of the Washam case had been printed, a person styling himself "An Old Citizen" wrote in to say that neither the county history nor the recent Leader story was accurate in the details of the Washam case. The writer said he had been present at both the trial and the hanging and knew firsthand what he was talking about.
The letter writer said that the murdered lad's body was not found in the creek several days after it disappeared with a stone tied around his neck. Instead, the principal witness in the case, a neighbor named Wilson, testified that, on the day the body was found, he was attracted by the screaming of the dead boy's younger brother and that, when he came running, he found Mr. and Mrs. Washam, with their clothes saturated with water, standing on the bank arguing, each accusing the other of having hindered the rescue effort. The dead lad did not have a stone around his neck, and the only marks of violence were three bruises on one side of his neck and one bruise on the other side, as might have been caused by the grip of a person's fingers and thumb. The neighbor said that, after the boy was dragged from the water, an effort to resuscitate the victim was made but to no avail.
Washam's testimony was that he and his stepson went fishing and that, after he separated from the boy, he was attracted by the shouts of his younger son, who had tagged along also. Washam rushed back to where he'd left the boys and jumped into the water to try to save the older lad. While he was still wrestling to get the boy ashore, the mother showed up and jumped in also, but Washam claimed he got tangled up in her clothes, which caused him to have to let go of the boy in order to save himself. Washam was said to have previously made threats against his stepson, which, along with the bruises on the neck, gave rise to suspicion against him.
The "old citizen" also said that it was not true that Littleberry Hendricks had made a valiant effort to save his client. Hendricks did not even become Washam's counsel until after the defendant had been convicted and his original court-appointed lawyers had abandoned him. Hendricks had filed Washam's appeals only because he felt anyone was entitled to file such appeals, not because he was valiantly fighting for his client. Washam's hanging was scheduled for a Friday, and Hendricks appeared before the judge on Thursday in a last-minute attempt to get his appeal heard. The judge said he would hear the case early Friday morning but then, after Hendricks left, the judge ordered the sheriff to adjourn the court until Saturday, thus cutting off any chance for the appeal to actually be heard.
In addition, the "old citizen" said Washam did not blame his wife during his speech on the gallows but simply said that he was innocent and would have been acquitted if he'd been able to afford good attorneys.

Although the facts of this case are, as I say, very sketchy, the story of the "old citizen" seems to me to have more of a ring of truth to it than the county history account. And the idea that Washam was, indeed, innocent seems to have gained considerable credence in the late 1800s and early 1900s, although this might have simply been a case of romanticizing past events.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Killing of Clara Castle and Trial of Jessie Morrison

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the mysterious death of May Sapp in Allen County, Kansas, in 1907. From the outset, whether she had been killed or had sliced her own throat with a razor was a subject of debate. A similar case happened in Butler County a few years earlier, and it was the subject of even more notoriety than May's scandalous case. Both stories are chronicled in my latest book, Murder and Mayhem in Southeast Kansas.
In June of 1900, less than two weeks after Clara Wiley married Olin Castle, Jessie Morrison, with whom Castle had previously kept company, slashed the the newly wedded woman to death with a razor. That fact was never in doubt, but Jessie, who was promptly arrested for murder, maintained from the outset that she had acted in self-defense. She said she was walking past Clara's house in El Dorado on her way downtown when Clara called her to the door and invited her inside. Accusing Jessie of not leaving Olin alone even after the marriage, Clara attacked Jessie with a razor, and Jessie ended up wresting it away and killing Clara instead. Jessie said she told Clara that it was Olin who wouldn't leave her alone, not the other way around, and that's what set Clara off.
The prosecution, on the other hand, said Jessie killed Clara out of pure jealousy and that she was the instigator of the fight. The state's attorneys claimed Jessie had brought the razor with her to the house, whereas Jessie claimed the razor belonged to Clara, and considerable testimony was offered on this point. In addition, Clara lived long enough to give a sworn statement saying that Jessie had come to her house and attacked her with the razor.


Jessie's first trial in December of 1900 ended in a hung jury. On retrial in June 1901, Jessie was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison. She should have been satisfied that she'd gotten off rather easily, but her lawyers appealed the verdict and the Kansas Supreme Court granted her a new trial. At her third trial in June 1902, Jessie was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. Her lawyers appealed again, but this time the high court rejected the appeal. Jessie was paroled in 1910, after serving about eight years of her twenty-five-year sentence. The governor pardoned her three years later, granting Jessie her unconditional freedom.
Part of the reason this case made headlines across the country was because all the principals in the case came from prominent families. Jessie Morrison, for instance, was the daughter of a county judge, and Clara's and Olin's folks were also well known and respected in Butler County.
By the way, I'll be a having a book signing for Murder and Mayhem in Southeast Kansas next Saturday, May 25, at Watermark Books and Cafe in Wichita.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Rockaway Beach Riot

In the summer of 1965, I was old enough to have taken part in the so-called riot that occurred at Rockaway Beach, Missouri, over the Fourth of July weekend, but I reckon I missed the fun.
Rockaway Beach, located about ten miles northeast of Branson, got its start as a family resort shortly after Powersite Dam was built near Forsyth in 1913, creating Lake Taneycomo. Rockaway Beach flourished for many years, but it began to wane after construction of Table Rock Dam and creation of Table Rock Lake upstream on the White River changed Lake Taneycomo from a warm water lake to a cold water lake. By the 1960s, Rockway Beach, with its arcades and other amusements, had devolved mainly into a summer hangout for young people.
In 1965, Rockaway Beach's reputation as gathering place for young people looking to have a good time was at its peak, and college students and other youth trooped into the small town by the hundreds throughout Friday, July 2 and Saturday, July 3. By Saturday night, an estimated 5,000 young people swarmed the town. The riot broke out just after midnight on Sunday morning, July 4, when Rockaway Beach marshal Jess Marler arrested a drunken young man who kept riding on the handlebars of a motorcycle after being ordered not to. Marler was placing the young offender in his police car near the town's Chamber of Commerce office across the street from Rocco's Gay Nineties tavern when a group of young people leaving the bar saw what was happening and tried to take the prisoner away from the marshal. They turned over the marshal's squad car, and the melee then grew "by leaps and bounds in a space of only a few minutes," according to a newspaper report the next day.
Someone promptly called the Taney County sheriff's department, and deputies, as well as Forsyth police officers, arrived within fifteen minutes. The incoming officers had no more than reached the scene when they were met by a "fusilage of rocks, bricks, cherry bombs and firecrackers." A deputy suffered burns on his right hand and left leg when he was hit by cherry bombs, and a rock flung through the back window of Sheriff Lyman Cardwell's car narrowly missed the lawman's head. As the riot escalated, the young people started hurling rocks at the windows of stores and shops and stepping up the firecracker and cherry bomb barrage.
At about 12:30 a.m. the handful of law officers discreetly retreated to the edge of town and summoned reinforcements. After additional officers from Christian County, Greene County, Stone County, and other neighboring jurisdictions arrived in the wee hours, the platoon of lawmen invaded the heart of Rockaway Beach to try to retake possession of the small town. They were met with "round after round of rocks, boards, cherry bombs and firecrackers hurled by the youths." When the officers stopped their cars, young people would pile on them and begin rocking the vehicles, trying to turn them over. After battling the rowdy youths for over three hours, the lawmen finally managed to disperse the crowd, and they began rounding up and arresting some of the offenders. In all, a total of 127 young people were arrested and taken to the Taney County jail in Forsyth. Some were placed in cells at the jail while others were guarded in nearby buildings or on the courthouse grounds. The detainees appeared before a Taney County magistrate on Sunday. Most, charged only with offenses like possession of intoxicating liquors, paid fines and were set free, while eleven were sentenced to terms in the county jail on more serious charges such as resisting arrest and property destruction. In total, almost $5,000 in fines and costs were levied against the youthful offenders. Most of the young people arrested came from the St. Louis area, while some came from other Midwestern cities like Kansas City and Wichita. Very few were local kids.
Rockaway Beach businesses suffered a total of about $8,000 in damages. In the aftermath of the riot, some of the business owners lamented the decline of Rockaway as a family resort. "This used to be a fine resort center patronized by families," said one man, "but the college and high school kids have ruined it."
A few business owners, however, especially those who catered to the young people, defended the youths. One owner of a restaurant and nightclub, for instance, complained that he'd lost two to three thousand dollars in business over the weekend because he'd been forced to close down by law officers. He also complained about the tactics used by the police in arresting the youths, claiming that officers hit a number of young people over the head with sticks and invaded motel rooms without warning to pull people out and arrest them. The nightclub owner added that 98 percent of the young people were good, all-American kids.
Most of the officers, of course, disagreed. One lawmen reported that he and his comrades had found eight boys and three girls in one cabin and that all of them were nude. Another group of officers found 22 boys and girls in a two-room cabin, and all of them were also nude. One veteran lawmen partially blamed the hotel and motel owners, who, he said, rented a room to two or three young people and then let 10 to 20 stay in it. The only time the motel owners called the police, the officer complained, was when the youths started "tearing the place up."
In addition to the deputy who suffered the cherry bomb burns, two or three young people also suffered injuries in the riot. One young man who received shotgun pellet wounds said that he didn't know where the pellets came from but that he didn't see any officers with shotguns.
Law enforcement maintained a strong presence in Rockaway Beach throughout the rest of the weekend and into Monday. Fifty-four more young people were arrested during the day on Sunday and into the early morning of Monday. Two or three times renewed outbreaks of rioting were feared, but the strong police presence kept a lid on things. Taney County prosecutor Peter Rea, who personally arrested one of the youthful offenders, defiantly proclaimed, "These kids are not going to make another Fort Lauderdale out of Rockaway Beach." (This was a reference to rioting that had occurred the previous year at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a noted destination for fun-seeking college students during spring break and other vacation times.)
Sources: Joplin News-Herald and Joplin Globe

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Murder of Belle Douglas

What the Joplin Bulletin called "one of the most horrible and villainous crimes that has ever disgraced the history of Southwest Missouri" came to light on Monday, April 10, 1876, when one or more teamsters crossing Center Creek a few miles northwest of Joplin discovered the body of a young woman floating in the river downstream from the ford, where her clothes had snagged on a limb. The body was taken to the nearby residence of Charles Manlove, where it was identified as Miss Belle Douglas. Belle had been living with Manlove, and she had been missing for about four weeks. Although newspaper accounts at the time identified Belle as Manlove's sister-in-law, census records suggest that she might, in fact, have been his sister. If Belle was not his sister, then he must have had both a sister and a sister-in-law named Belle.
At any rate, an examination revealed that Belle had been struck twice with a heavy object, once on the side of the head and once on the back of the head. Either blow was deemed sufficient to have caused death. Belle was also found to be about seven months pregnant at the time of her death, and certain circumstantial evidence caused investigators to suspect that Manlove was both her seducer and her killer.
Manlove was arrested and taken to Joplin for a preliminary examination before Justice of the Peace J. C. Maddy. After several days of testimony, he was charged with murder and released on a $10,000 bond to await trial.
Before his earthly trial came up, however, Manlove was, according to the Joplin Democrat, called to answer at a "higher court" later the same year. While riding horseback on August 8 near the Stevens diggings about four miles west of Joplin, Manlove was struck and killed by a bolt of lightning that passed from the top of his head down through his body, breaking three ribs, and then separated and went down both legs. "Thus ends in tragedy one of the most mysterious occurrences that has happened in this county since the war," said the Democrat. "With Chas. Manlove dies his prosecution..., and perhaps the secret of her (Belle's) death will forever remain secret."

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