Missouri and Ozarks History

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

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

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Ebenezer Camp Ground

Ebenezer, a small community in Greene County, Missouri, is located about ten miles north of Springfield a mile or two east of Highway 13. Originally settled about 1831, it is one of the oldest communities in Greene County and at one time was perhaps the second-most prominent town in the county after Springfield. In the 1850s, Ebenezer had two stores, several other shops, and "a considerable village population," according to Holcombe's History of Greene County.
The Ebenezer area was largely settled by Methodists, and the M. E. Church of Ebenezer was one of the first in the county, if not the entire state. From Ebenezer's very earliest days, the camp grounds of the Methodist Church there was a great gathering place, not only for religious functions but sometimes for other purposes as well. Religious camp meetings were regularly held in August, and in August of 1901, a 70th anniversary celebration of the Ebenezer Methodist Church was held on the camp grounds with a big crowd in attendance. "The people about Ebenezer would not know how to get along without their August camp meeting," observed a Springfield newspaper at the time. "It is an event to look forward to like Christmas."
The newspaper allowed that it was debatable whether the Ebenezer church was the "very cradle of Methodism in Missouri" as some sources claimed, but it was certain that the church's grounds had been used as a religious gathering place for at least 65 years. District conference records of the Methodist Church dated back to 1834, and the very earliest records mentioned Ebenezer. "Annual conferences used to be held there and famous bishops have proclaimed the zealous and lofty faith of John Wesley on the old Ebenezer camp ground."
The Methodist circuit that included Ebenezer extended north to Bolivar in the early days and south to include northeastern Stone County. Circuit riders preached at least once a day and sometimes twice. Often they would preach in private houses or in a grove of trees, as church buildings were few and far between. Preachers were poorly compensated. If a circuit rider made $150 a year, he was considered well maintained. Of course, the preachers were often the recipients of gifts from their flock ranging from knit socks to dried apples to help in their support.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Midnight Tragedy in Lucas Place

Near midnight on Sunday evening, December 18, 1881, John Powers, night watchman in the exclusive Lucas Place residential district of St. Louis, heard the sound of a gunshot come from near the corner of Seventeenth and Lucas Place (i.e. Locust Street). Rushing to the scene, he found Fred Thomkins (aka Tonkin) lying mortally wounded in a grassy plot just outside the enclosed churchyard of the Second Presbyterian Church with a bullet wound to his gut. Thomkins, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, was known about the neighborhood as a voyeur and “amateur blackmailer” who was in the habit of spying on people who resorted to the churchyard for “immoral purposes” and then extorting those he found in “compromising situations.” Powers had warned Thomkins his perverse curiosity was going to get him in trouble, and now it had seemingly got him killed.
Taken to a hospital, Thomkins died a couple of days later but not before describing a young man and young woman he said were responsible for shooting him. Suspicion quickly centered on Kitty Mulcahy, and she was arrested on December 20 at a bordello on Eighth Street run by Lou Allen, who implicated Kitty as the shooter. Early Wednesday morning the 21st, eighteen-year-old Billy Scharlow was rousted out of bed at his mother’s home on Biddle Street and taken into custody as Kitty’s suspected accomplice.
Interviewed later on Wednesday, Lou Allen told a Post-Dispatch reporter that Kitty had previously been married but was only eighteen and was “a nice sweet-tempered little girl.” Billy Scharlow, her lover, frequently called on her at Lou’s place, and the two had been out together Sunday night. Lou said the girl’s real name was McCabe, although she went by several different names, including Mulcahy and Lamont.
After talking to Lou, the reporter went to the jail to see Kitty. The newspaperman thought she was “not a bad looking girl,” but her short, tangled hair gave her an appearance that was “not exactly what a fastidious man would demand of his lady love.” And Kitty’s expletive-laden answers to the reporter’s questions suggested she was not at all the sweet-tempered girl Lou had made her out to be.
Angry that Lou had turned her in after she’d confided in her, Kitty called the madam a damned bitch and refused at first to talk about what happened Sunday night. “What the _____ and _____ do you want to know for, you ____ _____ _____?” she swore.
She finally calmed down enough to tell her story, which the reporter related, “stripped of its curses and vulgarity.” Kitty admitted that she was near the church on Sunday night and heard the shot that killed Thomkins. However, she claimed that she was not the person who fired the shot and that Billy was nowhere near the scene. Instead, she tried to implicate a girl from the Irish neighborhood named Mollie Maloney, who was her rival for Billy’s affections.
A coroner’s inquest began Wednesday afternoon, but Kitty did not testify until Thursday, when she “came in smiling, dressed in a showy red dress, with a red hood and black cloak. She smiled pleasantly at Billy Scharlow, winked at the reporters, flung herself into a chair, and crossed her legs.” Kitty kept her eyes fastened on Billy, but he seemed to ignore her.
When Kitty took the stand, there was a stir of interest among the jury, and all listened intently as the coroner questioned her. She introduced herself as Kitty Lamont but added that she had “half a dozen” other names, one of which was Mulcahy. Kitty repeated essentially the same story she’d told the reporter the day before, admitting that she heard the shot that killed Thomkins but that she didn’t fire it and that Billy was nowhere near.
The police believed some of Kitty’s story, but they thought she was covering for Billy, whom they now believed was the one who had actually shot Thompkins. In a move that lent credence to the police theory that Kitty was trying to protect Billy, she broke down the next day and admitted that she had fired the fatal shot. She claimed, though, that the man she was with was not Billy Scharlow but rather a stranger she’d met on the street.
Both Kitty and Billy were released after initial questioning, but Billy was soon returned to custody on a prior assault charge. Then, on December 28, Kitty was charged with murder for the Tonkin killing. Upon her arrest, she said that, since Billy was going to the penitentiary, she didn’t care if she did, too. “If he was to go to hell, I would want to go,” she declared.
Interviewed in her jail cell, Kitty recanted her confession, saying the detectives had coaxed it out of her by plying her with whiskey and cigars. “I was drunk when I gave that confession,” she said.
In mid-January 1882, Billy was sentenced to two years in the penitentiary on the assault charge, and Kitty’s trial followed in April. Almost from the time she was arrested, many people felt the case against Kitty was weak, and it fell apart when her attorney presented the defense on April 12. He argued that her confession had been coerced and cajoled out of her, that the case boiled down to her word against Lou Allen’s, and that Lou’s testimony was just hearsay at any rate. Kitty was found not guilty later the same day, and no one else was ever charged for the Thompkins murder.
This entry is condensed from a chapter in my latest book, Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History, which, by the way, I'll be having a book signing for at Always Buying Books in Joplin on Saturday, June 30.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Triple Lynching at Osceola

In the spring of 1880, St. Clair County, Missouri, had been plagued by an outbreak of crime stretching back several years, and, in many instances, the perpetrators had not been brought to justice because of continuances and other legal maneuvering. On the night of May 12, a mob of vigilantes decided to take matters into their own hands.
About half past midnight, about fifty armed and masked men broke into the St. Clair County Jail at Osceola, dragged Chesley Pierce, John Parks, and John Smith out of their cells intent on dispensing their own brand of justice. Eighteen-year-old Pierce had killed William Bohon in January at a schoolhouse east of Osceola, and Parks was arrested as an accessory to the crime. In April, twenty-year-old Smith killed William Triplett near Johnson City over an old grudge, and he joined Pierce and Parks in the clink.
By mid-May, Pierce and Parks had already been indicted for murder and were scheduled for trial at the May term of the St. Clair County Circuit Court, while Smith was awaiting the action of a grand jury. Despite the fact that the county prosecutor was under indictment for malfeasance in office, the wheels of justice were still turning in St. Clair County.
But apparently not rapidly enough to suit some.
After dragging the three men from their cells, in the wee hours of May 13, the Moderators, as they called themselves, put ropes around the captives’ necks and marched them a couple of blocks to Fourth and Chestnut, where Smith made a break for freedom. The vigilantes yelled for him to halt, but he ignored the order and was riddled with bullets.
Taking the Humansville Road to the eastern outskirts of town, the vigilantes marched Pierce and Parks to a grove of locust trees in an area known as Happy Hollow, dragging Smith’s body along with them. The live prisoners were strung up to a limb of one of the trees, while Smith’s body was tied to the trunk of a different tree.
After the multiple lynching, the mob rode off in a southerly direction, and the victims were left suspended until after daylight on the morning of the 13th. Found at the scene was a note left by the lynchers saying they were “tiard of the tardiness of the law” in the administration of justice, and they promised that future murderers and horse thieves of St. Clair County would be dealt with in similar manner.
The bodies were cut down and removed to the courthouse, where a coroner’s inquest was held. The jury reached the usual verdict that the three men had come to their deaths at the hands of parties unknown. Thus, another outbreak of mobocracy in Missouri went unpunished.
Condensed from a chapter in my latest book, Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

A Remarkable Case of Infatuation

After Charles Kring killed Dora Broemser, his business partner’s wife, in St. Louis on January 4, 1875, for refusing to leave her husband and marry him, most people thought Kring’s claim that he and Dora had been lovers was either an outrageous lie or the romantic delusion of a raving lunatic. But over the next several years, as the case bogged down in continuances and appeals, public opinion gradually shifted to the point that many people felt Kring had been a victim of Dora’s “cruel seduction.”
In the fall of 1869, Charles Kring married Margaret Recker in Illinois, but Kring was not happy in the marriage. A daughter named Emma was born to the couple in 1870, and the next year the family moved to St. Louis, where Kring, who’d apprenticed as an apothecary in his native Germany, went into the drugstore business.
In the spring of 1872, Kring’s father withdrew his financial support for the project, and Charles had to sell the stor. Shortly afterward, little Emma died, throwing Kring into despondency. He and Margaret moved away briefly, and upon their return to the city, Jacob Broemser offered Kring a job as a clerk in Broemser’s drugstore in a St. Louis suburb. When Kring assumed the position in September, Broemser introduced him to his wife, Dora, and Kring was immediately drawn to the beautiful twenty-five-year-old woman.
One night in late October, Broemser’s store caught fire, and Kring and other neighbors suspected that Jake had set the fire on purpose to collect the insurance. Kring took a temporary job at a drugstore in St. Louis, but after a few days Broemser, who’d received his insurance money, tried to persuade Kling into going back into business with him. Kling refused at first but relented after Broemser sent his wife to personally plead the case.
Dora helped out in her husband’s store, and during the winter of 1872-1873, she and Kring were often left alone together when Broemser made trips into St. Louis. Gradually, they fell in love or “became infatuated with each other,” as Margaret later described their relationship.
According to Kring’s story, Broemser confided that he had indeed burned his store to collect the insurance, but Kring kept the secret, even after Broemser burned the second store in April of 1873, because he did not want to disgrace Dora. Kring, who had reconciled with his father, even agreed to help finance a new partnership. By this time, Broemser had begun to suspect his wife and Kring had feelings for each other, but he seemed not to mind greatly. Either he naively trusted them not to betray their marriage vows, or, as Margaret believed, he “was trading upon his wife’s virtue.”
In the summer of 1873, the Krings and the Broemsers moved to Mud Creek, Illinois, where Kring and Broemser again went into the drug business together. Jake again spent a lot of time away from the store. Kring and Dora grew more and more attached, and they finally declared their love for each other and became intimate.
Like Broemser, Margaret also suspected her spouse of being unfaithful, but she would not let herself believe it at first, for she, too, was charmed by Dora Broemser.
Only when Jake Broemser, apparently exasperated at last by his wife’s attentions to Kring, confronted Margaret with a love letter her husband had written to Dora did Margaret finally leave Kring and return to her parents’ home.
Not long after the separation, Kring and the Broemsers moved to Nashville, Illinois. Jake was away on business most of the time, and Kring and Dora, according to Kring’s story, lived almost as husband and wife. A female resident of Nashville later confirmed that everybody in the small town knew an infatuation existed between Charles Kring and Dora Broemser.
In late 1873, the Broemsers moved back to St. Louis, and Kring soon followed. Dora was several months pregnant, and Kring was convinced he was the baby’s father. He confronted Dora, demanding to know whether she would leave her husband and marry him. She wouldn’t give him a definite answer and, instead, led him to believe she was contemplating aborting the child.
Greatly distressed by this news, Kring began to believe that Dora had, after all, only been playing with his affections to get him to go along with her husband’s criminal schemes and to provide capital for Jake’s business ventures. He declared his intention to kill Dora if she refused to leave her husband. If Kring could not have the woman he loved, no one else would have her either.
Much of the foregoing is Kring’s side of the story. What we know from contemporaneous reports is that, after receiving a brief New Year’s greeting from Dora, Kring penned a letter to her on January 2, 1875, again intimating his intent to kill her if she did not leave Jake. On the morning of the 3rd, he wrote another note to her threatening that they would soon lie in one grave, “for we have laid criminally in one bed,” if she did not agree to marry him.
On the evening of January 4, Kring carried out his threat, shooting Dora down at the corner of Fifteenth and Mullanphy streets, after he called her out of her nearby home and she refused to leave her husband for him. He then tried to kill himself, but the pistol misfired. Kring dropped the weapon and ran and then gave himself up at a nearby police station.
The mortally wounded Dora died a few days later. After a series of continuances, Kring went on trial in late December and was found guilty of first-degree murder. An appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court and several more continuances resulted in a new trial in May 1878. It ended in a mistrial when a juryman took sick, and a third trial also ended in a mistrial when the jury could not agree.
At his fourth trial in November of 1879, Kring accepted a deal offered by the prosecution and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He was surprised when the judge sentenced him to 25 years in prison and wanted to back out of the deal. The judge refused the motion, and Kring again appealed. Again the supreme court ordered a new trial.
Kring’s fifth trial got underway in May 1881, and he was once again found guilty of first-degree murder and scheduled to hang. Another series of appeals all the way to the US Supreme Court delayed the hanging, and while the case was being decided, Kring told his story to a St. Louis newspaper in early 1882. Reaction to Kring’s autobiography was mixed. Some people partially blamed Kring’s crime on Dora and asked for clemency while others urged that the sentence be carried out promptly.
In April 1883, the US Supreme Court sustained the motion for a new trial. Kring, who was sick, was released on bond and removed to a hospital. He died there on May 17 before having to face a sixth trial. Upon hearing of Kring’s death, most people on the streets of St. Louis expressed the sentiment that he had sufficiently expiated his crime. From a legal standpoint, the case was regarded by many as “the most remarkable in the annals of criminal history in this country.”
This is condensed from my newest book, Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Lynching of Emmet Divers

After seventeen-year-old newlywed Jennie Cain was found dead near Fulton, Missouri, in July of 1895, twenty-one-year-old Emmet Divers was quickly arrested for the crime. Evidence against him was overwhelming, and he readily confessed to the murder but denied the rape. After he was lynched, though, area newspapers, in defending the vigilantes, seemed set on convincing the public that Jennie had been outraged before she was killed, as though sexual assault on a white woman by a black man was greater justification for mob action than murder. In the eyes of many nineteenth century Americans, it was.
Jennie Cain, who’d married farmer John W. Cain about two months earlier, spent Monday night, July 22, at a neighbor’s house because her husband was working away from home. The next morning, Jennie returned to her own house about five miles west of Fulton. When her twenty-four-year-old husband came home later the same morning, he found his bride lying dead in the front room, horribly murdered. She was naked from the waist down, and her throat was severely slashed. Her head lay in a pool of her own blood, and a nearby bed had splotches of blood on the cover. “The condition of the bed,” said the Fulton Telegraph, “indicated that the struggle for her virtue had taken place there…. From indications it appears that the fiend accomplished his devilish purpose on the bed, and afterwards committed the murder.” The Telegraph also reported that a medical exam confirmed a sexual assault had taken place.
Cain immediately notified his neighbors of the tragedy, and one of them raced to Fulton to fetch Callaway County authorities. Shortly before noon, Sheriff W. H. Windsor and his deputies picked up the trail of the suspected perpetrator and tracked him to a house two miles south of the crime scene, where they found Emmet Divers covered with blood and placed him under arrest.
The lawmen took Divers back to the Cain home. Along the way, the officers searched Divers and found a bloody a knife in his possession, and when they got to the Cain place, they found a piece of a suspender buckle beneath the dead woman’s body that matched a broken suspender buckle Divers had on. In addition, according to the Mexico Weekly Ledger’s inventory of evidence, a piece of cloth that matched the suspect’s shirt was found clenched in Jennie’s hand, and a lock of her hair was found on Divers’s clothes.
Sheriff Windsor took Divers to Fulton and lodged him in jail Tuesday afternoon. That evening, as whisperings of mob action spread through the town, the sheriff whisked the prisoner away to Mexico, twenty-five miles to the north. Over the next three days, Divers was moved several more times and finally taken to St. Louis.
Interviewed in St. Louis, the sheriff said Divers had previously been charged with sexual offenses and that he came from “a bad family,” two of his brothers having been convicted of assaulting women. Windsor planned to take Divers back to Callaway County for his preliminary hearing in about three weeks, when he thought the excitement would be “somewhat subsided.” He couldn’t have been more wrong.
Divers admitted while in St. Louis that he’d killed Jennie Cain. Finding her home alone about 10:00 a.m. on the day of the crime, he told her to give him the ring she had on her finger, and when she refused and started resisting his efforts to take it, he knocked her down with his fist. When she started to rise, he tied her up, but she still kept fighting him. So, he cut her throat. After “persistent questioning,” he also reportedly confessed to sexually assaulting his victim.
Callaway County remained in a “white heat” throughout late July and early August over the assault and murder of Jennie Cain, and as the time for Divers’s preliminary hearing approached, about 500 to 600 vigilantes organized at Fulton to take the law into their own hands as soon as the prisoner was brought back.
Despite the open determination of the would-be lynchers, local authorities did very little to forestall the expected mob violence. When word leaked on August 14 that two special deputies had departed from eastern Callaway County for St. Louis to bring Divers back, a huge mob began patrolling the roads in and around Fulton, guarding every entrance to the county seat.
When the two deputies reached St. Louis on Wednesday afternoon the 14th, Divers told them he wanted to be hanged in St. Louis to avoid being mobbed, but they prepared to take him back anyway. Bidding his fellow inmates goodbye, Divers said, “You’ll never see me alive agin, for sure. When I get to Fulton I will be strung up. I killed that woman, but didn’t intend to. It’s a lie that I ravished her, but it’s no use talking, for when they get me up there at Fulton..., they will make me die hard.”
The deputies took their prisoner by train to New Florence, about thirty-five miles east of Fulton. Late that night, they secured a conveyance and started overland for Fulton. A couple of miles west of Calwood, the carriage was suddenly surrounded by a mob of about twenty-four masked men. They forced the deputies to hand over the prisoner, took him back to a bridge near Calwood, and hanged him about one o’clock Thursday morning, August 15.
When word of the lynching reached Fulton a couple of hours later, the mob that had been patrolling the town’s streets, two hundred strong, galloped to Calwood at full speed. When they saw the corpse swinging from the bridge and realized they wouldn’t have the pleasure of burning a man alive, as they’d planned to do with Divers, they cursed angrily. They accused the sheriff and other officers of conspiring to prevent a terrible scene in Fulton by tipping off the small crowd who had hanged Divers as to his whereabouts and by giving their unofficial blessing to the lynching.
Sometime after daylight on Thursday morning, a coroner’s jury went out to the bridge and concluded predictably that the victim had been hanged by parties unknown. The disappointed mob then took possession of the body, brought it to Fulton about noon, shot it full of bullets, and suspended it from a telephone pole near the courthouse.
The lynching of Emmet Divers came under criticism from the St. Louis press, but the local newspapers strongly defended the mob action, suggesting that Emmet Divers got what he deserved for raping and murdering a white woman.
This entry is condensed from a chapter in my book Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Lynching of Bill Young

William “Bill” Young first got into serious trouble with the law in October of 1860 when he was a young married man of twenty-two living in northern Clark County, Missouri. He, John Baird, and two other young men killed a man named Whiteford, whom Baird had accused of stealing a mare from him. Baird was convicted of first-degree murder and hanged, while the other three were convicted of lesser crimes and got off with relatively short prison sentences. Young was paroled in 1864 after serving three years of an eight-year term for second degree murder.
Young returned to Clark County and took up residence in the Luray vicinity with his wife, Mary, and their son, John, who had been born shortly before Young went to prison. Several more children followed over the next decade, and Young became a prosperous farmer, although many people still considered him a dangerous man.
In January of 1877, Mary died, and from appearances, her husband was grief-stricken by her death. However, just a month later, a young, good-looking divorcee named Laura Sprouse moved in with Bill Young as his housekeeper. Whether Young’s housekeeper was also his paramour is not known for sure, but one thing is certain: Laura Sprouse would play an important role in Young’s life over the next couple of years.
On the morning of August 3, 1877, the Lewis Spencer family, consisting of the father and four children, was found slain at their residence about six miles north of Luray. An ax found at the house with pieces of hair matted in blood was thought to be the primary murder weapon. Spencer was known to keep large sums of money, and robbery was thought to be the motive for the killings.
A suspect was arrested a couple of months later, but the case was dropped for lack of evidence. In October of 1878, over a year after the Spencer murders, a man named Daniel C. Slater arrived in Clark County, fresh from the Illinois State Penitentiary. Adopting the name Frank Lane, Slater claimed to be a detective, and he set about making a case against Bill Young.
Young had started corresponding with a woman named Lydia Bray, who lived in his native Ohio, and during the holiday season of 1878-1879, he traveled back to Ohio for a visit. While he was gone, Lane and a young man named Walter Brown paid Laura Sprouse a visit at the Young residence and succeeded in eliciting incriminating testimony from her against Bill Young in the Spencer murder case.
The fact that Brown was a former beau of Laura’s no doubt played a role in her willingness to talk about her employer. In fact, Laura later married Brown. Some observers at the time also speculated that Laura carried a torch for Young and felt betrayed by his interest in the Ohio woman. At any rate, Lane and Brown took Laura away from the Young farm in early January of 1879, and she appeared before a justice of the peace about a month later to swear out an affidavit charging Young with murdering the Spencer family. A warrant for Young’s arrest was placed in the hands of Frank Lane, and he and his posse took the suspect into custody in late February. Young was lodged in the Clark County jail at Kahoka.
When his trial got underway in early October, Laura Sprouse was the state’s star witness. She gave much incriminating testimony, including the fact that Young had supposedly confessed the Spencer murders to her.
The defense claimed Young’ prosecution was a frame-up instigated by Frank Lane, the so-called detective. Young’s lawyers said Lane was an ex-convict and scoundrel who was more interested in collecting the reward money than in seeing justice done and that he settled on Young as the prime suspect mainly because of Young’s prior murder conviction rather than because of actual evidence in the Spencer case. They said Laura Sprouse had been bribed to give her testimony.
The state produced witnesses to confirm parts of her story, but Young was found not guilty on October 25. Public reaction to the verdict was about equally divided among those who felt either that Young was innocent or that there was reasonable doubt of his guilt and those who felt sure he had killed the Spencers. Among the most adamant in the latter group was Frank Lane, who immediately began agitating for vigilante justice.
Meanwhile, Young celebrated his acquittal by getting married the next day, Sunday, October 26, in Clark County to his Ohio fiancee, Lydia Bray, who’d traveled to Missouri for his trial. The couple took a short honeymoon to Keokuk, Iowa, about twenty-five miles away, and while they were there, Young was warned of the vigilante excitement that was building against him back in Clark County.
He nevertheless returned on Wednesday morning, October 29. A mob led by Frank Lane surrounded the Young home about 11:00 a.m. After a standoff and a brief exchange of gunfire, Young was shot during a ceasefire when he appeared at an upstairs window. The mob rushed the house, took the wounded Young outside, and hanged him to a crossbeam of a gate as he continued to protest his innocence of the Spencer murders.
After the lynching, many people approved of the mob action, glad to be rid of a man whom they considered a dangerous character, while others, mostly friends of Young, considered the deed an outrage.
A coroner’s jury reached the innocuous conclusion that Young had come to his death by hanging “at the hands of a mob,” despite the fact Frank Lane had been cited by name in the evidence. Although Lane was widely seen as almost as big a scoundrel as Young and he continued to add to his notoriety after the lynching, he was never brought to justice for his part in the mob action.
This story is condensed from my book Yanked Into Eternity.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Daring to Curse a White Boy

Louis Wright and his fellow members of Richard and Pringle’s famous Georgia Minstrels arrived in New Madrid, Missouri, by train on the snowy morning of Saturday, February 15, 1902. In the afternoon, the black performers gave a street parade, and some of the local white boys taunted the “flashily dressed” minstrels with gibes as they marched through the downtown area. As Wright and one or two of the other performers walked back to the opera house after the parade, two young white men started throwing hard, slush-packed snowballs at them. When the young black men told them to quit, the local toughs responded by hurling insults as well as more snowballs. Growing angry, Wright turned and cursed the white boys. The town marshal showed up just in time to avert further trouble, advising the white boys to go home and the minstrels to stay off the streets.
That evening, a large crowd packed the opera house in New Madrid for the minstrel performance, and a number of boys and young men, including those who had clashed with the minstrels on the street earlier in the day, took seats at the front of the auditorium near the stage. As one of the black performers later recalled, the local youth were still angry that “a nigger had dared to curse a white boy,” and they wanted to find him, take him out, and whip him. The show had barely begun when some of the young white men started making wisecracks about the performers, and the minstrels promptly replied in kind. The banter seemed good-natured at first, but it soon turned ugly. The remarks, loud enough to be heard throughout the auditorium, became more and more insulting as the performance progressed.
Some of the older men in the audience tried to make peace, but just as the performance closed, a half-dozen young white men tried to charge the stage. As they were going through a narrow passageway that led up the stairs onto the stage, somebody pulled out a revolver and fired a shot. Another report said that the white men had already reached the stage and had begun to attack the minstrels with chairs before the first shot was fired.
Exactly who fired the first shot is unknown. The account of the affair that went out to the St. Louis Republic and other white newspapers across the country asserted that the first shot came from one of the black performers on the stage, but one of the minstrels claimed a couple of weeks later that none of the young black men even had a handgun.
After the first gunshot, the place erupted into chaos. Suddenly, “half a dozen pistols were being fired at random by the negroes and white men,” said the Republic. Panic ensued…, and men, women and children rushed pell-mell from the building, screaming and crying.”
In all, about twenty shots rang out. At least one minstrel and one white man received minor wounds. The minstrels escaped out a side door and took refuge in their railroad car, which was parked on a side track nearby.
Local law officers arrived and placed the minstrels under arrest. Taken to jail, they all denied firing any shots or knowing who did, and no weapon was found on any of them. They spent the night crammed into a damp cell with standing room only.
Outside, things died down for the night, but the next day groups of men collected on the corners discussing the shooting affray at the opera house the night before and plotting vigilante action. Meanwhile, throughout the day on Sunday, the prisoners were taken one by one from the jail to the courthouse across the yard for interrogation before a special jury, composed of thirty of the town’s “best citizens,” which had been called to investigate the shooting.
Under an intense “sweating,” one or more of the minstrels revealed that Louis Wright was the person who had cursed the white boys on Saturday afternoon. Most newspaper accounts said Wright was also identified as the man who fired from the stage, but the minstrels denied this.
However, the identification was good enough for the would-be lynchers. Late that night, Sunday, February 16, five men marched to the jail and took Louis Wright out under the ruse that they were part of the special jury and needed to question him some more. Joined by a mob of fellow vigilantes, the so-called “jury” took Wright to a big elm tree at the edge of town and strung him up.
Whether the only offense Louis Wright committed was daring to curse a white boy or he also fired random shots from the stage, one thing seems clear: Wright and his fellow minstrels, as the Independence (KS) Daily Reporter said three days after the incident, were “not the only ones to blame by any means” for the melee that led to his lynching. In turn-of-the-century America, young black men were often lynched if they killed a white person or sexually assaulted a white woman, but some, like Louis Wright, were lynched on even shakier pretexts.
This story is condensed from my book Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri.

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