Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of 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 fifteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Bushwhacker Belles, Wicked Women of Missouri, and Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Robbery of the Bank of Exeter

About 4:00 o'clock Thursday afternoon, December 22, 1922, two masked men pulled to a halt in an automobile outside the Bank of Exeter in Barry County, Missouri, in an automobile. They left the engine running as they got out and walked into the bank flourishing pistols. The only people in the bank were cashier J.C. Elston, assistant cashier Clara Williams, and customer J.D. Kersey. One bandit stood guard over the three, while the other man looted the vault, raking all the currency and coins he could find into a large sack.
After the cash, estimated to total between $4,000 and $5,000, was gathered, the robbers forced the hostages into the vault and locked the door. They then made their getaway, fleeing in the waiting car, and headed east out of town on the Cassville road.
Within minutes after the robbery, Elston was able to open the vault by manipulating the inside combination. The alarm was given, and posses were soon in pursuit of the bandits. A mile or two east of Exeter at a sharp curve known as the Stony Point corner, the bandit car was found wrecked and abandoned, and deputies and volunteers began scouring the hills around the vehicle in search of the robbers.
One of the people in the bank tentatively identified one of the bandits as a 29-year-old Barry County resident named Bob Amos, and Amos was taken into custody while eating supper at a café near Cassville later the same night.
Burl Reed, a former a Barry County deputy sheriff and superintendent of the county farm, was arrested on December 24 on suspicion, because a pair of trousers bearing his name had been found near the abandoned getaway car, along with several other items that were apparently discarded by the robbers. The money taken in the robbery, though, was nowhere to be found.
Cassville garage owner Jack Clayton was also arrested on suspicion on the 24th because he was identified as the owner of the bandit car.
A fourth suspect, Ben Johnson, who was a prominent Barry County cattleman, was arrested on the 27th, charged with complicity in the crime, because he was allegedly heard to say that he knew where the missing money was.
Reed, Clayton, and Johnson were almost immediately released on $10,000 bond each. Amos was unable to raise the necessary money at first, but he, too, was later released on a bond of like amount.
Both Johnson and Clayton were released for lack of evidence when their preliminary hearings came up in January. Amos and Reed were indicted for bank robbery. They were scheduled for trial at the March term of Barry County Circuit Court but remained free on bond until then.
The trials of both men were continued until late April. Amos was found guilty on the 19th and sentenced to 15 years in the state penitentiary. Reed was found guilty on the 23rd and sentenced to 20 years in the state pen. Amos was received at the Jefferson City facility on April 25, 1922 and discharged on October 19, 1929, having served about half of his term. Reed was received on July 11, 1922 and discharged on November 16, 1932. He, too, served only about half of his original sentence, both men having been released early on account of merit time.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Professional Butcher Slaughters His Own Family

After John L. Soper was shot and killed on his farm near Kearney, Missouri, in March of 1880, a “terrible suspicion” prevailed that he’d been murdered by his own son, Bates Soper. But there was not enough evidence against the twenty-five-year-old Soper to arrest him for killing his father.
Bates couldn’t stay out of trouble, though. About the same time as his father’s death, Soper stole a horse and was arrested shortly afterward. Convicted of grand larceny in early 1881, he was sentenced to two years in the Missouri State Penitentiary but was released early, in September 1883.
After his discharge, Soper wasted little time before launching into a romance with twenty-five-year-old Delia Hunt, and they were married in January 1883. The couple lived with Soper’s mother in Clay County for six years, then moved to Arkansas for a year and a half. In 1890, the family, now consisting of two small children in addition to the father and mother, came to Archie, Missouri, where Soper went into business as a butcher.
After nobody saw the Soper family for several days in the spring of 1891, the Archie city marshal was summoned to check their house late Friday afternoon, April 24. He discovered a horrifying spectacle inside.
In one room lay the body of the Sopers’ daughter, six-year-old Maude, with her skull broken and her brains spattered upon the floor. In the next room, Delia Soper lay sprawled on the floor with her face “pounded to a jelly and her skull pounded to a shapeless mass.” By the mother’s side lay the little Soper boy, three-year-old Gillis, with his head split open.
In a corner stood a blood-stained ax with clumps of hair matted to the dry blood. Two notes were found in the house in the handwriting of Bates Soper. In the notes, he virtually admitted the grisly murders, saying his family was better off dead than suffering through a miserable life as he had. He said he was going to Clay County to kill the devil who had caused all his problems and was then going to kill himself.
Investigators learned that Soper had, indeed, bought a train ticket in Archie bound for Kansas City early Wednesday morning, shortly after the presumed time of the murders. But there was no trace of him in neighboring Clay County. Instead of continuing to his home territory to kill “the devil,” Soper had simply disappeared.
He was finally tracked down in April 1897 in Oregon and brought back to Harrisonville to stand trial in Cass County for the murder of his family six years earlier. After Soper was already back in Missouri, further investigation by Oregon authorities revealed that Soper had remarried in their state under an assumed name and that just weeks before his arrest and extradition, he’d abandoned his second wife, taking their two-year-old son, and then killed the son.
At Soper’s trial in late 1897 for the murder of Delia and her children, Soper freely admitted the crime but pled insanity, saying he was a born murderer with no control over his actions. He blamed all his trouble on the unfair treatment he’d supposedly received since his release from the Missouri State Penitentiary, and he said he felt he was being merciful by killing his family, because he didn’t want them to suffer as he had.
On December 4, the jury found Soper guilty of first-degree murder. Ten days later, he was sentenced to hang on February 4, 1898, but an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court postponed the execution until March 30, 1899.
Sometime before Soper’s execution date, he confessed that he had, indeed, killed his father nineteen years earlier. On March 28, Soper wrote a letter from his jail cell addressed “To the public.” Much of it echoed the sniveling tone of his earlier confession, with Soper still seeking to place the blame for his atrocities anywhere but on himself.
Soper was hanged from a scaffold on the courthouse lawn in Harrisonville on the early morning of March 30. Afterward, the body was cut down and placed in a coffin, and the remains were then sent on a train to Clay County for burial.
Note: The story above is condensed from a chapter in my latest book, Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri.

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Sunday, May 7, 2017

Rather a Mixed-Up Marriage

Ewing Tucker married Harriett Lefever in Morgan County, Missouri, in 1844, when he was over 40 and she was just 17. Over the next sixteen years, young Harriett bore the old man five children, and he worked as a farmer to support the family.
When the Civil War came on, Ewing Tucker left home to join the Confederate Army, although he was now 60 years old. Meanwhile, Harriett stayed home raising five kids. Time passed with no word from Tucker until finally a rumor filtered home that he’d been killed.
Not long afterward, Harriet took her kids and moved in with another old man, Elijah Slocum. Slocum was fairly well-to-do and able to take good care of Harriet and her children. Word was that he also treated Harriett better than her first husband had.
Then, in the spring of 1866, Ewing Tucker showed back up in Morgan County after four years of absence, very much alive. He moved back to his old home place in the southwest part of the county and took possession of it.
But Harriet wasn’t there.
Learning that she was living with Elijah Slocum not far away, Tucker set out to reclaim his family the same way he’d reclaimed his farm. The Morgan County Banner called the situation at the time “rather a mixed-up marriage.”
The crisis was seemingly resolved when Slocum acceded to Tucker’s prior claim on the woman and Harriett agreed to return to her first husband. But she was not happy.
Finally she could stand it no longer. Leaving Tucker, she and her children once again took up residence with her second husband.
Tucker tried to get his family to come back home again, but this time Harriett declined to go back. Infuriated, Tucker threatened Slocum’s life, but Slocum apparently didn’t take the threat seriously.
However, on the early morning of August 29, 1866, Tucker came to the Slocum place and opened fire on Slocum as he was milking his cows. Slocum escaped and ran to the house, yelling to Harriet, “They have shot at me!” and urging her to take refuge in an upstairs room.
Harriet did as Slocum advised, and from the upstairs room, she could hear a commotion below. Soon she saw Ewing Tucker climbing a ladder toward her window. She begged him to call off his attack, and he finally retreated back down the ladder after ascending about halfway up.
Tucker fled on foot, but when Harriett went downstairs, she found Slocum lying dead on the floor.
She gave an alarm, but it took some time for neighbors to gather a posse. That afternoon, they tracked Tucker almost to his house. Local constable Hiram Shockley then went to the Tucker place and found the fugitive calmly at work a short distance from his house.
Tucker denied his guilt, but Shockley escorted him back to the Slocum place, where Harriet confirmed that Tucker was the man who had shot Slocum. Because it was now almost dark, Shockley took the prisoner to his (Shockley’s) home to spend the night with plans to take him to the county jail the next day.
Near midnight 15 or 20 men with disguised faces came to the Shockley place. The constable met the mob in the yard, where the men demanded that the prisoner be turned over. Having secured only one other guard besides himself, Shockley was greatly outnumbered; so he tried to reason with the vigilantes. The men he was talking to at the side of the house quickly cut him off, though, threatening to blow his brains out if he didn’t shut up.
By now, another part of the mob had gained entrance to the house through the front door. As they dragged Tucker out, Shockley ran around the house to meet them but realized there was nothing he could do to stop the mob.
When the gang had gotten a short distance away, Shockley heard several shots, and the next morning he found Tucker dead not far from the scene of his own crime the morning before.
At last report, Constable Shockley was making “every effort in his power” to ascertain the identity of the men who composed the mob but with no success.

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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Stotts City

Lead was discovered in the area of Stotts City, Lawrence County, Missouri, in the mid-1880s, and the town was platted about 1888. It was named after after Greene C. Stotts, an area resident who had been a captain in the Union Army during the Civil War and later a state representative from Lawrence County. The town was incorporated in 1898, and it thrived over the next several years. It was near its peak in population and business activity when a Stotts City correspondent wrote a profile of the town which was published in the Springfield Republican in Deember of 1900.
Calling Stotts City the "Flower of Lawrence County," the correspondent said the town was keeping "pace with the ever rolling tide of progress." Just in the past month or two, new prospectors had moved in, new ore strikes had been made, the output of the mines had been increasing, and "traffic and trade of all kinds," including general commerce, were becoming stronger and steadier.
The Stotts City Bank, which had been organized in 1899, was operating under a capital of $10,000 and had become "a jewel to the city."
A local newspaper, the Sunbeam, was indeed a sunbeam to the town, said the correspondent. Real estate agent B. W. Pruitt was also the editor of the newspaper, and his real estate partner, James Howard, pulled double duty, too, serving as the town's postmaster.
Other businesses in Stotts City included J. D. Roper's drugstore, C. L. Burch's lumber store under S. O. Penick's management, Coleman Lumber Company under the management of George Pruitt, the O. K. Barbershop operated by C. L. Smith, W. G. Petty's livery, the Messick Hotel owned by Mrs. C. R. Shelton, and the Benton Hotel named for U. S. Congressman M. E. Benton and owned by Mrs. June Stotts.
C. H. Young was mayor of Stotts City. He was a carpenter when he wasn't tending to city business. City marshal was Peter Boswell. The town had three lawyers: C. L. Morgan, D. B. Jones, and Enoch Ragsdale.
"The above are only a few of the leading citizens of this place," the correspondent assured his readers.
Three fraternal societies (or secret orders, as the correspondent called them) were active in Stotts City. They were the Ancient Order of Union Workmen, the Modern Woodmen of America, and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
Some of the active mines in the area were the "Old Mt. Vernon," the CCC, the Keystone, the Spring River, the Illini, and the Boston Loy.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Neosho and the Golden Rule Plan

In 1925, Reps Dry Goods of Springfield sponsored a series of “ad stories” in the Springfield Leader called “Know Your Neighbor,” which profiled a different community in southwest Missouri each week. In the August 9 issue, Neosho was profiled under the subtitle “The Best Known Town of 5,000 in the United States.”
The profile lauded Neosho for the energy and friendliness of its people and especially for its “Golden Rule” business plan. Often called the “Neosho plan” because it had first been implemented by the Advertising Club of Neosho twelve years earlier, the Golden Rule plan encouraged cooperation between the business people of a community and the farmers who lived in the surrounding countryside. One of the main features of the plan was a monthly “Sales Day” on which the businesses offered special bargains and a farmers’ exchange was set up at the local auction pavilion. People living in the rural areas came to town from miles around, either to take advantage of the bargains or to buy and sell livestock and farm goods at the pavilion. Since its inception in Neosho, the “Golden Rule Plan” had spread to towns and small cities all across the U.S.
The fertile lands around Neosho were said to be excellent for farming, dairying, poultry raising, and fruit growing; and the Newton County Harvest Show was cited as a testament to the success of these endeavors. Held in October of each year, Neosho’s harvest show was praised as one of the best county shows in the state.
“Neosho is also fortunate,” said the profile, “in having three main line railroads which enable the quick distribution of its products to the larger trade centers.” In addition, Neosho was the intersection of two highways, State Highway 21 to Joplin and State Highway 16 to Springfield.
The fact that Neosho’s bank deposits amounted to over two and a half million dollars was evidence of the town’s prosperity.
Neosho was not only well known for its thriving business community, but it was also becoming famous as a health and recreation resort because of its abundance of spring water and artesian well water. People flocked to Neosho from Oklahoma and other states to partake of the healing waters, and the water was also shipped out of Neosho in large glass-lined tank cars.
“Neosho has a modern tourist camp,” said the profile, “and many of the tourists testify to the fact that this is the prettiest town in the Ozarks.” Thousands of tourists came to Neosho every year to take in its scenic beauty or visit its points of interest, the U.S. Fish Hatchery being one of the main attractions.
Neosho had just completed a sewer system at a cost of $180,000 and was planning street paving projects, including the public square, at a cost of $75,000. The profile writer concluded by agreeing with a Neosho resident who’d recently returned from California and announced, “God Almighty has done so much more for Neosho and vicinity than man can possibly do for California.”

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Morgan, Lalede County

I don't think I've ever been to Morgan, Missouri. I've been to Lebanon and other places in Laclede County numerous times but not Morgan. It's located in such an out-of-the-way place that you wouldn't normally pass through Morgan on your way to anywhere else. And I've never had a reason to make Morgan my actual destination. As far as I can tell, there wouldn't be much to see if I did go, because there's not much there. This hasn't always been the case, though.
Morgan, located in southern Laclede County, came into being on March 31, 1896, when Philip Rader established a post office there and became its first postmaster. He named the place Morgan after Asa Morgan, a local resident and Civil War veteran.
By 1925, Morgan had grown into a small town of 100 people with a city government and a thriving business community. W. A. Foster was mayor in 1925, and the town had two general stores, a bank, a barber shop, two churches, an elementary school, a canning factory, a garage, an ice cream parlor, a produce exchange, a post office, a mill, and a blacksmith.
In 1925, J. H. Linsay, one of the general store owners, had the longest tenure of any businessman in town. "There have been many who have come and gone," said a correspondent to the Springfield Republican, "but Harvey still stays in the corner and vends his many wares." Linsay tried to keep everything in stock that might be needed on the farm, and he would "buy anything that the farmer has to sell."
The Bank of Morgan was established in 1919 with a capital of $10,000. The bank had "always been able to run on its own resources." The garage owner, Charles Adkins, said the correspondent, "enjoys fishing and hunting as well as working, but is always ready to work and can fix anything that is needed about a car."
The town's two churches were the Lutheran and the Missionary Baptist. The Lutheran Church had full services every Sunday, while the Baptist had only a one-fourth time preacher but with Sunday School and prayer meetings every week.
"The little postmistress," said the correspondent, "is ever ready to attend to Uncle Sam's business," although he didn't give the name of the "little postmistress."
The elementary school was for grades 1-8, and C. R. Willard was the teacher.
The correspondent predicted that Morgan, located "on a good road nine miles east of Conway on the Frisco," was destined "soon to become a much larger town."
Alas, it was not to be. What would the prognosticating correspondent think if he could see the town of Morgan today?

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Fantastic Caverns and the KKK

In 2006, I wrote an article for the now-defunct Ozarks Mountaineer about the history of Fantastic Caverns, and a few years later, I posted a follow-up article about the same subject on this blog. One of the things I mentioned in the original article but did not mention in my blog post was the fact that Fantastic Caverns, was once used as a meeting place for the Ku Klux Klan during the early 1920s. I recently ran onto some additional, more specific information about the cave's connection to the KKK.
In the summer of 1922, the Springfield conclave of the KKK, or "Invisible Empire," as the Klan often called itself, purchased Fantastic Caverns, then called Percy's Cave, and the grounds surrounding it for about $40,000 from previous owner J. W. Crow. The Klan planned to rename the place the Ku Klux Klavern and use it as a meeting place for the Missouri realm of the secret organization.
The KKK, as many readers know, originally arose immediately after the Civil War and spread mainly throughout the Southern states. It was ostensibly a law and order organization, but it went overboard in dispensing out its brand of justice. It especially targeted blacks and ended up being a racist organization whose main activity was the suppression and punishment of freed slaves.
After virtually dying out, the KKK experienced a resurgence around 1920. Aiming for widespread acceptance, it once again tried to portray itself as a patriotic, law-and-order, Christian organization, and it was, in fact, viewed in a favorable light by many people, as the Springfield Republican's coverage of the KKK's acquisition of Percy Cave will suggest. The newspaper first announced the acquisition in its August 20, 1922, issue. The report said the KKK, in addition to using the cave and the grounds for its own meetings, planned to make them available to the public, particularly women and children. Admission would be free to the grounds, and visitors could tour the cave for a minimal charge. Order would be maintained at all times. The group particularly wanted to welcome churches and other worthy organizations to use the property.
Immediate plans for improving the property called for refurbishing the clubhouse, eliminating the dance pavilion (apparently dancing was frowned on), and beautifying the grounds. An American flag would fly above the grounds 365 days a year. The local Klan wanted the park and its activities to be an "exemplification of the leading principles for which the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan stand: law and order, protection of pure womanhood, the pursuit of happiness, and 100% Americanism." Members of the Klan were firmly convinced, said the Republican, that their order had "the highest ideals of which the human mind is capable," and they wished to give all who were not members of the KKK a "true appreciation" of the beneficial principles upon which they stood.
In keeping with that goal, the KKK planned to make their initiation or "naturalization" rituals open to the public. The public would be allowed to see the "flaming fiery cross, the white robes and hoods and all the other regalia used in initiations into the mysterious order." The only part of the ceremony the public would not be privy to would be the secret vows spoken by the initiates.
After describing some of the physical wonders of Percy's Cave, the Republican reporter concluded that "probably for the first time..., klansmen will have a setting for their ceremonials which will rival in natural weirdness the popular conception of the Invisible Empire."
The first induction or naturalization ceremony at the cave was held on August 24, 1922, and the first one to which the public was invited occurred on October 12 at 8:30 p.m. A parking area for the public was designated at the grounds, and the KKK furnished guards to watch the spectators' automobiles to make sure they were not tampered with while the guests were viewing the ceremony. Also, a jitney service from north Springfield to the cave was provided by the Klansmen for those who did not have automobiles. A crowd estimated at over 10,000 people attended the initiation ceremony, which was held in the huge natural amphitheater just outside the cave. About 2,000 klansmen from all over southwest Missouri participated in the ceremony, and about 125 new members were initiated, with the Joplin conclave conducting the rituals.
Alas, the second heyday of the KKK, like its first, did not last very long before the group was once again exposed as essentially a racist organization with the oppression of blacks as one of its primary goals.

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