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 fourteen nonfiction books, two novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are A Concise Encyclopedia of the Ozarks, Bushwhacker Belles, and Wicked Women of Missouri.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Killing of Rube Sorrel and Arrest of His Sidekicks

Reuben Sorrel lived in the Canaan community of Gasconade County, Missouri, prior to the Civil War. When the war broke out, he evidently served as an officer in the Missouri State Guard for at least six months (although extant records do not confirm this). However, by the summer of 1863, he was back in his home territory of central Missouri, where he gained a reputation as a notorious bushwhacker. In late September he was killed, presumably by a detachment of Union soldiers, although this, too, is unclear. Word spread like a prairie fire, according to a Union report filed a few days later, and "rebels, secesh, and semi-rebels flocked in to the number of about 100 to see the corpse, which was not buried until the third day."
Shortly after her husband's death, Sorrel's widow, Martha, sent for a man named Matthews, whom she thought to be a Southern sympathizer. Among the things she told Matthews was that two men of the neighborhood, James M. Nelson and John D. Pope, had sworn that "four feds would have to pay for the killing of Rube."
Matthews, however, proved not to be a trustworthy friend. He reported what he had learned to the assistant provost marshal at Cuba, Ellis Evans, who in turn sent a letter on September 30 to his superior, a Captain Manning, describing Matthews's intelligence. Evans said both Nelson and Pope had been "noisy rebels" in Gasconade County. Nelson was described as "deformed," with a short arm and a head that drew to one side. He was fit enough, however, to have served in the rebel army under Sorrell for six months near the beginning of the war. (At the time of the 1860 census, Nelson was working on Sorrel's farm as a hired hand.) Evans thought that both Nelson and Pope should be banished outside Union lines or "else inside an inner line" (i.e. placed in jail) as other bushwhackers had been dealt with. He added that the Union men from the neighborhood between Canaan and Jake's Prairie, where Nelson, Pope, and the Sorrels lived, did not want Nelson and Pope arrested if they would only be turned loose shortly afterwards, because arresting them and not holding them would only make them worse when they came back. Evans concluded his letter by reminding Manning that the territory between Canaan and Jake's Prairie was "badly rebel."
An warrant for the arrest of Nelson, Pope, and the Sorrel family was issued, but precisely what action was taken has not been determined.
Sources: Union Provost Marshals' Papers, 1860 U.S. Census.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Lynching of Canada Bill

During the summer and fall of 1886, a half-blood Indian named Jack Barrett worked as a hired hand for various farmers in the Roark neighborhood on Buffalo Creek in northwest McDonald County near the Newton County line. Usually called Canada Bill because he was supposedly born in Canada, Barrett "had a bad reputation," according to a contemporaneous newspaper report, and was described in Sturges's History of McDonald County published 13 years later as "a man of vicious habits and of rather inferior mental faculties."
On Wednesday afternoon, December 15, Canada Bill went to the home of William Robert Roark and found his wife, 28-year-old Samantha, home alone except for one or two small children. When his indecent proposals toward the woman were rebuffed, he attacked her, tearing her clothes partially off, choking her, and badly bruising her. During the struggle, Samantha managed to flee the house but the assault continued until she reached the road about twenty or thirty yards away. Here Mrs. Roark's screams and those of her small children finally "alarmed the scoundrel," according to the Neosho Miner and Mechanic, "and he abandoned his fiendish purpose and fled."
Mrs. Roark immediately ran to the nearest neighbor and gave an alarm, and a posse quickly formed and gave chase. The villain was pursued into nearby Indian Territory and was captured later the same day. Either a U.S. marshal or an Indian policeman (reports differ) made the arrest, and the fugitive was brought back to Missouri and lodged that night under guard at the home of P.P. Rinehart in the Roark neighborhood. Not long after dark, a mob formed and surrounded the house, demanding that the prisoner be turned over to them. Rinehart went outside and pled with the men to leave. Apparently convinced by Rinehart's argument, the men left. Shortly afterward, Canada Bill was started on foot in the company of several guards toward Pineville, the seat of McDonald County. The party halted at the base of a big hill, near where the Seneca to Pineville road crossed Buffalo Creek, and they built a fire to keep warm while two young men named Lager who were among the posse went home to get a team and wagon for the completion of the journey. After waiting in vain for some time for the Lager boys to return, the rest of the posse members resumed the trip on foot. They had gone but a short distance when the mob reappeared and forced the posse to hand over the prisoner.
According to the McDonald County History, Canada Bill freely admitted his crime and said he ought to be sent to the penitentiary, but, sensing the fate that awaited him, he protested that he didn't deserve to be lynched. Nevertheless, he was taken down the road a ways to the edge of a field owned by Sam Owens and hanged to the limb of a black oak tree. The county history said that Canada Bill, in his last moments, "proved himself worthy of the stoical race to which he belonged. Seeing that his captors were devoid of mercy and protests were in vain, he resigned himself to his doom and met death in a spirit worthy of any hero." The guards, who witnessed the hanging, reported that Canada Bill "never uttered a groan or moved a muscle" when the rope was placed around his neck but instead was "drawn up like a log of wood and died as quietly as though he had lain down to a peaceful sleep." He had been guilty of a grievous offense, said the county history, "but grievously did he answer for it."
The body was left hanging throughout the night and was finally cut down late the next day. An inquest was held over the body, but the jury concluded, according to the Neosho newspaper, that "Nothing is known of the parties who executed this act of summary vengeance."
Canada Bill's body was placed in a crude coffin and buried at the top of the nearby hill.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

James Wisdom's Murder of William Judy

On the night of December 3, 1883, William Judy, a young man not yet 20 years old, went to a dance on Elk River in McDonald County, Missouri, not far from Saratoga. Sometime during the evening, thirty-eight-year-old James M. Wisdom, who was postmaster of Saratoga and also a deputy sheriff for the county, showed up, according to his own later testimony, for the purpose of arresting a couple of young men for whom he had warrants. Wisdom might or might not have been acting under the auspices of the law, as he later said, but what seems clear is that he himself was drunk and behaving in an unruly fashion.
He flourished a pistol and starting swearing and verbally abusing Judy, who was presumably one of the men the deputy had come to arrest. Wisdom threatened to kill Judy if he didn't get on his horse and let the deputy ride behind. The young man volunteered to walk and let Wisdom ride the horse, but the older man insisted on riding behind Judy and continued to threaten and curse him. Finally Judy mounted up and rode over to a stump so that Wisdom could get on behind him. The two men rode off with Wisdom reaching around the other man to control the reins.
Some people on foot who trailed behind Wisdom and his captive heard shots and soon came upon Judy's dead body along the roadside not far from where the dance had been held. The next morning, Judy's horse was found at Wisdom's home, the deputy apparently having ridden it home after the murder. Wisdom claimed to have no memory of the events of the night before except for arriving at the dance with the warrants.
Wisdom was tried for first degree murder at the April 1884 term of McDonald County Circuit Court and found guilty and sentenced to hang. Wisdom appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, but the high court upheld the verdict around the first of March 1885 and set the execution for March 27. Governor John S. Marmaduke, however, intervened on March 17 and commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.
Wisdom was received at the Missouri State Prison in Jefferson City on March 24, 1885, to begin serving his life term. In 1887, however, he fell ill, and his family, friends, and a sympathetic physician petitioned for his release, based on their belief that he was in the late stages of consumption (tuberculosis) and had only a few weeks to live. Governor Albert Morehouse pardoned the convicted murderer on October 8, 1887, only two and a half years after he had been committed to prison, and Wisdom went home, supposedly to die. However, he soon regained his health and went on the live many years as a free man, even though he'd been convicted of first degree murder. At the time of the 1900 census, he was living in Oklahoma Territory with his wife and three adult children.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Sheriff Shelt Alsup Again

I have written previously about the Alsup family of Douglas County and especially about Shelt Alsup, who served as sheriff of the county in the mid to late 1870s. Specifically, my book Desperadoes of the Ozarks contains a chapter about the Alsups focusing in particular on the shootout between Sheriff Hardin H. Vickery and ex-sheriff Alsup, which left both men dead, a few months after Vickery had defeated Alsup in his reelection bid in the fall of 1878.
Recently I ran across a newspaper story about an incident involving Shelt Alsup that I was previously unaware of and, therefore, did not include in my Desperadoes book. It involves another shooting affray that occurred in 1876 when Shelt was still sheriff. Late on the night of September 4, 47-year-old John P. Stockton and Sheriff Alsup got into a dispute at the Berry Silvy place in the Arno neighborhood west of Ava. Exactly what the argument was about is unclear, but one report said they quarreled over a card game. Also, a constable said that a couple of weeks earlier he had encountered Stockton on a rural road as he was putting up a "notice to taxpayers" at the sheriff's direction and that Stockton had cursed him and drawn a revolver on him. In addition, Stockton was a fugitive from Dade County, where he was wanted on a charge of assaulting his brother, but Sheriff Alsup said he had no intent to make an arrest and had made no move to do so when Stockton attacked him. Finally, Stockton had reportedly been drinking on the night in question, and it's possible that both men had been imbibing.
Whatever the reason for the confrontation, Stockton yelled at the sheriff, "Damn you, you can't play off on me," pulled his gun, and started shooting. Shelt received several wounds, but he returned fire and, when he ran out of bullets, picked up a rock and knocked his assailant down with it. Stockton sprang up almost immediately, though, and retreated toward the house of Jesse McClain, his 66-year-old brother-in-law.
At the McClain residence, he roused the family and angrily demanded to see Margaret McClain, his 28-year-old niece, because she had supposedly spread some rumor about him. Jesse said his daughter was in bed and told Stockton he couldn't see her, but Stockton checked Margaret's bed for himself and found that she was not there. This angered him even more, and he began using threatening and violent language toward McClain. Stockton's sister, 48-year-old Lydia McClain, tried to calm her brother down and got between him and her husband. Stockton, however, pulled out his revolver, reached the weapon around Lydia, shot McClain, and ran from the house.
A couple of Jesse McClain's sons, including 16-year-old Newton McClain, gave chase, and Newt shot Stockton as he rose up on the far side of a fence. Following her sons outside, Lydia McClain told them, "Boys, don't shoot Uncle Jimmy any more." Seriously wounded but still on his feet, Jesse McClain appeared at the door and added, "Let him alone for he has killed me" and then collapsed in the doorway. Stockton, wounded but still very much alive, then made his getaway.
Meanwhile, Alsup, on his way to Ava to seek medical help, happened by the McClain place shortly after Stockton had arrived. The sheriff heard loud shouting, but he declined to intervene because of his wounded condition. When he reached town, a doctor treated him for two gunshot wounds to the upper left arm and one gunshot wound to the lower right arm. As soon as he was bandaged up, Shelt went back out "on the war-path," according to a report in the Douglas County Leader. Accompanied by a posse of three men, the sheriff set out after Stockton. At the McClain place, the posse found Jesse McClain dead, although he had lived about an hour after collapsing in the doorway. Continuing their pursuit, the posse split into two groups, with Shelt and his father (Lock Alsup) going to the left and Deputy Woods and Jesse Cox going right.
As Woods and Cox neared the Silvy place, where Stockton had assaulted Alsup, Stockton sprang up from behind a pile of brush, spooking Cox's horse, which became uncontrollable and went tearing off through some timber, leaving Woods to confront the fugitive alone. The deputy demanded Stockton's surrender, but Stockton declined the invitation to give himself up. Each man started shooting, and Stockton soon fell mortally wounded with three shots from Woods's rifle.
The next day, McClain and his murderous brother-in-law were buried near each other in the Ritter Cemetery.
Sources: Springfield Leader, Springfield Weekly Patriot, Find-A-Grave entry for Jesse Jasper Newton, census records.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Murder of John Henry Boller

On July 15, 1864, 63-year-old John Henry Boller was driving his horse and buggy into Boonville, Missouri, from his residence west of town when he passed three young men resting under a shade tree at the side of the road. One of the three young men was notorious Johnson County guerrilla Bill Stewart, another one was Stewart's sidekick Al Carter, and the third was a local young hellion named Robert Sloan. Stewart and Carter asked Sloan who the passerby was, and after being informed of the man's identity, Stewart decided to rob him. (The fact that Boller was German-born might have had something to do with Stewart's decision, since Germans were usually very strong Union supporters and were almost universally despised by the Missouri guerrillas.)
Stewart and his two companions caught up with and waylaid Boller about a mile from Boonville. They demanded his money, and Stewart reached for a watch Boller was carrying. Instead, of turning over his money and valuables, though, Boller resisted and started to drive on. Stewart promptly opened fire, hitting Boller four or five times. The bushwhackers then robbed him and also robbed another old man who happened along.
After he was robbed, Boller managed to drive on into Boonville, where a resident noticed his weak, bloody condition and took him into his house. Boller, however, died almost as soon as he got inside. The local militia was notified of the incident and immediately started in pursuit of the three bushwhackers. They overtook Sloan, and one of the Union soldiers shot him in the side of the head. Taken into custody, Sloan did not die of the wound but was left blind by it.
Meanwhile, Stewart and Carter escaped, at least temporarily. Carter and four other guerrillas were killed by Federal soldiers in Howard County on September 12, and Stewart was finally killed by a cattle drover on November 11 at Old Franklin in Howard County just across the Missouri River from Boonville when Stewart attempted to rob the cattleman.
On December 5, 1864, Louisa A. Boller filed an affidavit with officials at Boonville swearing that she was the widow of John Henry Boller, stating that his death had left her destitute and without means of support, and asking that she be given an allowance as compensation for his death. She swore that she had never given aid to anybody in rebellion against the U.S. and had, to the contrary, always been a strong Union woman. Whether any aid was given to Mrs. Boller is unknown.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

A Civil War Murder in Springfield

As even casual students of the Civil War in Missouri know, the conflict in our state was characterized by bitter guerrilla fighting that spawned rampant lawlessness. Robberies, destruction of property, and even murders were not uncommon. Most of these criminal acts were related at least peripherally to military operations—either committed during the fight for control of the state early in the war or else during Confederate efforts to dislodge the occupying Federal Army after the Union secured Missouri in the spring of 1862. However, some crimes were personally motivated and had little or nothing to do with military operations. In the rural parts of the state, most such outrages were committed by partisans and freebooters who identified at least nominally with the Southern cause. However, crimes in the larger cities, which served as Union posts and headquarters, were also not uncommon, and these were often authored by the Federal soldiers themselves. An example is a shooting affray that occurred in Springfield in the spring of 1862, perhaps the city’s most notorious incident of the Civil War that did not directly involve military operations.
Union sympathizer Mrs. Mary Willis, having lost two sons at the hands of bushwhackers in her home territory of northern Arkansas, sought refuge at Springfield during the latter part of the winter of 1861-1862, and she and her family were placed in a vacant house in the east part of town. Because the house had previously been occupied by “a squad of accommodating girls,” two soldiers were placed as guards at the house to turn away unwelcome visitors. About sundown on the evening of May 21, 1862, duty officer John R. Clark and his orderly, A. J. Rice, both in a state of intoxication, called at the Willis home and demanded dinner. When Mrs. Willis declined to prepare the meal, Captain Clark and his companion grew irate, began cussing, pulled their pistols, and tried to force their way into the house. One of the guards shot Clark through the body, and he staggered back a few steps and fell dead. Rice promptly fired at the guard but missed and hit Mrs. Willis’s daughter, Miss Mary Willis, in the head, killing her instantly. The second guard then shot Rice and wounded him severely. The ball struck him in the breast and ranged up through the shoulder, which was badly shattered.
A Mexican War veteran, Clark was a member of Company B, Fifth Kansas Cavalry, but he and most of the men of his company had been recruited into Federal service from Mercer County, Missouri, where he had served four years as sheriff of the county and had been a delegate to the 1856 Democratic State Convention. Despite the circumstances of his death and despite the fact that he was considered by at least one member of his own regiment “a Pro-Slavery brute” who “ought to have joined the rebels instead of our side,” Clark was buried in Springfield the day after his death with both military and Masonic honors.
Upon initial examination, A.J. Rice’s wound was considered mortal, but he lived long enough to be indicted the following summer in Greene County Circuit Court for the murder of Miss Mary Willis. At the August 1862 term of court, he took a change of venue to Phelps County. He was tried at Rolla in late October and convicted on October 30 of first degree murder. The next day, he appealed and was granted a new trial on November 1. The following April the case was continued, but no record of it has been found after that. Rice might have died before the new trial began, because, according to Holcombe’s 1883 History of Greene County, Rice’s wound “eventually proved fatal.”

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Murder of Peter P. Keen

On or about March 26, 1862, thirty-seven-year-old Peter P. Keen was killed by a gang of bushwhackers in Johnson County, Missouri, in the vicinity of Holden. Members of the gang included Andrew J. Wallace, Joseph Ross, Jack Briscoe, George Smith, and William F. Smith, but nothing was done about the crime at the time because the alleged perpetrators could apparently not be located.
In late December of 1862, however, two and a half years after the crime, an investigation was undertaken after several letters passed through the Holden post office addressed to Andrew J. Wallace, giving his address as Frankford, Illinois. (This might have been a misspelling of Frankfort.) Three citizens of Johnson County, including Keen's widow, promptly offered their testimony about Wallace's involvement in the killing of Peter Keen.
Harriett Keen said she knew Wallace was one of those who had participated in the murder of her husband and that Wallace was known in the area at the time as a notorious bushwhacker.
Elijah Buchanan echoed Mrs. Keen's testimony, saying that, at the time of the murder, he was close enough to the scene of the crime to hear the gunfire, that he saw the gang of bushwhackers immediately afterward, and that Wallace was one of them.
Holden postmaster William Rose (who no doubt was the one who called attention to the letters addressed to Wallace) said that Wallace and his comrades had taken him prisoner on the same day Keen was killed and had threatened to kill him, too. Rose said the bushwhackers spared him only because his father-in-law pled with them to do so. Rose added that the bushwhackers said in his presence that they "would kill every damned Union man in the county" or any man who went among the Federal soldiers. Rose said that Wallace had been a schoolteacher before the war and that he thought he was also teaching school in Illinois.
Apparently Wallace was never brought back to central Missouri to answer the charge of killing Peter Keen, or if he was, he was not detained long. He spent most of his adult life in the Decatur, Illinois, area and died there in 1908.

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