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 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.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Lynching of Mart Danforth

The case of Mart Danforth, a black man who was lynched in Springfield, Missouri, in August of 1859, was fairly typical of the time. He was accused of raping a white woman, supposedly confessed to the crime, and was strung up by a mob before any legal punishment could be meted out.
Holcombe's 1883 History of Greene County says about the case only that Mart Danforth, a "negro rapist," was lynched in a grove just west of the cotton factory in August of 1859. Fairbanks and Tuck's Past and Present of Greene County , published thirty years or so after the first county history, adds a few more details. It says that Danforth was arrested and indicted and that he promptly confessed his guilt but before he could be brought to trial, a mob took him from the custody of his guards and hanged him from a tree in the Jordan valley, "just east of where Benton Avenue now crosses that stream."
I recently found a contemporaneous account of this incident in a Missouri newspaper that was originally published in the Springfield Mirror. From the newspaper account, I've learned that the exact date of the lynching was August 25, the alleged rape having occurred a few days earlier on the 20th. On the latter date, according to the newspaper account, Mart, a slave belonging to the estate of a recently deceased man named Danforth, "went to the house of a respectable married lady who resides about five miles from this place (Springfield) and whose husband was absent at the time, and demanded entrance." When the demand was refused, the black man reportedly broke a window in the house to try to gain entrance and a struggle ensued. The woman threw hot but not scalding water on her assailant but couldn't deter him. Seizing her by the throat, he choked her "senseless" and accomplished his purpose on her.
Immediately afterwards, the woman reported the incident to her neighbors, and a determined search for the culprit was begun. He was not immediately located, but over the next few days supicion began to be attached to Mart Danforth, and, on August 24, several days after the incident, a "posse" went to where he was at work and elicited a confession from him. According to the Mirror, "No force or threats were used to induce him to tell." He was kept under guard and brought to Springfield the next day. Circuit Court was in session at the time. The sheriff took charge of the prisoner, putting him under guard at the Temperance Hall, and his case was going to be taken up that very day. However, a mob of about three or four hundred men gathered around the Temperance Hall, gained entrance, took the prisoner out to the edge of town, put a rope around his neck, and hanged him.
The assertion that Danforth's confession was not coerced, of course, needs to be taken with a grain of salt. No doubt black men did occasionally rape white women during slavery and the years following slavery when blacks were still oppressed, but it is also undeniable that black men were sometimes forced through abuse and intimidation into making false confessions. (It's probably also true that black men raping white women did not occur as often as white men raping or taking advantage of black women.) Nothing incited white men to violence toward blacks quicker than the idea that "their women" might be "despoiled" by a black man, whether through forcible rape or consensual sex. A black man having sex with a white woman was the ultimate challenge to white, male authority. Fairbanks and Tuck's account of Danforth's lynching illustrates the attitude I'm talking about. The authors attributed the outbreak of mob violence in 1859 to "that ever-present menace where there is a large negro population" and later suggested that "this crime committed by a black ruffian upon a helpless white woman instantly kindles a flame that nothing short of the quick and merciless death of the guilty one can satisfy." They seemed to suggest that it was not only understandable but appropriate that, throughout U. S. history, in cases like the lynching of Mart Danforth, the law had almost never been able to convict any of the "indignant slayers of the ravisher."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Dueling and Early Missouri Politics

I read a book one time about dueling as an especial phenomenon of the Old South. It put forth the idea that dueling was one manifestation of the language of honor (specifically that Southern gentlemen often challenged other men to duels when they perceived that their honor had been questioned). The book went so far as to suggest that being the victor in a duel accorded the person added status and sometimes even served as a springboard to political office.
The author cited numerous examples to support his thesis, and it does seem to have some credence. For instance, I am aware of a couple of examples just in the early politics of Missouri. When Thomas Hart Benton (great uncle of the artist) was a lawyer at St. Louis during Missouri's territorial days, he killed a rival lawyer in a duel in 1817, and then when the territory became a state in the early 1820s, he was elected one of Missouri's first senators and served about thirty years. (Benton had also shot Andrew Jackson, a political ally, during a dispute a few years before the St. Louis incident.) General John S. Marmaduke killed General Lucius M. Walker near Little Rock, Arkansas, during the Civil War when Walker challenged Marmaduke to a duel after Marmaduke had made statements that seemed to question Walker's courage. Marmaduke, of course, went on to become governor of Missouri several years after the close of the war.

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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Sam Hildebrand and Family

When I was writing my book Other Noted Guerrillas of the Civil War in Missouri and specifically when I was researching the chapter on infamous guerrilla Sam Hildebrand, one of the most surprising things I found out about the man had nothing to do with his Civil War exploits but instead pertained to his family heritage. I was surprised to learn that his great great grandfather, John Hildebrand, was the very first white man to settle away from the early French villages in what later became Missouri. In 1774, he settled on Saline Creek south of St. Louis in the area that later became Jefferson County. I found it rather amazing that there were white settlers in Missouri almost fifty years before statehood. In fact, I was also quite amazed, while studying my own family history, to learn that my earliest ancestors in Missouri came here before statehood. Not fifty years before by any means, but still the idea that I had ancestors in Missouri (the Franklin County area) as early as the 1810s was certainly surprising. So, I guess that's why I identify so strongly with the Ozarks. At least one branch of my family has been here for almost 200 years, and the other branches weren't far behind.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Absalom Stonecipher Humbard

There seems to be a common misconception that the Missouri guerrillas during the Civil War were little more than outlaws. Of course, that's how Union authorities tried to brand them, but the truth is that many, if not most, of the guerrillas were respected citizens before the war (or, in the case of the younger guerrillas, came from respected families). An example is Absalom S. Humbard of Jasper County. Humbard got married in Jasper County in 1856 and was an established farmer when the war came on. In the years immediately preceding the war, he was a member a group calling themselves the Minutemen who formed in Jasper County for protection against Kansas jayhawkers. Leader of the group was county judge John R. Chenault. At the outset of the war, Humbard joined the Missouri State Guard but declined to re-enlist when his initial six-month term was over. Many of the men who initially joined the State Guard did so with the limited goal of protecting their own soil, and this was true of Humbard. By the end of the six-month enlistment, though, most of them were being asked to join the Confederacy or were being otherwise expected to fight outside Missouri. Like a lot of his fellow State Guardsmen, Humbard balked at this idea and instead returned to Jasper County, where he began recruiting his own small squad. Not long afterwards he fell in with Tom Livingston and became an officer in Livingston's command. Although officially affiliated with Standwatie's Cherokee Indian regiment as part of the Confederate army, Livingston's men were usually referred to as a guerillas. At one point during the war, Humbard was taken prisoner and held at Springfield for six weeks. At the end of the war, he moved to Texas and became a prominent farmer. Humbard's story is probably more typical of the Missouri guerrillas than that of the men we tend to hear about--men like Frank and Jesse James, who became post-war outlaws.

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