Missouri and Ozarks History

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

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Location: Missouri

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

Monday, December 26, 2011

Zagonyi's Charge

As someone with an interest in the Civil War in the Ozarks, I had a passing acquaintance with Zagonyi's charge even before I started researching and writing my Civil War Springfield book. However, I knew very few details, and my shallow knowledge about the event contained some misconceptions. I knew that the charge drove the Southerners out of Springfield in the fall of 1861 in advance of Fremont's occupation of the town, but that's about all I knew. I imagined the Federals charging through the streets of Springfield, driving the Rebel soldiers from the public square and chasing them out of town. Such an action did more or less occur but only after the initial action and main charge had already happened on the western outskirts of town at approximately the 1700 or 1800 block of present-day West Mt. Vernon Street (where the monument shown above is located). Only after the Confederate-allied Missouri State Guard troops had been routed in a field west of town did the Federals chase them through the streets as the Rebels scattered in several directions. I also was not previously aware of how far Zagonyi and his Body Guard had to march merely to reach Springfield. I had previously assumed that Fremont and the main body of Federal troops were outside town only a few miles away when Zagonyi undertook his celebrated mission, but, in fact, the march started from Hickory County just a few miles south of Quincy and approximately 50 miles north of Springfield. It was, to say the least, a daring and problematic undertaking, but it turned out all right for Zagonyi and proved the mettle of his Body Guard, helping to dispel the unit's dubious reputation as mere parade soldiers. However, when Fremont was relieved of duty shortly afterwards, the soldiers of the Body Guard were also discharged because of their zealous loyalty to the general.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Robbie Camden: The Ridge Runnin' Romeo

The last chapter in my Desperadoes book is about Robert Camden, a diminutive outlaw from Reynolds County (Mo.) who terrorized south central Missouri during the 1920s and 1930s but cut enough of a romantic swath to earn the nicknames "Robin Hood of the Ozarks" and "Ridge Runnin' Romeo" along the way. Usually called Robbie or Bobby, Camden was born near the eastern Dent County community of Boss but grew up mostly in neighboring Reynolds County. He first ran afoul of the law in 1918, at the age of 17, when he and a couple of older cousins teamed up to burglarize a store in the Reynolds County community of Oates. He and his sidekicks broke out of jail while being held at Ironton and committed another burglary while on the run, after which Camden was sent to the state reformatory at Jeff City. He was released after a year and a half but soon got in trouble again when he partipated in a holdup at Thayer, Missouri, in December of 1921. Sent to Jeff City again, this time to the big house, he was released in early 1925 and quickly resumed his criminal career, graduating to violence along the way. He and cousin Burley Barton (younger brother of the two cousins with whom Camden had gotten in trouble a few years earlier) went on a robbing spree through Pulaski and Dent County and got in a shootout with law officers in Dent that left young Barton dead. Camden, however, escaped to Arkansas, where he was finally wounded and captured in another shootout with authorities in August of 1925. He was sent to the Arkansas penitentiary but paroled after a few years. He committed some petty crimes in Kansas in 1930, spending time, for example, in the Wichita city jail, before going on another burglary binge with another cousin, Mac Camden, in St. Clair County, Missouri, in early 1931. Both men gave fake names when they were caught and were sent to Jeff City under their aliases before their real identities were discovered. Camden was released in June of 1933 but, as he had already proved several times, could not stay out of trouble. He promptly set out on a string of burglaries and holdups in his home territory of south central Missouri and finally killed a country preacher in Reynolds County in a murder for hire in August of 1933. It was during the intense manhunt for Camden over the next several months that the legend of the "Robin Hood of the Ozarks" sprang up. Hiding out in his familiar hills, Camden reportedly let it be known that he would provide for any poor family that lacked food during the Depression winter of 1933-34. Finally captured in April of 1934, Camden was sent back to Jeff City for a 30-year stretch on a robbery charge. He later confessed to and was convicted of killing the preacher and had his sentence extended to life in prison. He escaped in April of 1951 but was recaptured a few months later and sent back to the state pen. He was paroled for a year in the late 1950s but had the parole revoked. He was paroled again in 1966 and released altogether in 1971. He died three years later in Ironton, Mo., just short of his 73rd birthday. Thus ended the lengthy outlaw saga of Bobby Camden.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Roscoe "Red" Jackson

Another chapter in my Desperadoes book is about Roscoe Jackson's murder of traveling salesman Pearl Bozarth in early August of 1934 near Brownbranch in northeast Taney County and the subsequent hanging of Jackson at Galena in Stone County in the spring of 1937. Originally from the Howard's Ridge area, Jackson, after having lived in Oklahoma for ten years, was trying to get home to Ozark County when he was picked up by Bozarth south of Springfield on August 1 and taken on to Forsyth. The next day, as the trip continued toward Ava, Jackson killed the man who had befriended him, apparently for his money. Jackson stole Bozarth's car and made a run for it but was captured in Oklahoma and brought back to Taney County. His trial was moved to Stone County, where he was tried and convicted and eventually hanged (over the protests of Stone County citizens, who felt the execution should occur where the murder had taken place) in May of '37. The execution, the last legal hanging in Missouri, became a public spectacle that drew a big crowd. It has been called the last public hanging in the U. S., but the validity of that claim depends on one's definition of "public."

Monday, December 5, 2011

Wilbur Underhill

My Desperadoes book contains a chapter about Wilbur Underhill, whose escapades during the 1920s in southwest Missouri, southeast Kansas, and northeast Oklahoma earned him the nickname the "Tri State Terror." By the early 1930s, as his crimes escalated, he was also known as the "Mad Dog of the Underworld," and he rose to the top of America's most wanted list. When he was finally gunned down by lawmen in Oklahoma in late 1933 and died a few days later, he became the first criminal killed by officers of the fledgling agency that would become known as the FBI. (Photo above is Underhill's headstone at Ozark Memorial Park Cemetery in Joplin.)
Yet, Underhill is not nearly as well known as gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s such as Bonnie and Clyde or the Barkers, because he was never romanticized in the press. And no one ever made a movie about Wilbur Underhill (at least not a commercially successful one). Maybe Underhill was just too mean. But as I say in the book, that, too, is little more than a caricature. For the real story of Wilbur Underhill, you have to go back to where he got his start--growing up on the streets of the rough and tumble mining town of Joplin in the early 1900s.


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