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.

Monday, April 16, 2012

In Defense of Alf Bolin

Alf Bolin, a Civil War bushwhacker in the Taney County, Missouri, area, was, according to legend, one of the worst fiends who ever lived. The legend holds that Bolin slew upwards of forty people and was largely indscriminate in his heinous crimes, killing defenseless old men as well as young boys, although the legend does allow that he tended to target loyal citizens more than Southern sympathizers.
The problem with the legend is that very little of it can be documented, and much of it is probably untrue. The main reason it gained credence more than likely had to do with the unusual circumstances of his death. With a Federal bounty on his head, Bolin was double crossed by people he thought were his friends and killed in a scheme hatched by Yankee authorities. Then his corpse was decapitated and his head taken into Ozark and later Springfield for public display.
As the story of Alf Bolin's life and death was told and retold, details of his life no doubt had to be invented or the real details embellished so that they were just as sensational as the details of his death. Thus, the legend grew in the retelling until Alf Bolin became almost a caricature of evil.
The legend of Alf Bolin as bogeyman that has been handed down is, understandably, told mostly from a Union perspective, but I recently ran across a letter published in an 1872 Springfield newspaper showing that, where Alf Bolin was concerned, the Union side had no monopoly on exaggeration. The letter was written by a correspondent calling himself simply "Reb," and it is as full of absurd claptrap as the Union legend.
According to the Southern version of Bolin's story, Alf and about ten or twelve other Taney County men banded together at the beginning of the Civil War for their own protection but vowed not to join either army. However, all of the men except Bolin betrayed their pledge as soon as the Union army made its appearance in the region, as they quickly enlisted in Federal service. To prove their loyalty, they almost immediately arrested their old pal Bolin and started with him to Springfield. When Bolin tried to escape on the way to Springfield, the men riddled him with bullets and left him for dead beside the road, but Bolin survived and eventually killed all of his betrayers, thereby "earning for himself at the same time the reputation of being a desperado." Stories unfairly representing Bolin to be a fiend were soon circulated and a bounty placed on his head. Shortly afterwards, a party of Yankees started in pursuit of the incarnate devil and went to his mother's home asking his wheareabouts. When "the old and tottering mother of the victim" refused to tell, the low-life Yankees whipped her with a cowhide. Enraged by this act, Bolin "watched his opportunity and put a ball through the brain of each one who took part in the dastardly act of whipping his mother."
The rest of the letter, detailing the Yankee scheme for capturing and killing Bolin, follows the Union version of the legend fairly closely, and, in fact, I think it's fairly safe to say that the part of the legend involving Bolin's death that has been handed down is probably pretty accurate. I think it's just as safe to say, however, that the Union version and this "Reb" version of Bolin's Civil War career prior to the events surrounding his death are both a bunch of malarkey. Both versions may contain certain elements of truth, but Bolin's Civil War "career" was almost certainly much less sensational than either version would suggest.



Anonymous Civil War Horror (Sean McLachlan) said...

There are lots of stories of atrocities from those years that have little or no substantiation. Tales grow in the telling, and when they start in such violent times, they can grow pretty big!
Thanks for sharing this. Your earlier post about Bolin was interesting too. I'd love to see a post outlining what we actually DO know about the man!

April 17, 2012 at 4:41 AM  

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