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.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Leeper's Killing of Ferguson in Springfield, 1865

In the summer of 1865, even though the Civil War was officially over, Springfield was still an army post with a considerable number of soldiers and government employees stationed there. On August 4, two men employed as teamsters arrived at Fort No. 5 (near present-day St. Louis Street and John Q. Hammons Parkway) to haul some logs. One of them, a man of about 45 named Harrison J. Ferguson, complained to one of the men who was overseeing the loading of the wagons that some of the logs were too long for his wagon bed. The other teamster, a young man named Jerome J. Leeper, overheard what was said and interjected that Ferguson's wagon was just as long as his (Leeper's) and that Ferguson could haul the logs just as well as he could. Ferguson told Leeper that he wasn't talking to him and for him to mind his own business. Leeper warned Ferguson not to give him any of his lip, and he started getting down from his wagon. As the argument escalated, Ferguson called Leeper a son of a bitch, and he too, started to climb down from his wagon. Leeper immediately picked up a large rock and threw it at Ferguson, striking him in the head. Ferguson slumped against the wheel of his wagon, and Leeper struck him in the head with another rock. Ferguson was taken to the nearby Berry Hospital (former home of Springfield citizen D. D. Berry), but he died before he got there or shortly after arrival. A coroner's inquest was held at the hospital the next day.
Meanwhile, Leeper, who was already out on bail awaiting trial for horse theft when he killed Ferguson, fled the country. He reportedly lived in Arkansas for several years after the murder but was not heard from again in Springfield until he showed back up in August of 1869, was arrested by the city marshal and a deputy sheriff, and lodged in the county jail.
I have not yet investigated what happened to Leeper afterwards. I don't know whether he was found guilty or not guilty or perhaps escaped again before coming to trial. Greene County Circuit Court records show that his bond in the horse stealing case was forfeited in 1866 but that this judgment was set aside in January 1867 after Leeper appeared in court with his attorney, but no mention of the murder case at that time. I have not yet checked later records.    

Sunday, May 20, 2012

1860s Baseball

I recently came across a piece in the May 16, 1867 edition of the Springfield Leader reporting on a baseball game that had been held in Springfield a few days before. This was in the days before Major League Baseball and, indeed, before any kind of professional baseball in the U. S. However, there were amateur baseball clubs throughout the country, and the sport was becoming very popular. Its popularity had been spread partly by the Civil War. Soldiers from regions of the country where the game was popular, such as the Northeast, had brought the sport to other regions, but the rules of the game still lacked complete uniformity, varying from one region to another.
The game in Springfield involved the Springfield Base Ball Club, and it took place south of Fort No. 2, which was situated near the intersection of South Street and Mt. Vernon Street. According to the Leader, "There was quite a number of spectators present, including several ladies."
What I found interesting was the box score that was published along with the article. The only statistics given were outs and runs. On one of the teams, one of the players scored 12 runs by himself and made only two outs. The team total for runs was 86. Although the other team scored only 34 runs, the teams obviously placed very little premium on defense or were simply not very good defensively, at least not by modern standards. Also, the players on both teams were listed by position: catcher, pitcher, shortstop, first base, second base, third base, left field, center field, and right field. I assume this means they probably batted in that order as well, but perhaps not.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Alf Bolin: Just the Facts, Part II

The amount of firsthand documentation about the activities of notorious guerrilla Alf Bolin while he was still alive is very scant. Contemporaneous sources of information about his death are also few and far between, but we can learn a little bit more from primary sources about his death than we know about his life.
Sometime around the beginning of 1862, the Federal army placed a bounty on the head of Alf Bolin because of his murdering and pillaging. According to Federals on the Frontier, the Civil War diary of Sergeant Benjamin F. McIntyre, a soldier of the 1st Iowa Cavalry named Zack Thomas set out to collect the reward by implementing a scheme hatched by Union officials. Dressed as a southern soldier or "butternut," Thomas made his way south from Springfield to southern Taney County near the Arkansas border, where Bolin was known to hide out. Here Thomas stopped about the first of February, 1863, at the home of a woman who knew Bolin and who had promised to help carry out the scheme. (Later accounts, which appear to have considerable merit, reveal that the woman was a Mrs. Foster, and that she agreed to cooperate in order to gain the freedom of her husband, a Confederate sympathizer who had been arrested by Union authorities.) The woman went to where Bolin was staying and asked him to come to her cabin the next morning. When Bolin arrived, Thomas, who was introduced as a southern soldier, bided his time while awaiting an opportunity to kill the desperado. Finally, as Bolin leaned down near the cabin's fireplace, Thomas clubbed him over the head with a broken plow coulter, causing his death. (Later versions of the story suggest that Bolin started to revive a short while after being struck in the head and had to be finished off with gunfire.)
McIntyre was present when Bolin's body was brought to Forsyth the next day, February 2, and he went to view the corpse. He described Bolin as a "large sinewey man" who "must have been of great strength and indurence." According to McIntyre, Bolin had boasted of killing forty Union men and had been a terror to several counties in southern Missouri. Another contemporaneous source, a letter written at Forsyth by Madison Day of the 14th Missouri State Militia Cavalry on February 2, the day Bolin was brought in, also describes Bolin as a desperado--specifically a "highway robber and murderer."
The last sentence of McIntyre's February 2 diary entry tells us that plans called for Bolin's body to be sent to Springfield as proof of his death so that the reward could be collected by the appropriate parties. The next thing we know from contemporaneous sources is that Bolin's head, severed from his body, did arrive in Springfield on the evening of February 4. This we know from a brief piece written by a Springfield correspondent on February 5 that appeared in a St. Louis newspaper a week later. Exactly what happened between Forsyth and Springfield is less certain, but according to seemingly reliable accounts that were written later, the head was chopped off with an ax about a mile or so north of Forsyth and the body buried at the road side. The head was then placed in a wooden box and taken to Ozark where it was displayed on a pole. It was also supposedly displayed for public viewing after it reached Springfield on the evening of the 4th.
What we can fairly safely conclude from the available evidence is that Alf Bolin was, in fact, a notorious bushwhacker who operated in the Taney County area during the Civil War, but he almost certainly was not as notorious as his legend would lead one to believe. His claim to have killed 40 men, for instance, was almost surely an exaggeration, and some of the ones he did kill were probably not killed by him personally but by men associated with him. (We know from contemporaneous sources, for example, that Old Man Budd, who was supposedly one of Bolin's victims, was actually killed in the early fall of 1861 by a gang of men who had previously been part of Missouri State Guard captain David Jackson's command and who were now led by a man named Hilliard. Bolin may have been in the gang, but he wasn't the leader.)       

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Alf Bolin: Just the Facts, Part I

I published a post recently in which I decried the fact that so much misinformation, outright falsehood, and pure speculation about notorious Civil War bushwhacker Alf Bolin has seemingly become accepted as truth. Subsequently, a reader responded that he would like to see a chronicling of what is actually known for sure about Bolin, and I said I would try to provide such a chronicle. So, here goes.
The legend of Alf Bolin says that he grew up in the area of Christian, Taney, and Stone counties. In almost all versions of the legend, he was supposedly reared in a foster family because his parents were either dead or had abandoned him. In most versions of the story, the foster family was the Bilyeu family of Christian County, although one version of the legend that I know about says he was raised by the Cloud family of Stone County.
However, even these basic elements of Alf Bolin's early life cannot be substantiated by firsthand documentation. I have not been able to find Bolin in either the 1850 or the 1860 census, and, as far as I know, no one else has either. About the only thing I've been able to confirm is that Bolin was NOT living with either the Bilyeu family or the Cloud family at the time of the 1860 census. The letter about Bolin I recently referenced, which was published in a Springfield newspaper only a few years after the close of the Civil War, calls into question even the idea that Bolin was an orphan, because it suggests that Bolin's mother was still alive and a presence in his life during the war. The only Alf or Alfred Bolin living in Missouri at the time of the 1860 census who was anywhere near the right age to be the desperate bushwhacker was living in southeast Missouri near the Bolin brothers who became infamous during the war in that part of the state--John F., Nathan, etc. However, the Alfred Bolin of southeast Missouri was still living there in 1870. So, he was obviously not THE Alf Bolin. I do believe, though, that the two may have been related--perhaps even named after a common ancestor. One of the legends about Alf Bolin even suggests that he traveled east from the Taney County area about the time the war broke out to try to find his father before returning to the Forsyth area. There was also a 26-year-old man named "Alford Bowling" living in Stone County not far from the Clouds at the time of the 1860 census, but according to one of the proponents of the "Clouds as foster family" hypothesis, this person also could not have been THE Alf Bolin, although I'm not sure what proof exists that this is not our man. Until I see such proof, I'll keep open the possibility that this could be the Alf Bolin we're looking for. It is, of course, possible that Alf Bolin was simply missed in the 1860 census. The omission of people from early census records is something that did occur with some regularity but not with the frequency that beginning genealogists might think. More often they were listed under a variant spelling of their name or in a household headed by someone with a different name. I'm not saying that is necessarily the case here, but it's a possibility.
The earliest mention of Alf Bolin in contemperaneous records that I know about appears in a letter from Springfield dated July 18, 1862, in which a correspondent to the New York Times stated, "A young man, named Bowling, has devastated a strip of country thirty miles in width, between Arkansas and Missouri. Five or six others are associated with him. Armed with a long rifle...he lurks by the roadside to murder National soldiers and known Union men. You can no more find him by searching for him than you can find some particular deer in the forest. He never acknowledges having killed anyone, but he sometimes says, 'If my gun had not snapped, I would have tumbled a Federal over today.' It is thought that he has killed at least thirty men with his own hands. Union men have fled in fear of their lives, leaving their houses empty and their grain standing ungathered in the field. Secessionists have fled, dreading that vengeance will be taken upon them for his crimes." This letter lends some credence to the idea that Bolin was a terror to the countryside and that he may very well have killed a good number of Federal soldiers and/or Union citizens, but it seems to contradict the notion that he was indiscriminate in his killing.
Another contemporaneous source is a report written by Major John C. Wilbur at Ozark, dated August 10, 1862. Wilbur had just returned from a scout to Forsyth and beyond, and his scouting party had encountered a group of bushwhackers west of Forsyth along the White River. Some of the Federal scouts gave chase south of the river and "into the hills toward Laten's Mills, where I learn Boler has a band of horse-thieves, numbering some 50 men." Although Bolin's name is misspelled, "Boler" is almost certainly a reference to Alf Bolin. I have not seen the original document, but it is quite possible that the "n" in his name was simply mistranscribed as an "r." "Laten's Mills" was a reference to Layton Mill, which was located near the Missouri-Arkansas line about three miles south of the Murder Rocks, where Bolin supposedly killed many of his victims. In his report, Wilbur goes on to say that his advance guard was fired on by a party of five men belonging to Boler's command. When the Federals returned fire, the guerrillas reportedly threw their guns away and scattered into the woods to keep from being captured or killed.
The next contemperaneous reference to Alf Bolin that I know about appears in an October 14, 1862 letter written from Springfield by Colonel Clark Wright of the 6th Missouri Cavalry that can be found in the Union Provost Marshals' Papers. In the letter, Wright says he has received reports of a gang of bushwhackers under Bolin committing depredations west of Bower's Mills. This is surely a reference to Alf Bolin, but it also almost as certain that Wright had been misinformed. Bower's Mills was located on the Lawrence-Jasper county line fifty miles west of Springfield and even farther from Forsyth. It's unlikely Bolin had roamed that far afield.
The next contemperaneous references to Bolin concern his death, and I'll save those for next time.

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