Alf Bolin: Just the Facts, Part II
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.)