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.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

More About Ozarks' Feuds

I have previously mentioned several old-time Ozarks' feuds, including the Turk-Jones feud that led to the infamous Slicker Wars in Benton County and Hickory County, Missouri, in the 1840s; the Meadows-Bilyeu feud that led to the killing of three Bilyeu men by Bud Meadows in southern Christian County in 1898; the Matthews-Payton feud that predated the Meadows-Bilyeu feud, took place in the same general vicinity, and involved at least one of the same men (Bud Meadows); and the Alsup-Hatfield feud in Douglas County in the years right after the Civil War.
The Alsups were also involved in a pre-war feud with the Fleetwoods that was supposedly even bigger than their subsequent one with Hatfield and his allies, although very little can be documented about the Fleetwood feud. I suspect that the Fleetwood feud was probably not as violent as the oral legend would have one believe (e.g. as many as 200 men suppposedly killed over a period of many years) and that some of the information or misinformation that has been handed down about it may have actually grown out of the post-war feud. In other words, the two have probably become mixed together in the retelling.
Another notorious Ozarks feud, one that I believe I have not previously mentioned on this blog, was the Tutt-Everett feud of Marion County, Arkansas. Like the so-called Slicker Wars, the Tutt-Everett feud also took place mainly in the 1840s. Davis Tutt, who was killed by Wild Bill Hickok on the square in Springfield in 1865, was a descendant of the Tutt family that was involved in this feud.
Part of the hillbilly image that used to be attached (and sometimes still is attached) to the Ozarks by outsiders was a perception that the region, because of the clannishness of its people, was rife with family feuds that often erupted in violence. There was some truth to this perception, I suppose, but I also think that the number of family feuds in the Ozarks was probably not all that much greater, allowing for differences in population, than in some other parts of the country.
Even the Ozarks' own journalists, though, sometimes bought into the hillbilly image and helped propagate it. For instance, in 1915, after a murder in Douglas County awoke the memory of previous feuds in that county and elsewhere, the Springfield Daily Leader declared that, while not as common as they used to be, feuds "are still carried on in the Ozarks. Many times each year the thunder of a rifle or shotgun rings out from a blind, and the unsuspecting victim tumbles to the earth, knowing that some deed committed either by himself or his family, has been avenged, according to the old ethics of vengeance.
"Although never as notorious as the hills of Kentucky for feuds," the newspaper allowed, "the Ozarks of Missouri have been the scene of several bloody ones; man after man has been toppled from his horse as he wound his way through the seemingly peaceful hills; vengeance has been vowed over still forms as they lay in the roadside; families have clanned together against others and feuds have extended for miles around."
Although there is obviously a grain of truth to the Leader reporter's claims, most of this story strikes me as romantic nonsense. For instance, the idea that people still died in the Ozarks "many times each year" as late as the 1910s as a result of feuds seems incredible, but it probably made for good newspaper copy.


Monday, August 20, 2012

Thomas Covington Kills Sidney Norcross

In a recent post, I remarked on the frequency with which summary justice, such as lynching, was employed during the Wild West days in cases of violent crime. Because this was, indeed, the case, there is a tendency on the part of many people, I think, to assume that perpetrators of violent crime seldom got away with their crimes during the days of the Old West. Ironically, however, this latter assumption is not true. Murderers often got off scot free, especially if the crime was not premeditated but was instead committed during a heated argument. This tended to be true regardless of which party was the aggressor in the argument.
A case in point is the murder of Sidney F. Norcross by Thomas Covington in Bolivar, Missouri, on Saturday night, May 27, 1871. The two young men, along with two or three other pals, had been drinking at Gracey's saloon. Between ten and eleven o'clock, they left the saloon and went into Garrett's barber shop (which, like many businesses back then, kept late Saturday night hours). After the men took seats, Norcross asked Covington for some tobacco, and Covington handed Norcross his tobacco box. Norcross made a snide remark about the tobacco box, and Covington gave him a sharp reply. When Norcross retorted in anger, Covington picked up a nearby chair and struck Norcross across the head with it, knocking him to the floor. Norcross was taken home, where he died the next morning.
Meanwhile, Covington fled but turned himself in a few months later at the start of the fall term of the Polk County Circuit Court, and he was tried for second degree murder. However, the jury failed to reach a verdict, and he was released on bond, pending a new trial.
On Friday evening, March 8, 1872, while Covington was still out on bond, he got into a scuffle with another lad named William Stallings at a school exhibition in Bolivar. The two young men and a couple of others had been jabbing at each other playfully, mussing each other's hair, and so forth when Covington took offense to a shove from Stallings that he apparently thought was too rough. He suddenly pulled out a two-edged dirk knife and stabbed Stallings in the breast. Stallings's wound was serious but not considered life-threatening. Covington was arrested and transported to the Cedar County jail at Stockton for safekeeping.
"It now remains to be seen," observed the skeptical editor of the Bolivar Free Press, "whether killing and stabbing is a crime punishable in our courts of law, or must the lives of peaceful citizens be placed in constant jeopardy at the hands of the assassin emboldened by the prospect of escaping punishment."
Covington did, in fact, escape punishment once again, at least temporarily. He and a couple of other inmates broke out of the Cedar County jail in late March. I've thus far been unable to trace whether he was ever apprehended and, if so, what happened to him after that.           

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sons of Temperance

I've written on this blog previously about a temperance crusade called the Murphy Movement that reached the Ozarks in early 1878 and was very prominent for a few months before the movement lost some of its fervor. The Murphy Movement, however, was just one of several temperance campaigns that took hold in the United States during the 1800s and early 1900s.
One of the early temperance organizations was the Sons of Temperance, which was organized in New York in 1842. It not only promoted abstinence and lobbied for prohibition but also served as a fraternal organization for its members. For instance, members (called brothers) were expected to visit any fellow member who became sick. The group even acted as an insurance company of sorts, since the bylaws of the organization also required it to pay $30 to cover the burial costs of any brother who died. The group was selective in admitting members, and the brothers practiced secret rituals and had secret signs, passwords, hand grips, and regalia.
A chapter of the Sons of Temperance was organized in Springfield in 1849. By 1851, the Sons of Temperance and other prohibitionists succeeded in getting an ordinance passed outlawing dramshops (i.e. saloons) in Springfield. The law lasted only a few months, but the question of prohibition remained a contentious issue in Springfield and elsewhere for many years, culminating, of course, in passage of the Volstead Act that ushered in prohibition nationwide.    

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Springfield City Cemetery

Springfield's original city cemetery was located in the northeast quadrant at the corner of Campbell and State streets in a plot donated by early resident John A. Stephens. Stephens served Springfield as a schoolmaster for about ten years and also owned a store on the public square. Although he was a Union man himself, he was killed by a Union soldier during the aftermath of Zagonyi's charge as he was walking home and failed to heed the soldier's command to halt as he neared his front gate.
The city cemetery was the scene of some of the hardest fighting during the Battle of Springfield in January of 1863. R. I. Holcombe, in his 1883 History of Greene County, described the action there in his typically colorful language: "Some of the sharpest and hardest fighting of the day was done in and about this graveyard, amid the tombstones and the cold "hic jacets" of the dead. Back and forth through the aisles and across the graves of the silent sleepers ran blue coats and gray jackets, and through the trees, where nothing but birds and sun and soft breezes had blown aforetime, now whistled the cannon shot and the bombshell."
Many bodies of soldiers that had been buried in the city cemetery were disinterred and reburied at the National Cemetery after it opened in 1867. Other bodies were later dug up and reinterred elsewhere as well. An example was Davis Tutt, who was killed by Wild Bill Hickok on the Springfield square in July 1865. He was reburied at Maple Park Cemetery in 1883. Eventually all the bodies were removed from the old city cemetery to make way for housing development in the area.  

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