Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of 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 fifteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Bushwhacker Belles, Wicked Women of Missouri, and Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri.

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.           

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