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 eleven nonfiction books, two novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Wicked Springfield: The Seamy Side of the Queen City, Murder and Mayhem in Missouri, and The Siege of Lexington, Missouri: the Battle of the Hemp Bales.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Cane Hill Murders of 1839

There have been a handful of notorious mass murder cases in the Ozarks over the years. Bill Cook's murder of the Mosser family at Joplin in the early 1950s and Jodie Hamilton's killing of the Parsons family in Texas County in 1906, both of which I've mentioned previously on this blog, come readily to mind, for instance.
One of the earliest, if not the earliest, mass murder that occurred in the Ozarks after the area was settled by whites happened at Cane Hill, Arkansas, in 1839. On the night of June 15, at least three men came to the cabin of William Wright, and one of them called out, asking if the men could spend the night. When Wright went to the door, the men immediately killed him. Aroused by the commotion, Wright's wife, Nancy (or Frances as some sources identify her), ran outside and hurried to a neighbor's cabin to tell what had happened. Her oldest daughter was also able to flee, but after Mrs. Wright and the daughter were gone, the intruders entered their house and killed four of the remaining Wright children: a baby, two young girls, and a boy. Another boy was also badly injured. The murderers stole what money they could find and then set fire to the cabin and fled. Three Wright children who were still alive pulled the bodies of their father and two of their siblings out of the fire.
Speculation in the immediate wake of the tragedy suggested that the perpetrators of the crime had been Cherokee Indians, but suspicion quickly turned to some local white men, who, it was thought, had committed the crime for money. A "Regulating Company" of prominent local men was quickly formed to investigate the matter, and seven men were soon arrested as persons of interest in the crime. They were released after furnishing alibis, but one of them, Asbury Richmond, was later overheard supposedly accusing his brother and some other men of having killed the Wrights and damaging his (Asbury's) reputation. John Richmond and two other men were arrested and, after a hearing conducted by the Regulating Company, were hanged on July 29, 1839. A fourth suspect was later apprehended and also hanged in December of 1839. Later critics have claimed that the executions amounted to little more than lynchings and that the men who were hanged were innocent. Such, however, was the justice system on the early frontier--swift and severe but often lacking in due process.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Annie Baxter

Annie (White) Baxter caused quite a stir in southwest Missouri and elsewhere when she was elected in the November 1890 election to become Jasper County's first female county clerk, approximately thirty years before women could even vote. The election of Annie Baxter made the New York Times, which reported on the Jasper County result as a "peculiar feature of Tuesday's contest in Missouri." Apparently there were some people in Jasper County who did not want to accept the result as valid, claiming that Annie had to be a citizen and that, since she couldn't vote, she wasn't a full-fledged citizen. Annie had scored a fairly overwhelming victory, though, and she was not to be denied. She became the first woman ever elected to a county-wide office in the state of Missouri. Some have claimed she was the first woman elected to a county-wide office in the entire United States, but this is apparently not true.
Despite running as a Democrat in heavily Republican Jasper County, Annie won the election by a majority of almost 700 votes. Her opponent had apparently taken her candidacy lightly and had not campaigned heavily. Annie, though, had formerly worked for several years in the office of a previous county clerk, and she was considered amply qualified. She campaigned tirelessly for the position, while her opponent regarded her candidacy as a joke. In addition, Jasper County miners got behind her candidacy and canvassed for her, going from one house to another shouting and singing "Annie Rooney," their nickname for Ms. Baxter. Annie served as Jasper County Clerk for four years before losing the 1894 in a Republican landslide. Today, a street in Joplin is named for Annie Baxter.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Beatles' Stopover in the Ozarks

The only time the Beatles ever came to the Ozarks was during the weekend of September 18-20, 1964, when they were at the height of their popularity and near the end of their first full-fledged concert tour of America (their brief stay in the United States earlier in the year when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show was not actually a tour). They appeared in Dallas on Friday evening, September 18, and, after the show, immediately hopped on a chartered plane owned and operated by Reed Pigman, owner of American Flyers Airlines, and headed for Pigman's ranch near Alton, Missouri, for a brief getaway before their final appearance of the tour scheduled for New York City on the night of September 20. The plane touched down at an airstrip at the edge of Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, shortly after midnight on the morning of the 19th. Three local teenage boys, who had seen and heard the plane circling the town prior to landing, raced to the airstrip and were startled to find the Beatles deplaning and boarding a second, smaller aircraft for the flight to the Alton ranch. After exchanging a few words with the Fab Four as they crossed the tarmac, the excited youths watched the small plane take off, and then they hurried to spread the word throughout Walnut Ridge of what they had witnessed.
The small seven-seat plane landed at a private airstrip on Pigman's ranch, where the Beatles spent all day Saturday, fishing, riding horses, and playing cards. By the time they returned to Walnut Ridge on Sunday to resume their tour, word of the Fab Four's visit 36 hours earlier and rumors of their probable return had spread in the small Arkansas town, and between 200 and 300 excited but polite fans were at the airstrip to greet them when they arrived about noon and boarded the chartered plane for New York.
The Beatles stay in the Ozarks was brief, but now, more than 47 years later, it is still remembered and even memorialized at Alton and Walnut Ridge. In Missouri, the present owners of the Pigman ranch have developed the property as residential estates, and they use the fact that the Beatles once stayed at the site as a selling point. In Arkansas, a "Beatles at the Ridge" sculpture was unveiled in Walnut Ridge last fall during an event commemorating the Fab Four's brief visit to the town, and both the city and Lawrence County are now using the area's historic, albeit small, connection to the Beatles as a tourism draw.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Springfield Murders

One often hears or reads that our society is going to hell in a handbasket, and the speaker or author often cites the high rate of crime nowadays as Exhibit A. However, I've long maintained that things aren't really any worse nowadays than they were in the "good old days" if one takes into consideration the increase in population.
For example, I recently ran across an article in an 1887 issue of the Springfield (Mo.) Express listing the homicides that had occurred in the city during the previous seven years. There were eight murders. Nowadays that many murders might take place in Springfield in a single year. (The average from 2001 to 2010 was seven murders per year.) However, considering that the population of Springfield has increased fifteen or twenty times (from about 10,000 in 1887 to near 200,000 nowadays), the murder rate was actually twice as high in the 1880s as it is now. One might not be able to say the same thing about all violent crime in Springfield, but I doubt that the increase in overall crime has outpaced the increase in population by much, if at all.
An interesting sidelight to the list of murders in Springfield from 1881 to 1887 is that two of them were committed in Nat Kinney's saloon. Nat Kinney, of course, was the man who moved to Taney County about 1883 or 1884 and quickly became leader of the Bald Knobbers. It's little wonder a Taney County man remarked, after the Bald Knobbers began enforcing their own brand of justice, that he did not believe a former Springfield saloonkeeper was a proper arbiter of Taney County morals.

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