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.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Slave Burnings 1853

My new book due out sometime next month is called Murder and Mayhem in Missouri. The second chapter deals with the burnings of three slaves within about two weeks of each other during the summer of 1853. Although there were three slaves burned, only two separate incidents were involved, as one of the incidents was a double lynching. It occurred in late July of that year at Carthage. I have previously written about this incident on this blog, and I am providing a link here to that earlier posting: http://ozarks-history.blogspot.com/2010/10/two-blacks-lynched-by-burning-at.html. Suffice it to say, however, that there is more to the story than I wrote in the blog posting.
The other incident occurred about two weeks earlier in mid-July of 1853 at Georgetown, Missouri. Georgetown was, at the time, the county seat of Pettis County, as Sedalia did not yet exist. Most blacks lynched by whites during the 1800s were accused of either killing a white person or raping a white woman, and the Pettis County case was no exception. A slave, about 20 years old, was charged with killing a white woman when she resisted his attempts to seduce her. Both the slave and his white master were arrested, because it was thought the slaveowner had instigated the black man to commit the heinous deed. The white man was soon turned loose, but he and his family were run out of the county. The slave, in the meantime, was incinerated at Georgetown with a large crowd in attendance. Many of those watching were other blacks who had been brought in from the countryside by their owners to witness the horrible spectacle, supposedly to deter them from committing a like crime. Again, there is more to the story than this brief summary covers. So, get hold of my book when it comes out if you want to read the whole story.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Summer 1980

I've written on this blog previously about unusual weather events in the Ozarks, ranging from the Great Blue Norther of November 11, 1911 (11-11-11) to the late winter snowstorm of March 1970. In one blog entry, I wrote about the summer of 1954, when I was not quite eight years old, as the hottest summer in my memory. Even today, when local weathermen give the record highs and record lows for a certain date, the year 1954 still pops up a lot, especially during the month of July, as the hottest year on record for the date in question.
I said during one of my weather posts that I think notable weather events (and other unusual events) probably make a bigger impression on young people than they do on older folks, which may partially account for the fact that I still remember the summer of 1954, even though it was almost 60 years ago. However, I recognize that we have had some very hot summers in more recent times as well.
One that I recall somewhat vividly is the summer of 1980. The heat wave was not quite as extreme as in 1954. For instance, the high temperature in Springfield, Missouri, in 1980 occurred on July 30 with a reading of 105 degrees. By comparison, the summer of 1954 had several days when the temperature soared above 110. However, 1980 was probably worse in terms of how long the unusual heat lasted. The heat wave started about June 22 and did not abate until September 17. The fact that the heat wave extended well into September several weeks after school had started is the part I remember most vividly about the summer of 1980. I was teaching school at the time, and the school did not have air conditioning. The mornings weren't bad, but afternoon classes were torturous for both teachers and students as temperatures approached or passed 100 degrees day after day.
The drought and heat wave of 1980 may also have been a little more widespread than the one in 1954, as it covered not just the Ozarks and not just the Midwest but even parts of the East. It may have been more deadly than the 1954 heat wave, too. Approximately 1,250 people died nationwide as a result of the 1980 heat wave (153 in St. Louis alone). I wasn't able to find an estimate for 1954.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Ezell Killing

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about A.J. Bass's supposed murder of his wife near Bassville, Greene County, Missouri, in 1911. As I noted at the time, the case was not particularly notorious or memorable except that it happened only a short distance from where I grew up. Likewise, I have long been vaguely familiar with Joseph L. Smith's killing of Benjamin Franklin Ezell because it happened at my hometown of Fair Grove, about three or four miles from Bassville.
On the morning of April 21, 1871, 31-year-old Joseph Smith and 25-year-old Ben Ezell got into an argument at the Ezell farm in the Ebenezer vicinity, southwest of Fair Grove. The quarrel was over a 17-year-old hired hand named Peter Goodwin. Smith had employed Goodwin to do some work for him, but then Goodwin had agreed to go to work for Ezell, and Smith accused Ezell of coaxing away his hired help. However, neither man was armed, and nothing serious happened at the time.
That afternoon, though, Ezell went to Fair Grove and, while there, was met by Smith, who had armed himself in the meantime. The argument was renewed, and Smith shot Ezell, who fell to the street mortally wounded and died three days later.
Smith was arrested and charged with murder. His first two trials ended in hung juries, but his third trial ended in early December of 1883 with a not guilty verdict. A newspaper report at the time observed, "Mr. Smith, from first to last, has had the sympathy of and support of many warm and influential friends, who rejoice with him and his family that this sad misfortune has at last been forever settled."

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Boise City

Over the years, Arkansas's Prohibition laws have given rise to communities or settlements just across the border in Missouri that were established for the sole purpose of circumventing those laws (i.e. giving Arkansas residents a relatively close place where they could legally buy alcohol). I assume the community of Ridgedale on U.S. Highway 65 south of Branson just on the Missouri side of the state line was such a place. I don't know the actual history of the place, but I do know that for many years, about the only businesses located there were liquor stores or later convenience stores that sold liquor. Also, I think there used to be a sign on the southbound side of Highway 65 telling motorists, as they approached the Arkansas border, that Ridgedale was their last opportunity to purchase beer, etc. This, of course, was because Boone County, Arkansas, was a dry county, and it still is at least partially dry, I believe.
Another place that was established in response to Arkansas's restrictive liquor laws was Boise City, a community that sprang up in southern Oregon County, Missouri, just across the state line from Mammoth Spring, Arkansas in the mid-1880s during the building of a railroad to the booming mineral-water town. Boise City, or Spring City as it was called at first, was reportedly established by a local man who simply moved across the state line and started a saloon. Soon the place sported several drinking establishments, and the place was a lively little community for at least a short while (at least until the railroad was completed and the workers constructing it went home). Exactly how long the boom lasted I'm not sure, but I do know that by the 1930s or so, Boise City had ceased to exist as a separate town and was considered an addition to Mammoth Spring. Perhaps the larger town annexed the smaller one as way of controlling the flow of liquor, but exactly when that annexation took place is unknown.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A.J. Bass Murder Case

The following murder case is one I have been aware of for some time, as I have run onto mentions or descriptions of it two or three times over the years. There's nothing particularly noteworthy or out of the ordinary about the case, which is why I have not written about it previously. The only reason it caught my attention in the first place and the only reason it has continued to fascinate me to a certain extent is that it happened just a few miles from where I grew up.
On the early morning of January 24, 1911, the home of A.J. Bass, who lived near Bassville in Greene County, Missouri, with his wife and two young kids, caught fire. Bass ran to the houses of two neighbors to give the alarm, but the structure was beyond saving by the time help arrived. Bass's two children were found on the premises in a wagon, safe from the fire. However, the mother was nowhere to be found, and her body was later found in the ashes of the house.
Bass's story was that the upstairs of the house caught fire between 4 and 5 a.m., that he and his wife rescued their kids and took them safely outside, that they drew water from a well and returned to the house to try to put out the fire, that when the smoke and flames began to overcome them, he called for his wife to follow him outside and thought she was following him but couldn't see her for the smoke, that he was forced to jump from the second floor, that the fall momentarily knocked him out and he wasn't sure when he woke up whether she had made her escape or not, and that he then ran for help.
At first, no one doubted his story, but his wife's father began to have suspicions, and Mrs. Bass's body was exhumed several days after her death. Several shotgun pellets were found in her heart and other parts of her body, and Bass came under suspicion of having killed his wife and set the fire on purpose to try to cover up his crime.
After two preliminary hearings failed to yield an indictment, Bass took off to Arkansas by way of Mountain Grove and Cabool. While he was in Arkansas, however, he was indicted for first degree murder. Located in Stuggart, Arkansas, he returned to Greene County to face the charge.
The main evidence against Bass presented by the state during his trial at the March term of Greene County Circuit Court was that he had bought coal oil the day before the fire, that he owned a shotgun, that his wife had left him about ten months earlier, and that he had supposedly threatened to "get a gun" when she had refused to let him see their kids at one point during their brief separation. It was also conjectured, apparently with no evidence to support the theory, that Bass might have been involved with another woman.
Bass was convicted on this rather skimpy evidence and sentenced to life in prison. However, his lawyers appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, and the high court overturned the conviction in June of 1913, setting Bass free. In issuing its ruling, the Supreme Court noted that there was evidence that Bass had, in fact, tried to put the fire out after it started, which would make no sense if he himself had started it with the intent of burning the house down, and that he was very distraught when he raced to his neighbors' houses to give an alarm. It was also noted that the couple had reconciled months before the fire and were apparently getting along well at the time of the woman's death. The shotgun pellets in the woman's body were explained by the fact that Bass kept a large quantity of shotgun shells in his home and that the fire caused them to explode almost continuously as it burned. The numerous explosions were confirmed by the people who had arrived on the scene before the fire finished burning. (The state had tried to discount this theory of the woman's death by introducing so-called expert witnesses who testified that such explosions caused by a fire would not have the penetrating force necessary to lodge the pellets deep in the woman's body.) It was a given fact that the fire had started on the second floor, and the high court also questioned why, if Bass had been trying to burn his house down, he would have started the fire on the second floor instead of the first, when it was common knowledge that a fire spread much faster from bottom to top than vice versa. Finally, it was noted that Bass had left for Arkansas on the advice of family members, not to try to escape prosecution as the state had contended, and that he had returned voluntarily after his indictment. In conclusion the Supreme Court opined that the guilty verdict had probably resulted more from the fact that Bass had failed to make heroic attempts to save his wife and that he had been convicted based more on this perceived moral failing than on the actual evidence.

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