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.

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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