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.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Judge Lynch at Work Again

I said in a recent post that I thought vigilante justice and, in particular, lynchings were even more common in the 1800s than most of us might realize, and I went on to cite the example of a lynching that occurred in Joplin in 1874 about which I had previously been unaware. I recently ran across another case in point--a pre-Civil War lynching in Morgan County, Missouri, which I had not previously known about. I first ran across a brief report about this incident in a Springfield newspaper, but I later found a more extensive report in, of all places, the New York Times. As I have also previously pointed out, the New York Times is a surprisingly excellent resource for researchers of the history of Missouri. I made that observation in regard specifically to the Civil War in Missouri, but it also applies to events that happened in Missouri before and after the Civil War. During the war, the Times sometimes even had one of its own reporters or a paid correspondent covering Missouri. This was rarely the case before and after the war. More likely, the Times just printed what unpaid correspondents from Missouri reported, or else the newspaper picked up on and reprinted stories that had originally appeared in Missouri newspapers. Many of the old Missouri newspapers no longer survive; so the New York Times is ironically sometimes one of the best sources for researching obscure events that happened in Missouri. Such appears to be the case with the Morgan County lynching. The more thorough report of the incident was originally published in a Boonville, Missouri newspaper and was reprinted in the Times.
Here are the facts in the case. Sometime before July of 1856, presumably during the first half of that year, a man named James Ray was involved in an unknown legal proceeding in northeast Morgan County a few miles east of Florence near the Moniteau County line, and several of his neighbors swore in a court of justice that they would not believe him on oath. For this, he reportedly vowed revenge. Shortly afterwards, he removed his kids from the local school, saying that he needed them to help him thin corn. A few days later, someone poisoned the spring from which the school obtained its water, and about twenty children drank the polluted water and became sick, several severely so. Ray was immediately suspected of the heinous deed, arrested, and given five days to prepare to leave the county under a guard.
Instead of hanging around to be escorted out of the territory, he fled the next day but was pursued, overtaken in Hickory County, brought back to Morgan County, taken to a rural school house (presumably the one where he had polluted the water supply), and given a drumhead trial on July 8 with a Baptist minister named Thomas Greer acting as the impromptu judge. A crowd of about a hundred people gathered, but only those whose families had been directly affected by the recent tragedy (the poisoning of the water) were allowed to act as jurors. They quickly reached a unanimous verdict that Ray was guilty and just as promptly sentenced him to hang. The verdict was reached in the late morning, and Greer announced that the execution would take place in one hour, the interval being set aside for the condemned man to prepare his soul for eternity.
By the time the appointed hour arrived, the crowd had swelled to about 250 people. When Ray was told his time had come, he mounted a horse and rode, escorted by the crowd, to a tree a few hundred yards away, where a rope had been attached to a tree limb. Upon his arrival, he got off the horse and mounted a bench positioned below the rope and asked to be allowed to address the crowd. The request was granted, and he gave a rambling 30-minute speech, declaring his innocence but saying he was ready to die and asking his neighbors to take care of his family. Then two preachers joined him and prayed with him for about ten minutes. Finally, he made the rounds saying his final goodbyes to the folks he knew in the crowd before remounting the bench and placing the noose around his own neck. He asked only that it be positioned so as to allow him a long enough fall to kill him quickly rather than being allowed to swing and gradually choke to death. The executioners told him he already had sufficient fall, and so he stepped off the bench. He had swung about 45 seconds when it became apparent that what Ray had feared was coming to pass. He was just slowly swinging and choking to death without his neck being broken. So, he was raised back up and the noose was adjusted to make his fall longer. Ray then stepped off again and swung his last.

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