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 seventeen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History, and Murder and Mayhem in Southeast Kansas.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Lynching of Bud Isbell

I have written briefly on this blog about the notorious lynchings of three black men that occurred in Springfield, Missouri, on Easter weekend of 1906. I also have written about another lynching of a black man, Mart Danforth, in Springfield in 1859, two years before the Civil War started. I don't believe, however, that I've written about yet another Springfield lynching of a black man in 1871.
It occurred under circumstances very similar to the 1859 Danforth lynching, in which Danforth was accused of molesting a white women. (In fact, rape or molestation of white women was usually the pretext for most lynchings of black men during the 1800s and into the early 1900s.) On June 19, 1871, Martha Christian, a twenty-year-old white woman, was reportedly attacked by a black man at her home in the south part of Springfield. Her assailant was immediately identified as Bud Isbell, and her husband, thirty-eight-year-old Peter Christian, offered a one-hundred-dollar reward for Isbell’s arrest.
Later the same week, the fugitive was captured in Newton County and brought back to Springfield on Saturday, June 24. He was first taken to the Christian residence, where Martha identified him as the man who had outraged her, and then he was marched to the public square. A large crowd soon gathered, and after some consultation, the mob decided to take Isbell “into the Jordan valley” and hang him. He was herded out to a spot just east of Benton Avenue on the opposite bank of the creek from where Mart Danforth had been lynched twelve years earlier. He was placed on a horse, and a rope that was tied to a tree limb was looped around his neck. The horse was led out from under him, but when he dropped, the rope was too long, so that his feet touched the ground and he was only partially choked. The crowd lifted him up while someone adjusted the rope to make it shorter, and Isbell was soon “swinging between heaven and earth,” according to the Springfield Leader. Before he died, however, someone pulled out a pistol and shot him in the head, finishing off what the rope had begun. A coroner’s inquiry into the lynching named three men who had participated in the mob action, including Peter Christian, but no one was ever charged in the crime.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Trouble in the Cherokee Nation

I recently ran onto an interesting newspaper article in the August 8, 1861 issue of the St. Louis Daily Missouri Republican. Bearing the same title that I've given this post, it was the reprint of a brief article that had appeared shortly before in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and the Appeal, in turn, was citing an article that had appeared in the Fort Smith (Arkansas) Times. The Appeal reported that "Montgomery, the notorious brigand," had arrived on the western frontier and begun "fortifying himself in the Cherokee Nation" just west of the Missouri and Arkansas borders. Specifically, he had reportedly stolen cattle from the Cherokees and killed four of them. In response to the invasion, Stand Watie had sent to Tahlequah for ten kegs of gunpowder but had thus far received only two. The Appeal said there was much excitement in the Nation and that a large number of Pin Indians, previously allied with the North, had gone over to the South. (Some of the Pins later changed back to the North.) "It will be bad day's business for this skulking Guerilla if he should venture too near the 'bowie knife' boys under Benj. McCulloch in northwestern Arkansas."
What I mainly found interesting about this brief article is its pro-Southern slant, a perspective that researchers of the Civil War in Missouri like myself seldom see. Nearly all the surviving Missouri papers from the time had a pro-Union bias, because the Southern sympathizing press in the state was suppressed early in the war. In fact, had this incident occurred later in the war, it's doubtful any of the St. Louis newspapers would have reprinted (or been allowed to reprint) such a pro-Southern story as this without an accompanying statement of ridicule or satire. No such ridicule accompanied this article, but, of course, the position of the Appeal was certainly not endorsed either. No Northern newspaper, including the relatively conservative Missouri Republican, would ever have referred to James Montgomery, who was commissioned a colonel in Senator Jim Lane's Kansas Brigade about the time of his raid into the Cherokee Nation, as a "notorious brigand" or "skulking Guerilla," although that, of course, is how most Southern-sympathizing Missourians saw him.

Friday, June 13, 2014

I-44 Truck Explosion

Since I established last time with my post about the Connor Hotel collapse in Joplin in 1978, at least to my own satisfaction, that events that happened within my memory can still be considered history, I'm going to write briefly this time about another incident that occurred in the 1970s: the explosion of a truck loaded with dynamite on I-44 just outside Springfield in late September of 1970. I was in Vietnam at the time. So, I didn't get a lot of information about it when it first happened, although I think I did at least hear about it, even in Vietnam. Perhaps my mother or father mentioned it in a letter. And when I got home to Springfield a few months later, I recall that people were still occasionally talking about it. Where they were when it happened--that sort of thing.
The facts in the case, as reported in newspapers at the time and as they later came out in court, were these: The Teamsters Union was on strike against Tri-State Trucking of Joplin in the fall of 1970, and some of the striking Union workers had started firing rifle shots into the company's trucks as they drove down the highway and otherwise harassing the company's non-union drivers in an apparent effort to force the company back to the bargaining table. On the night of September 29, Bobby Lee Shuler, Gerald Bowen, Mrs. Bowen, and a woman named Mrs. Kimmel started from Joplin in Kimmel's car. Shuler and perhaps the others had been drinking before they left Joplin, and they drove to Springfield and bought more beer. Starting back toward Joplin, they met a Tri-State Truck going the opposite way. At the next overpass, they turned around and overtook the truck, and Shuler and Bowen fired three shots into the grille of the truck as they passed it, thereby disabling it.
The foursome was again on their way back to Joplin in the wee hours of the morning on September 30 when they met two more Tri-State Trucks. They again turned around and passed the vehicles, but this time they raced ahead to the next overpass, crossed it, and stopped the car on the westbound ramp to await the approach of the trucks that were coming toward Springfield in the eastbound lane. (I think the overpass where they stopped was at the Republic exit, although I'd have to check more to be sure.) Shuler got out of the car with his rifle and fired two shots into the grille of the first truck, a flat-bed unit, as it passed. By then, the second truck, which had an enclosed trailer, was near, and Shuler also started firing at it. The first two shots hit the grille, doing little damage, but the third shot apparently went slightly awry. It exploded the trailer, which was carrying almost 43,000 pounds of dynamite, upon impact, and the driver, John Galt, was blown to bits, killing him instantly.
The explosion blew a hole in the road fifty feet wide, seventy feet long, and twenty-five feet deep. The effects of the explosion were felt at least seven miles away, and it was even reported that windows were blown out in Springfield. The Shuler party headed back toward Joplin on I-44 but soon took to the back roads, where they had a flat tire and eventually had to abandon the vehicle. They soon afterwards gave themselves up and were taken into custody. At trial the following year, Shuler claimed he wasn't trying to hurt anybody (even though he must have known the danger of shooting toward a truck carrying dynamite, since he himself had driven such trucks), but he was convicted of 2nd degree murder and received a sentence of 99 years in prison. Bowen was also convicted, presumably of a lesser charge, and got ten years in prison.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

When Is History History?: The Collapse of the Conner Hotel

I usually don't write about things that happened within my memory, because I don't really consider them historical. If I can remember when something happened, I tend to still think of it as contemporary. But then, if I stop to consider how old I am and how far back my memory stretches, I'm forced to re-evaluate my definition of history. After all, I can remember things that happened sixty years ago. Take, for example, the assassination of JFK. I've never really thought of it as history because I lived through the era when it happened. I was a senior in high school at the time. But then I realize that it's been over fifty years now. The large majority of Americans today were not even born when Kennedy was killed, and an even larger majority were not old enough at the time to remember the event. So, for those people, JFK's assassination is definitely history. So, I guess it should be history for the rest of us, too. In fact, I suppose, in its broadest definition, history can be thought of as anything that happened in the past, even if was just one year ago, one month ago, or maybe even one week ago.
All of this by way of introducing today's topic, the collapse of the Connor Hotel in Joplin in November of 1978. I definitely I have never thought of it as history, not only because I lived in Joplin at the time it happened but because I actually wrote about it when it was still a (relatively) contemporary event. Yet again, when I stop to consider how much time has passed since 1978, I realize that probably only about half of the people who lived in the Joplin area at the time the Connor collapsed are still alive today and probably less than half of the people who lived in Joplin and were old enough at the time to be able to recall the event firsthand today are still alive. After all, it's been 36 years.
So, I guess the collapse of the Conner Hotel is history, too. At least it is going to be history for the purposes of today's post. The facts of the case briefly are as follows: The Connor Hotel, a historic hotel that had been built in 1907 at the corner of 4th and Main in Joplin, was being prepared for demolition to make way for a new public library. (By the way, the library is getting ready to vacate the building that was constructed at 4th and Main and move into a new building on 20th Street within the next couple of years. Some of the funds Joplin received in the wake of the tornado three years ago are slated to be used to help finance the new library building.) On Saturday, November 11, Alfred "Butch" Summers was working in the basement, and two other men were working nearby or on one of the nine-story building's lower floors. The three men were notching beams and otherwise preparing the building for implosion when it unexpectedly collapsed prematurely.
What followed were several days of frantic rescue efforts as construction crews worked round the clock trying to find any signs of life beneath the rubble. Truckload after truckload of debris was removed as hastily as possible while still taking care not to needlessly endanger anybody who might possibly be alive beneath the ruins. High tech listening devices were flown in to listen for any signs of life. Dogs trained in search and rescue were brought in to try to find any possible survivors. The collapse and frantic rescue efforts made national headlines, but hope gradually faded as time passed with no signs of life. But then, miraculously, on Tuesday evening, three and a half days after the collapse, with layer after layer of debris having been removed, a man's faint voice was heard coming from beneath the remaining rubble. Al Summers was rescued in relatively good health (suffering only mild dehydration) after spending what he called a "long Saturday" beneath the ruins of the nine-story building, and national interest in the story spiked. In fact, as far as making national headlines, the Connor Hotel collapse was one of the biggest things that ever happened in Joplin until the 2011 tornado. Not long after Summers was rescued, the other two men were found dead, and it was concluded that they had likely died immediately when the building collapsed.
For a more complete telling of the Connor Hotel collapse story, you might try to get hold of the December 1979 issue of Reader's Digest, which contains my "Drama in Real Life" account of the event. Also, I think the Joplin Public Library has a copy of my original manuscript of 50+ pages, which describes the event in much more detail. The Reader's Digest simply took my much longer manuscript and "digested" it into a much shorter version.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Hunstville Massacre

The so-called Huntsville Massacre was an incident that happened about a mile northeast of Huntsville, Arkansas, on the morning of January 10, 1863. It is thought to be related to another incident that took place near Huntsville the previous fall, although this is not certain.
When the Civil War came on, Isaac Murphy, a state legislator and prominent citizen from the Huntsville area, was the only delegate to the Arkansas Secession Convention to vote against secession. Although the Madison County area had been largely sympathetic toward the Union at the outset of the war, this changed as the war wore on, especially after the Southern defeat at Pea Ridge in March of 1862. The feeling around Huntsville against Murphy (who later became Arkansas's first Reconstruction governor) grew so strong that he was forced to flee to Pea Ridge in Benton County, although his daughters stayed behind in Huntsville. In the fall of 1862, the daughters made a trip to Pea Ridge to visit their father. On their return trip, they were escorted by a party of 25 Union soldiers, who, when the group reached the outskirts of Huntsville, allowed the young women to continue into town on their own as the soldiers set up camp. Still at the camp, the soldiers were attacked by a party of Confederate guerrillas, and all but seven were killed.
Apparently, Murphy's daughters somehow came under increased censure from Southerners because of the attack (although it's not quite clear why Southern sympathizers would have been upset with Murphy's daughters for being connected to a guerrilla attack on Union soldiers). The daughters were supposedly still being harassed by Confederate-sympathizing local citizens when portions of the Union Army passed through Madison County after the Battle of Prairie Grove in December of 1862, and a number of prominent Southern-sympathizing citizens were rounded up and imprisoned. On the morning of January 10, 1863, nine of them were taken from the prison; including a son-in-law of Murphy, several current or former Confederate soldiers, and a couple of prominent Masons; and shot by members of the 8th Regiment Missouri Volunteer Cavalry just outside Huntsville (presumably near the site where the Union soldiers had been killed the previous fall). Eight of the nine were killed, while the ninth man survived his wounds and left the area after he had recuperated.
Lieutenant-Colonel Elias B. Baldwin, commanding the 8th Missouri Cav, was arrested by Union authorities, charged with murdering prisoners, and taken to Springfield, Missouri, for court martial. He was never tried, however, partly because some of the witnesses scheduled to testify against him didn't show up. Instead, he was forced to resign his commission and left the army under less than honorable conditions. About the only other repercussion the Union side suffered as a result of the murders was that two colleges at Huntsville that had been supported by Masons, one of them run by Murphy and the other by his wife and daughters, were forced to close because the Masons, angered by the deaths of their brothers, quit funding them.
The deaths of the eight citizens were commemorated locally for many years by the laying of flowers, but over time the incident was virtually forgotten until a historian who was researching Murphy's life wrote a series of articles about it in 1974. In 2006, a monument was erected in memory of the murdered prisoners.

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