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.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Lynching of Joe Woods

Sedalia, Missouri, is slightly outside what is normally thought of as the Ozarks, but I'm going to go ahead anyway and write about an incident that occurred there a couple of years after the Civil War. On Saturday evening, March 23, 1867, a man named Joe Woods came into Joe Geimer's saloon and starting raising hell. Woods, according to the 1882 History of Pettis County, came from a respectable family, but, while still a young man, he had begun "a course of drinking and dissipation" and turned into a desperado. According to newspaper reports in 1867, he had a been a member of Bacon Montgomery's Missouri State Militia regiment during the Civil War and had supposedly robbed a Lexington banker and helped perpetrate a number of other crimes and depredations at Lexington as part of his militia unit. After the war, he had continued a pattern of reckless and domineering behavior and had earned a reputation as a bully. A powerfully built man, he had an especially violent temper when he had been drinking, which was reportedly quite often.
In the saloon, Woods knocked down the bartender and allegedly assaulted a couple of customers as well. He then left and went to a grocery store next door. Geimer had not been in his saloon at the time Woods paid his unwelcome visit, but he learned of the assault on his bartender and apparently went looking for Woods. He met him near the doorway of the grocery store as Woods was coming out of the store. The two men had previously been on good terms, and Geimer, who was considered a peaceful citizen, asked Woods in a civil manner, according to witnesses, not to come into his saloon and cause disturbances. As Geimer then continued toward his saloon, Woods drew his pistol and shot him in the back. Geimer collapsed and fell into the doorway of his saloon, dying almost instantly.
Woods retreated to a local hotel and swore he'd kill any man who tried to arrest him. A small posse nonetheless formed and went to the hotel. One of the men went into Woods's upstairs room with his gun drawn, got the drop on the desperado, and arrested him. The prisoner was taken to "the cooler," a two-story log building on an alley just off Main Street, which had served as a guardhouse during the war and was now used as a jail. A deputy sheriff and five or six other men were detailed to guard the prisoner until a constable showed up with an official warrant for Woods's arrest. The deputy then departed, leaving the prisoner in charge of the constable.
What happened next was mostly reported as hearsay after the fact, but supposedly a mob of about a dozen men showed up around midnight and took the prisoner from his guard. Woods reportedly put up quite a struggle but was finally subdued by repeated blows from the butts of revolvers. A rope was then looped around his neck, and he was led or dragged from the "cooler." The other end of the rope was tied to a buggy axle, and Woods was dragged through town to a local lumber yard. It was a cold night, and the ground was frozen hard. The prisoner's clothes were torn off as he was dragged along on the hard ground until he was completely naked by the time the party reached the lumber yard. The mob untied the rope from the buggy, looped it over the gateway that formed the entrance to the lumber yard, and hoisted up the almost lifeless body of the prisoner. After he had swung awhile, someone reportedly shot him through the head "to make 'assurance doubly sure.'"
The body was left hanging, and it was discovered about 9 a.m. Sunday morning still dangling from the gateway. Apparently offended by the immodesty of a naked frozen corpse, someone during the night had pinned a sheet around the body.
As was often the case in nineteenth-century lynchings, a coroner's inquest concluded that Woods had come to his death at the hands of parties unknown to the jury, although the county history later allowed that the men responsible for the extralegal execution probably could have been fairly easily determined if law enforcement officers had been inclined to investigate. However, Woods' lynching was widely seen as "a deed of justice"
For example, one eyewitness to the murder of Geimer (and perhaps to the lynching of Woods) wrote to the Sedalia Democrat on March 27 defending the action of the mob. After describing the lynching, the letter writer concluded, "So ended the life of a villain of the darkest dye, and he got a punishment he deserved long before he received it." Another correspondent to the same newspaper claimed that Woods was held in such universal disapprobation that even his own mother refused to take charge of the body after it was cut down from the gateway and he was buried in a pauper's grave at the public cemetery rather than in the family plot.
The lynching was credited with helping to reduce the lawlessness and violence that had plagued the Pettis County area since the war, and writing fifteen years later, the county historian allowed that the vigilante act had had "a decided and unmistakably beneficial influence upon the whole community."

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