Missouri and 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.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Lynching of Jacob Fleming

I think I observed in one of my posts not long ago that lynchings in America during the 1800s and early 1900s were a lot more common than most people today probably realize. The only ones we still hear about today are the sensational ones like the lynching of the three black men in Springfield during Easter weekend of 1906. A lot of less sensational lynchings have been almost forgotten. Indeed, lynchings were so common that many of them were not even widely reported at the time. I don't mean to suggest that they were an everyday occurrence. Far from it. But they happened frequently enough that, unless some particularly sensational circumstances attended them, they might have been reported in the local newspaper but scarcely anywhere else. Another case in point was the lynching of Jacob Fleming at Osceola, Missouri, in June of 1871.
On Saturday, June 17, 1871, James Hughes and Jacob Fleming were among a group of men drinking in John Anderson's saloon, the Arcade, in Osceola in the middle of the afternoon. Hughes was described as a quiet, inoffensive man who normally didn't drink. On this occasion, though, he was somewhat inebriated but not obnoxiously so. The 24-year-old Fleming, on the other hand, was considered a desperado and a bully. The two men exchanged words, although the exact nature of the brief argument is uncertain. One report said that Fleming asked Hughes to play poker with him and that Hughes replied that he only played a straight game, apparently implying that he thought Fleming might play a crooked game. For whatever reason, after the brief exchange of words, Fleming promptly pulled out his pistol and shot Hughes twice from close range, once through the jaw or lower part of the face and once through the throat. Hughes fell to the floor, gravely wounded, but later tried to rise, asking for a gun so that he might go after Fleming. Instead, the wounded man was removed to a nearby building and still later to a private residence, where he died that evening about three or three and a half hours after the shooting.
A coroner's inquest was held over Hughes's body almost immediately after he died. Six different men who had been in the saloon at the time of the shooting gave testimony. Most said they had not even realized there was an argument between Hughes and Fleming until they heard the first shot. Two or three of them said they then turned in time to see Fleming fire the second shot from point-blank range, after which Hughes fell to the floor. Only one, a man named Thomas Brown, was close enough to the action to be able to give any testimony relevant to the nature of the quarrel that led to the shooting. He said that he and Hughes started toward the bar together and that when Hughes spoke to him, Fleming interjected, demanding to know whether Hughes had spoken to him. Hughes reportedly said, "No, I'm speaking to this man," (meaning Brown). "It's his treat." Brown then said to Fleming that Hughes seemed to know a lot about his (i.e. Brown's) business. Fleming agreed, and he and Hughes then exchanged a few words. The next thing Brown knew, Fleming had his arm extended toward Hughes, and Brown heard two shots but claimed not to have actually seen a weapon.
Shortly after the shooting, Fleming, a husband and a father of two small children, was arrested and placed in the St. Clair County jail. Later that night, rumors that a mob might take the law into its own hands spread, but law enforcement officers appealed for calm and nothing happened. However, on June 29, 1871, the Osceola Herald reported that Fleming had been granted a change of venue to neighboring Benton County and would soon be transferred there. Late that night, apparently spurred on by the prospect that Fleming might get away with murder if he his trial was moved to Warsaw, a mob decided to act. No doubt the mob was also prompted, at least in part, by Fleming's reputation for prior bad acts. He had reportedly joined the Union militia near the end of the Civil War and participated in several killings, house burnings, and similar acts. Then, shortly after the close of the war, he supposedly killed a man at Osceola and was not even arrested for the crime. To top things off, just five or six months before the Hughes affair, Fleming was said to have fired shots at a man at Roscoe (a small community in St. Clair County), shooting off part of the man's ear. At any rate, a mob of about 100 disguised men rode up to the jail and demanded the keys. The demand was refused, but according to the 1883 History of Henry and St. Clair Counties, the mob "came on business" and would not be denied. They forced the door to the jail with a heavy hammer and then also broke open the door to Fleming's cell. They marched the prisoner to a nearby area that the county history called "the old brick yard," where they quickly strung him up "without words." Fleming reportedly made no appeal and met his fate stoically. A couple of weeks later, an out-of-town newspaper claimed that the Osceola Democrat, in reporting the lynching, had said that "everything was done up decently and to order."

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