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.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Horrible Crime and a Swift Retribution

The July 28, 1870, Springfield Leader chronicled a rape and the subsequent lynching of the rapist that occurred in Henry County, Missouri, under the headline "A Horrible Crime and a Swift Retribution," and I've adopted the headline as the title of this post. Citing the Clinton Advocate, the Leader reported that "a half-breed Mexican, by the name of John Coleman," caught a young woman named Miss George while she was out "blackberrying" near Calhoun in Henry County and, under threats of murdering her, accomplished the rape.
The girl came back to Calhoun weeping and told her brother-in-law what had happened. A vigilante posse of about twenty men formed and went in search of "the fiend." That evening five black men succeeded in capturing Coleman and brought him back to town. Miss George identified him as the man who had attacked her, and he also had a butcher knife in his possession that she identified as one he had used to threaten her and accomplish "his hellish purpose."
Friends of the girl wanted to string Coleman up immediately, as soon as he had been brought back and identified, but law officers insisted that he should have a fair trial. Soon afterwards, though, the mob flourished their pistols, dragged the accused out into the street, and produced a rope, again demanding summary justice. The law officers and the town's leading citizens, however, again intervened and were able to get Coleman safely to jail. Later that evening, the angry mob broke open the front door of the jail in an attempt to get Coleman, but the horde was yet again driven back by armed citizens and officers.
The next morning, the accused was brought out of his cell for a preliminary examination, which was witnessed by the friends of the young woman. The proceedings were allowed to continue unmolested until evidence tending to show Coleman's guilt was introduced, at which point the determined vigilantes again decided to take the law into their own hands. They surrounded the defendant, dragged him to a nearby locust tree with a rope around his neck, and suspended him to the tree, although he apparently had already strangled to death before he was hoisted up.
The locust tree was reportedly located on the "courthouse square"; so it's not clear whether the lynching took place at Calhoun or Clinton. Since Clinton was (and is) the county seat of Henry County, one would assume the reference to the courthouse square would place the event at Clinton. However, except for the reference to the Clinton newspaper, Calhoun is the only town mentioned in the story.
The Advocate reported at the time that this was "the first instance of mob rule in Henry County." As far as I know, it was also the last, but it was definitely not the last hanging--just the last illegal one. (See my post of November 26 about the legal hanging of John W. Patterson.)
By the way, the only John Coleman living in Henry County at the time of the 1870 census (taken just a couple of weeks before this incident) was a 35-year-old native of Kentucky. I doubt that very many half-breed Mexicans were born in Kentucky in 1835; so it makes one suspect that the newspaper's identification of Coleman as a "half-breed Mexican" might have been a deliberate mischaracterization or an unsubstantiated rumor meant to play on the prejudice of readers in an attempt to mitigate the gravity of the mob action.
The newspaper account cited above does not give the exact dates that these events occurred. Presumably they must have occurred sometime near the middle of July.
By the way, I'll be giving a presentation this coming Tuesday (December 9) at 7 p.m. at the Library Center on South Campbell in Springfield about my Wicked Springfield book, which, as the name implies, is about the notorious history of Springfield (from its earliest days through the beginning of Prohibition).

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