Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, 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 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.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Murder of Jasper Francis

An interesting murder case in the Ozarks was the killing of Jasper Jacob "Jap" Francis by Charles Blackburn near Stoutland, Missouri, on the early morning of November 10, 1915. The two men were farmers and stockmen who lived on the same road leading out of Stoutland. Some business transactions between the two men in late October and early November involving land and cattle reportedly led to the killing. One of the transactions was the sale of some cattle by Francis to Blackburn for $1,400. Blackburn had given Francis a span of mules as a $200 down payment on the cattle with a promise to pay the remaining $1,200 in the near future.
When Francis had still not been paid the balance a few days later and he learned that Blackburn had already shipped the cattle to market, he began to believe that Blackburn, who had several other debts outstanding, was trying to cheat him out of the cattle. On the evening of November 9th, after making some inquiries in Stoutland at the bank and so forth, Francis started toward home but never made it there. Then, on November 11, Blackburn appeared at the Stoutland bank and cashed several checks or notes purportedly signed by Francis.
Twelve days after Francis's disappearance, his dead body was found covered with leaves about twenty yards from the road that he had taken out of town. He had been shot in the back of the head or neck, and his skull had also been fractured by some other weapon.
A coroner's jury was called, and a woman living near where the body had been found testified that she had heard a gunshot on the early morning of November 10 that came from the direction where the body was found. Blackburn, who was almost immediately suspected of the crime, was also called to testify at the coroner's inquest, and he apparently made statements that were incriminating, because he was charged with murder in the death of Francis.
At his trial the next spring, Blackburn explained that he had sold his farm to Francis and that the notes he had cashed at the bank on the 11th represented payment for the farm that was above and beyond the $1,200 that he owed Francis for the cattle. The jury, however, didn't buy his explanation, and he was convicted of murder. He appealed the verdict, and it was overturned in 1918 by the Missouri Supreme Court, largely on the grounds that Blackburn's statements to the coroner's jury were improperly used against him, since he was testifying at the time as a witness, not as a defendant, and had not been advised that he did not have to testify. The appeal was also based on the fact that Blackburn had been convicted partly because the farm he claimed to have sold to Francis for $12,000 was worth only $7,500 and partly because he had declined to participate in the search for Francis when he first went missing. Blackburn's lawyers maintained that these facts should not have been admitted as evidence against him, but the supreme court disallowed these appeals.
Whether Blackburn was ever retried, and if so, what the outcome of the second trial was, I do not know. However, this case is the subject of a historical novel entitled Murder on Rouse Hill that was released a few years ago by Southeast Missouri University Press. Perhaps the answer is contained in that book, but I have not read the book yet.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Friendship Community Revisited

One of the first entries I posted after I started this blog back in October 2008 was about the Friendship Community, a utopian commune started by social reformer Alcander Longley in early 1872 a few miles east of Buffalo in Dallas County, Missouri. I recently ran across an interesting account written by a St. Louis newspaperman of his visit to the commune in the summer of 1872. It appeared in the St. Louis Democrat and was subsequently reprinted in the Buffalo Reflex. The reporter described not just his visit to the commune but also his journey there and back. He took a train from St. Louis to Lebanon but then had to pay $3 to hitch a ride with the mail wagon that ran between Lebanon and Buffalo in order to complete his trip. He called the 30-mile trip "a rough ride," and he described the road as "the roughest road I ever traveled." He said the ride might be worth taking from a sanitary point of view for those persons "afflicted with certain kinds of dyspepsia, where a general shaking up of the viscera and the luxation of most of the articulated bones is considered beneficial. After the soreness goes out of his bones and bowels, the patient will enjoy better health, if he survives the treatment." If, however, the traveler did not need such a vigorous workout, the newspaperman opined, he might be better advised to walk.
After reaching Buffalo and making some observations, the newspaperman reported to his St. Louis readers. A railroad had been planned from Lebanon to Fort Scott, Kansas, but work on it had been abandoned, causing agricultural prices in the Buffalo area to plummet (since farmers had no quick way to get their products to market, as they thought they were going to). You could buy a good milk cow for $15 and a good, fat yearling for $6, and cheap fertile land was plentiful. The newspaperman concluded that anyone who wanted to enter into agricultural pursuits might find the Dallas County area to be a good place to invest in, assuming the railroad was eventually built. (It never was. See my Feb. 8, 2009, blog entry on the Dallas County Railroad.)
The newspaperman registered at a hotel and paid the landlord one dollar to drive him out to the Friendship Community, about four and half miles due west of Buffalo. At this site, the reporter said, "The reformers have broken ground for the eventual redemption of the world, by doing away with the temptations to theft, robbery, swindling and murder."
The reporter's statement about Longley's followers redeeming the world was an obvious bit of sarcasm, because he felt the communist experiment was a utopian dream that would not last. In fact, by the time the St. Louis newspaperman visited in August of 1872, the community's president and chief financial backer, William H. Bennett, had already left the group. Apparently Bennett felt he was the only one contributing financially to the group, while Longley and the other members felt Bennett was not truly committed to the community and only went into the venture because of "speculative motives."
Bennett had left, withdrawing his money, the land he had donated for a commune, and the hotel and store he had been running for the financial benefit of the commune. By the time the St. Louis reporter arrived, however, Longley had succeeded in acquiring about 500 acres, with the financial backing of a Buffalo dentist, as a replacement farm for the community. Although the newspaperman held out little hope for the success of the experiment, he was impressed by Longley's dedication to the cause. He felt that a true reformer like Longley "would rather live on a crust and live as his Creator intended, than dine on purple and fine linen in the selfish, sordid, and throat-cutting struggle of ordinary life."
The newspaperman found Longley so talkative that he had a hard time breaking away from him for the return trip to Buffalo. One thing that Longley especially wanted to emphasize was that the members of his commune did not practice sexual promiscuity, as some critics had claimed. Longley said he believed each man "should have his own wife and let every other fellow's wife carefully alone." After bidding Longley adieu with a hardy handshake, the reporter made his way back to Buffalo to spend the night, and then started back to St. Louis the next day.
As the reporter thought would be the case, the Friendship Community did not succeed, although it did manage to hang on for a few years. It, however, would not be the last of Longley's communist experiments in Missouri, nor was it the first. (See my April 4, 2009, blog entry on the Reunion Community.)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Douglas County Murder--Part II

Back in August of 2010, I wrote on this blog about the murder trial of James Wilson that was taking place in 1902 in Douglas County, Missouri, for a murder he had allegedly committed many years earlier. At the time I had happened onto a newspaper article about the trial, but since I was doing research on a different subject, I didn't bother to try to research the trial or the murder any further. Recently, though, I received an inquiry and some additional information about the case from a descendant of the family of Wilson's 2nd wife. That pricked my interest somewhat; so I've done a little research into the case and have come up with a little more information in addition to that provided by the family descendant. It's a fairly interesting case.
Here are the facts of the case in brief. Wilson was a farmer near Arno in Douglas County, and he had a neighbor named Orville Lyons (not Orville Lynn as the newspaper article I saw in 2010 said). Wilson and Lyons owned a threshing machine together, or at least each of them operated it on different occasions, and sometime in 1869 (not 1870 as I previously said) they got into an argument over the machine. One account said they got into a physical altercation with Wilson getting the worse of the contest. At any rate, the two men returned to their respective homes after the argument, but Wilson showed up at Lyons's house and killed him with a shotgun blast when he emerged from the house. Wilson then went on the lam, hiding out in Douglas County. After about three weeks, a man named James Hall called at night at a house where Wilson was holed up, and Wilson, thinking Hall was a deputy of some sort who had come to arrest him, shot the man dead with the same shotgun he had killed Lyons with. Wilson turned himself in shortly afterwards, but no indictment was brought, reportedly because he was a prominent ally of the Alsup family, which controlled Douglas County politics. During the time he was hiding out or near that time, Wilson, who had been previously married and had several kids, married a Douglas County woman named Martha Coonts, and as soon as Wilson was allowed to go free, he and his new wife fled to Arkansas.
After spending about five years in Arkansas, Wilson and his family moved to Kansas and then finally moved to Oklahoma in 1889, when the territory was opened up to white settlement. The Wilsons homesteaded near Guthrie. The Alsups finally lost their grip on Douglas County politics, and an indictment against Wilson was finally brought in the James Hall case about the time Wilson settled in Oklahoma Territory. However, he was not tracked down, despite the fact he was living under his own name and even drawing a pension under that name. Instead, he became prominent farmer and landowner in the Guthrie area.
About 1899, Wilson and his wife separated and divorced, because, according to at least one report, he was prone to beat her. Martha was apparently granted some land that she and Wilson had lived on together, but Wilson received most of the couple's other belongings in the divorce settlement. Shortly after the divorce, Wilson married a third time to a woman who herself had reportedly been married four previous times.
In the spring of 1901, two men from Douglas County came through the Guthrie area and stopped at the Wilson home or otherwise ran onto James Wilson. Recognizing him, they reported to a local deputy sheriff that he was wanted back in Douglas County, Missouri. The deputy corresponded with law officers in Missouri and also interviewed Martha Coonts Wilson. Reportedly still peeved by what she considered the less-than-fair settlement she had received in the divorce case and by her ex-husband's brutish treatment of her, she confirmed that Wilson had killed two men in Douglas County over 32 years earlier.
Meanwhile, back in Douglas County, Orville Lyons's son William, who had been four years old at the time of his father's death and had reportedly witnessed the killing, had become a prominent citizen in the county, and he succeeded in getting a warrant drawn up against Wilson on a murder charge. The Missouri governor issued extradition papers, and Oklahoma authorities honored them.
Wilson was arrested near Guthrie on December 21, 1901, and taken back to Douglas County to stand trial. The trial got underway in late March of 1902, and Hannah Coonts, sister of Martha, was called to testify in the case. Hannah, who had lived with her sister and James Wilson for many years, was interviewed by reporters before leaving Guthrie on or about March 25, and she revealed many details of the case. Martha Coonts Wilson also spoke to reporters and confirmed what her sister had said.
Hannah Coonts, who had never married and was reportedly an old woman, was one of the main witnesses against Wilson, who himself was almost 65. William Lyons also reportedly testified against his father's killer. The case was turned over to the jury on April 2 for deliberation, and the next day the jurors came back with a verdict of guilty of second degree murder. Wilson was sentenced to 10 years in prison. His lawyers were reportedly planning to appeal the verdict and sentence, but whether they did and, if so, what the outcome of the appeal was, I do not know.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Rufus Phillips, Laclede County Secessionist

Goodspeed's 1889 History of Laclede County, Missouri, declared that Rufus Phillips was one of the leading citizens of Union Township of Laclede County. To support the assertion, the author went on to chronicle Phillips's biography. Born in New Hampshire in 1822, Rufus Phillips became a school teacher after graduating from Hancock Academy in that state before migrating to Missouri, where he again took up school teaching. At the time of the 1850 census, he was living in Dallas County, and his occupation was listed in the census as school teacher. Shortly after this census, he moved to Laclede County, got married, and resumed teaching school. Some time in the 1850s, he turned to farming and stock raising and was appointed commissioner to locate swamp lands in Laclede, Wright, Barton, Webster, and other counties. He helped lay out the town of Lamar in Barton County. He built the first steam mill in Laclede County (at Phillipsburg, which was named after him), was appointed the county's first surveyor, and later became the county's second representative in the state legislature. Despite Phillips's impressive resume, many Union citizens during the Civil War would have no doubt disagreed with the idea that he was a leading citizen.
At the outset of the war, Phillips raised a company for the Missouri State Guard and was commissioned captain of the company. He participated in the skirmish at Springfield in which Major Charles Zagonyi drove the state forces out of town in late October 1861. After the Southern defeat, Phillips hightailed it back to Laclede County, where he was immediately captured by some Union home guards and delivered on October 30 to Colonel Joseph W. McClurg, in command of the Osage Regiment of Missouri Volunteers at Linn Creek. McClurg forwarded Phillips, along with a few other prisoners, to the St. Louis arsenal on November 12. In the transmittal papers, McClurg called Phillips a "notorious robber and plunderer" who had robbed the McClurg, Murphy and Company Store at Linn Creek. He had also taken two Union men, James and William Karr, prisoner in Miller County in September and robbed James Karr's store of over $200 in goods, all while acting as a "rebel captain." McClurg emphasized that Phillips was "the most impudent, most ungentlemanly, most unfeeling" among the rebel leaders and "even now is brazen in his appearance."
Not long after his commitment to prison in St. Louis, influential friends on the outside began petitioning to have Phillips released, and on December 17 McClurg once again took up his pen to oppose leniency. Writing to James O. Broadhead, a prominent St. Louis lawyer and politician and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri, McClurg declared that Phillips was "one of the basest among the unprincipled secessionists of S.W. Missouri" and was "notorious as captain of a plundering band." McClurg said he had several witnesses who would testify that even the clothes Phillips had on at the time he was arrested had been stolen. McClurg added that, while Phillips was confined at Linn Creek, he had been brazen in his conduct and impudent in expressing secessionist sentiments. McClurg said he had been informed that Phillips now professed to be penitent, claiming that he was misled and only acting under orders. McClurg, however, concluded that the prisoner was only "attempting to work upon the sympathies of those who have not known the man. He has ever since I have known him been reckless and unprincipled. He is incapable of having any principle to be governed by, or he never would have favored this rebellion, coming as he did from New Hampshire. He is a dangerous man to be turned loose at this time. The Union men are sufficiently discouraged at this time, and the liberation of such men would only lessen their confidence in those that rule."
On the same day McClurg wrote his letter, a citizen of Jefferson City named Edward Collison also wrote to St. Louis (to attorney John J. Hoppe) opposing Phillips's release. Collison, like McClurg, had heard that there were people who called themselves Union men working to effect Phillips's release, but Collison said Phillips, being a Yankee by birth, was only "playing sharp" and affecting humbleness merely to gain the sympathy of such men. Collins claimed General Sterling Price, commanding the Missouri State Guard, could be said to have borrowed from Phillips the very idea of plundering in order to outfit his army, because while Price was still pleading for 50,000 volunteers to fill out his army, Phillips was already stealing and marauding. Collison said that the so-called Union men who were now trying to help Phillips must surely believe in the tenet of supererogation, because by their works they had declared that they had rendered to their country "as much as they are bound to do, and whatever patriotism they have left over and above that which may be sufficient for their salvation, it is their bound duty to place it upon the books of the Provost Marshal for some traitor down at the 'nigger pen.'" (This was a reference to the Myrtle Street Prison, which had been a slave pen prior to the war.) "These kindhearted souls," Collison concluded, "would be at better employment were they as much interested in relieving the wants of many Union families now in St. Louis rendered homeless and penniless by this same man Phillips and his band, as they are in the welfare of those who have brought this misery upon them."
McClurg's and Collison's strong opposition to showing leniency in Phillips's case, however, did not keep other men from acting on Phillips's behalf, nor did it keep Phillips from pleading his own case. On January 6, 1862, Phillips and several other prisoners wrote a letter to Union officials asking for mercy on the grounds that they had become ill while in prison and requesting that they, therefore, be released.
On May 20, 1862, John M. Richardson, former Missouri Secretary of State and captain of the "Mountain Rangers" (that he would go on to organize as the 14th Missouri State Militia), wrote from Springfield to Provost Marshal General A.J. Farrar at St. Louis recommending that Phillips be released to the confines of Laclede County upon giving $10,000 bond and taking an oath of allegiance. Richardson said he was not in the habit of making such requests, but he thought it was in the interest of "humanity and sound policy." The same day, Richardson also wrote to Richard Howard, a prominent citizen of St. Louis (who probably held some official Union title, too) reporting that he had written to Farrar requesting the release of Phillips. Richardson told Howard that he wanted him and Frank Dick (a close associate of the politically influential Francis Blair, Jr. and a future provost marshal general himself) to personally "attend to this and have him let out." Richardson said he thought Phillips would be an influence "for peace and quiet" if he were released.
On May 23, A.M.F. Hudson, a prominent citizen of Laclede County, also wrote to Colonel Farrar urging Phillips's release. Hudson said that although Phillips had committed a grave sin against the government, he felt Phillips's previous service to his country (during or near the time of the Mexican War) should be taken into consideration, and he felt that humanity demanded his release because he was ill. Hudson said he felt sure Phillips would keep whatever obligations were placed upon him as a condition of release. Hudson's opinion probably held little sway, because he himself was suspected of being a Southern sympathizer. In fact, he was killed later in the war east of Lebanon, supposedly by Union men because of his disloyalty.
Despite the pleas on his behalf, Phillips was apparently not released until mid-1863, when, according to the Laclede County history, he was exchanged at Vicksburg. After his release, he remained in the Confederate army, according to the county history, until the end of the war, when he came back to Laclede County and became a prominent citizen.

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