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 sixteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Wicked Women of Missouri, Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, and Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History.

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.


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