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, May 28, 2015

Henry Starr's Pryor Creek Holdup

My Desperadoes of the Ozarks book contains accounts of Henry Starr's bank robbery at Bentonville in June of 1893 and his attempted robbery of a bank in Harrison in 1921, an action during which he was killed. The main reason the two events are separated by so many years is that Starr did a long stretch of prison time in between. However, Starr, nephew by marriage of the notorious Belle Starr, was already infamous for a number of crimes committed before he pulled off the Bentonville job, one of which was the robbery of a train at Pryor Creek (i.e. Pryor) in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) at the western edge of the Ozarks on May 2, 1893. And he was already wanted at the time for allegedly murdering U.S. deputy marshal Floyd Wilson in December of 1892, for a couple of other robberies committed in Indian Territory in early 1893, and for holding up a bank at Caney, Kansas, in late March of the same year.
In the Pryor Creek caper, two outlaws presented their rifles at the train's engine and ordered the engineer and fireman to escort them to the express car as soon as the train, a passenger train of the KATY Railroad, pulled into the Pryor Creek depot about 8 o'clock on the night of the 2nd. Four other bandits immediately took charge of the rest of the train, the depot, and the surrounding grounds. During the entire operation, which lasted over an hour, an estimated fifty shots were fired for the purpose of intimidation and warning. The gang's estimated take was small, because the express messenger managed to convince the crooks that he could not open the main safe and the "local" safe contained little loot. In addition, by the time the outlaws got around to turning their attention to the passengers, they had had time to hide most of their valuables.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Murder of Austin Blankenship

During the Civil War, Missouri was such a lawless place that it was often difficult to bring offenders to justice for criminal behavior that, during normal times, would surely have resulted in arrest and prosecution. Indeed, in many places throughout the state, civil law basically ceased to exist, at least for long stretches of the war, and martial law was often a poor substitute, especially when the crimes were politically motivated and the victim happened to be on the opposite side of the military tribunal called to investigate the crime, which was many times the case. Specifically, it was hard for a Southern sympathizer to get justice in a system run by Union military officials. (The Confederate-allied Missouri State Guard instituted its own version of martial law early in the war in places like Springfield, but the South’s control of southern Missouri proved brief. For most of the war, when we talk about martial law in Missouri, we’re talking about Union military law.) Besides, the state was so overrun by roving bands of ruffians that, regardless of political considerations, citizens were often afraid to testify about a crime for fear that they might be the next target of the brigands. Of course, the roving bands were often affiliated, at least loosely, with one side or the other in the war, but my point is that it wasn’t always a distrust of the justice system that made people reluctant to testify. Often it was a very realistic fear for their own safety.
The case of Austin Blankenship, who was murdered near Cole Camp in Benton County in the summer or fall of 1863, serves as an example. After receiving complaints about this and other outrages, including two other murders, committed in Benton County about the same time, Union officials appointed a board of officers to investigate the alleged crimes, which were said to have been perpetrated by Federal officers, soldiers, and citizens (presumably against Southern sympathizers). The board began its investigation on November 9 and filed its report with General Egbert B. Brown, commanding the Central District of Missouri, which encompassed Benton County, on December 14. The officers said they had interviewed nearly every prospective witness that might have knowledge of Blankenship’s murder or any of the other crimes and that they had been unable to find even one person who was willing to testify, because everyone was “terrified by the bloodthirsty deeds so recently committed.” The witnesses told the board that they had reason to believe that, if they testified about the outrages, they would be shot and their buildings burned. Some of them said that they were even afraid to ask questions of their fellow citizens about the crimes and were glad to remain ignorant, feeling that the less they knew about the outrages, the better off they would be.
The only people willing to testify were Blankenship’s wife and a small boy, who were present when Blankenship was killed. However, all the wife could say with certainty was that the members of the gang were wearing Federal uniforms and that there were about eight or ten of them, although only three entered the house. The boy was so frightened by the experience that he was unable to offer any valuable evidence.
There seemed to be a general feeling that the killers of Blankenship were four members of the 8th Regiment, Missouri State Militia, who were known to have been in the Blankenship neighborhood on the night he was killed, and because the other two men were killed on the same night as Blankenship, it was supposed that they were killed by the same four men. However, the investigating board felt they did not have enough specific evidence to get a conviction; so they did not recommend charges be brought against the four men, one of whom was Jasper Mitchell.
Despite the recommendation of the board, General Brown forwarded the report to the Department of Missouri headquarters at St. Louis with a suggestion that the investigation be continued and that the prospective witnesses be called to St. Louis, where they might feel freer to give testimony than they would at home. The report was promptly returned to Brown, however, with a request for additional information. Specifically, officials in St. Louis wanted to know the date on which Blankenship was killed.
What happened after that is unknown, but apparently the four suspected killers were never brought to trial.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Pressed Into Service

During the Civil War, especially during the early stages of the war, most military service was voluntary. However, both sides instituted drafts later in the war, the Confederacy in 1862 and the Union in 1863. In Missouri, Union service became mandatory with the formation of the Enrolled Missouri Militia in 1862. This, of course, resulted in a number of reluctant warriors (sometimes called Pawpaw Militia) who might have nursed Southern leanings but who joined the EMM in order to comply with the law. Occasionally, too, men of fighting age were simply compelled to serve, under a threat of violence, without being formally conscripted. This was the case with Martin V. Hammonds, or so he claimed.
Hammonds took his team and wagon and traveled from his home in Barton County, Missouri, to Elm Springs, Arkansas, in the summer of 1862 to move his brother and his brother’s family north. His brother, Hammonds said, was a Union man and wanted to get away from Confederate Arkansas. While at Elm Springs, Hammonds was arrested by some Rebels and told that he must enter Rebel service or they would kill him.
Hammonds joined the Rebels but, according to his story, deserted at his first opportunity, which occurred after about two months of service. On or about October 1, he was arrested by Union authorities on suspicion of being in arms against the United States and taken to Springfield, Missouri, where he gave a statement on October 22. He said he was a Union man and always had been, that he had not taken an oath, but that he was willing to do so at any time and was also willing to enlist in the Union army and “fight for the Government of the United States.”
Hammonds’s story is partially confirmed by Confederate records, which show that he joined Colonel Lewis’s 16th Missouri Infantry Volunteers, CSA on August 10, 1862. However, his date of desertion is given as October 21st, not October 1. We also learn from his Confederate service record that his place of desertion was Benton County, Missouri.
Hammonds’s case was turned over to the Springfield provost marshal at the time he gave his statement, but apparently no formal charges were ever filed against him.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Killing of Eli Baker

Twenty-four-year old Eli Baker was killed on October 1, 1861, in Stone County, Missouri, by a band of men that included James Huddleston and Isaac Bledsoe. Although details of the incident are sketchy, apparently it had political overtones, as most such incidents did during the Civil War, and the subsequent prosecution of Huddleston and Bledsoe for the crime definitely had personal overtones.
Huddleston was finally arrested in connection with this incident in mid-1863. (Whether Bledsoe was arrested is not known for sure.) Huddleston, however, was quickly paroled to Greene County. The parole was soon extended to Lawrence County. Before long Huddleston absconded to St. Louis, but he was apprehended there and placed in Union custody. In September a grand jury met in Stone County and indicted both Huddleston and Bledsoe for second degree murder.
The indictment, full of legalese, declared that "James Huddleston and Isaac H. Bledsoe and divers other persons to the jurors unknown on the 1st day of October...not having the fear of God before their eyes but being moved, seduced and instigated by the devil, did willfully, premeditatively, feloniously and of their malice aforethought with a gun, which gun was loaded and charged with gunpowder and a leaden bullet, which said gun was loaded as aforesaid, they the said James Huddleston and Isaac H. Bledsoe and divers other persons to the jurors unknown had and in their hand in and upon the body of one Ali Baker in the face of God and the State...did discharge and shoot off upon and against the body of said Ali Baker, giving to the said Ali Baker one mortal wound in the thigh of him the said Ali Baker of the depth of two inches and the breath of one-half inch, of which wound the said Ali Baker did languish and did die."
The fascinating thing about this indictment is that the foreman of the grand jury was Bowling Baker, father of Eli Baker (the victim of the shooting). Huddleston retained John S. Phelps (Union colonel, U.S. congressman, and future governor of Missouri) as his attorney. Huddleston had served under Phelps, probably even at the time of Baker's killing. Phelps quickly gained Huddleston's freedom on parole and bond of $2,000. A month or two later Huddleston was re-enlisted into the Union army. A new effort was made in 1864 to revive the case against Huddleston, but he served in the arny until the end of the war.
So I don't know the final outcome of this case, but apparently Huddleston was never tried for the crime he supposedly committed. Whatever the final outcome, I find the case interesting because of the political and personal overtones. Huddleston was a Union soldier, and Baker and his father were probably Southern sympathizers or at least conservative Union men, plus Bowling Baker served as foreman of the grand jury that was investigating his own son's death.

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