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, August 10, 2015

Murder of Sheriff John W. Polk

Late Thursday afternoon, May 25, 1905, a young man named William Spaugh entered Rascher's restaurant in Ironton, Missouri, and started bedeviling some of the customers by throwing peanut shells at them and so forth. He then caught one of the customers, William Edgar, by the leg, pulled him from his seat, and started dancing around the floor taunting Edgar and trying to get him to dance, too. After Edgar reclaimed his seat, Spaugh told him (Edgar) that the more he looked at his face, the more he hated it and struck him in the eye, inflicting a cut. He again jerked Edgar by the foot, pulling him to the floor. Here Rascher interceded and put Spaugh out of the restaurant.
Spaugh went to his home in Ironton, and the Iron County sheriff, John W. Polk, informed of the outrages on Edgar, went to the Spaugh home to arrest the assailant. William Spaugh was sitting on the front porch with his younger brother, Arthur, and another young man, William Brown, when Polk arrived. William Spaugh, according to Brown's later testimony, announced to the other two young men that the sheriff was there to arrest him, and Arthur got up and went inside the house. At the gate leading into the front yard, Polk hollered to William Spaugh that he needed to see him and for Spaugh to come to the fence. Spaugh demanded to know whether the sheriff had a warrant, and when Polk admitted he didn't, Spaugh got up and followed his brother inside.
Sheriff Polk then went inside the gate, stepped onto the front porch, opened the door to the house, and started to walk across the threshold when four or five shots rang out. One of them was a shotgun blast that reportedly blew a hole in Polk's side big enough to stick a fist in. Polk was also shot with a ball to the heart and one to the head, and he was given yet another wound with some sort of sharp instrument, apparently after he had already fallen dead to the floor.
The Spaugh brothers left the premises immediately after the shooting, and search parties sent out in pursuit of them finally brought them to bay, with the help of bloodhounds, at an isolated cabin in Madison County about five days later. After a gun battle that lasted several minutes, the two fugitives finally surrendered and were arrested and charged with murder. Their mother had previously been arrested, and she also was charged with murder for allegedly urging her sons to resist Sheriff Polk.
In early July, a mob broke into the Iron County jail where the brothers were being held, tied up the newly appointed sheriff, and shot the brothers several times in their legs. By order of the Missouri governor, the Spaughs were then transferred to St. Louis for safekeeping while awaiting trial.
The three Spaughs were scheduled for trial in late 1905 in Reynolds County on a change of venue from Iron County. William Spaugh was tried, convicted of first degree murder, and sentenced to hang. Arthur's trial and his mother's trial were postponed until the following summer. In mid-1906 Arthur was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 55 years in prison, and the mother was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to ten years in prison.
All three convictions were appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, but the verdicts were upheld in each case. However, the mother was later granted a new trial and was acquitted upon retrial. Also, William Spaugh's death sentence was later commuted to life in prison.
In 1913, when William Spaugh was dying of tuberculosis, Arthur tried to take the blame for the killings in order to secure a parole for William so that he might die at home, but the request was denied and William Spaugh died in prison in mid-1913. Arthur also later died in prison of tuberculosis after serving just a few years.

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