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.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Murder of Sawyer Family and Hanging of Edward Perry

On Saturday morning, May 23, 1896, some people were passing the Sawyer residence about a mile east of Ava, Missouri, when they noticed an unusual number of flies swarming around the house's windows. Stepping closer to the dwelling, they smelled a terrible odor emanating from the home. Continuing on to Ava, they reported their findings, and the town constable and a deputy went out to the Sawyer home to investigate. Going inside, the two men were almost overcome by the smell of decaying human flesh, and they discovered the bodies of Lafayette Sawyer, his wife, and their grown son, Ernest E. Sawyer, stuffed under a bed and covered with bed clothing and a carpet.
Ernest Sawyer had been stabbed several times and had a broken jaw. It was determined that he had been killed in the barn after putting up a terrific struggle. It was thought the murderer had then gone to the house and killed the father with a blow to the head with an ax and a "second blow scattered the brains of Mrs. Sawyer over the bed." Ernest Sawyer's body was dragged to the house, and all three were placed under the bed. A note was found on the front window of the house saying that the family had gone to Ozark and would be back the following Monday or Tuesday. It was signed "E.E. Sawyer," but the theory was that the killer had probably written the note to try to allay the suspicions of anybody who might come to the door. Based on when the Sawyers had last been seen, it was thought the murders had probably taken place the previous Wednesday evening. The only motive anyone could come up with for the crime was robbery, although the Sawyers were not thought to have much money or other possessions. In reporting the story, newspapermen compared the crime in heinousness to the notorious murder of the Meeks family that had occurred in northern Missouri about two years earlier.
A young man named Edward W. Perry was immediately suspected of killing the Sawyers, because he had been seen late Wednesday in company with Ernest Sawyer and had not been seen since. "A worthless fellow," according to newspaper reports, Perry was originally from Bellville, Kansas, but he had an uncle who lived in the Douglas County area and he had "been loafing about Ava for several months."
On Sunday, May 24, the day after the bodies were found, Perry was arrested at his uncle's farm north of Ava. He was brought to Ava late that night and made a confession upon a promise of protection from the mob that was gathering and threatening vigilante justice. He admitted participating in the murders but also implicated two other young men, Louis Douglas and Jack Baker. He claimed Douglas killed the old man, that Baker killed the old lady, and that his only direct participation in the crime was in helping the other two gang up on and kill Ernest Sawyer. He said they had killed the family for their money, which amounted to about $80. They also stole the family wagon and team, according to Perry, and drove to Springfield, where they sold the wagon and horses for $45 and divided the proceeds.
Almost no one believed Perry's story, which one newspaper called a "bogus confession." Douglas was briefly arrested but was soon released when it was learned that he and Perry had only gotten together in Springfield after Perry had gone there following the crime, and Douglas had accompanied him back to Douglas County. There was still a lot of talk of lynching Perry, and on the morning of May 26, as talk mounted, Perry broke down and gave another confession, saying he might as well tell the whole truth, since it looked as if he was going to he hanged anyway. He said that he and his uncle had done the killings by themselves. However, when the uncle, Bill Yost, was arrested, he put up a convincing defense, and authorities felt that the second confession was just as bogus as the first and that both were just attempts on Perry's part to shift part of the blame for the heinous murders away from himself.
Perry and Perry alone was convicted of murder, and he was hanged about 2 p.m. on January 30, 1897, at Ava. According to one contemporaneous report, "The murderer's neck was broken by the fall," and "the execution was a success in every particular." At the time, this was the only legal hanging ever in Douglas County. I'm not sure whether there were any more legal hangings in Douglas County after this one, but I don't know of any.

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