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, October 4, 2015

The Cost of Hanging a Man

I occasionally hear politicians as well as everyday citizens gripe about the slow turning of the wheels of justice in our modern legal system, and often the critics point to how much more swiftly punishment was meted out in the old days. There's some truth to this contention, of course, and in some cases nowadays the wheels have ground almost to a halt. However, complaints about the slow pace of justice are nothing new. In early 1895, the Missouri state auditor issued a report stating that the costs of prosecuting criminals in the state were increasing at the rate of $50,000 to $75,000 a year without a proportionate increase in crime, and the Jefferson City Tribune editorialized on the subject, claiming that most of the increase was a result of "unnecessary delays" occasioned by continuances and changes of venue. The case of Wils Howard, who had recently been hanged at Lebanon, was cited as an example. "There was never any question as to Howard's guilt," said the newspaper, "and yet it required two years and cost the state some $6,000 to hang him."
On the night of April 27, 1889, Thomas McMichael, whom newspapers identified as a deaf mute peddler, was murdered near Vienna, Missouri, presumably for his money. The Missouri governor promptly offered a $350 reward leading to the arrest of the guilty party or parties. Wilson ""Wils" Howard was soon identified as the assailant, but by then he had returned to his home state of Kentucky, where he had previously been involved in the notorious Howard-Turner feud of Harlan County and had earned a reputation as a desperate character. The feud dated back to 1882 when Bob Turner was shot to death by Wilks Howard, uncle of Wils. After Wilks was acquitted, the feud escalated over the next few years, and Wils Howard killed at least three Turner allies before absconding to Missouri in 1886.
But after killing Thomas McMichael, Wils was back in Harlan County, and he promptly took up leadership of the Howard faction as the feud continued to rage, reportedly involving almost everybody in the whole county. On October 19, 1889, John Howard, brother of Wils, was shot and badly wounded at Harlan Courthouse, the county seat. In response, Wils organized a party of about forty men and threatened to ride in and take over the town, which was held by the Turner faction under the leadership of a local judge named Lewis. On October 22, the Lewis group, numbering about 50, attacked the Howard faction about a mile outside town, killing one instantly and wounding six others, including Wils Howard. A few days later, the Howard bunch retaliated, killing two men of the Turner faction.
In the spring of 1890. Judge Lewis asked for and received state troops to help preserve order, and the Howard faction clashed briefly with the troops. When the state troops went out to try to arrest Wils Howard and some of the other leaders of the Howard faction, Wils again fled the territory, this time going to California.
In California, Wils Howard was promptly arrested under the name of John Brooks for robbing a Wells Fargo stage and sentenced to eight years in San Quentin. Detective Imboden of Missouri tracked him down there and, with permission from the California governor, brought him back here in December of 1890 to stand trial for murdering McMichael.
After four continuances and a change of venue from Maries to Laclede County, Howard was finally convicted of murder in early 1893 and sentenced to hang on April 7. In the meantime, he was taken to St. Louis for safekeeping. Appeals to the Missouri Supreme Court and to the governor delayed the carrying out of the sentence, but Howard finally reached the end of his rope, both figuratively and literally, on January 19, 1894, at Lebanon. Before he was hanged, Howard admitted killing several men in Kentucky, but he proclaimed his innocence in the McMichael murder. Thus ended the long ordeal of bringing a desperado to justice.

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