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, December 20, 2015

Civil War Execution of Thomas J. Thorpe

While Federal executions of Missourians for bushwhacking and other disloyal activities were not uncommon during the Civil War, they were not everyday occurrences. Authorities were usually reluctant to impose the death penalty except for very serious cases and even more reluctant to carry it out. Even when a man was condemned to death, the execution sometimes got postposed repeatedly. Such was the case of Thomas J. Thorpe of Oregon County.
Thorpe, according to his own statement, joined Thomas Freeman’s Missouri State Guard regiment (part of General James McBride’s division) early in the war. Freeman and twenty-nine of his men were captured in February 1862 at the Battle of Crane Creek (near present-day Crane, Missouri), and Thorpe might have been among those taken prisoner, although this is not altogether clear.
Regardless, Thorpe said he remained with McBride after he left Freeman’s regiment. So, he apparently did have some standing as a regular soldier, at least during the early part of the war.
However, he operated as a partisan or guerrilla later in the war. In October of 1863, he was taken into custody at Pilot Knob. According to his own account, he surrendered, but Union authorities reported only that he was arrested as a rebel. On the 19th, he took an oath of allegiance and gave a $1,000 bond. He was 28 years old at the time and stood 5’7” tall. He was described as having dark eyes and dark hair. The terms of his oath specified that he must not go south of Oregon County and must report to the provost marshal’s office at Pilot Knob on the last day of each month.
Sometime after his release from custody at Pilot Knob, he and two other men were accused of killing a citizen named Obediah Leavitt. On March 20,1864, Thorpe was arrested in Oregon County and charged with murder, violating his oath, and being a guerrilla. He was tried about the first of July and found guilty of murder and being a guerrilla. On July 6th, he was transported to St. Louis and imprisoned at Gratiot Street Prison to await the promulgation of his sentence.
The sentence was announced on July 29—to be hung by the neck until dead. The execution was scheduled to be carried out on September 2 at Pilot Knob.
Thorpe appealed to the president of the United States for a new hearing, but Lincoln denied the request and also declined to pardon Thorpe. However, on September 1, the day Thorpe was to be escorted back to Pilot Knob to meet his death, the sentence was temporarily suspended by General William Rosecrans, commanding the Department of the Missouri. On December 3, Thorpe was sent in irons to Alton (Illinois) Military Prison to await his fate.
The reason for the first postponement of Thorpe’s execution is not clear, but it was postponed three more times during February and March of 1865 on account of his poor health. Finally, in late April, he was deemed sufficiently recovered that he could be put to death. He was scheduled to hang on May 1.
On April 30, Thorpe was taken from Alton back to Gratiot Street Military Prison, where the execution was to take place. The next day, he was escorted to the prison yard, where a gallows awaited him. A few spectators and two or three reporters were there to witness the event. Asked if he had any last words, Thorpe replied that he had been accused unjustly and that he had never killed anyone nor been a guerrilla. A recent convert to Catholicism, he said he would die happy and he expected to go to heaven. He left a note to his wife asking her to make sure their kids received schooling and requesting they be baptized by a priest.
The rope was then placed around Thorpe’s neck, and he dropped to his death at 10:48 a.m. He died almost instantly, his neck broken by the fall, but he was not declared dead until 11:21.

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