Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of the Ozarks region and surrounding area.

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Location: Missouri

I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written fourteen nonfiction books, two novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are A Concise Encyclopedia of the Ozarks, Bushwhacker Belles, and Wicked Women of Missouri.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Murder of Sheriff Cranmer and Hanging of John Turlington

On the evening of March 21, 1890, after a brakeman on the Missouri Pacific Railroad ejected John Oscar Turlington and another man from a train near Otterville, Missouri, Turlington took a pot shot at the brakeman. He was later arrested in Pettis County for carrying a concealed weapon and was jailed at Sedalia under the name of William West, but he was also charged in Cooper County for felonious assault and was scheduled to be transferred there on the more serious charge. While still in the Sedalia jail, Turlington met a young man named West Hensley, who was soon to be released, and he convinced Hensley to sneak a gun into him at the Cooper County jail in Boonville once he was transferred there. Hensley agreed to the desperate plan, and, after he was released and Turlington had been transferred and sentenced to six months in jail on the assault charge, he climbed a ladder at the Boonville jail on the night of June 13 and handed Turlington a pistol through the bars.
The next evening, June 14, Cooper County sheriff Thomas Cranmer and a trusty entered the jail to gather up the inmates' dinner dishes. When Cranmer opened Turlington's cell door, the prisoner walked up to the lawman, shot him point-blank with a .44 revolver, and made his escape out a rear door of the jail. The mortally wounded Cranmer managed to get the cell-block locked down so that others prisoners could not escape before staggering into his living quarters and collapsing. A large posse immediately formed, and Turlington, still going by the name William West, was recaptured later the same night.
After he was brought back to jail, there was much talk of lynching Turlington, but the sheriff had requested, before he died, that the people of Cooper County not take the law into their own hands, and a Baptist minister and other influential citizens were able to convince the mob that formed to honor the sheriff's wishes. A few days after his re-arrest, Turlington confessed his real identity and also admitted that he and man named Temple had held up a train at Pryor Creek, Indian Territory, the previous fall. In late July, Turlington was convicted in Cooper County Court of murdering Sheriff Cranmer, and his execution was set for September, later rescheduled for mid November.
The case was appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, but before the judges made a ruling, Turlington escaped on November 1, 1890, from the jail at Boonville by putting a dummy in his bed and tricking the jailer on duty into thinking he had retired for the night. He was able to sneak out and make his getaway before his absence was noticed. The fugitive was recaptured less than two weeks later in Caseyville, Kentucky, where, it was learned, he had killed two men about two years earlier. In fact, Turlington turned out to be a much more desperate character than Missouri authorities had at first realized, because he also had killed a man in Tennessee prior to the Kentucky killings.
Turlington was brought back to Boonville, where he again escaped on the evening of December 20 by soaping his body and slipping through a hole at the top of his cell and then rappelling to the ground using a rope fashioned from a blanket. He was recaptured the next afternoon.
In late January of 1891, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court's ruling, and Turlington was hanged in the jail yard at Boonville on March 6, 1891. Sources: Cooper County history, Sedalia Weekly Bazoo, and various other newspapers.

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.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Murder of Conductor Percy

On Monday evening, October 21, 1872, a young man about 18 years old boarded the night express of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad at Springfield. When the conductor, identified only as B. Percy, passed through the passenger car collecting fares, the young man had no ticket and no money to pay for one but said he would be able to obtain some money at Marshfield. The conductor allowed the lad to ride to Marshfield, but when the train arrived there, the young man still showed no disposition to pay. The conductor then took the young man's hat and left it with the ticket agent, telling the lad he could get the hat back when he came up with the money for his ticket. A few moments later, Conductor Percy announced "all aboard" and stepped onto the platform of one of the rear cars as the train started up. The young man scaled the platform from the opposite direction, immediately pulled out a pistol, and shot the conductor through the head. The desperado then jumped from the train and disappeared into the darkness. Because of the noise created by the train starting up, the shooting was not discovered until the train had traveled from the passenger depot to the freight depot about a hundred yards distant. The confusion and excitement caused by the discovery further aided in the shooter's escape. Percy died within twenty minutes, and the next morning his body was taken to Springfield, where he had lived, and turned over to his family.
Although the murderer fled into the night without being immediately pursued, a posse soon started after him and trailed him to a residence about seven miles east of Springfield, where he had stopped and been allowed to rest. The posse found the young man sound asleep inside the home about midday on Tuesday, tied him with a rope, and started back to Marshfield with their prisoner, who identified himself as V.T. Cornwell of Illinois. The editor of the Springfield Missouri Weekly Patriot expressed satisfaction that the man who had killed Percy was taken back to Marshfield rather than brought to Springfield because "our people are slow to punish such heinous crimes" whereas "the people of Webster have had some experience in this line." The newspaperman said he looked to Webster County to give Cornwell justice and that he thought it could best be dispensed at the end of a rope. What ultimately happened to the young killer, however, is not known.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Hanging of William Roland

In the wee hours of the morning of April 17, 1934, two detectives for the Rock Island Railroad, J.W. Whitted and Edwin C. Shane, were killed when they interrupted five black men in the process of robbing a freight car in Bland, a small town in the southwest part of Gasconade County, Missouri. Shane's body was found near the depot in Bland about 7:00 a.m., just a few hours after the crime, and Whitted's body was found near the same time at Eldon, Missouri, seventy miles to the northwest, still lying on top of a railroad car. Both had been shot to death.
Later the same morning, three black men were arrested at Redbird, a few miles south of Bland, and one was arrested at Belle, a few miles west of Bland in northern Maries County. All four reportedly admitted their participation in the robbery, but they all claimed that a fifth black man, whom they knew only as Shorty, had planned the crime and had done the killing when the detectives caught them robbing the car and ordered them outside. The four accomplices were found guilty of burglary and sent to the penitentiary.
On May 14, the man known as Shorty, later identified as William Roland, was arrested in St. Louis. A "professional train robber" and an ex-convict who had served ten years in prison for killing two Mexicans, the 44-year-old Roland confessed to killing the two railroad detectives and was taken to the Gasconade County seat of Hermann and placed in jail. He was tried just a week later (with two of his accomplices testifying against him), found guilty of murder, and sentenced to hang on June 29. The case, however, was appealed to the state supreme court, thus postponing the execution. The high court finally ruled in March of 1935 that the verdict would stand, and the hanging was rescheduled for April 12, 1935.
On the appointed day, Roland reportedly ate a hearty breakfast and then was led calmly to the gallows inside the jail at Hermann. Asked if he had anything to say, he replied in a clear voice that he did not, and the trap was sprung by the county sheriff. A reporter for the Bland Courier remarked that among the 100 spectators who witnessed the affair, "Only four women saw the Negro die. Four men, who had lost courage, left the jail before the trap was sprung." The newspaperman also found it an interesting coincidence that there were 13 steps leading to the scaffold, there were 13 wraps in the rope, the Friday of the execution lacked but one day being the 13th day of the month, and it took the condemned man 13 minutes to die.
After the hanging, the public was invited inside the jail, and another 100 or so people went inside to gaze at the corpse. Bits of the hangman's rope were handed out, according to the local reporter, "as souvenirs of the execution of one of the most hardened criminals of all time who had committed a dastardly crime right here in the heart of our little city."

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