Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, 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 sixteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Wicked Women of Missouri, Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, and Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Lynching That Wasn't

Doing credible research online is much more feasible than it used to be, because many more original records are now available than was the case just a few years ago. Also, secondary Internet sources such as Wikipedia, which were once considered very unreliable, have greatly improved. Still, the Internet has a well-deserved reputation for false and misleading information. After all, people can put about anything they want on the Internet.
For instance, a month or two ago, I wrote about the vigilante whipping of Paralee Collins in Howell County, Missouri, in 1914. As I pointed out, this incident has been cited on various websites as a lynching, either implying or directly stating that Paralee was hanged. In addition, the victim has often been identified as a black woman. In fact, Paralee was not black, and she was not lynched except in the broad sense that she was administered extralegal punishment.
Similar misinformation has been dispensed on the Internet and elsewhere about the case of Andy Clark, a black man who was supposedly lynched in Wayne County, Missouri, in 1903.
Clark, about 57, lived near Leeper in the southwest part of the county. On Monday, January 19, 1903, he was at the neighboring farm of a forty-six-year-old white man named James Thurman when the two men got into an argument over some land. Clark finally left and went to his own home about a quarter mile away, where he procured a shotgun. Returning to the other man’s house, according to one newspaper report, he called Thurman to the door and “shot his head almost off by emptying both barrels of the gun at his victim.”
Clark escaped and eluded capture until Wednesday afternoon the 21st, when he was captured in the swamps east of Leeper. Taken into town, he was placed in the village calaboose, but about eight o’clock that night, a mob of seventy men “battered in the prison door, took the trembling negro to a nearby tree and hanged him.”
That’s the story that was published in several newspapers in the immediate wake of the incident, and now, over a hundred years later, the story is still repeated as fact on the Internet and elsewhere. Andy Clark’s name is almost always included in lists of black men lynched in America that various people and organizations have compiled over the years.
The only problem is it didn't happen. Clark apparently wasn’t lynched at all. Just days after the initial report of the lynching was published, at least one newspaper (i.e. the Iron County Register) stated, “The report that A.N. Clark, who killed James Thurman, was lynched at Leeper, proves to be unfounded.” The paper went on to say that, in fact, Clark made his escape and that the report of his lynching was only “indicative of the fate that awaits him if he is caught.”
Clark had still not been captured a year and a half later. On the last day of June 1904, Missouri governor Alexander Dockery offered a reward of $100 for the arrest and conviction of “Andrew Clark, colored, accused of killing James Thurman in Wayne County in January 1903.”
Whatever happened to Clark is unknown, although he apparently was never brought to justice. One thing seems clear: he wasn’t lynched at the hands of a mob in Leeper, Missouri, in 1903.

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Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Most Brutal Murder Ever in Cape Girardeau County

On the early morning of July 1, 1898, sixteen-year-old Jessie Lail and her mother, Bernice, finished milking the cows on the Lail farm about three miles south of Jackson, Missouri, and started toward a springhouse to store the milk. Jessie’s father, James Lail, briefly joined them but turned into the barn, remarking that he had work to do. Continuing toward a gate that led to the springhouse, Jessie and her mother saw nineteen-year-old John Headrick, who had previously worked on the Lail farm, come through a different gate and walk toward the barn, but nothing in his appearance aroused suspicion.
Jessie and her mother went through the gate and down a hill to the springhouse. They had just entered the building when they heard gunshots coming from the barn. Racing back up the hill, they saw Headrick chasing James Lail out of the barn and firing a pistol at him. After Lail collapsed from the gunshots, Bernice threw herself atop her husband’s body to try to shield him, while Headrick stood calmly reloading his pistol. He then shot Mrs. Lail in the back, fired several more shots into James Lail, and commenced to beat him with the pistol after he was dead. He also gave Mrs. Lail a lick or two and was getting ready to shoot her when Jessie arrived to intervene. “John Headrick,” she yelled, “what do you mean? You’re killed Papa and now you’re killing Mama.”
Jessie wrenched the gun away from Headrick, but he got it back and threatened to shoot her, too, if she didn’t back off. Headrick then started marching Jessie at gunpoint toward the Lail house. Looking back, he saw Bernice Lail get up and start running. The villain chased after her, knocked her down, and stabbed and slashed her with a knife. Leaving the woman weltering in her own blood, he met Jessie coming to her mother’s aid but turned her around and again herded her toward the house. As they neared the house, Bernice again got up and started running toward her mother-in-law’s nearby residence. Seeing she was too far away to overtake, Headrick remarked to Jessie, “The old woman is gone. You can’t kill her, can you?”
At the house, Headrick forced Jessie to pour him some water so he could wash his hands. Then, threatening to kill Jessie if she reported him or tried to follow him, he took off on foot toward Jackson.
At least that’s the story Jessie told. Headrick was captured late on July 2, and Jessie was the main witness at a coroner’s inquest held shortly afterward. Headrick was indicted for first degree murder in August, and at his trial in November at Jackson, Jessie was again the star witness. Bernice, who had been near death at the time of the coroner’s jury and unable to testify, had recovered enough to corroborate her daughter’s story. The prosecution sought to show that the main motive for the crime was that Lail had fired Headrick from his job shortly before the murder.
The defense, however, tried to show there was a romantic relationship between Headrick and Jessie Lail, that James Lail was angry about it, that he had fired Headrick partly because of it, and that the confrontation leading to Lail’s death came about when the older man discovered Headrick and his daughter in the barn together that morning and started hitting him with a curry comb. The defense even hinted that Jessie had aided in the crime, but Jessie, who had gotten married since her father’s death, adamantly denied these accusations. The jurors either gave no credence to the defense theory, or they decided that Jessie’s alleged romantic involvement with the defendant didn’t matter, since he had admitted to repeatedly shooting James Nail even after Nail fled.
Headrick was convicted and, after a futile appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court, sentenced to hang on June 15, 1899. His last words on the gallows were that someone else was guiltier than he was of the crime for which he was about to pay the penalty. A few days after the hanging, a full confession he had written in his jail cell two days before the execution was published in a Jackson newspaper. He claimed that not only were he and Jessie romantically involved but that she had taken an active role in the murder of her father and the wounding of her mother.
If so, neither Jessie nor her mother ever admitted as much.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Oliver Bateman's Murder of the McLauglin Girls

I mentioned last time that the Sedalia Weekly Bazoo, published at Sedalia, Missouri, from the early 1870s to the mid 1890s, was an early practitioner of what came to be known as yellow journalism, specializing in scandalous stories and sensational headlines. Another case in point is the Bazoo's coverage of the Adella and Austie McLaughlin murder case and the subsequent execution of Oliver B. Bateman for the crime.
The headlines in the November 25, 1884, Bazoo tell the story of the execution: Bateman, the Brutal and Bloody Butcher, Hanged at Savannah. A Throng of Ten Thousand Witnessed the Terrible Trapeze Act. As He Lived, So Died, the Blackest Criminal on Record. He Meets His Fate with Stoical and Cool Indifference. The Monstrous Murder of the McLaughlin Girls Expiated.
On Sunday, August 31, 1884, nine-year-old Austie McLaughlin and her seven-year-old sister, Adella, visited in the home of Thomas Bateman in the Flag Springs neighborhood of Andrew County. (I realize Andrew County is far outside the Ozarks and this is supposed to be a blog about Ozarks history, but I write about all of Missouri, not just the Ozarks. Besides, part of my point is the Bazoo's coverage of the crime, not just the crime itself, and Sedalia lies just barely outside the Ozarks.) When the girls didn't come home that evening, an investigation was undertaken, and it was learned the girls had, indeed, left the Bateman residence to go home. But for some reason they never made it.
The next day the girls' bodies were found in a cornfield not far from the Bateman home. Austie had been "brutally treated" and then murdered with a knife, her body mangled and carved. The younger sister had been shot through the head. Newton Bateman, sixteen-year-old son of Thomas Bateman, was immediately arrested as a suspect in the heinous crimes, based on vague, circumstantial evidence. He had once attempted to lure another girl into the same cornfield where the McLaughlin girls were found; he and John McLaughlin, the girls' father, did not get along well; and he was seen in the vicinity of the crime on the day it was committed.
A coroner's jury on Tuesday concluded there was not enough evidence to hold Newton Bateman, and he was released. However, hundreds of people, still believing Newton might be guilty, continued to search for clues to the identity of the killer or killers, and a day or so later a blood-stained shirt was found in the cornfield near where the girls were killed. It was identified as belonging to Oliver Bateman, Newton's older brother. During the investigation the past few days, twenty-one-year-old Oliver had been lying quietly at home, claiming to be sick. The young man was arrested on September 6 and taken to the county jail at Savannah. When about a thousand people gathered in Savannah talking of vigilante justice, Bateman was moved again, this time to St. Joseph.
He reportedly confessed to the murders shortly before or shortly after his arrival in St. Joe.
In early October the accused was brought back to Savannah for indictment, and he expressed a desire to plead guilty. Despite being advised against such a plea, he carried through with his intention and pled guilty on the first day of his trial, October 9. The judge then sentenced him to hang on November 21, 1884.
In the days leading up to his execution, Bateman continued to insist that he was ready to die and only wished that the appointed day would hurry up and arrive. On November 20, he was visited by two ministers, and he professed religion. But he would never state why he had killed the little girls other than to say the idea had suddenly come upon him when he'd seen them in the cornfield. Curious observers were left with vague speculations like those of the doctor who interviewed Bateman and concluded that he was motivated to kill the girls by "a low order of instinctive desire through animal lust."
On the 21st, Oliver Bateman was hanged at the edge of Savannah at about 1 p.m. in front of 10,000 spectators. He died after seven minutes, and thirty minutes after the trap was sprung, the body was cut down and turned over to Thomas Bateman, who had stayed uptown rather than witness the spectacle of his son's execution.
Little more was ever heard about this case in the Bazoo or any other newspaper, but if the Bazoo had continued to follow the story, it would have been rewarded with just the kind of scandalous details it liked to publish. In January of 1885, an Andrew County correspondent wrote to the Republican (presumably the St. Louis Republican) declaring that the mystery of why Oliver Bateman had killed the McLauglin girls had been solved. Oliver Bateman's sister (presumably 18-year-old Elizabeth, although he also had a 15-year-old sister, Margaret) had turned up pregnant since the murders, and it had come out that Oliver had been carrying on an incestuous affair with her since at least June 15, 1884, when he had had carnal relations with her in an outhouse on their father's farm. According to neighbors of the Batemans to whom the correspondent had talked, when the McLaughlin girls had visited the Bateman home on August 31, they had found only Oliver and his sister at the house by themselves, and they had witnessed Oliver "fondling and caressing his sister and manifesting lustful passions" toward her. Oliver had killed the girls to keep them from telling what they had seen.
The Batemans subsequently sued the newspaper for libel and won an award of $5,000. The newspaper appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, and the high court overruled the lower court's verdict, saying that the newspaper did not have to prove its allegations beyond a reasonable doubt as long as a preponderance of evidence showed them to be true.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

A Strange Tale of Domestic Entanglements

The term "yellow journalism" was coined in the 1890s to describe the sensationalist journalism that characterized the newspaper circulation war between Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. The name came from the fact that the publishers used a certain amount of yellow ink. Actually, though, Pulitzer had been using sensational headlines to sell papers for many years. His St. Louis Post-Dispatch became the dominant newspaper in Missouri during the 1880s, partly because of its sensational headlines. Even the Post-Dispatch, however, could not hold a candle to the Sedalia Bazoo when it came to sensationalism.
I've mentioned the Bazoo on this blog before. Perhaps I'm drawn to it because I like a little sensationalism myself. I admit that I enjoy researching and writing about murder cases and other sensational topics, and the Sedalia Bazoo provides fertile ground for researching such topics. The murder of Maggie Fischer on Friday night, January 25, 1889, six miles northeast of Sedalia near Beaman Station (now called Beaman) is another case in point. The Bazoo was one of the few newspapers in Missouri or elsewhere to even report the event, but the Bazoo made a major story out of it.
The headlines in the Bazoo a few days after the crime read: Murder and Mystery--Mrs. Maggie Fischer Strangled to Death at Her Own Door--Suspicion Points to Her Husband and Sister as the Murderers--A Strange Tale of Domestic Entanglements and Jealousies--An Affectionate Young Wife the Victim of a Barbarous Crime.
The loud ringing of a farm bell on the Fischer farm about one o'clock on the morning of January 26 first alerted neighbors that something was wrong. When the first neighbors responded to the alarm, they found Milton Fischer bending over his wife's body, which lay on a bed in the front room, and wringing his hands in apparent agony. The corpse was soaked in camphor and water, and strewn about the room were bottles and other vessels containing these liquids. Maggie's sister, Louise Swearingen, who had been staying at the home, was pacing the floor, also in apparent agony.
Fisher's story was that he had left Sedalia by wagon on Friday evening about eight o'clock and had arrived home about ten o'clock. After putting away his team, he approached his house and stumbled over his wife's body lying motionless on the back porch near the kitchen door. Wrapped tightly around the woman's neck was a silk and cotton handkerchief with which she had apparently been strangled.
Louise Swearingen said she and her sister had gone to bed on Friday evening about eight o'clock but had not yet fallen asleep when a loud rap came at the back door. Maggie got up and went to the door with Louise following some distance behind. When Maggie opened the door, she began screaming and fighting as she was dragged outside. Terrified, Louise quickly retreated and locked herself, along with her child and Maggie's child, in the front room. She was afraid to go outside until after Milton Fischer came home and discovered his wife's body, and then she and Fischer had carried her sister into the front room and tried in every way possible to revive her. They did not summon help until all hope was lost, which accounted for why the alarm had not been given sooner.
At the coroner's inquiry held later the same day (Saturday), however, some "very sensational testimony was given," according to the Bazoo, which cast doubt on Milton and Louise's story. Jurors learned that Louise Swearningen had been staying in her sister's home for the past few weeks and had also lived with Maggie and Milton for about three months the previous summer. Louise slept in the same room with her sister and brother-in-law and continued to sleep in the same room with Milton even when Maggie left to visit her parents for a month and Louise stayed on to keep house for Milton. Witnesses could not say for sure whether Louise and Milton slept in the same bed during this time, but a woman who did Maggie's washing for her testified that there was a jealousy between the two sisters and that Maggie had told her, "If things do not change soon, I will not be able to live here much longer." The washerwoman added that one source of conflict between the two sisters was that Maggie thought her husband treated Louise's bastard child better than he treated his own.
The Bazoo added that Louise Swearingen, who was a few years younger than her twenty-six-year-old sister, was a woman of "bad character" who had "not conducted herself in a manner which placed her above suspicion." She was described as being of "very unprepossessing appearance," but nonetheless she had "succeeded in fascinating her brother-in-law in some way" and had become "very intimate" with him.
The coroner's jurors concluded there was enough evidence to hold both Milton Fischer and Louise Swearingen for the murder of Maggie Fischer, and the pair were placed in jail at Sedalia. They pleaded not guilty at their arraignment on Monday and were then returned to the jail to await a preliminary hearing the following week.
The key piece of evidence in the legal proceedings that followed proved to be the handkerchief with which Mrs. Fischer was strangled. Milton Fischer testified that he had never seen it before discovering it around his wife's neck on the night she was murdered, but other witnesses testified that Fischer himself had purchased it in Sedalia not long before the crime. Fischer was eventually convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to fifteen years in the state prison. He was committed to the Jeff City prison in April 1890 and was pardoned by the Missouri governor after serving ten years. Miss Swearingen was charged as an accessory in the crime, but I have been unable to find any record that she was ever convicted. So, apparently she was not.

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