Oliver Bateman's Murder of the McLauglin Girls
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.