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, 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.

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