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, May 29, 2016

Another Lynching Debunked

In recent months I've written about two supposed incidents of violence in the Ozarks that have often been cited on the Internet and elsewhere as lynchings of black people. When I looked at these incidents more closely, however, I found that one of them did not occur at all and that citations about the other one usually contain erroneous and misleading details.
The whipping of Paralee Collins in Howell County, Missouri, in June of 1914 is one such incident. In fact, Collins was not black, and she was not lynched in the popular sense of the word. Originally, the word "lynch" meant simply to administer any extralegal punishment, especially by flogging. Its meaning likely derived from William Lynch, leader of a vigilante movement in early Virginia. In this broad sense, Collins was indeed lynched, but in modern times the word "lynch" has taken on a narrower sense, meaning vigilante execution by hanging. Most people nowadays understand the word "lynch" in this narrower sense; so it is misleading simply to say that Paralee Collins was lynched without giving all the facts, as most citations about her on the Internet do. In fact, some of them specifically say that she was hanged, and, of course, she was not.
The other supposed lynching of a black person in the Ozarks that I've debunked recently is that of Andy Clark in January 1903 in Wayne County, Missouri. Clark was black. At least the people who persist in listing Clark as a victim of vigilante hanging have gotten that part right. However, he was not hanged and was not even administered any sort of vigilante punishment, because he was never captured after he committed the deed that supposedly resulted in his lynching.
Now comes a third dubious victim of lynching in southern Missouri: Nelson Simpson, who was supposedly lynched near Neelyville in Butler County, Missouri. On the night of January 1, 1901, a masked band of whitecaps visited a black neighborhood near Neelyville, shooting out windows and doors of the residents as a warning for them to leave the area. (The White Caps were originally a vigilante group that started in Indiana during the 1870s to enforce morality and community standards. For instance, men who neglected their families or women who had children out of wedlock were prime targets. However, as the movement spread to the Southern states during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the word "whitecaps" became more generic and the vigilante mobs mainly targeted black people.)
The mob that visited the black community in Neelyville summoned Simpson to his door, and when he appeared, "It was the signal for the discharge of a dozen or more firearms," according to a report in a St. Louis newspaper. "The bullets fairly rained into the house." Simpson fell badly wounded, and his ten-year-old daughter also received a serious wound. (Other newspapers reported that Simpson was mortally wounded.) The outlaws kept shooting "until every window in the house was riddled and the structure was perforated with bullets in a hundred places." Before the whitecaps left, the leader of the gang told the family that they must leave the territory within twenty days or they would receive a second visit, their house would be burned, and the residents punished.
Other houses in the neighborhood were also visited, and similar outrages perpetuated. Several black men were threatened with lynching if they did not leave within twenty days.
So, Nelson Simpson was, in fact, a victim of lynching in the original sense of the word, but, like Paralee Collins, he was not hanged. He also was not mortally wounded, as several newspapers reported in the immediate wake of the incident. He was still alive at the time of the 1910 census, almost ten years later. He also did not scare easily, because he was still living in the Neelyville area in 1910.
My intention in debunking these supposed lynchings of black people in the Ozarks is not to try to dismiss or diminish the tragic violence that blacks in the Ozarks experienced during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Although mob violence against blacks was not as prevalent in the Ozarks as it was in the South (at least partly, no doubt, because there weren't as many black residents as a percentage of the population), there were still plenty of blacks who were lynched (i.e. hanged illegally) in the Ozarks. Enough that we don't need to invent more.
I might add as well that Richard Mays (aka Mayes) is often cited as a black man who was lynched in Springfield, Missouri, in 1893. He was, in fact, lynched near Springville, Alabama.

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Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Sooner Lynched By Boomers

There were several land runs during the late 1800s when Oklahoma was being opened up to white settlement, but the biggest was the one that occurred when the Cherokee Outlet, a six million acre strip of land along Kansas's southern border, was opened up in September 1893. Prospective landowners poured into so-called "boomer" camps to await the official opening of the Indian land. The word "boomer" referred to those who had been lobbying since 1879 for the opening of the Indian lands, but it took on a double meaning in the context of the land runs because those who gathered in the camps just outside the Indian land were awaiting the "boom" of the cannon as the official signal that the rush was on. Spurred by high land prices elsewhere and the financial panic of 1893, people poured into the camps by the thousands. People who wanted to participate in the land run had to acquire certificates authorizing them to do so, and the government posted guards along the border to try to keep unauthorized settlers out. Still, many "sooners," as they were called, sneaked in ahead of time. Tensions ran high in such an atmosphere, and incidents of violence were almost inevitable.
One such incident was the lynching of a sooner named Asa Youmans (or Yeamans). Youmans was an ex-sailor who'd formerly lived at Carthage, Missouri. He was one of several Missourians organized and paid by a syndicate of real estate men to acquire land in the Cherokee Outlet, and they sneaked onto the land south of Arkansas City, Kansas, prior to September 16, the official opening day. When the cannon boomed at noon on the 16th, the land run was officially on, and men thronged across the border in search free land on which to stake their claims.
When the first group of boomers from the Arkansas City camp reached the vicinity of present-day Blackwell, Oklahoma, they found about fifty sooners holding down claims with rifles as their only authority. One man, Asa Youmans, was holding down two claims, saying his partner had gone out in search of water. The first boomers went on without attempting to dislodge Youmans but reported what they'd witnessed to some of their fellow boomers. Two of the newcomers defiantly planted their flags on the land Youmans was claiming and resolved to stand by them. Youmans raised his rifle and ordered the two men off his claim. One of them asked to see his certificate, and Youmans admitted he had none and did not propose to get one. "I am a sooner," he reportedly proclaimed, "and I would like to know what in the hell you propose to do about it."
Facing the threat of a gun, the two men, like their predecessors, departed without further resistance, but they rounded up about two dozen of their friends and returned. Now greatly outnumbered, Youmans still showed fight and claimed, perhaps in the spirit of bravado, that he had already killed two settlers and could get away with killing more. The boomers promptly dispensed with anymore of Youman's braggadocio by placing a rope around his neck and stringing him up to a nearby tree, where they left him hanging as a warning to other sooners.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Deadly Day in Ladore

On Tuesday, May 10, 1870, seven men, identified initially as either "Texans or straggling outlaws from the Indian Territory," rode into the town of Ladore, Kansas, looking to raise hell. The Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad had announced its intention to make Ladore, located about six miles north of present-day Parsons along the Neosho Division of the Missouri Pacific Railroad, a junction point of the M. K. & T.; and the place pulsed with rowdy activity in anticipation of the expected boon. L.A. Bowes, foreman for the contractor that was building the M. K. & T, recalled 30 years later that Ladore was "the toughest place I ever struck. Whisky was sold in nearly every house in the town. Vice and immorality flourished like a green bay tree." But even the citizens of a raucous town like Ladore drew a line, and when the seven rowdy strangers got liquored up and crossed it, only one of them rode out alive.
The seven "hard-looking characters" hit town about noon, according to Bowes, and "commenced to fill up on tangleleg. About dusk they began operations by knocking men down and robbing them. As they were heavily armed, they soon had full possession of the town and had everything their own way."
That evening about seven o'clock, the seven hombres went to a boarding house kept by James N. Roach about a quarter mile south of town near the railroad and asked to stay the night. They were refused because of their drunken condition, but they didn't take well to the rejection. Two of the desperadoes guarded a stairs leading to the second floor, where about 25 construction workers were boarding, while the other five took possession of the lower part of the building. One of them struck Roach with a revolver, knocking him to the floor unconscious and apparently lifeless. According to a contemporaneous account published in a Fort Scott newspaper, the men then "proceeded to a bed occupied by two daughters of Mr. Roach, aged...twelve and fourteen years" and dragged them outside, where they "ravished them during the entire night, using a knife to complete the accomplishment of their hellish purpose." During the night, a quarrel erupted among the desperadoes over one of the girls, and the leader of the gang shot and killed one of his own men. Mr. Roach revived during the middle of the night and could hear the heartrending pleas of his daughters but was afraid to stir, knowing the men would kill him.
Near daybreak the outlaws left, taking the younger girl with them. An alarm was sounded throughout town, and search parties, consisting of citizens and construction workers, went out looking for the villains. The one who had the girl was quickly overtaken and hung to a large limb of a hackberry tree not far from the Roach home. Two others were located still in town, having fallen into a drunken sleep in one of the saloons, and they joined their comrade on the makeshift gallows. The other three were caught on the road to Osage Mission (now St. Paul) and brought back. Two of them were hanged beside their pals, while the third man was spared because, according to Bowes, the girls said he did not participate in "the deviltry indulged in by the others." By eleven a.m., five men were hanging lifeless side by side from the hackberry limb.
Bowes recalled that all five of the outlaws were rounded up and held briefly in a log barber shop with several men standing guard over them before any action was taken against them, although this was not reported in the Fort Scott newspaper. Bowes said the men were then taken out one by one for the girls to identify before they were strung up.
The five men were left hanging until about three o'clock Wednesday afternoon, when the bodies were finally let down. They were laid out in a row while a large grave was dug, and all five bodies were buried together. According to the Fort Scott newspaper, the universal feeling in the region was that "the summary manner of inflicting justice was entirely justified by the circumstances" in the Ladore case.
According to Bowes, "Ladore became a good, moral town" after the mass hanging. "The 'Wild Bills,' 'Texas Jacks,' 'Buckskin Joes' and 'Alkali Ikes' left for more congenial climes, and the town settled into a quiet, peaceful village." Actually Ladore only lasted a couple of more years after this incident. The M. K. & T Railroad ended up bypassing Ladore when it could not reach agreement with area settlers on a price for their land, and Parsons flourished instead as the junction point of the railroad.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Irene McCann: Good Girl or Bad Woman?

Irene Scott, according to her mother, was a “good girl” growing up in Alabama in the 1920s and even taught a Sunday school class, but shortly after she turned eighteen she just decided to “pick up and run off.” After sending a few letters home, Irene quit writing, and her mother, Velma Richardson, began to worry she might be dead. She wasn’t, but Velma was right to be worried.
Irene traveled back and forth across the country from Dallas to Chicago to New Orleans working as a waitress and dancer in various restaurants and clubs. In the fall of 1930, while working as a waitress at a restaurant and boardinghouse in Springfield, Missouri, she met a seventeen-year-old Joplin boy named Albert McCann. They were married just a few weeks later, and Albert, supposedly a perfect gentleman during their courtship, began to curse and beat her during drunken rages. She stayed with him out of fear, she later claimed.
In late November of 1930, Albert, Irene, and another couple drove from Joplin to Kansas City, where Albert and the other young man killed a drugstore owner during a robbery attempt, while Irene and the other woman waited in the car. After the crime, the foursome fled back to Jasper County.
In mid-December, Irene agreed to help Albert try to break a friend of his out of the Jasper County jail at Carthage. During the attempt, McCann shot and killed jailer E.O. Bray when he put up a struggle. After the shooting, Irene and her villainous husband ran from the jail yard through a gate, where she stumbled and broke a heel off one of her shoes.
The couple fled to Oklahoma and stopped at Chelsea to buy bandages for a wound Albert had sustained in his gun battle with Bray. Irene went into a drugstore to make the purchase, and the town marshal, who happened to be present, noticed the missing heel on her shoe. The next day he read a news story about the killing of Bray, and it mentioned the woman accomplice having lost a heel from her shoe. The marshal sent for photos of the suspects to confirm they were the same couple he’d seen at the drugstore. When they showed back up in Chelsea a couple of weeks later, he arrested them without incident, and they were taken back to Missouri to face first-degree murder charges.
Tried in April 1931, Albert McCann was convicted and sentenced to hang in July, but the verdict was appealed and the sentence postponed. Irene testified in her own defense at her trial in May, claiming she’d only gone along with Albert out of fear, and she was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to ten years in the state prison.
Transferred to the state penitentiary in Jefferson City, Irene escaped from a hospital at the prison farm on November 10, 1931. She left behind a note explaining that she escaped because she wanted to try to get evidence to help her husband. Irene, whom one of the prison matrons called “a bad woman,” was recaptured the next day. Granted a retrial in Springfield, Albert was again convicted of murder in May of 1932, but this time he received a sentence of fifty years in prison instead of the death penalty.
In December of 1932, Irene made another dash for freedom. She and another inmate, Edna Murray, known as “the kissing bandit,” sawed their way out of a building at the prison farm that was reserved for unruly female prisoners.
After more than a year on the lam, Irene turned herself in at Chicago in January of 1934, saying that she was tired of running and wanted to go back to prison and finish her term. She was taken back to Jefferson City but stayed only about two years. Suffering from serious illness, she was paroled in January of 1936 and died shortly afterwards.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Mass Murderer Bertha Gifford

I wrote briefly about Bertha Gifford on this blog a few years ago, but since I've included her in my latest book, Wicked Women of Missouri, I'm going to write about her again, this time a little more extensively. What follows is condensed from a chapter in the book.
Twenty-two-year-old Bertha Williams was said to be one of the prettiest girls in Jefferson County, Missouri, when Henry Graham married her in 1894. Ten years later, though, their marriage hit the rocks. According to later rumors, Henry started carrying on with another woman, but Bertha, still a beautiful woman, wasted little time pining over her husband’s infidelity. Instead, she started spending time with Eugene Gifford, a young man ten years her junior, and he fell under her spell and broke off his engagement to another young woman.
The Graham marital drama came to an abrupt halt when Henry suddenly took sick and died of pneumonia. Then, in 1907, after a respectable mourning period, Bertha married Gene Gifford, and the couple moved to Catawissa in neighboring Franklin County, just far enough away to escape the gossip of Morse Mill.
Gifford became a successful farmer in the Big Bend area north of Catawissa, and Bertha, who fed the hired hands, became noted for her cooking. She also cared for her neighbors whenever they took sick and soon gained a reputation as a respected country nurse.
From 1912 through the early 1920s, a number of her patients, including several children, died from unknown causes, but few people, if any, thought the deaths suspicious. That changed though, when seven-year-old Lloyd Schamel and his six-year-old brother, Elmer, died within six weeks of each other in 1925 while under Bertha’s care. The deaths aroused the suspicions of Dr. W.H. Hemker, who was summoned in both cases when the boys were already beyond help. He recommended an autopsy after Elmer died, but the boy’s father did not agree to the procedure. Deciding not to press the issue, Dr. Hemker wrote “acute unknown disease” and “acute gastritis” on Elmer’s death certificate, wording similar to what he had written on the death certificates of several of Bertha’s previous patients.
After the Schamel boys’ deaths, Bertha’s neighbors started whispering about possible foul play, and some even wrote anonymous letters to Franklin County prosecuting attorney Frank Jenny urging an investigation, but no official action was taken. Then in May of 1927, yet another of Bertha’s patients, forty-nine-year-old Ed Brinley, died at her home under mysterious circumstances. The death renewed Dr. Hemker’s suspicions, but he and a second doctor, whom Hemker had called in on the case, could not agree on a cause of death. Hemker again ended up writing “acute unknown disease” and “acute gastritis” on the death certificate.
After Brinley’s death, though, the tongues of Catawissa started wagging again, and the prosecutor received more letters urging an investigation. A St. Louis newspaperman arrived on the scene and, after talking to people around Catawissa, wrote a story naming at least five people who had died mysteriously while under Bertha Gifford’s care. In November of 1927, the prosecutor finally ordered a grand jury to look into Brinley’s death. Bertha reportedly “scared off the investigation” by threatening libel suits against anyone who testified against her, and the jury failed to indict her.
Not long afterward, Bertha and Gene moved to neighboring St. Louis County, but her former neighbors kept up the pressure on Prosecutor Jenny, who summoned another grand jury in August of 1928. After hearing testimony that Bertha Gifford had often purchased arsenic at a Pacific drugstore, several times just prior to the death of one of her patients, the jury indicted her for first degree murder in the poisoning deaths of Elmer Schamel and Ed Brinley. A charge of murdering Lloyd Schamel was later added to the indictment, and during the subsequent investigation, Bertha was implicated in at least seventeen deaths going all the way back to her first husband. She was charged only for the last three deaths, though, and she was tried only in the case of Ed Brinley. In November 1928, a Franklin County Circuit Court jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity, and she was committed to the State Hospital at Farmington the following month. She died there in 1951.

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