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, October 30, 2016

The 1918 Flu in Van Buren

The influenza pandemic of 1918 claimed more lives, an estimated 50 million-plus worldwide and about 675,000 in the United States alone, than any other natural disaster or outbreak of disease in the history of humankind. Yet, it seems we don't hear a whole lot about it. I don't remember studying much about it when I was in school. By comparison, World War I, which was raging at the time the epidemic broke out, claimed about 10 million lives worldwide and a little over 50,000 U.S. lives. Yet, I remember studying the Great War quite a bit in school. Part of the reason, I think, that we tend not to focus on the 1918 flu pandemic is because it did not receive a lot of publicity even at the time it was happening. This was partly by design. The U.S., Britain, and other Alllied powers discouraged or even censored such publicity, because they did want to publicize anything that might hurt morale and undermine efforts to win the war.
The 1918 flu pandemic spread to almost every country in the world, and here at home almost every community was affected. About 200,000 American people died in October of 1918 alone, when the pandemic was at its peak, and about 28% of the population suffered directly from the disease at some point during the fall and winter of 1918-1919. Even most of the people who did not actually have the flu had one or more family members who did, or at least they had friends who suffered from the disease.
The Van Buren Current Local described the epidemic in Van Buren, Missouri, in the fall of 1918, and the situation the editor described was fairly typical of communities across the country. In a short article in the November 7 issue, entitled "Influenza Claims Many," the editor began, "The Spanish influenza has been raging for the past two weeks in Ellsinore and vicinity. There have been over 100 cases and several deaths reported." (The 1918 flu was called the Spanish flu because it was thought at the time, incorrectly, that Spain suffered disproportionately from the disease.)
After naming some of the victims of the disease and expressing his sympathy with the families, the editor continued, "Let us hope this dreadful epidemic will soon disappear from our community. As to the sick ones here (i.e. Van Buren) it is impossible to try to name all of them. There are several instances where whole families are sick in bed at one time as 'ye correspondent' and wife and two boys were all down at once with the malady, we are in position to know how it goes. Both local doctors here have been on the go both day and night. Just at present we know of no real serious cases, and from what we can learn about it, the situation seems to be improving some."
The editor was right. The situation, not just in Van Buren, but across the country did improve fairly rapidly after early to mid-November, but the outbreak of flu did not completely run its course until early the following summer. In the November 14 edition of the Current Local, the editor noted that a young woman schoolteacher who had been staying in Van Buren with her parents while all the county schools were closed on account of the influenza epidemic was now returning to nearby Fremont to re-open her school. He added, "The influenza situation here is improving somewhat," although two deaths from the disease had been reported during the prior week.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Killing of Rube Sorrel and Arrest of His Sidekicks

Reuben Sorrel lived in the Canaan community of Gasconade County, Missouri, prior to the Civil War. When the war broke out, he evidently served as an officer in the Missouri State Guard for at least six months (although extant records do not confirm this). However, by the summer of 1863, he was back in his home territory of central Missouri, where he gained a reputation as a notorious bushwhacker. In late September he was killed, presumably by a detachment of Union soldiers, although this, too, is unclear. Word spread like a prairie fire, according to a Union report filed a few days later, and "rebels, secesh, and semi-rebels flocked in to the number of about 100 to see the corpse, which was not buried until the third day."
Shortly after her husband's death, Sorrel's widow, Martha, sent for a man named Matthews, whom she thought to be a Southern sympathizer. Among the things she told Matthews was that two men of the neighborhood, James M. Nelson and John D. Pope, had sworn that "four feds would have to pay for the killing of Rube."
Matthews, however, proved not to be a trustworthy friend. He reported what he had learned to the assistant provost marshal at Cuba, Ellis Evans, who in turn sent a letter on September 30 to his superior, a Captain Manning, describing Matthews's intelligence. Evans said both Nelson and Pope had been "noisy rebels" in Gasconade County. Nelson was described as "deformed," with a short arm and a head that drew to one side. He was fit enough, however, to have served in the rebel army under Sorrell for six months near the beginning of the war. (At the time of the 1860 census, Nelson was working on Sorrel's farm as a hired hand.) Evans thought that both Nelson and Pope should be banished outside Union lines or "else inside an inner line" (i.e. placed in jail) as other bushwhackers had been dealt with. He added that the Union men from the neighborhood between Canaan and Jake's Prairie, where Nelson, Pope, and the Sorrels lived, did not want Nelson and Pope arrested if they would only be turned loose shortly afterwards, because arresting them and not holding them would only make them worse when they came back. Evans concluded his letter by reminding Manning that the territory between Canaan and Jake's Prairie was "badly rebel."
An warrant for the arrest of Nelson, Pope, and the Sorrel family was issued, but precisely what action was taken has not been determined.
Sources: Union Provost Marshals' Papers, 1860 U.S. Census.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Lynching of Canada Bill

During the summer and fall of 1886, a half-blood Indian named Jack Barrett worked as a hired hand for various farmers in the Roark neighborhood on Buffalo Creek in northwest McDonald County near the Newton County line. Usually called Canada Bill because he was supposedly born in Canada, Barrett "had a bad reputation," according to a contemporaneous newspaper report, and was described in Sturges's History of McDonald County published 13 years later as "a man of vicious habits and of rather inferior mental faculties."
On Wednesday afternoon, December 15, Canada Bill went to the home of William Robert Roark and found his wife, 28-year-old Samantha, home alone except for one or two small children. When his indecent proposals toward the woman were rebuffed, he attacked her, tearing her clothes partially off, choking her, and badly bruising her. During the struggle, Samantha managed to flee the house but the assault continued until she reached the road about twenty or thirty yards away. Here Mrs. Roark's screams and those of her small children finally "alarmed the scoundrel," according to the Neosho Miner and Mechanic, "and he abandoned his fiendish purpose and fled."
Mrs. Roark immediately ran to the nearest neighbor and gave an alarm, and a posse quickly formed and gave chase. The villain was pursued into nearby Indian Territory and was captured later the same day. Either a U.S. marshal or an Indian policeman (reports differ) made the arrest, and the fugitive was brought back to Missouri and lodged that night under guard at the home of P.P. Rinehart in the Roark neighborhood. Not long after dark, a mob formed and surrounded the house, demanding that the prisoner be turned over to them. Rinehart went outside and pled with the men to leave. Apparently convinced by Rinehart's argument, the men left. Shortly afterward, Canada Bill was started on foot in the company of several guards toward Pineville, the seat of McDonald County. The party halted at the base of a big hill, near where the Seneca to Pineville road crossed Buffalo Creek, and they built a fire to keep warm while two young men named Lager who were among the posse went home to get a team and wagon for the completion of the journey. After waiting in vain for some time for the Lager boys to return, the rest of the posse members resumed the trip on foot. They had gone but a short distance when the mob reappeared and forced the posse to hand over the prisoner.
According to the McDonald County History, Canada Bill freely admitted his crime and said he ought to be sent to the penitentiary, but, sensing the fate that awaited him, he protested that he didn't deserve to be lynched. Nevertheless, he was taken down the road a ways to the edge of a field owned by Sam Owens and hanged to the limb of a black oak tree. The county history said that Canada Bill, in his last moments, "proved himself worthy of the stoical race to which he belonged. Seeing that his captors were devoid of mercy and protests were in vain, he resigned himself to his doom and met death in a spirit worthy of any hero." The guards, who witnessed the hanging, reported that Canada Bill "never uttered a groan or moved a muscle" when the rope was placed around his neck but instead was "drawn up like a log of wood and died as quietly as though he had lain down to a peaceful sleep." He had been guilty of a grievous offense, said the county history, "but grievously did he answer for it."
The body was left hanging throughout the night and was finally cut down late the next day. An inquest was held over the body, but the jury concluded, according to the Neosho newspaper, that "Nothing is known of the parties who executed this act of summary vengeance."
Canada Bill's body was placed in a crude coffin and buried at the top of the nearby hill.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

James Wisdom's Murder of William Judy

On the night of December 3, 1883, William Judy, a young man not yet 20 years old, went to a dance on Elk River in McDonald County, Missouri, not far from Saratoga. Sometime during the evening, thirty-eight-year-old James M. Wisdom, who was postmaster of Saratoga and also a deputy sheriff for the county, showed up, according to his own later testimony, for the purpose of arresting a couple of young men for whom he had warrants. Wisdom might or might not have been acting under the auspices of the law, as he later said, but what seems clear is that he himself was drunk and behaving in an unruly fashion.
He flourished a pistol and starting swearing and verbally abusing Judy, who was presumably one of the men the deputy had come to arrest. Wisdom threatened to kill Judy if he didn't get on his horse and let the deputy ride behind. The young man volunteered to walk and let Wisdom ride the horse, but the older man insisted on riding behind Judy and continued to threaten and curse him. Finally Judy mounted up and rode over to a stump so that Wisdom could get on behind him. The two men rode off with Wisdom reaching around the other man to control the reins.
Some people on foot who trailed behind Wisdom and his captive heard shots and soon came upon Judy's dead body along the roadside not far from where the dance had been held. The next morning, Judy's horse was found at Wisdom's home, the deputy apparently having ridden it home after the murder. Wisdom claimed to have no memory of the events of the night before except for arriving at the dance with the warrants.
Wisdom was tried for first degree murder at the April 1884 term of McDonald County Circuit Court and found guilty and sentenced to hang. Wisdom appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, but the high court upheld the verdict around the first of March 1885 and set the execution for March 27. Governor John S. Marmaduke, however, intervened on March 17 and commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.
Wisdom was received at the Missouri State Prison in Jefferson City on March 24, 1885, to begin serving his life term. In 1887, however, he fell ill, and his family, friends, and a sympathetic physician petitioned for his release, based on their belief that he was in the late stages of consumption (tuberculosis) and had only a few weeks to live. Governor Albert Morehouse pardoned the convicted murderer on October 8, 1887, only two and a half years after he had been committed to prison, and Wisdom went home, supposedly to die. However, he soon regained his health and went on the live many years as a free man, even though he'd been convicted of first degree murder. At the time of the 1900 census, he was living in Oklahoma Territory with his wife and three adult children.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Sheriff Shelt Alsup Again

I have written previously about the Alsup family of Douglas County and especially about Shelt Alsup, who served as sheriff of the county in the mid to late 1870s. Specifically, my book Desperadoes of the Ozarks contains a chapter about the Alsups focusing in particular on the shootout between Sheriff Hardin H. Vickery and ex-sheriff Alsup, which left both men dead, a few months after Vickery had defeated Alsup in his reelection bid in the fall of 1878.
Recently I ran across a newspaper story about an incident involving Shelt Alsup that I was previously unaware of and, therefore, did not include in my Desperadoes book. It involves another shooting affray that occurred in 1876 when Shelt was still sheriff. Late on the night of September 4, 47-year-old John P. Stockton and Sheriff Alsup got into a dispute at the Berry Silvy place in the Arno neighborhood west of Ava. Exactly what the argument was about is unclear, but one report said they quarreled over a card game. Also, a constable said that a couple of weeks earlier he had encountered Stockton on a rural road as he was putting up a "notice to taxpayers" at the sheriff's direction and that Stockton had cursed him and drawn a revolver on him. In addition, Stockton was a fugitive from Dade County, where he was wanted on a charge of assaulting his brother, but Sheriff Alsup said he had no intent to make an arrest and had made no move to do so when Stockton attacked him. Finally, Stockton had reportedly been drinking on the night in question, and it's possible that both men had been imbibing.
Whatever the reason for the confrontation, Stockton yelled at the sheriff, "Damn you, you can't play off on me," pulled his gun, and started shooting. Shelt received several wounds, but he returned fire and, when he ran out of bullets, picked up a rock and knocked his assailant down with it. Stockton sprang up almost immediately, though, and retreated toward the house of Jesse McClain, his 66-year-old brother-in-law.
At the McClain residence, he roused the family and angrily demanded to see Margaret McClain, his 28-year-old niece, because she had supposedly spread some rumor about him. Jesse said his daughter was in bed and told Stockton he couldn't see her, but Stockton checked Margaret's bed for himself and found that she was not there. This angered him even more, and he began using threatening and violent language toward McClain. Stockton's sister, 48-year-old Lydia McClain, tried to calm her brother down and got between him and her husband. Stockton, however, pulled out his revolver, reached the weapon around Lydia, shot McClain, and ran from the house.
A couple of Jesse McClain's sons, including 16-year-old Newton McClain, gave chase, and Newt shot Stockton as he rose up on the far side of a fence. Following her sons outside, Lydia McClain told them, "Boys, don't shoot Uncle Jimmy any more." Seriously wounded but still on his feet, Jesse McClain appeared at the door and added, "Let him alone for he has killed me" and then collapsed in the doorway. Stockton, wounded but still very much alive, then made his getaway.
Meanwhile, Alsup, on his way to Ava to seek medical help, happened by the McClain place shortly after Stockton had arrived. The sheriff heard loud shouting, but he declined to intervene because of his wounded condition. When he reached town, a doctor treated him for two gunshot wounds to the upper left arm and one gunshot wound to the lower right arm. As soon as he was bandaged up, Shelt went back out "on the war-path," according to a report in the Douglas County Leader. Accompanied by a posse of three men, the sheriff set out after Stockton. At the McClain place, the posse found Jesse McClain dead, although he had lived about an hour after collapsing in the doorway. Continuing their pursuit, the posse split into two groups, with Shelt and his father (Lock Alsup) going to the left and Deputy Woods and Jesse Cox going right.
As Woods and Cox neared the Silvy place, where Stockton had assaulted Alsup, Stockton sprang up from behind a pile of brush, spooking Cox's horse, which became uncontrollable and went tearing off through some timber, leaving Woods to confront the fugitive alone. The deputy demanded Stockton's surrender, but Stockton declined the invitation to give himself up. Each man started shooting, and Stockton soon fell mortally wounded with three shots from Woods's rifle.
The next day, McClain and his murderous brother-in-law were buried near each other in the Ritter Cemetery.
Sources: Springfield Leader, Springfield Weekly Patriot, Find-A-Grave entry for Jesse Jasper Newton, census records.

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