Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, 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 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, November 27, 2016

Murder of Thomas Howard and Hanging of William Fox

On Sunday morning, May 20, 1883, a body was found at Nevada, Missouri, south of the train depot near "The Cave," a notorious hangout for dissolute men and women. The body was quickly identified as that of Thomas Howard, and it was determined that he had been shot and had been dead only a matter of hours. Howard was about 35 years old, and he had come to Vernon County from Audrain County about a year earlier and settled with his wife in the Moundville area. Described as a "spreeing man" who sometimes stayed drunk for weeks at a time and who was "fond of lewd women," Howard had left his wife and come to Nevada, where he'd been spending time in saloons and houses of ill repute for several days prior to his death.
A coroner's inquest was held on Sunday, and based on the testimony of several witnesses, the jury concluded that Howard had come to his death on Saturday night, May 19th, at the hands of William Fox, a young man who, like Howard, had come to Vernon County from Audrain County a few months earlier. Fox's marriage, like Howard's, was on the rocks, and the two men had gotten together when they met up in Vernon County. They had been seen in company with each other throughout the day on Saturday and into the evening, and a man named Arnold, who had spent part of Saturday with the other two men, told the jury that Fox had confessed the killing to him on Sunday morning. Arnold said Fox told him he had committed the deed because Howard had tried to attack the prostitute, Mrs. Rose, whom Fox had been with. Based on this evidence, Fox was arrested on suspicion.
The 22-year-old Fox admitted that he was with Howard on Saturday, but he claimed he left him alive at 10 o'clock that night. Fox tried to implicate Arnold as the real culprit in the crime, but inconsistencies in his story only heightened the suspicion against him.
On Tuesday, May 22, Mrs. Rose gave a statement. She admitted being with Fox late Saturday night while her husband was at work, and she said Fox had confessed the crime to her, just as he had to Arnold. The next day Fox himself broke down and gave a full confession, although he now said the reason he killed Howard was to avenge an old grudge. The story Fox told was that, back in Audrain County, he had been accused of stealing a pig and had briefly left the county. Upon his return, he ran into Howard at a saloon, and Howard told him that it "looked suspicious" for him to leave the area while under accusations of stealing. An angry argument ensued, but Howard had quickly put the dispute in the past. He readily took up with Fox again when the two men met in Vernon County, but the younger man had not forgotten what he saw as a severe slight. Despite Fox's elaborate explanation for the murder, many observers around Nevada felt that Fox had mainly killed Howard just for his money--about $40, which he had taken off the man's body.
Fox was indicted for first degree murder on Thursday, May 24, and his trial began the following Wednesday. Fox's court-appointed lawyer did not deny his client's guilt but argued that there were mitigating factors. He said Fox loved Mrs. Rose, even though she was a dissolute woman, and that his client's original story to Arnold that he had killed Howard because Howard had struck or tried to strike Mrs. Rose was the true story. Fox had only changed his story to try to protect her from involvement in the crime, and he had acted out of passion, not out of greed or revenge as the other theories of the crime held. The presentation of evidence ended late that same night, and the jury retired to deliberate. The next morning, May 25, they announced a verdict of guilty. Fox's lawyer immediately asked for a new trial, partly on the basis that, during jury deliberations, someone had tossed a hangman's noose into the jury room. The judge overruled the motion and sentenced Fox to be hanged from the neck until dead on July 18, 1883. The case was then appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which issued a stay of execution until October, so as to give time for the appeal to be considered. The verdict was affirmed later the same year, and the execution reset for December 28.
On December 27, the day before the scheduled execution, Fox was interviewed in his cell at the Nevada jail. He blamed his downfall on "whiskey and bad women." In addition, he said that he had gotten married too young and had married a woman to whom he was "too closely related." He and his wife were too much alike and, therefore, couldn't get along. The main reason he offered for his wayward life and for the murder of Howard, however, was simply that "Something has always been wrong with my head." Fox said he still loved Mrs. Rose but that she had not treated him right since he had been locked up. She had not visited him or even answered any of the letters he had written to her.
As many as 20,000 people poured into Nevada on December 28, and about 10,000 actually witnessed the hanging, which was staged from a gallows erected near the scene of the crime. The execution, according to one newspaper report, went off very smoothly and without "the usual painful preliminaries." Fox walked firmly up the steps to his doom and went immediately to the trap. At Fox's request, there was no clergy present, and the condemned man gave no lengthy speech, looking out over the crowd and saying only "Goodbye, boys" before the cap was placed over his head and he was swung into eternity.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Lynching of James Layton

On January 30, 1841, James Layton of Perry County, Missouri, "beat his wife's brains out, in the presence of one of his children," according to a St. Louis newspaper, "and afterwards broke her legs and arms and otherwise abused her lifeless person, in a worse than savage manner." Layton then took his five children, left them at a relative's home, and fled the area. However, a "strong scout" started in pursuit of the villain, and he was apprehended and taken to Farmington, where he was lodged in the St. Francois County jail. (It's not clear whether the prisoner was taken to Farmington immediately after his arrest or was taken at first back to Perry County and was then granted a change of venue to the neighboring county.)
Over the next couple of years, Layton's lawyers kept managing to get the trial put off, but it finally came up in early 1843. He was convicted of the murder, based largely on the testimony of the son who had witnessed the crime, and sentenced to hang on June 17th. Layton's father, John Layton, was a prominent citizen of Perry County, and he interceded on his condemned son's behalf, writing to Governor Thomas Reynolds seeking a commutation of James's sentence. Reynolds refused to commute the sentence but did grant a stay of execution until September 1.
News of the respite, however, was not generally known to the public, and a large crowd, estimated as high as 3,000, assembled in Farmington on June 17th in anticipation of seeing a man die. When they learned of the postponement, many in the crowd reacted with anger and expressed the feeling that Layton would likely escape justice altogether if something was not done. Soon almost the whole crowd was roused up, and a mob began to form intent on taking the law into its own hands.
About 300 men broke into the jail and took Layton from his cell, although it's not clear whether this happened while the entire crowd that had gathered in Farmington to watch what they thought was going to be a legal hanging was still there or after the crowd had dispersed. At any rate, the mob took the man and hanged him just south of the jail in Farmington.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Lynching of Tom Little

Tom Little of Johnson County, Missouri, came from a Southern-sympathizing family. During the Civil War, he himself rode at least briefly with notorious Confederate guerrilla leader William Quantrill, and in 1864, two of his sisters were arrested and imprisoned at St. Louis for aiding guerrillas. (See my Bushwhacker Belles book.)
After the war, Little fell in with the James-Younger outlaw gang. On May 23, 1867, the gang robbed the Hughes and Wasson bank in Richmond, Missouri, of about $3,500 and killed three local citizens, including the mayor, when some of the townspeople tried to mount a defense.
Little was thought to have been among the robbers, and he and another suspect, Fred Meyers, were arrested in St. Louis in late May, brought to Warrensburg, and lodged in the county jail there on June 1. Friends of Little appeared and claimed they could obtain affidavits from the best citizens of Dover in neighboring Lafayette County that Little was in that community at the time of the Richmond robbery and was, therefore, innocent. They went to Dover, obtained the necessary affidavits, and upon returning to Warrensburg on the night of June 4th, were promised a hearing in Little's case the next day. However, the feeling around Warrensburg, a stronghold of Radical Republican sentiment, was strongly against Little because of his war activities. A "vigilance committee" headed by Warren Shedd, a former Union general, had been maintaining its own brand of law and order in the area for some time. Not waiting to hear the testimony that might exonerate Little, a mob broke into the jail at about five o'clock on the morning of the 5th, dragged Little from his cell, and hanged him in downtown Warrensburg.
Ten days later, the Weekly Caucasian, published at Lexington in Lafayette County, admonished James Eads, publisher of the Warrensburg Journal and a former Union officer, for misleading his readers about the fate of Tom Little. The Journal of June 5 had stated that Little was in jail when, in fact, he had already been lynched earlier that morning, and the June 12th issue failed to correct the error, making no mention of Little or the extralegal hanging. According to the Lexington editor, the vigilance committee had fractured over the lynching. Many of its members did not agree with the lynching, and General Shedd had supposedly not even been consulted prior to the mob action, which was carried out by the most Radical members of the group. Sentiment against the vigilante hanging was especially strong in the rural areas of Johnson County.
There are a few other details in county histories and on websites about Tom Little's hanging, but my telling of the story above represents most of what can be gleaned from newspapers published at the time the incident happened.
Saying he could not get a fair trial, Jesse James later cited the lynching of Tom Little as an example of why he would not give himself up to Missouri authorities, as some had urged him to do.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

A Lynching in Saline County

I have observed before that, while lynchings during the 1800s and early 1900s were not everyday occurrences, they were frequent enough that, unless some sensational aspect in addition to the lynching itself attended them, they were often not widely reported. This, of course, was especially true if they occurred in rural areas, where they were witnessed by few, if any, outside parties. In such cases, details about the lynching were often scarce. I have written about at least one or two such cases previously, and another example was the case of Tom Stanton.
On the morning of December 17, 1873, a farmer named Fristoe (probably Thomas Fristoe) residing near the village of Cambridge in Saline County, Missouri, sold a large lot of hogs to a stock buyer in Cambridge for $1,000 in cash. A desperado named Tom Stanton, another tough named Highley, and three of their sidekicks got wind of the transaction and trailed Fristoe out of town until they reached an isolated spot a couple of miles outside the village, where they overtook him and shot him down. Pouncing on him, they cut his throat and then rifled through his pockets, securing the thousand dollars in cash.
The gang fled to some nearby timber to divvy up the stolen money but got into an argument about the split. Meanwhile, a passerby on the road discovered Fristoe's still-warm body and also overheard the argument in the nearby woods. Realizing what had happened, he left quietly and quickly rounded up a posse of men from the neighborhood. The posse set out after the culprits and captured three of them, with the other two making their escape. The three captives, according to a correspondent to the St. Louis Dispatch, were "summarily disposed of in accordance with the terribly stern and retributive judgment of Judge Lynch." A posse was sent after the remaining two killers, but they were apparently never found. It is also not certain whether Stanton and/or Highley were among the three villains who were hanged.

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