Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of 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 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, 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.

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