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.


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