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 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.

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