Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of 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 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, March 12, 2017

Springfield's First Murder

The very first murder in Springfield, Missouri, was an infamous case involving several of the leading citizens of Greene County. In the fall of 1836, John Roberts appeared before Charles S. Yancey, Presiding Judge of the County Court, on a minor charge. Roberts, who owned a mill and a distillery just east of Springfield near present-day Highway 65, had served as the first coroner of the county, but he had been involved in at least two serious affrays and was considered a rough character. In 1833, he had been charged with assault with intent to kill for stabbing Thomas Horn (later sheriff of Greene County). Although the criminal case was dropped the following year, Horn, with Yancey acting as his attorney, sued Roberts for trespass and assault. Then in 1835, Roberts went to trial on a new charge of assault with intent to kill after slitting the ear of Kindred Rose, but the jury failed to reach a verdict. When Roberts came before Judge Yancey in 1836, county clerk John P. Campbell, who had testified against Roberts in both assault cases, was also present.
Roberts and Campbell started exchanging heated words, and Yancey told them to settle down. Campbell, considered the founder of Springfield, obeyed, but Roberts turned his ire toward the bench, reportedly telling the judge that he would say what he damn well pleased, in Yancey’s court or any other. Yancey fined Roberts twenty dollars for the outburst. Roberts paid the fine but afterwards began making threats against the judge and taunting him whenever he happened to see Yancey in public, especially if Roberts had been drinking, which was not an infrequent occurrence. (Roberts also filed a suit against Yancey, but it is not known whether the suit pertained to the fine Yancey had levied against him.) Yancey bore Roberts’s insults for several months, walking away from confrontations on more than one occasion.
Then one day during the late summer of 1837, Roberts again appeared on the streets of Springfield. Learning that his old nemesis was in town, Yancey told fellow lawyer Littleberry Hendricks that he would not let Roberts intimidate him again. Hendricks advised Yancey to go home in order to avoid another confrontation, and the two men started together toward the judge’s house.
Near the northwest corner of the public square, however, they ran into Roberts, who again began taunting the judge. The two adversaries briefly exchanged words, and then Yancey told Roberts not to follow him any farther and started to walk away. As he turned, however, he noticed Roberts, who was known to carry a big knife, reach his hand beneath his coat. Judge Yancey, thinking Roberts was going for the weapon, pulled out a pistol and shot him. He then pulled out a second pistol and was in the act of firing again when Hendricks knocked the weapon upward, sending the ball into the air. According to an account of this incident that appeared in the Springfield Missouri Weekly Patriot years later, Roberts shouted, “Don’t shoot, I am a dead man now,” as he collapsed and died.
In 1838, Yancey went on trial, charged with manslaughter in Roberts’s death. Although Roberts had apparently been reaching not for a knife at the time he was killed but rather for a glasses case that he had been in the habit of snapping at the judge, Yancey was found not guilty.
Having been accused of and tried for murder apparently did little to diminish Yancey’s good name. He was later appointed a judge of the Greene County Circuit Court.
Note: This blog entry is taken from a chapter in my book Wicked Springfield.

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