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, May 28, 2017

Murder of the Stephens Family and the Hanging of John Duncan

On December 13, 1820, twenty-year-old John Duncan called at the John B. Stephens home east of Fredericktown, Missouri, representing himself as a land buyer. When the two men started to go look at the land, Stephens suggested Duncan leave his gun in the house, but Duncan said, “No, we might see something to shoot.” What Stephens didn’t know was that Duncan already had a target in mind, because he hadn’t come to look at Stephens’s land.
He’d come to kill him.
All the way from Sumner County, Tennessee.
At the first term of the Madison County Circuit Court in July 1819, an indictment for larceny had been brought against Stephens for allegedly stealing money from his neighbor David Caruthers. There was insufficient evidence to convict, but bad blood lingered between Caruthers and Stephens. Caruthers began plotting with his friend Samuel Anthony to retrieve the money he felt sure Stephens had stolen from him, and Anthony summoned Duncan from Tennessee.
Arriving in September 1820, Duncan boarded at first with Anthony, who detailed the various ways he and others had tried to get Stephens to confess to stealing Caruthers’s money. Duncan suggested digging a grave and threatening to bury Stephens alive.
A few days later, Duncan went to stay with Caruthers. When Duncan mentioned his plan for extracting a confession from Stephens, Caruthers made no reply. Duncan then offered flatly to “put him out of the way” if Caruthers would give him “something handsome.”
According to Duncan’s later confession, Caruthers replied that he dared not, by himself, hire Duncan or anyone else to murder Stephens but he was sure that the “regulators” in the area would be able come up with “a handsome sum” for any man who would kill Stephens. Stephens was so generally disliked, Caruthers said, that he doubted whether Stephens’s own brother would try to track down such a person.
Over the next few weeks, Caruthers and Anthony kept insisting on him “taking Stephens out,” and by mid-December, Duncan had let himself be persuaded.
Now, having arrived at Stephens’s place, Duncan lured Stephens from the house under the guise of inspecting his land. Stephens’s little boy and two dogs trailed behind. They had gone but a short distance when the dogs chased a rabbit into a hollow tree.
Stephens stopped up the hole in the tree and sent his son to fetch an ax. After the boy left, Duncan and Stephens again started off together, and after a short distance, Duncan raised his gun and shot Stephens in the back. Stephens cried out and fell to the ground. Duncan stepped up and told Stephens with an oath that he’d come 300 miles to kill him, and he then struck him with the barrel of his gun. Putting his own gun aside, he picked up Stephens’s gun and struck the fallen man several more times. Finally Duncan took out a knife and cut his victim’s throat.
After killing Stephens, Duncan went to a creek and washed up. Realizing the man’s wife and kids still stood in the way of his getting the large sum of money that Caruthers had led him to believe Stephens had, Duncan determined to kill the rest of the family.
Starting toward the house, he met the boy returning with the ax. Duncan took the ax, struck the lad in the head with it, and followed up with several more blows.
The murderer then went to the house and told Mrs. Stephens her husband needed her. She immediately started away with Duncan, followed by her youngest child, a little boy, leaving her two daughters behind. The three had gone some distance from the house when Duncan knocked the woman down with his gun and sliced her throat.
He then caught the little boy and cut his throat, too.
After washing his hands again, Duncan started to the house to kill the Stephens girls. When he got to the house, he instead told the youngest girl that her father had sent him to fetch all his money. Duncan and the girl searched through a chest and found $68, which he carried off as his “dear-earned booty” for killing four people.
Word of the murders spread, and Duncan was soon captured and lodged in the Madison County jail at Fredericktown. He was tried for murder in early 1821, found guilty, and sentenced to hang on April 5. On April 4, he gave a written statement, making official an earlier confession he’d given.
On April 5, several hundred people poured into Fredericktown to witness the hanging. Based on Duncan’s confession, Anthony and Caruthers had been indicted as accomplices to the Stephens murders, but on the scaffold, the condemned man took full blame for the decision to commit the murders.
Note: The story above is condensed from a chapter in my latest book, Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Robbery of the Bank of Exeter

About 4:00 o'clock Thursday afternoon, December 22, 1922, two masked men pulled to a halt in an automobile outside the Bank of Exeter in Barry County, Missouri, in an automobile. They left the engine running as they got out and walked into the bank flourishing pistols. The only people in the bank were cashier J.C. Elston, assistant cashier Clara Williams, and customer J.D. Kersey. One bandit stood guard over the three, while the other man looted the vault, raking all the currency and coins he could find into a large sack.
After the cash, estimated to total between $4,000 and $5,000, was gathered, the robbers forced the hostages into the vault and locked the door. They then made their getaway, fleeing in the waiting car, and headed east out of town on the Cassville road.
Within minutes after the robbery, Elston was able to open the vault by manipulating the inside combination. The alarm was given, and posses were soon in pursuit of the bandits. A mile or two east of Exeter at a sharp curve known as the Stony Point corner, the bandit car was found wrecked and abandoned, and deputies and volunteers began scouring the hills around the vehicle in search of the robbers.
One of the people in the bank tentatively identified one of the bandits as a 29-year-old Barry County resident named Bob Amos, and Amos was taken into custody while eating supper at a café near Cassville later the same night.
Burl Reed, a former a Barry County deputy sheriff and superintendent of the county farm, was arrested on December 24 on suspicion, because a pair of trousers bearing his name had been found near the abandoned getaway car, along with several other items that were apparently discarded by the robbers. The money taken in the robbery, though, was nowhere to be found.
Cassville garage owner Jack Clayton was also arrested on suspicion on the 24th because he was identified as the owner of the bandit car.
A fourth suspect, Ben Johnson, who was a prominent Barry County cattleman, was arrested on the 27th, charged with complicity in the crime, because he was allegedly heard to say that he knew where the missing money was.
Reed, Clayton, and Johnson were almost immediately released on $10,000 bond each. Amos was unable to raise the necessary money at first, but he, too, was later released on a bond of like amount.
Both Johnson and Clayton were released for lack of evidence when their preliminary hearings came up in January. Amos and Reed were indicted for bank robbery. They were scheduled for trial at the March term of Barry County Circuit Court but remained free on bond until then.
The trials of both men were continued until late April. Amos was found guilty on the 19th and sentenced to 15 years in the state penitentiary. Reed was found guilty on the 23rd and sentenced to 20 years in the state pen. Amos was received at the Jefferson City facility on April 25, 1922 and discharged on October 19, 1929, having served about half of his term. Reed was received on July 11, 1922 and discharged on November 16, 1932. He, too, served only about half of his original sentence, both men having been released early on account of merit time.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Professional Butcher Slaughters His Own Family

After John L. Soper was shot and killed on his farm near Kearney, Missouri, in March of 1880, a “terrible suspicion” prevailed that he’d been murdered by his own son, Bates Soper. But there was not enough evidence against the twenty-five-year-old Soper to arrest him for killing his father.
Bates couldn’t stay out of trouble, though. About the same time as his father’s death, Soper stole a horse and was arrested shortly afterward. Convicted of grand larceny in early 1881, he was sentenced to two years in the Missouri State Penitentiary but was released early, in September 1883.
After his discharge, Soper wasted little time before launching into a romance with twenty-five-year-old Delia Hunt, and they were married in January 1883. The couple lived with Soper’s mother in Clay County for six years, then moved to Arkansas for a year and a half. In 1890, the family, now consisting of two small children in addition to the father and mother, came to Archie, Missouri, where Soper went into business as a butcher.
After nobody saw the Soper family for several days in the spring of 1891, the Archie city marshal was summoned to check their house late Friday afternoon, April 24. He discovered a horrifying spectacle inside.
In one room lay the body of the Sopers’ daughter, six-year-old Maude, with her skull broken and her brains spattered upon the floor. In the next room, Delia Soper lay sprawled on the floor with her face “pounded to a jelly and her skull pounded to a shapeless mass.” By the mother’s side lay the little Soper boy, three-year-old Gillis, with his head split open.
In a corner stood a blood-stained ax with clumps of hair matted to the dry blood. Two notes were found in the house in the handwriting of Bates Soper. In the notes, he virtually admitted the grisly murders, saying his family was better off dead than suffering through a miserable life as he had. He said he was going to Clay County to kill the devil who had caused all his problems and was then going to kill himself.
Investigators learned that Soper had, indeed, bought a train ticket in Archie bound for Kansas City early Wednesday morning, shortly after the presumed time of the murders. But there was no trace of him in neighboring Clay County. Instead of continuing to his home territory to kill “the devil,” Soper had simply disappeared.
He was finally tracked down in April 1897 in Oregon and brought back to Harrisonville to stand trial in Cass County for the murder of his family six years earlier. After Soper was already back in Missouri, further investigation by Oregon authorities revealed that Soper had remarried in their state under an assumed name and that just weeks before his arrest and extradition, he’d abandoned his second wife, taking their two-year-old son, and then killed the son.
At Soper’s trial in late 1897 for the murder of Delia and her children, Soper freely admitted the crime but pled insanity, saying he was a born murderer with no control over his actions. He blamed all his trouble on the unfair treatment he’d supposedly received since his release from the Missouri State Penitentiary, and he said he felt he was being merciful by killing his family, because he didn’t want them to suffer as he had.
On December 4, the jury found Soper guilty of first-degree murder. Ten days later, he was sentenced to hang on February 4, 1898, but an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court postponed the execution until March 30, 1899.
Sometime before Soper’s execution date, he confessed that he had, indeed, killed his father nineteen years earlier. On March 28, Soper wrote a letter from his jail cell addressed “To the public.” Much of it echoed the sniveling tone of his earlier confession, with Soper still seeking to place the blame for his atrocities anywhere but on himself.
Soper was hanged from a scaffold on the courthouse lawn in Harrisonville on the early morning of March 30. Afterward, the body was cut down and placed in a coffin, and the remains were then sent on a train to Clay County for burial.
Note: The story above is condensed from a chapter in my latest book, Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri.

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Sunday, May 7, 2017

Rather a Mixed-Up Marriage

Ewing Tucker married Harriett Lefever in Morgan County, Missouri, in 1844, when he was over 40 and she was just 17. Over the next sixteen years, young Harriett bore the old man five children, and he worked as a farmer to support the family.
When the Civil War came on, Ewing Tucker left home to join the Confederate Army, although he was now 60 years old. Meanwhile, Harriett stayed home raising five kids. Time passed with no word from Tucker until finally a rumor filtered home that he’d been killed.
Not long afterward, Harriet took her kids and moved in with another old man, Elijah Slocum. Slocum was fairly well-to-do and able to take good care of Harriet and her children. Word was that he also treated Harriett better than her first husband had.
Then, in the spring of 1866, Ewing Tucker showed back up in Morgan County after four years of absence, very much alive. He moved back to his old home place in the southwest part of the county and took possession of it.
But Harriet wasn’t there.
Learning that she was living with Elijah Slocum not far away, Tucker set out to reclaim his family the same way he’d reclaimed his farm. The Morgan County Banner called the situation at the time “rather a mixed-up marriage.”
The crisis was seemingly resolved when Slocum acceded to Tucker’s prior claim on the woman and Harriett agreed to return to her first husband. But she was not happy.
Finally she could stand it no longer. Leaving Tucker, she and her children once again took up residence with her second husband.
Tucker tried to get his family to come back home again, but this time Harriett declined to go back. Infuriated, Tucker threatened Slocum’s life, but Slocum apparently didn’t take the threat seriously.
However, on the early morning of August 29, 1866, Tucker came to the Slocum place and opened fire on Slocum as he was milking his cows. Slocum escaped and ran to the house, yelling to Harriet, “They have shot at me!” and urging her to take refuge in an upstairs room.
Harriet did as Slocum advised, and from the upstairs room, she could hear a commotion below. Soon she saw Ewing Tucker climbing a ladder toward her window. She begged him to call off his attack, and he finally retreated back down the ladder after ascending about halfway up.
Tucker fled on foot, but when Harriett went downstairs, she found Slocum lying dead on the floor.
She gave an alarm, but it took some time for neighbors to gather a posse. That afternoon, they tracked Tucker almost to his house. Local constable Hiram Shockley then went to the Tucker place and found the fugitive calmly at work a short distance from his house.
Tucker denied his guilt, but Shockley escorted him back to the Slocum place, where Harriet confirmed that Tucker was the man who had shot Slocum. Because it was now almost dark, Shockley took the prisoner to his (Shockley’s) home to spend the night with plans to take him to the county jail the next day.
Near midnight 15 or 20 men with disguised faces came to the Shockley place. The constable met the mob in the yard, where the men demanded that the prisoner be turned over. Having secured only one other guard besides himself, Shockley was greatly outnumbered; so he tried to reason with the vigilantes. The men he was talking to at the side of the house quickly cut him off, though, threatening to blow his brains out if he didn’t shut up.
By now, another part of the mob had gained entrance to the house through the front door. As they dragged Tucker out, Shockley ran around the house to meet them but realized there was nothing he could do to stop the mob.
When the gang had gotten a short distance away, Shockley heard several shots, and the next morning he found Tucker dead not far from the scene of his own crime the morning before.
At last report, Constable Shockley was making “every effort in his power” to ascertain the identity of the men who composed the mob but with no success.

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