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, 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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