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, 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.

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