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, October 15, 2017

The Lynching of Mindu Cowahgee

Mindu Cowahgee had no way of knowing the trouble he was getting into when he broke into two stores in Marshall, Missouri, on the night of March 30, 1900. The Marshall Republican reported a few days later that the burglar took a total of about $45 in merchandise from the two stores, but Cowahgee ended up paying a much dearer price for the pilfered goods.
He was arrested the next day after a former employer spotted cuts and bruises he’d gotten from breaking a plate glass window in one of the stores and crawling through it to gain access. He was lodged in the Saline County jail.
Less than a month later, on Thursday evening April 26, as Sheriff Joseph Wilson was herding the inmates into their cells for the night, Cowahgee and a black prisoner named John Smith threw Wilson to the floor and took his revolver. Wilson called to his family to bolt the door, and the sheriff’s wife, Elizabeth, appeared on the front steps to try to block the men’s exit. Cowahgee, carrying the sheriff’s revolver, fired the weapon at her. The bullet struck her in the upper left arm, and he and Smith dashed past her to make their escape through the streets of Marshall.
Posses, spurred by a $300 reward, went out in pursuit of the escapees, and their descriptions were sent to law officers in surrounding towns. Cowahgee, supposedly a former convict, was variously described as a “Negro,” an “Indian,” and a “Hindoo,” suggesting that he might have been a dark-complexioned native of India.
Cowahgee was recaptured the next evening southeast of Marshall, brought back to town, and lodged in the city jail late Friday night. With his apprehension, the chase after Smith was virtually abandoned.
Aroused by the fact that doctors had been forced to amputate Mrs. Wilson’s arm, citizens clogged the streets early Saturday morning whispering of mob violence, and Cowahgee was moved to the county jail, which was considered a more secure facility. Sheriff Wilson urged the crowd to let the law take its course and convinced them to disperse.
Many thought the danger of mob action had passed, but shortly after dark, a mob again started forming at the jail, blocking all the roads and sidewalks that led to the calaboose. A prominent citizen addressed the crowd, urging them not to take the law into their own hands, and the sheriff once again appealed to the festering mob, asking them to disband for the sake of his wife’s safety. He pointed out that of all offended parties, he and his family had the most reason to want retribution but that it was his and his wife’s wish that the law be followed.
The sheriff’s appeal quieted the crowd only briefly. Soon, several men from one section of the mob leaped over a fence surrounding the jail, and they were quickly followed by others. Had strong action such as firing above the heads of the mob been taken at this moment, opined the editor of the Marshall Republican, the vigilantes might have been turned back, but the sheriff had told his deputies to hold their fire, supposedly because he was concerned that the sounds of gunfire might disturb his recuperating wife. “Affection for wife has proven stronger than sense of duty,” the newspaperman lamented.
The vigilantes surged in around the jail with the sheriff and several of his deputies retiring before the advancing horde to the interior. The officers inside the building at first refused the mob’s demand to give up the keys, but when someone outside produced a sledgehammer and started pounding the door, the keys were turned over.
The mob thronged inside and found the shackled Cowahgee in the corridor of the jail. Dragging the prisoner outside, the vigilantes were met with cries of Hang him!” and “To the square!”
Those in the crowd nearest Cowahgee kicked and prodded him, struck him with their fists, or slashed at him with knives as he was dragged by a circuitous route to the southeast corner of the courthouse square, where a large tree stood with a big branch protruding to the northwest. But no one had a rope.
While someone in the mob went to fetch one, two prominent citizens used the delay to address the crowd in a last-ditch effort to forestall the lynching, but their words had little effect. “The spirit of the masses seemed woefully lacking in any feeling of humanity,” said the Republican editor.
Realizing his fate, Cowahgee asked time to say a prayer. He asked God to forgive his sins and “those who sought his blood.” But his prayer had little effect on the unruly mob. “All pleading was in vain,” said the Republican. “Passion ruled above reason, mob tyranny above law, vengeance above mercy.”
When a rope was brought to the scene, it was tossed over the tree limb, the noose was adjusted around Cowahgee’s neck, and his arms were pinioned to his body. At 11:20 p.m. on April 28, 1900, his body was hoisted into the air before 2,000 gaping spectators.
The body was cut down at 12:10 Sunday morning, and a coroner’s jury was impaneled almost immediately. The inquest determined, predictably enough, that Mindu Cowahgee “came to his death at the hands of a mob unknown to the jury.” The body was removed to an undertaker’s office right after the inquest and buried after daybreak in a potter’s field at the county farm.
The Republican editor begged to differ with the verdict of the coroner’s inquest. The lynching was a travesty of justice and an affront to civilization, and it was made doubly so because the assault on Mrs. Wilson was not a crime for which anyone would normally receive the death penalty. The jury’s negligence of duty in reaching its verdict only compounded the tragedy. The mob was undisguised and all faces clearly visible beneath the glare of the street lights; yet the jury claimed not to know the identity of any of the lawbreakers.
The post above is condensed from a chapter in my Yanked Into Eternity book.


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