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.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Lynching of Kidnapper Robert Pettigrew

Early Friday morning, May 12, 1905, Robert “Bob” Pettigrew showed up at the home of Fred Hess, about three miles below Belmont, Missouri, on the Mississippi River, armed with a rifle and a double-barrel shotgun. Hess was an ex-Mississippi County judge and a former state representative, while Pettigrew was a young black man who’d just been released a month earlier from the Missouri State Penitentiary after serving three years for assaulting his wife with intent to kill. Hess had been a witness against Pettigrew, and the ex-con felt Hess and the state owed him for the time he’d spent behind bars. Pettigrew figured that, even if Hess had to pay with his personal funds, the state would reimburse him.
Things didn’t quite work out that way.
Pettigrew accosted the 55-year-old Hess at the barn and demanded $600. Hess said he didn’t have that kind of money on the place; so Pettigrew told him he’d have to go to town and get it. He ordered Hess to hitch up his horse and buggy and also to get a saddle horse ready.
As soon as Hess got the horses ready, Pettigrew told him to fetch his wife, 28-year-old Emma Prince, who would serve as a hostage while Hess went into town for the money. Mrs. Hess came outside and got into the buggy as directed, and her husband climbed into the driver’s seat beside her. Pettigrew, whom Mrs. Hess knew as “Bob,” mounted the other horse and stayed right behind the buggy with his shotgun loaded and cocked as Hess drove toward Belmont.
At the edge of Belmont, Pettigrew ordered Hess to stop at the Negro Baptist Church. He ordered “Miss Prince,” as he called Hess’s wife, into the pastor’s three-room cabin, and sent Hess into town for the money. The kidnapper glanced at his pocket watch and told the judge he’d give him an hour and half. If Hess wasn’t back with the money by that time, Pettigrew warned, “there’ll be a dead woman here when you do come.”
As Hess hurried away, Pettigrew went into the pastor’s house and ordered Miss Prince into an adjoining room, where an elderly black lady was. Through the open door between the two rooms, Mrs. Hess could see Bob pacing the floor with one of his weapons pointed in her direction.
Meanwhile, Judge Hess reached Belmont but was able to round up only about $60. e sent the money back to Pettigrew by the pastor of the black church, the Reverend Perry Thurman, and someone also sent word to Charleston, Mississippi County seat, that Mrs. Hess had been kidnapped. Hess then raced toward Columbus, Kentucky, just across the Mississippi River, to come up with the rest of the $600.
Inside the parsonage, Pettigrew’s pacing grew more frantic as the allotted hour and a half ticked away. Just three minutes before the time was to expire, Rev. Thurman came running toward the house with a handful of money.
Meeting Thurman at the front door, Pettigrew took the money but gave it back as soon as he saw the puny amount. “You go tell Judge Hess I said $600…. I’ll give him half an hour more to get it here, and if it isn’t here then, there’ll be a dead white woman on the floor in yonder.”
After Thurman hurried away, Bob came to the door separating the two rooms and called Mrs. Hess to the threshold but did not enter her room. The two exchanged conversation, with Bob assuring Miss Prince he wasn’t going to hurt her as long as her husband brought the money. Then Mrs. Hess returned to her seat, and Pettigrew went back to walking the floor in the other room.
Meanwhile, Judge Hess quickly raised the $600 in Columbus, but he also spread the word of what the money was for. A posse of angry Kentuckians, led by the Columbus city marshal, followed him back to Belmont bent on capturing the kidnapper, but Hess cautioned them and the local Missourians who joined them to stay back until the money was delivered.
As the additional half hour was about to expire, Mrs. Hess saw men with guns surrounding two sides of the house and Parson Thurman again running toward the house with a larger wad of bills than before. Bob let the preacher in the door and took the money. Thurman was just explaining why Hess himself had not delivered it when Pettigrew also spotted the men surrounding the house.
Making a dash for freedom, he mounted his horse and galloped away. The men surrounding the house held their fire at first for fear of hitting Mrs. Hess, and Pettigrew made his getaway.
He was captured later that afternoon south of Belmont and taken back to town, but before he could be locked up, a mob took him from the arresting officers and strung him up on the public square. Some of the mob also reportedly fired into the body after Pettigrew was hanging.
Upon learning of the incident, Missouri governor Joseph Polk swiftly condemned it. Missouri attorney general Herbert Hadley added there was no excuse for the posse taking Pettigrew out and hanging him, especially since he was not accused of “the usual negro crime.”
However, very little was ever done to bring the vigilantes to justice. Some Missouri newspapers pointed out that most of the mob had come from Kentucky, and several even published indignant editorials justifying the vigilante action and castigating the governor for his tough stance against the mob.
The Jackson (MO) Herald, for instance, opined that the lynching was warranted and that the citizens who hanged Pettigrew “would have done a white man the same way.” Somehow, I’m not so sure about that.
Asked a few days later whether she thought Pettigrew should have been lynched, Mrs. Hess said, “Not for what he did to me.”
But none of the mob bothered to ask Miss Prince her opinion.
(Condensed from a chapter in my book Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri.)

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