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 eighteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Murder and Mayhem in Southeast Kansas, Bigamy and Bloodshed: The Scandal of Emma Molloy and the Murder of Sarah Graham, and Midnight Assassinations and Other Evildoings: A Criminal History of Jasper County, Mo..

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Jasper County’s Only Double Hanging

After Castille Stapleton (alias Ralph Long) and Sterling Jackson were arrested on suspicion of killing Carthage storekeeper George Babcock in April of 1922, they revealed that they’d first gotten acquainted at the Missouri State Penitentiary a couple of years earlier. Jackson got sent to Jefferson City in December of 1918 on a burglary conviction from Jackson County when he was twenty-one years old. Stapleton, twenty-two, joined Jackson at the big house six months later, also on a burglary charge from Jackson County. Stapleton was released in September of 1921, and Jackson had his term commuted in early March 1922.
If part of the purpose of incarceration is meant to be rehabilitation, the program failed miserably in Stapleton’s and Jackson’s cases. Their time in lockup seems to have had the opposite effect. Almost as soon as Jackson was released, the two men got together in Kansas City and decided to go into “the hold-up business.” Shortly after forming their “partnership,” they stuck up a taxicab driver in Kansas City and then absconded to Pittsburg, Kansas. From there, they came to Joplin on Saturday, April 8, and rented a room on Kentucky Avenue. That night they traveled to Carthage looking for a hold-up target.
About ten o’clock, the desperate pair walked into Babcock’s store on East Central Avenue with their faces uncovered. Jackson carried a knife, and Stapleton was packing a pistol. According to bystander Fred Beard, Jackson bought some tobacco and then asked for soda pop. When Babcock started toward the rear of the store to retrieve it, Jackson followed him, and Stapleton also shuffled in that direction. At the rear of the store, Jackson grabbed Babcock from behind and demanded money, but Babcock spun around and began scuffling with his assailant. Stapleton drew his revolver and ordered Beard to throw up his hands. After the customer complied, Stapleton also ordered Babcock to stick up his hands, and when he did not promptly obey, Stapleton fired a single shot that struck the storekeeper in the neck. He died soon afterward.
The robbers fled through an alley and walked all the way back to Joplin. Officers arrested Stapleton and Jackson at the Kentucky Avenue address just minutes after the pair arrived on Sunday morning.
Stapleton, still going by the name Ralph Long, and Jackson were taken to the Joplin Police station, where they gave confessions and Stapleton revealed his real name. The next day, Monday, the prisoners were arraigned in Joplin on first-degree murder charges, and they pleaded not guilty.
Fearing mob violence, authorities moved the prisoners to Miami, Oklahoma, and then Springfield, Missouri. As lynch fever subsided, the accused murderers were brought back from Springfield and placed in jail at Carthage.
Stapleton’s trial got underway on May 1 in Division 2 of Jasper County Circuit Court at Joplin. Fred Beard, the customer who’d been in Babcock’s store on the night of the crime, was the star witness for the prosecution. He positively identified Stapleton as the shooter. The only defense by Stapleton’s lawyers was a plea to spare their client’s life, but the jury found Stapleton guilty and recommended the death penalty.  
Sterling Jackson’s trial began in Division 1 of the same court on May 3, the day after Stapleton’s concluded. Prosecution testimony was virtually the same as it had been for Stapleton’s trial, and the defense again offered no witnesses, although Jackson’s attorneys made a strong plea to spare his life. After considerable deliberation, the Jackson jury, like Stapleton’s, found the defendant guilty and recommended the death penalty. Defense attorneys for both prisoners filed motions for new trials, but both motions were overruled on May 13. The two were sentenced to hang on June 23, 1922, but appeals automatically stayed their executions.
On June 21, 1923, the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s verdicts, and the execution date  for both men was set for dawn on August 3. Plans called for them to hang simultaneously on a double scaffold erected just west of the county jail surrounded by a stockade to keep out uninvited spectators.
On Tuesday night, July 31, Stapleton made an eleventh-hour appeal to the Missouri governor to save his partner’s life. He claimed that neither he nor Jackson got a fair trial. He said that if he and Jackson had been white, they might have received life imprisonment but not death sentences, and he cited the recent case of a young white man named Tucker who’d killed William Spain in Carthage and received life imprisonment. He said he and Jackson were not given an opportunity to plead guilty in exchange for lesser sentences as Tucker had been. If the governor didn’t give both of them a stay, all Stapleton asked was for him to commute the sentence of Jackson, who had nothing to do with the actual killing. The governor, however, decided not to intervene.  
Early Friday morning, August 3, 1923, Stapleton and Jackson, with their arms already bound, were led from their cells to the scaffold via a walkway through a west window of the jail. After the nooses and caps were adjusted around the men’s necks and heads, Sheriff Harry Mead pulled a lever that sprung both traps simultaneously, and Stapleton and Jackson dropped to their deaths together at 4:56 a.m.
This blog entry is condensed from a chapter in my latest book, Midnight Assassinations and Other Evildoings: A Criminal History of Jasper County, Mo.

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Saturday, September 5, 2020

The Murder of Carthage Cab Driver William Spain

Taxi driver William Spain left the Harrington Hotel in Carthage about 1:00 a.m. Monday, May 9, 1921, with two young male passengers dressed in military uniforms who said they wanted to go to the home of a Mrs. Tucker several miles northwest of Carthage. When Spain did not return after a reasonable time, the owners of the cab company instituted a search for the missing man. About nine o’clock the same morning, Spain’s blood-smeared taxicab was found abandoned two miles northwest of Carthage, and foul play was immediately suspected.
Suspicion settled on twenty-one-year-old Earl Dewey Tucker. He was the son of the woman to whose house the taxi passengers had said they wanted to be taken, and he was home on leave from Camp Eustis, Virginia. Family members told conflicting stories about the young man’s whereabouts the previous night. Nonetheless, officers felt sure they had the right man, and Tucker was arrested and then taken to Joplin.
Tucker stoutly maintained his innocence when he was grilled by law officers that afternoon. He said he’d been with his girlfriend when the crime had allegedly been committed. Despite his denial, Tucker was charged with first degree murder. The next day, he clung to his story of innocence even after his mother came to Joplin and pleaded with him to tell the truth.
On the evening of May 11, Tucker finally broke down and confessed, claiming he knew who had killed Spain but that he did not participate in the murder himself. He said he and a fellow soldier named William Mullen left Carthage shortly after midnight on Monday the 9th as passengers in Spain’s cab and that north of town they picked up two other soldiers, whom they had met as they were leaving Camp Eustis. One of the other two he knew only as Harry, and he did not know the fourth man’s name at all. When they got close to his mother’s house, Tucker said, he left the group. He reunited with Private Mullen a couple of hours later, and Mullen told him he had shot Spain and, with the help of the other two soldiers, dumped his body from a bridge over North Fork of Spring River. The only motive for the crime was that the killers wanted Spain’s vehicle, but they later abandoned it.
After Tucker’s confession, he was taken to Springfield for safekeeping. There he repeated the confession he’d given in Joplin, but authorities felt he was still not telling the whole truth.
On May 12, workers found Spain’s body lodged in some willows near the bridge over North Fork. An autopsy determined Spain had been shot twice and that either wound would have been lethal. Investigators concluded that Spain was behind the wheel when he was shot by a passenger in the front seat. This strengthened their belief that Tucker was the murderer, since he was seen in the front seat of the cab as it left the hotel.
On May 15, Tucker was brought back to Joplin, where he gave an altered, more complete confession than his previous one. He admitted that he was present, along with Mullen and the two John Doe soldiers, when Spain was killed, but he still maintained that Mullen was the trigger man. The motive was that the foursome wanted Spain’s car so they could rob the Purcell Bank.
At arraignment on Monday the 16th, Tucker waived a preliminary hearing and pleaded guilty to complicity in the first-degree murder of William Spain. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in the state penitentiary and transported to Jefferson City later that same day.
In August 1921, Sheriff Harry Mead traveled to Jeff City to take an amended statement from Tucker. The prisoner now said he and Mullen were the only ones involved in Spain’s killing, and he told the sheriff the murder weapon was hidden at his sister’s house. He still maintained that Mullen was the one who shot Spain, but he admitted he’d helped throw the victim’s body over the bridge and helped hide the weapon.
In early November, Tucker amended his confession yet again. He now said Mullen was not involved at all in the murder. Tucker said he purchased Mullen’s revolver at Camp Eustis from a cook who’d gotten it from Mullen. Furthermore, Mullen’s revolver, the one he’d pointed lawmen to back in August, was not the murder weapon. He still maintained that he was only an accomplice and that one of his sidekicks, whom he did not know by name, had done the actual shooting. Officials believed Tucker was now telling the truth about Mullen, because Mullen had already provided a credible alibi. Authorities also believed Tucker had accomplices, as he claimed, but they did not think Tucker was only an aider and abettor. They felt he was the instigator of the crime and the person who’d pulled the trigger.
Around early September 1922, Tucker issued still another confession, claiming that Neil Mertins of Carthage was with him when Spain was killed and was the man who actually did the shooting. Tucker further implicated Mertins’s father-in-law, Isaac Harmon, as an accomplice in the crime. The sixty-seven-year old Harmon was married to Tucker’s twenty-year-old sister, Dolly, and the couple were going through a bitter divorce. Many speculated that Tucker’s latest confession was a put-up job instigated at least partly by Dolly, and the charges against both Harmon and his son-in-law were soon dismissed.
In 1929, Tucker escaped from a prison truck near California, Missouri. Recaptured in 1930, he was returned to Jeff City, but he escaped again in 1931. He was recaptured in 1933 and again brought back to the state pen.
Despite Tucker’s multiple escapes, the Missouri governor somehow deemed him worthy of a parole, and he was set free in 1941.
This blog entry is condensed from a chapter in my latest book, Midnight Assassinations and Other Evildoings: A Criminal History of Jasper County, Mo.

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Saturday, August 29, 2020

A Most Gruesome Murder

After the decomposing body of Louise Hagenbaugh was discovered on November 27, 1914, in her bed at the rooming house she kept on East Fifth Street in Joplin, it was thought at first that she might have died from asphyxiation, because the room was found to have a slow gas leak. However, other evidence pointed to robbery and murder. A dollar bill and an empty bag in which Mrs. Hagenbaugh, a wealthy divorcee, was known to have carried money were found on the floor near the bed, and a diamond ring with the stone missing was also discovered in the room. Upon closer inspection, investigators found fingerprints on the dead woman’s neck. A Joplin Globe reporter considered the circumstances surrounding the woman’s death “one of the most gruesome mysteries ever recorded in Joplin.”
A post-mortem examination revealed the deceased had indeed met a violent death. In addition to the bruising around her neck, three ribs had been broken, and it was theorized the murderer had crushed the ribs with his knee as he held her down and choked her. The coroner’s jury concluded that Mrs. Hagenbaugh had met death at the hands of some unknown person, but suspicion was already settling on William Webber.
A two-time ex-convict from Illinois, Webber, who also had a number of aliases, had come to Joplin a few weeks earlier and taken a room at Mrs. Hagenbaugh’s place. The woman had last been seen alive on the night of November 19, and Webber had flashed a wad of cash at a downtown saloon the next morning and then left Joplin.
Webber had originally come to Joplin to meet an old Illinois acquaintance named Thomas Whitsell, and the two men kept company during Webber’s brief stay in town. Whitsell, who also roomed at Mrs. Hagenbaugh’s, was arrested and held as a possible accomplice. Meanwhile, Webber, who’d already earned a reputation in Illinois four years earlier as “one of the most desperate criminals of the day,” was nowhere to be found.
Further investigation revealed that, after leaving Joplin on the 20th, Webber traveled to Illinois to meet a woman named Helen Siders. He’d come back to Joplin with the woman and her little girl a couple of days after the murder but then absconded again. It was learned that, in addition to having served one term in the Illinois State Penitentiary for burglary and another for armed robbery (the charge having been reduced from murder), Webber was wanted for robbing a post office at Springfield, Illinois, just a month or so before he came to Joplin. Now, with the latest charge against him, Webber became the focus of a nationwide manhunt.
Webber was finally tracked down and arrested in St. Paul, Minnesota, on February 20, 1915, when he was caught passing a string of bogus money orders under the assumed name of Roy Miller. They were the same money orders he’d stolen from the bank in Springfield, Illinois, prior to coming to Joplin. Federal authorities turned him over to Missouri, and Joplin police officers traveled to St. Paul to bring the accused killer back.
The party reached Joplin on the evening of February 26, and Webber was lodged in the city jail. The next day, he spoke with reporters, declaring that the person who killed Mrs. Hagenbaugh should be hanged but that he didn’t do it. He pointed to the fact that he had come back to Joplin with Mrs. Siders two days after Mrs. Hagenbaugh’s death as evidence that he didn’t kill her. “Would I have come back here knowing that I was facing a murder charge if I had actually committed the crime?” he asked rhetorically.
When Webber’s trial got underway in early May 1915, the prosecution called the Joplin chief of police and the Joplin chief of detectives as its star witnesses. Both men testified that Webber had admitted to them shortly after he was brought back from St. Paul that he might have been partly responsible for Mrs. Hagenbaugh’s death. According to their testimony, Webber told them that Mrs. Hagenbaugh was jealous because Webber was paying attention to another woman who lived in the Hagenbaugh rooming house, that they argued in a hallway when Webber started to go to the other woman’s room, and that he struck her and knocked her against a bannister or stove. He carried Mrs. Hagenbaugh to her room and placed her in bed but did not think she was seriously hurt. The state said the reason Webber came back to Joplin with Mrs. Siders was that he planned to dispose of Mrs. Hagenbaugh’s body, but when he learned that her building had been raided by police as a possible house of ill repute while he was gone and when he could not locate Thomas Whitsell, he again took flight.
The defense pursued the theory that Mrs. Hagenbaugh had indeed died of asphyxiation as the man who discovered the body first thought. They called an expert witness who testified that a person who died of asphyxiation could well have spots on the neck similar to bruises made by choking.
On May 7, the jury found Webber guilty of first degree murder and recommended life imprisonment. After Webber’s conviction, charges against Whitsell were dropped. Webber was transported to the state prison in Jefferson City in early June.
Webber’s lawyers appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, but in July 1916, the justices confirmed the verdict of the lower court. In late August of the same year, Webber and three other inmates escaped from the state prison. Webber was recaptured in January 1917 near his old stomping grounds of Springfield, Illinois.
Despite the escape,  Missouri governor Sam Baker paroled Webber in October 1924 on the recommendation of the State Penal Board.
This blog entry is condensed from a chapter in my latest book, Midnight Assassinations and Other Evildoings: A Criminal History of Jasper County, Mo.

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