Sunday, June 28, 2020

A Beautiful Widow Shoots a Suitor

On Monday, July 20,  1914, 29-year-old James Miller, accompanied by another young man, called on  "a very attractive young widow" named Alice McMasters in Dadeville, Missouri. Miller was supposedly just an acquaintance of Mrs. McMasters, but he was determined to "force himself into her good graces." The 27-year-old Alice admitted Miller, but she soon decided she "would have nothing to do with him and ordered him from her home" at the point of a revolver. As he retreated from the house, he became enraged at the rebuff, picked up a stool on the veranda, and slung it at her. She, in turn, fired a single shot that struck him near the heart, and he died about 40 minutes later.
At least that was Alice's version of what happened. She immediately turned herself into the city marshal and displayed "little feeling as she told of the affair." She did say, however, that she did not intent to kill Miller but, instead, shot almost reflexively when he hurled the stool at her. Late that afternoon, Alice was taken to Greenfield and lodged in the Dade County Jail.
"Much excitement has been aroused in Dadeville by the shooting," said an initial report of the incident." Both of the parties were very well known, though Miller, who was the son of former county sheriff Morris Miller, had been "considered rather wild for the past year."
Charged with first-degree murder, Alice had her preliminary hearing before Justice of the Peace Montgomery of Seybert (an extinct town near Dadeville) on July 28. The only witness was the young man who had accompanied Miller to the McMasters home, Shirley Kirby. He had stayed outside and did not know what transpired inside the house except that he heard angry voices emanating from within. Soon Miller retreated from the house, backing away, and stumbled over a chair. As he reached for the chair to steady himself, Mrs. McMasters shot him. After hearing this testimony, Montgomery bound the young woman over to the circuit court for a November trial. 
Charges against Alice must have been dropped shortly thereafter or some sort of plea bargain reached, however, since I can find no further newspaper coverage of the incident.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Double Murder in Douglas and Wright County

In late March 1948, Afton Scott and his wife, Verla, who lived on a farm about seven miles southeast of Mountain Grove just over the Douglas County line, got into a heated argument, and Scott threatened to kill his wife. Verla left, taking with her the couple's seven children who were still living at home. The forty-one-year-old Verla went to live with her mother in Mountain Grove, and she filed for divorce, carrying through with a threat she'd issued at least once before.
A few days later, on the late afternoon of March 29, forty-eight-year-old Afton Scott noticed Judge Charles Jackson on the Andrew Torkelson farm, adjoining Scott's own, and he drove over to confront the judge. He was carrying a rifle as he got out of his car and approached Jackson and Torkelson, as the two men were talking about a possible cattle purchase. Scott held a grudge against Jackson because of the judge's having ruled against him in a dispute over land between Scott and some of his relatives. Jackson was also scheduled to hear the divorce case when it came up. Scott told the judge he'd come to settle with him, and he ordered Torkelson to stand aside. Judge Jackson told Scott he had no dispute with him and turned to walk away. Scott shot the judge in the back, and he fell dead.
Scott cut the ignition wires of the other automobiles on the place and then roared away in his own 1935 Ford coach.
Scott drove to Mountain Grove to the home of his mother-in-law, where his estranged wife was staying. He strode into the house and told Verla to come outside with him. She balked at first but finally went out into the front yard with him and started talking to her sister, who was parked in a car at the curb. Meanwhile, Scott went to his own car, got his rifle, and loaded it. When Verla saw her husband had a gun, she hid behind her sister's car at first, and then Scott shot her as she started to run toward the house. Standing in the doorway, the couple's thirteen-year-old daughter, Alice, witnessed the whole episode.

Interviewed after the double murder, Scott's father said he didn't know why his son had gone on the killing rampage except that he was "crazy as a loon." The elder Scott said he'd tried to get his son to go to Nevada, to the state mental hospital, for an evaluation but that his son refused to go.
After killing his wife, Scott took off and was the object of a 36-hour manhunt before turning himself in early on the morning of March 31. Questioned briefly, he said he didn't know why he'd killed his wife and the judge and that it "seemed like a dream."
Scott was charged in Wright County with first-degree murder in the shooting death of his wife, while the Douglas County prosecutor postponed filing charges in the case of Judge Jackson.
At Scott's trial in Hartville in late June 1948, the defense put up an insanity plea. Scott now claimed that Jackson was the father of Verla's youngest child and that his jealousy had driven him temporarily insane. Alice, who was the main prosecution witness against her father, countered that the defense theory was a made-up story and that her father wasn't any crazier when he killed her mother than he always was. "If he was crazy, then he was crazy all the time."
On July 1, the jury returned a verdict finding Scott guilty of first-degree murder. The jury recommended the death penalty, and the judge sentenced Scott to die in the gas chamber at Jefferson City. The sentence was carried out sixteen months later, in early November 1949.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

A Murder in Dallas County

The Civil War in Missouri often degenerated into a bitter, guerrilla conflict that pitted neighbor against neighbor and was fueled by personal grudges as much as political sentiment. Even after treaties were signed officially ending the war, the lawlessness carried over into the succeeding years in many places in the state. 
Dallas County saw less guerrilla warfare during the war than many other counties, and it also avoided the post-war violence, at least for the first few years, as the opening lines of a July 21, 1871, story in the Buffalo Reflex will attest: 
     Of all the shooting and killing that has been done in South-west Missouri for the few past years, 
   Dallas County has up to last week been spared the ignominy of being the scene of any bloodshed.       While each county on her border has, within two years past, been the theatre of from one to a half       dozen murders, Dallas has stood out alone with her reputation unstained by blood. We have on           several occasions referred to this fact as an evidence of the peace and harmony that prevailed and       the general law-abiding disposition that exists among her citizens.  
"But the day of humiliation has come at last," continued the Reflex. "A citizen has been shot and killed while following the peaceful pursuit of his avocation."
The victim was William Bassham, who lived on a farm about fifteen miles north of Buffalo near where the Linn Creek road crossed the Little Niangua River. (This would probably be not far from the present-day community of Tunas.) On Friday morning, July 14, Bassham went to a neighbor's farm with his son, his son-in-law, and a hired hand to cut hay in a field he worked on a sharecropping basis. He was leaning on his pitchfork and giving directions to his son, a mere lad, about fetching some water when a loud gunshot rang out. Bassham staggered and fell, and the son-in-law and the hired hand fled in panic. The boy, apparently less frightened than the two men, hurried to his father's side and found him still breathing but unable to speak. His body was riddled with buckshot, and he died after just a short time. 
The report of the gun and the shouts of the hired hand and son-in-law attracted the attention of neighbors, and some of the witnesses saw two men skulking along a fence that enclosed the field, about twenty-six paces from where Bassham fell. When someone called out for them to halt, they rushed into the brush, mounted horses, and galloped away. A posse of men hastily organized and trailed after the two suspects for several miles, but all sign of them was soon lost. 
A closer examination of Bassham's body revealed that he'd been hit by at least nine buckshot. Four balls had entered his chest, any one of which might have proved fatal, and four had hit one of his arms, breaking the bone in two places. It was thought the murder weapon was a double barrel shotgun and that both barrels had been discharged simultaneously. Footprints suggested that only one assassin had approached the fence and fired the gun while his accomplice stayed back a few feet at the edge of the woods. 
No one knew any reason anyone would want to harm Bassham, and it was generally thought that the shooting was the result of some old resentment that had been festering since the war. Bassham had been a Union soldier during the war and had been on several raids through Dallas and surrounding counties in search of bushwhackers. Just why it had taken six years for someone to enact their revenge, though, was not clear. "Time may unravel the mystery," the Reflex suggested, but apparently it never did. 

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Came Out Here to Die Like a Man: A Wife Murderer Hangs in Carthage

    After Ernest Reid and his wife, Amanda Gertrude “Gertie” Reid, came to Carthage in 1899, they seemingly got along okay at first. But during the early spring of 1900, they had a serious dispute. Gertie left her husband and started working in Carthage as a live-in housekeeper. Distressed by the breakup, Reid tried to commit suicide by eating rat poison, but the police found him in time for doctors to save his life.
    Ernest started coming around to where Gertie was staying to bum money from her, and she helped him out at first but soon saw that he was just gambling the money away. She cut him off, and he started making threats against her life if she didn’t give him more money.
    On June 17, 1900, Ernest called at the Frank Wyatt residence, where Gertie was living and working, and got into an argument with his estranged wife that escalated to the point that he renewed his threat to kill her. Two days later he rented a pistol from a pawn shop in Carthage and contrived to have Gertie meet him in north Carthage near the train depot by sending his brother Ben to the Wyatt home to tell her that relatives were in town and wanted to see her. She and Ben met Ernest about 8:45 that night, and the couple got into another argument when Gertie realized Ernest had tricked her to get her out of the house. Ernest had a photo of Gertie that she asked him to return to her, and he demanded to know why she wanted it back. He accused of her of “being too thick” with a man named Sims, who was also boarding with the Wyatt family, and Ernest thought she wanted to give the photo to Sims.
    Reid took hold of his wife’s arm and wouldn’t let go. She started sobbing, but he just tightened his grip while reaching for the revolver that he’d brought along. Flourishing the weapon, he shot Gertie in the leg, and she fell to her knees. When he released his grip, she sprang up and started running, and he fired three more shots as she retreated. The first shot missed, but the next two struck Gertie in the back.
    Ernest fled the scene, heading to downtown Carthage, where he stated to more than one group of people that he’d just shot someone. He was taken into police custody later that night, and Gertie died slightly more than 24 hours later, but not before signing a written statement swearing that Ernest had shot her and describing the events surrounding the shooting.
    Ernest Reid went on trial at Carthage for first-degree murder in November 1900. Reid’s only defense was that he had shot his wife in a fit of jealous rage. In mid-November the jury returned a verdict finding him guilty. A defense motion for a new trial was denied in early December 1900, and Reid was sentenced to hang the following January. His attorneys appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, primarily on the grounds that the jury should have been given the option of finding Reid guilty of second-degree murder. The execution was automatically postponed pending the high court’s decision.
    In early May 1901, the supreme court affirmed the lower court’s decision, and, after a temporary stay ordered by the governor, the execution was rescheduled for July 5. Reid showed extraordinary fortitude in the face of his looming execution, and his demeanor won the admiration of many of the officers who dealt with him.
    On the morning of the 5th, Reid’s hands were tied in front of him and his arms strapped to his body at the elbows. Marched to the scaffold shortly after ten o’clock, he was allowed to make a statement to the small crowd gathered inside the stockade surrounding the platform. “I came out here this morning to die like a man,” he announced in a low but firm voice. “Why do I say I came out here to die like a man? Because God stands with me here on this scaffold.” Reid went on to thank his friends, his spiritual advisors, and others who’d treated him well since his incarceration.
    Reid had already positioned himself on the trap door as soon as he stepped onto the scaffold, and after he finished his speech, his legs were bound, a black cap placed over his head, and the noose adjusted around his neck. The trap was sprung at 10:19 a.m., and Reid dropped into eternity, which, in this case, was a distance of seven feet. He was pronounced dead seven minutes later. The body was buried later that evening in Park Cemetery.
    Throughout his incarceration, Reid remained devoted to the wife he’d killed, and, in a bit of tragic irony, he requested that the only picture he had of her, the same photo that instigated the fight resulting in her death, be buried with him.
    This blog entry is condensed from a chapter in my latest book, Midnight Assassinations, about the criminal history of Jasper County.

Devil's Promenade

My latest book is about the famous Joplin or Tri-State Spook Light. Actually, Hornet Spook Light is probably the most accurate descriptor, s...