June 23, 2008
By RHONDA CHALFANT,
Nineteenth-century towns strove to be seen as “live,” a term that combined the concepts of progressivism and prosperity with morality and civility. The primary spokesperson for a community was often its newspaper editor, whose articles lauded his or her town’s attributes while condemning aspects of other communities, even if the communities were similar in all respects. The rivalry between communities often became intense, as editors applied the full measure of Victorian sentimentality, both praise and denunciation, to reports of activities. Sedalia and Warrensburg became rivals in the early 1870s when both competed to be named the site of the State Normal School or teachers’ college (now University of Central Missouri).
The state chose Warrensburg, leaving many Sedalia boosters feeling that their most deserving city had been somehow cheated. Jonathan Edwards, the editor of the Sedalia Democrat, continued that rivalry by extolling the virtues of Sedalia while criticizing the vices of Warrensburg, as the reporting of an incident in August 1879 demonstrates. The incident, the murder of a man while at a brothel, was described in Edwards’ purple prose as “one of those unprovoked and damning murders that blot the civilization of our country, and throw their blasting shadows thwart the culture, morals, and religion of the age.” His headline, “Another Warrensburg Murder,” was emphasized by the notice that “Again we are called upon to chronicle another” murder in a community that had experienced a wave of violence during the 1870s.
The perpetrators of the murder were a group of men of questionable character, and the victim was equally disreputable, having been both a witness to and a peripheral participant in a murder that had resulted in the execution by hanging of a man named Davidson in July 1879. Sedalia had its own share of disreputable characters and violent incidents during the same time period, and brawls and shootings at the city’s many houses of ill repute were commonplace. As such, it ill behooved Edwards to emphasize the negative effects of “bad associations, bad practices, and bad whiskey (that) sent another soul to eternity” in Warrensburg. However, Edwards’ coverage of the incident left no doubt that in his mind, at least, Warrensburg was the home of “desperados” and a hotbed of “revengeful jealousy” and “drunkenness,” and iniquity. As Edwards reported the incident, John Duncan, the victim, who lived about 10 miles north of Warrensburg, came into town on Saturday to sell a load of grain. Following the sale, he accompanied Don Blevins, George Anderson, and a company of other men to the Brewery, a popular saloon. After drinking through the afternoon and evening, Blevins left to visit the brothel kept by Mrs. Lowe in western Warrensburg, Anderson, and Duncan soon followed. When Anderson and Duncan arrived at Mrs. Lowe’s house of ill fame, they found Blevins abusing Mrs. Lowe’s daughter, who was also a prostitute. Duncan, the soberest, according to Edwards, separated Blevins and the prostitute so as to protect Miss Lowe and to keep the group from getting into trouble. Blevins agreed to let her go with Duncan provided Duncan would bring her back to him later. Blevins and Anderson left Mrs. Lowe’s in pursuit of more whiskey, more women, and apparently of Duncan. Duncan led Miss Lowe across a ravine to the home of a Mr. Evans. From there, at about 3 a.m., she returned to the brothel, arriving at the same time Anderson and Blevins returned. Anderson told Miss Lowe and Mrs. Lowe that he had “struck Duncan two or three times and knocked him down in a ditch.” A group of men hanging about the Lowes’ brothel went to search for Duncan. They found him unconscious in a ditch eight feet deep with a few abrasions on his face. They loaded Duncan into a wagon and brought him to Harrison’s livery stable, where he “lingered in an unconscious state until 5:20 o’clock this (Sunday) morning.” Edwards’ failure to mention whether medical help was summoned suggests that no one bothered to call for a physician. At the coroner’s inquest, which was begun on Sunday, Drs. C. H. Jordan and G. R. Hunt testified to the autopsy they had conducted. They reported Duncan’s skull had been fractured by a “violent blow with some dense instrument with a hard, smooth surface,” and that a blood clot had formed at the site of the fracture. The men who brought Duncan into town testified only that he had fallen into the ditch and “hurt himself.” Blevins and Anderson were arrested and held pending the outcome of the inquest and the filing of formal charges. On Monday morning the inquest was to continue, and witnesses to Blevins and Anderson’s brutal assault on Duncan were to be called. There was, Edwards suggested, “little doubt that the guilt of this horrible crime will be fastened upon one or more of the crowd who accompanied Duncan into this midnight orgy.
” HISTORY OF JOHNSON COUNTY MISSOURI" BY EWING COCKRELL CHAPTER VII— REIGN OF TERROR.
JOHNSON COUNTY THE SCENIC OF LAWLESSNESS AND ORGANIZED CRIME — Vigilantes. — Following the close of the Civil War, Johnson County became the scene of much lawlessness and what appeared to be organized crime. The law was apparently helpless to bring offenders to justice, Murders and robberies were repeatedly committed. The offenders became generally known but were not punished. This lawlessness may have been carried on for the love of plunder and murder or by habit acquired by these desperadoes during the long period of the Civil War, or both. Apparently, they had their own way for a time. They rode into business houses shooting articles of merchandise from the walls, sniffing lights out of people's houses with pistol shots, or shot promiscuously into public gatherings. Religious and political meetings were infrequently broken up and the peaceable citizens were terrified generally. Opposition to this condition was aroused and encouraged at Warrensburg in June 1866, on the occasion of a speech delivered there by General Frank P. Blair. Blair was well known in Missouri as a brave and able Union soldier, and after the war was over he became one of the leaders in the struggle for the re-enfranchisement of Southerners and rehabilitation of the state. Blair was advertised to speak at Warrensburg June 1. 1866. A brush arbor was built just north of the (the old wooden structure that was located about in the parking lot west of the downtown) courthouse where Blair was expected to speak. The extremists among the Union men hated Blair for the stand that he had taken and denounced him as a traitor. It was anticipated for weeks before the meeting that there would be trouble and bloodshed if Blair spoke in denunciation of the Radicals at Warrensburg. Blair arrived on the day advertised. A delegation of the more peace-loving citizens visited him at the old Ming Hotel and informed him that if he attempted to speak they feared that there would be bloodshed. He answered that he would talk "if they will let me live." At the place of the meeting he was met by an enthusiastic audience, but among them were fifty or more of the opposition crowd, all armed, who expected to make trouble. This gang had had as their leader "Old Bill Stevens," a giant in stature and reputed to be a dangerous man. Blair in his typical forceful manner plunged into the arraignment of the Radical rule in Missouri. He had not gone far when "Old Bill Stevens" arose and called him a liar. Amid the confusion, Stevens was ejected. He came back, again called Blair a liar and was again put out. Meanwhile, his son Jim Stevens, had been knifed to death and another man nearly so, and with his dead son, followed by his gang, withdrew. General Blair continued and finished his speech at six o'clock, after having talked between four and five hours. On February 2, David Sweitzer. a respected farmer who lived about eight miles north of Warrensburg was murdered and robbed in his home among his family and friends by two men who though partially disguised were easily recognized. This act seemed to have been the final one necessary to arouse the community. The news of the murder reached town early the next morning. That day a meeting was held at the courthouse, at which about four hundred of the leading citizens were present. They proceeded in a cool, dignified, parliamentary manner. Colonel Examiner was elected temporary chairman and N. B. Klaine acted as secretary of the meeting. Professor Bigger addressed the meeting and among other things said, "It is our duty to ferret out the murderers of our peaceable citizen who has so lately been killed, and bring them to justice. I am opposed to summary vengeance, but when the law cannot enforce it and the violators brought to justice, it is necessary for the people to take the matter in hand. The right of the people to take care of themselves if the law does not is an indisputable right. We must unite and put down lawlessness." The meeting was then addressed by Rev. J. V. Newcomb, who said in part: "The meeting has my hearty approval. The sentiments expressed by Mr. Bigger are my own. 'He that draweth the sword shall perish by the sword," and as exemplified by this case, men who disregard law and order, have to be met on their own grounds. It is the duty of the people to protect one another and ferret out the offenders." Colonel Eads, General Shedd, J. A. Sheperd, General Cockrell, and Colonel Elliott, men of all parties and views, also spoke and all endorsed the meeting. Major Davis, Colonel Eads, Captain Harmon, and Colonel Elliott were appointed a committee and reported the following resolutions, which were adopted by unanimous vote, everyone present rising to his feet in approval. "Whereas in the opinion of the community crime of all kinds has become so prevalent and criminals of the worst type so numerous that life and property are unsafe, and "Whereas, the courts of the county have failed to lure the perpetrators of the murders and robberies to justice, and "Whereas, the greatest of crimes are becoming more and more frequent and punishment less and less certain, therefore Resolved, that we, the people of the town of Warrensburg, and of the county of Johnson, without distinction of party, do pledge ourselves that we will, to the extent of our ability, assist in the discovery of the perpetrators of all murders and robberies, and will assist the officers of justice in detecting and punishing them ; and as the civil law proves inadequate to bring such criminals to justice, therefore "Resolved, that we will support a vigilance committee in executing summarily, all murderers, robbers. horse thieves, where ever they can be identified with certain believing, as we do. That self-preservation is the first law of nature, and that the citizens of a county are justified in administering justice to such criminal, wherever the duly constituted authorities from any cause whatever, are unable or fail to do so." The vigilance committee began at the top and the first desperado whom they dealt with was the notorious "Dick" Sanders, the recognized leader of the band that murdered Sweitzer. A posse of about one hundred men went to Fayetteville one night, where they were joined by a committee from that town and a delegation went to the Sanders house. After a short parley "Dick" Sanders and his brother, Brickett Sanders, surrendered. Another detachment of the posse of vigilantes captured another desperado near Fayetteville that same night. Then the outlaws were taken to a place in the woods about a mile north of the Sanders home on Honey Creek. Here the main body of the vigilance committee was awaiting the arrival of the prisoners. It was about midnight. The committee elected a judge and proceeded in a systematic way to confront the prisoner with the accusations against