Hangings Of Johnson County, Missouri A Young Doctor's Enterprise and A Frightened Boy - The Singular Experience of a Wedding Party.
Twas in the years sixty-seven and eight "Just after the byes were all scattered and bate." It was then they had lively times in old Johnson county. The recollections by one who was then a boy, of a few incidents that occurred in and around Warrensburg, might not be inappropriate at the present time. The country had begun to settle up with all classes of industrious people. The "boys" from both armies had come home from the war, and were settling down to business, determined to rebuild their wasted fortunes, and forget the petty spites and grudges that had been engendered by the cruel war. But there were some hard cases. Mean men before the war, they had lasted blood and were not satiated. They had lost all moral sense and all semblance to man except the outward shape. They would traverse the country singly, and sometimes three to five in company, robbing and murdering at every opportunity. At times, to vary the monotony of their occupation, they would come to town, get gloriously drunk, clean out the "shebangs," insult respectable men and women and, in short, "take the own." Bad men winked at these repeated outrages and good citizens patiently waited with the hope that such a state of affair, the consequences of a disastrous war, would not be of long continuance. But things grew from bad to worse and finally "forbearance ceased to be a virtue." From that time dated the organization of the "vigilanters." There were several men having their headquarters in that county, well known to everybody as horse thieves and murderers in fact they had grown reckless and did not make much secret of their doings. A terror to all law-abiding people, they roamed the country armed to the teeth with navy revolvers and bowie knives. One fine morning just as the good people of Warrensburg were hurrying to their respective duties, and the bells were ringing up the merry school children, a report came that a man was found hanging to a blackjack tree in the edge of town. Many repaired to the site, near where the Normal School building now stands (Grover at Maguire), and sure enough there, hanging to a limb of a small oak, was the honorable (?) Mr. Jeff Collins, his tongue hanging out, his eyes wide open, and apparently staring wildly at the heavens, his body turning around and around, swaying to and fro in the breeze like a pendulum, presenting a most ghastly appearance. Hundreds of people, men, women and children, flocked to the spot to gaze upon the awful scene. It is said his body was left hanging for two days, no one having the courage to cut it down, and very few know what ever became of the body.
Jeff Collins was hung near town, Monday night. He came here only a few days before, from new, Jasper county and reliable information was that he was driven from that place. It was known that he was engaged in horse stealing and the murdering of peaceable citizens. He is the same who, last summer, threatened the lives of two of our respectable merchants. March 20, 1867
Grover at Maguire Street about 1915
Foster School in the back, Warrensburg, MO
But the experience of a young man about that time will probably throw some light on the matter. He was passing along the road or street near where the bridge spans the "big cut," the second night after the hanging, and night being rather dark he carried a lantern. Suddenly he heard the wheels of a buggy approaching and a voice called out in an angry tone, "Blow out that lantern, damn it, you'll scare my horse! " By this time the buggy was upon him and instead oi putting out the light he stepped to one side and raised the lantern to catch a glimpse of the officers of the law, and although young in occupants and was surprised to find the driver of the vehicle to be no other than young Doctor P. But there was another passenger, and his hair stood on end and his knees struck together as he recognized the form of Jeff Collins seated with its) back against the dash-board, stark and stiff, with a portion of the rope still around his neck, and the same wild and deathly glare in his blood-shot eyes. Jeff, was not altogether a bad looking man.
He was tall and straight as an arrow, wiry and muscular, dark complexion with dark moustache and imperial and long, dark, flowing hair. He was the popular image of the Italian brigand. Jeff's skeleton, no doubt, now adorns the back room of some doctor's office not many miles away.
Warrensburg's Foster School, site of Jeff Collin's Lynching, Hanging at Grover and Maguire Streets 1878. This building also held State Normal of Warrensburg's First Classes (UCM today)
Not long after that, a gay party of ladies and gentlemen were seen to get into their carriages and were driven hastily in a westerly direction. Their destination was the resident of Mrs. Scruggs, about four miles west of town near the old English mill. Arriving there quite a crowd had already assembled the beauty and wit of this neighborhood. To use a stale quotation, "fair women and brave men had gathered there and everything went merry as a marriage bell. In truth it was a marriage; it was the occasion of the nuptials of Mr. ___ and Miss Jennie B---- Amid the tripping of nimble feet and the sounds of sweet music, the ripples of sweet laughter were borne out on the evening breeze, keeping time -- time -- time to the popping of the tipsy champagne corks. It was truly a "feast of unit and a flow of soul." And it was not till the small hours of the morning that the pleasant party bid each other good-bye, and showered farewell congratulations upon the happy bridal pair. The moon had risen, but dark clouds hovered o'er the sky and at times obscured the light of pale Luna's face. As the procession returned towards the city the party gradually grew quiet and sentimental, even drowsiness having over taken some of those who had been the most convivial during the evening. The groom and his fair partner together with the minister and a particular lady friend, occupied the foremost carriage, which was a large open phaeton. They too became drowsy, and would have continued in that state until the city was reached had it not been for a ridiculous incident that occurred while they were crossing the skirt of heavy timber near the Post Oak bridge.
As they entered the woods everything grew dark and sombre, the gloomy broken clouds hang heavy over the earth, and it was just such a dreary looking place as would be naturally selected for the commission of some terrible murder. As I the phaeton was passing under a large elm tree, two pairs of legs and feet dragged over the horses heads and backs, up against the driver and dangled around into the side of the vehicle, just as the moon appeared from behind a dark cloud, and threw a hood of pale light over two hideous, ghostly corpses hanging to a limb just over the road. The driver bawled aloud and fell upon his seat and was dragged some distance by the frightened horses; the bride and her lady friend fainted; the preacher jumped out of the carriage and took the back road shouting, "bloody murder The whole party were more or less disconcerted. After copious amounts of cold water, from the creek nearby, the ladies were resuscitated and the procession moved onward, but were wide awake the balance of the way. The bodies were those of Morg. Andrews and Bill Stephens, two notorious horse thieves and murderers, whom the vigilants had hung that night about 12 o'clock. By mere thoughtlessness they were swung to a limb immediately over the public road.
Morg. Andrews and Bill Steven's Hangings,
The frightened couple who met with such terrible experience on their wedding night, are now living happily, with, it is to be hoped, an interesting family around them.
March 20, 1867
From Warrensburg Standard—It is now well known that the Vigilance Committees in different parts of Johnson Co. are determined to root out all thieves, murderers and desperadoes. Since our last issues the following executions have taken place: Dick Sanders, a notorious desperado was taken from his house, one night last week and suspended as high as Haman from the limb of a tree. He was one of the murderers of Switzer, a peaceable citizen of which mention was made last week.
Bill Stevens, father of the desperate character, Tom Stevens, and whose house is a harbor for a number of desperadoes, was shot dead in front of his own house on Monday last. Stevens had made threats, after the hanging of Sanders to the effect that several lives would be taken in retaliation. Stevens was at the head of gang of desperate me and his death will not doubt be a blessing to the country.
Jeff Collins was hung near town, Monday night. He came here only a few days before, from new, Jasper county and reliable information was that he was driven from that place. It was known that he was engaged in horse stealing and the murdering of peaceable citizens. He is the same who, last summer, threatened the lives of two of our respectable merchants.
The grand high priest of desperadoes, Bill Stevens, has met his just due and it is reported was killed this morning at daylight by some horsemen who had surrounded his house and called upon him to explain certain threats made while in town the day after the hanging of Sanders. This man Stevens has been the terror the county and State, he being at the head of all villainy and crime and woe was it to any person who dared to thwart him. One of his sons was killed at the Blair meeting last fall—chip of the same block. Another of his sons, a well-known horse and cattle thief, who has by his acts made himself liable to arrest, but has always escaped. This son is blamed for being connected with the gang that murdered Mr. Switzer and waited upon, but succeeded in escaping along with pal Morg. Andrews across the river. Polk Adams and John Starkey, both members of the same gang, were waited upon by the committee at the house of Adams' father on Friday night, but they succeeded in escaping by running the gauntlet through two hundred horsemen who were armed to the teeth. Adams is reported wounded in the arm and both him and Starkey are now in Kansas or Nebraska hid away among their friends.
THE AFTERMATH AND THE VIGILANTES
In an effort to avoid horrors after the war, the Constitution of 1865, provided “No person shall be prosecuted criminally or civilly on account of any acts executed after January 1, 1861, by virtue of military authority vested in him by the government of the United States, or of this state or in pursuance of orders received by him from persons vested with such authority.” Another provision was added in 1875, “Between Jan. 1, 1861, and Aug. 20, 1866, and to the words ‘under military authority of the Government of the United States, etc.’ was added ‘or of the late Confederate States or any of them to do such acts.” This was meant to say war crimes were to be forgiven. Bad feelings could not be legislated and behavior spurred by the war caused turmoil.
Bushwhackers swarmed into town stealing and murdering. These gangs made their headquarters at a saloon run by “Uncle Billy”. Bullies would ride into town and “shoot up” the town as they rode their horses through the streets, sometimes on the board sidewalks firing their revolvers in every direction to the terror of the citizens. By brute force they dominated Warrensburg, thus the vigilantes were born. Once when a bully rode through town shooting, one citizen who was fed up, took his gun, which most had in those days, started after the bully shooting. The bully left rather quickly.
After the Civil War many filed for land of the Confederates over various causes. One such action was Brinkley Hornsby sued Sterling Price, James McCown, Jeremiah V. Cockrell, William McCown and more. He claimed injuries arising from false imprisonment and was asking $50,000. If they didn’t pay he wanted to attach their land.
Gen. Frank Blair was to speak in Warrensburg and a platform had been erected not far from what was to become much later, the courthouse downtown. Some very rough men led by Bill Stephens threatened to kill Blair. The feelings from the war still lingered. While Blair was waiting in his room at the Ming Hotel, when Bill Stephens tried to stir up the people against Blair, by speaking to those that had started to gather to hear Blair. Blair was advised not to speak but he said he would “cause a shell to explode”. Gen. Blair took the stand and started his speech at 1:00. He was interrupted time and again and at 2:00 Stephens took the speaker’s stand and started his ranting. He was ejected and a few minutes later he took the stand again and again started insulting Blair. He was again ejected. Then there was the clicking of pistols from all sides. Some pointed their pistols at Blair and some at the ones pointing the pistols. Then word came to Stephens that his son Jim had been stabbed to death. Stephens and his ruffians left and Blair finished about 6:00. Word hit Warrensburg in 1867 that a foul murder had taken place at Fayetteville. David Sweitzer had been robbed of money he was going to use to make a payment on the farm he had purchased. Warrensburg citizens determined they were not going to put up with any more of these outrages so a meeting was set at the courthouse to try to figure out how to stop things. About 400 men showed up and they organized calling Col. Isaminger to be chairman and N. B. Klaine to act as secretary. One of the speakers, a Prof. Biggar 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.” Others followed with similar speeches. They then drafted resolutions. One hundred fifty men went out to join Fayetteville men and marched to Dick Sanders home. Dick Sanders was identified as one of the murderers. At Dick Sanders’ house they surrounded it and got Sanders to surrender. They took Dick Sanders, Brackett Sanders (his brother) and another person to a place about a mile north of the house, in the woods, on Honey creek, where the execution took place. Dick Sanders was the leader of the band that was causing so much trouble and the second in command was Bill Stephens. They decided to take care of Stephens at a later date. About a month later 40 men went for Stephens. They decided to just shoot him and not risk getting hurt themselves. They waited all night in the barn and along the fence so when Stephens appeared at his front door early the next morning they let loose. Stephens fell and was pulled back in the house and died later.
Jeff Collins (story above) was a notorious character that lived in Warrensburg. It was believed he was associated with the Dick Sanders gang. The committee thought Collins was acting suspiciously so they started a watch. Nearing sunset as he made his way home, word was sent to a group of men that hid around his house. They approached him and he was ordered to surrender and drop his gun, which he did. They took him to a livery stable of the Ming Hotel. They held a kangaroo court and accused him of being part of the gang and had been causing trouble and robbing. Collins knowing his time was near refused to give them the satisfaction of saying much. He was found guilty with out any real proof of wrongdoing; they took him out Culton Street east to Maguire, not to far south of the railroad bridge (Old High School) and hung him.
Two individuals, one Thomas Stephens’s son of Bill Stephens and the other Morg. Andrews considered involved with the Sanders gang, were found in jail in Lawrence, Kansas. They were sent for and upon arriving in Warrensburg, a lynch mob got them from the jail and hanged them.
The last and most uncalled for lynching by the vigilantes was that of Thomas Little. Little was arrested for robbing a man west of the Post Oak Bridge. The committee got together and failed to convict Little. That night about 15 to 20 men got together and went to the jail, got Little out and hung him. The masses and many of the Vigilante band condemned the murder of Little. The Vigilante committee was disbanded. The newspapers outside of the county distorted the happenings of the vigilante committee. A Lexington newspaper reported the Johnson County vigilantes hanged 10 men in one day. Kansas City Journal stated Johnson County vigilantes hanged 30 men.
25 June 1867 The Daily Kansas Tribune
A stranger, in passing through the city yesterday, happened to meet a person riding a line bay mare which was stolen from him by Morg. Andrews and Tom Stevens, the two fellows arrested in Eudora a few weeks since, and subsequently taken from the sheriff in Missouri and hung by a vigilance committee. The person having the mare was so well satisfied with the man’s statement that be gave her up to him without requiring further proof. At the time Andrews and Stevens were arrested, they had two horses in their possession, the one claimed and recovered by the stranger, and the other, a gray horse, being at the present time in the possession Joel Thomas, was identified by this man the property of a young lady in his vicinity, and, was stolen from her on the same night that his horse was taken. He stated that she had earned the money buy it by spinning and weaving, and was unable to lose it. We understand Mr. Thomas intends to notify her that she can have the horse.
Hang 'em Even Higher
Another dose of Vigilante Justice...
Pictures are said to speak a thousand words and these photographs show us that real history is not as watered down and sugar coated as most believe. In a time when many frontier towns suffered from a short supply of law and order, sometimes ordinary citizens took it upon themselves to dish out a brutal brand of justice in the Old West.
Often times when suspected murderers, horse thieves, and road agents were captured and brought to a civilized trial justice was never served. Many of these fiends evaded paying for their crimes by sandbagging the court system with friends and companions who would lie on their behalf and provide them with alibis. Without proof of any wrong doing, criminals were released and allowed to freely walk the streets. That is when vigilance committees would step in. These committees were made up of groups of volunteer citizens that would assume authority and punish those suspected of being criminals or offenders. And often times, the punishment was swift and unforgiving.