Getting away with murder (most of the time): Civil War era homicide cases in Boone county, Missouri.

Author:Bowman, Frank O., III
Position:IV. The Effects of Slavery and Race on Boone County Homicide Prosecutions C. Race and Murder After the Civil War through VII. Conclusion, with footnotes, p.362-390
  1. Race and Murder After the Civil War

    When the War ended in the late spring of 1865, Missouri faced an unsettled future. Almost uniquely among the states of the reunited country, it could neither acclaim with one voice the return of its victorious Union sons, nor close ranks to console the defeated soldiers of a failed rebellion. Virtually every community in Missouri was home to both winners and losers and their families and sympathizers, and, particularly in central Missouri, to a large population of newly emancipated black freedmen, some of whom had fought for the Union. This potentially incendiary mixture presented innumerable difficulties which would take decades to reach equilibrium, and some of which resonate to the present day. But perhaps the most vexing and uncertain question in the War's immediate aftermath was the status of black people, newly free, but excluded by emancipation from their former place in their communities' economic and social arrangements. Certainly Missouri's freedmen hoped for a genuinely new dispensation in which they would enjoy, not only freedom in law, but something approaching equal political status and social opportunity.

    It did not happen. Indeed, precisely because Missouri, though remaining loyal to the old flag, had been a slave state, Missouri's black population never enjoyed even the brief flare of political and social influence experienced by their brethren in the reconstructed Confederacy. (274) For some years after the War, those whites who had been partisans of the Confederate cause were disenfranchised in Missouri, which gave a more liberal cast to its politics. (275) Nonetheless, particularly in Boone County, even the unflinching Unionists like Switzler, Rollins, and Guitar were often former slaveholders who acquiesced grudgingly to the inevitability of emancipation, but never abandoned their views about the essential inequality of white and black or their embrace of the racial hierarchy that had made slavery acceptable. Whatever hopes for a genuinely new social order Boone County's black population may have harbored in 1865, they were rapidly disabused, as two murder cases of the period graphically demonstrate.

    On Christmas Day in 1865, a white man named John Payne was drunk in downtown Columbia. Harrison Gentry, a friend of Payne's and a deputy marshal for Columbia, (276) wanted to get Payne home before he drank any more. Wishing to avoid intervening officially, which would have required arresting and fining Payne, Gentry enlisted the aid of William Coleman (277) and Robert P. Reid and asked them to persuade Payne to go home. (278) Reid located Payne in the company of a black man named West Young, but Payne would not agree to go home and walked away with Young. Coleman followed, apparently remonstrated with Payne, and returned with him, Young following. Young stepped up from the street onto the pavement where Reid was waiting and said that Payne should not go home. Reid "shoved him off and told him to go off about his business." (279) Young stepped back up on the pavement. According to Reid, Coleman told Young to stand back several times, but Young said, "By God, I have as good a right to my say as any man." (280) Reid testified that Young "rushed up close" to Coleman, (281) but Verge Russell, the lone black witness, said Young was merely leaning against a tree. (282) Whatever the case, Coleman pulled a knife and stabbed Young just above his collarbone. Although the wound did not initially appear serious (Young himself walked over and reported his own stabbing to deputy marshal Gentry), it apparently cut something vital in the chest cavity and Young died on New Year's Day 1866. (283)

    Deputy Marshal Gentry arrested Coleman immediately after the assault and seized the bloody knife from his pocket. Coleman denied trying to "hurt" Young but diluted the force of this disclaimer by saying, first, that "if he had it [to] do over again he would not be so easy with the negro or would stick him deeper" and, second, that "if West or any other nigger bucked up against him he would stick him deeper." (284) No one ever claimed that Young was armed or struck or threatened to strike Coleman. The most anyone would say is that, when Young proclaimed his right to an equal say, "he had his arm raised." (285) Justice of the Peace David Gordon found probable cause to charge Coleman with a criminal homicide and the Circuit Attorney presented the case to the grand jury on a charge of manslaughter in the third degree. (286) The grand jury refused to indict. Indeed, in certifying the bill of costs for the case to the State Auditor, the judge described the result with this unique and telling phrase-"the Grand Jury ignored the indictment." (287)

    It is plain enough that William Coleman stabbed West Young because he could not abide a black man who presumed a right to share both a sidewalk and his opinion with whites. And it is well nigh impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Boone County grand jurors ignored the indictment because they were in accord with Coleman's view.

    Lest it be thought that I am overinterpreting a single case, consider the killing of Rice Woods. On Sunday, July 15, 1866, a party of young white men and boys were swimming in Hinkson Creek near Columbia. They got into an argument with an unidentified black man and exchanged angry words, but no actual violence occurred. Nonetheless, later the same day, some of the whites "resolved to chastise the negro for his conduct" and "when night came a parcel of them got together and began a search for the offending negro." (288) Failing to find their intended target, the crew decided to look for him among the congregants at a church on the banks of Flat Branch Creek at which local blacks were holding a service. (289) When the gang of young white men came up to the church, they found a group of young black men outside the building, but inside a fenced yard in front of it. Exactly how the encounter began is unclear, but it appears from later testimony that words were exchanged and tensions grew as the whites ranged themselves outside the fence and blacks ventured out to the fence to protect the enclosure from the whites and, one suspects, to show that they would not be cowed by white rowdies. (290)

    According to the black witnesses, open warfare broke out when a young black man named Rice Woods, walking out to the fence line, dropped his handkerchief and bent over to pick it up. A white named Boone Reed asked Woods why he picked up a rock. Woods denied picking up any rock, whereupon Reed called him a "damn liar" and hit Woods. (291) Woods hit him back, and the melee began. As the brawlers went after each other with fists and sticks, Reed in particular was getting the worse of the exchange and several of the whites pulled pistols. Thomas Tillery shouted, "Shoot this damn nigger here." (292) James Hobbs fired, hitting Rice Woods, whereupon the white attackers fled the scene. (293) Hobbs' bullet hit Woods in the chest, perforated both lobes of the left lung, and lodged in his spinal cord, killing him. (294)

    Ezekial and Morton Woods (at least one of whom was Rice Woods's brother) swore out a complaint alleging the crimes of riot and murder against ten of the whites who had attacked the church gathering. (295) At an inquest before Justices of the Peace J.W. Hickam and David Gordon on July 19, 1866, the county attorney dismissed charges against Silas Hysinger at the close of the prosecution's case. Defendants Kenard, Newman, and Tillery (the man identified as saying "Shoot this damn nigger here") produced alibi witnesses from among friends and family and were dismissed from the case. Four defendants, including the shooter, James Hobbs, supposedly could not be found by the sheriff within the county and were also dismissed.

    The JPs bound over only Henry Douglass and Edward Camplin, who were immediately released on bond. (296) The bond papers for Douglass stand as perhaps the most eloquent testimonial to the views of the white community about the case. Douglass's appearance was guaranteed by twenty-five sureties, the list amounting to a Who's Who of Columbia society, including R.B. Price, Boone County's leading banker; A.J. Harbison, former Circuit Attorney; James J. Searcy, school teacher and former Confederate officer; (297) William J. Gordon, owner of a substantial business manufacturing and repairing agricultural implements; (298) James S. Hickman, a local grocer; (299) and J.S. Dorsey, druggist, jeweler, and railroad agent. (300) When the grand jury assembled to hear the case in the November term, it refused to indict either Douglass or Camplin.

    As for Hobbs, the actual killer, the authorities do not appear to have pursued charges against him or made any effort to locate him after the sheriff's initial determination that he was "not found in Boone County, Missouri." (301) No one would ever be prosecuted for Rice Woods's death.

    It must be said that in the two cases between emancipation and 1875 where both deceased and defendant were black, Boone County law appears even-handed, even merciful. For example, on October 25, 1873, Thomas Colbert and Simon Strode, both black, argued over some clothing and Colbert fatally stabbed Strode. (302) Colbert, represented by Odon Guitar and H.C. Pierce, was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to ten years, a result consistent with the law and what we know of the facts. (303)

    More interesting is the 1870 prosecution of Eliza Holland. Mrs. Holland was from the St. Louis area and had always been a free woman of color, (304) as well as a woman of property (305) who owned and operated a haulage business. (306) Much against Eliza's wishes, her daughter Augustine married James Madison, (307) a black man who worked for her as a servant and wagon driver, and left St. Louis with him to return to Madison's former home in Boonville, about thirty miles west of Columbia. (308) Mrs...

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