IAGenWeb Project - Clayton co.

Mississippi River Pirates - Robbers & Ruffians
Citizen Vigilance Committees
1858 - 1859

~Unless otherwise credited, the news articles were compiled and transcribed by Reid R. Johnson for Clayton co. IAGenWeb

The following news articles chronicle a ring of Mississippi River pirates who were operating in the McGregor and Prairie du Chien areas in the late 1850s. The reader will see what life along the upper Mississippi River was like at the time; the dangers faced by peaceful settlers confronted by transient ruffians; and how the law and citizens, dealt with them.


Burlington Hawk-Eye, Burlington, Iowa, Sat. morning, 8 May 1858. From the North Iowa Times (McGregor), Extra, 4 May 1858

Mississippi Pirates Caught - $5,000 Worth Of Property Recovered - Application Of A Hemp Persuader

In our last issue we gave a brief account of a system of thieving that seemed to have been successfully carried out in this vicinity for the last few months. We now have the gratification of announcing the discovery of some of the robbers and the rescue of a large amount of merchandize belonging to the neighborhood. As it is our design to publish in our regular issue, which will be delayed to obtain the facts which may be elicited on an investigation, a full history of the developments which the past [words missing], we forbear a minute detail of matters as they now present themselves. There may be cause for change of opinion in relation to certain parties - hence the general absence of names in this article.

The rendezvous of the robbers of the Upper Mississippi has been for the past year the old ferry building on the west side of the river from the Prairie du Chien Upper Ferry. At that place goods have been stored from points as high up as La Crosse, and if the statements of prisoners can be relied on, there have been fitted out at that place more expeditions than one to the lower river.

It seems a carpenter named Ralph (his last name we have not learned) has been in the employ of the robbers for several months, building boats, &c., &c., preparatory to a voyage down below. One day last week a quarrel ensued between Ralph and some of the party, which resulted in Ralph's exposure of the villains. Ralph came down to McGregor and gave such information in relation to their practice and plans as led to an immediate organization for their detection.

On Friday morning last, Constables Kee and Brown, of McGregor, and several of our most active citizens, left this place for the island known as Big Island, opposite the mouth of Sni Magill Creek, about five miles below this, and nearly opposite Wyalusing. The river at present is very high, and scarcely any portion of the island is out of water, and hence the skiffs of the adventurers had access to almost all portions of the suspected territory. After a thorough reconnoiter, the boat containing Kee, Ralph, and our fellow citizen Sanford L. Peck, Esq., discovered a tent or camp on the island, in which were found Geo. Sciville [Scovill], an English butcher, of McGregor, a man partly blind, named Howell, and a boy 9 years old, whose name we have not learned. These were captured, and from them it was ascertained that a man calling himself Dr. Bell (a veterinary surgeon, late partner to Joseph Bayless of this vicinity), was in command of a boat moored in some of the sloughs of the island, and that said boat was loaded with stolen goods to the amount of several hundred dollars.

On the next morning, Kee, Peck and the boy proceeded to look up the boat, and having discovered it, came to within close distance before any signs of life were exhibited on board. The barking of a dog on the pirate vessel roused its captain, and he sprang out on the bow in his shirt - seeing the boy, it is supposed he took the party for friends, and remarked that his "wife was not up," requesting them to "hold on." At this moment, the skiff being near to the bandit, Kee was leaning forward to make a prisoner of him, when Bell's countenance assumed a demoniac appearance, he sprang into the boat, presented a revolver at the door of it, and screamed to the party "God damn your souls, I'll blow you to hell."

Without further invitation, Mr. Peck, who was in the line of danger, fired his revolver as he supposed fatally. Bell fell back wounded, and in a few seconds a pistol shot passed through the side of the boat from the chest on which Bell had fallen. Believing that Bell was seriously wounded, and having heard that his wife was a practical gunner, the assailing party deemed it most prudent to return to McGregor for a force sufficient to secure the boat and bring it into port. Brown and Woodcock in the meantime had separated from them the night before and had gone to Clayton City.

Immediately on the arrival of Kee and Peck with their prisoners, the report of the success got wind and the town was soon at boiling heat. Capt. Nelson, of the Alex. McGregor, was prevailed on to run his boat down to the battle ground, and about fifty persons, comprising many of our best citizens, armed with such weapons as could be conveniently obtained, enlisted for the war. The Alex. McGregor took the passengers down to the vicinity of the boat, but during the passage three suspicious looking customers were arrested on board, and the McGregor carried them to Prairie du Chien, where it was learned that a heavy robbery of jewelry had been committed the night before.

The adventurers found the boat on which Bell was shot, but the bird had flown. Mrs. Bell and her young child remained on board. A guard was detailed, and upon farther exploration two more boats loaded with plunder were found farther down the river - the first boat was fastened to the steamer Pembinaw, of St. Louis, and brought to our wharf the same evening. - The other pirate crafts were towed to Clayton City by Capts. Dellaven and Goodrich, of the Junction Ferry Line, and remained there in charge of as jolly a set of McGregorites as ever captured a prize. On Sunday the Alex. McGregor with two or three hundred citizens on board left her wharf and proceeded to Clayton City to bring up the plunder and the victorious band who had it in charge. When near that place the Fred. Lorenz was met with the booty in tow and such a time of cheering and rejoicing was never before heard on the Mississippi.

By request, the Lorenz detached her pirate consort and the McGregor took the passengers on board and the freight in tow. Stopping at Wyalusing, we learned that the village physician had been called that morning to take a ball out of the head of a stranger who had stopped half a mile from there to get his breakfast. A committee of six was appointed to scour that section of country. The committee has since returned unsuccessful. The goods are placed in the hands of Deputy Sheriff Tuttle, and among them is every conceivable article of value that could tempt the cupidity of a thief. Whole stocks of dry goods, boots and shoes, books, drugs, clothing, household goods, liquors, groceries, provisions, stoves, grindstones, etc., etc., prove the industry of the robbers and the extent of the band. There is not less than $4,000 to $5,000 worth of property already secured, and the Vigilance Committee have dispatched men to other depots where it is expected plunder is stored. Many of the articles are identified. This robbery has been going on for nearly a year, and it is feared that many men heretofore regarded as honest will be found deeply implicated in this astounding villainy.

Rumors of all sorts are afloat; the prisoners arrested are beginning to confess and expose their accomplices. Bell is evidently badly hurt. His end is not far distant. The officers are on the alert, and it is hoped that this is to result in breaking up one of the most formidable bands of robbers ever organized in the west. The name of John C. Bishop, the Osage Land Robber, is connected with this party, and it is believed by the prisoners that a boat containing $10,000 worth of goods from La Crosse and other towns, left the depot first spoken of on the 15th of last month for the benefit of said Bishop; said boat was seen near Muscatine two weeks ago bound for St. Louis.

As Bell is doubtless in the neighborhood, we will say that he is a well-made man, about 35, weighs 168, sandy complexion, large red whiskers, and has a bullet mark from his forehead round to the butt of his left ear -; his mark is a very significant one just now. We have no time for farther comments, and it is probably not advisable to say more at present.

Our regular issue will appear on Thursday or Friday, when we expect to be in possession of details that will be of great interest to the whole west.

P.S. We learn that the Vigilance Committee at Prairie du Chien have already arrested 14, and that as the rope is applied to the necks of some as a persuader, they are telling all they know with great liberality.

Let the good work go on.


Prairie du Chien Courier, Prairie du Chien, Wis., Thur., 6 May 1858

Vigilance Comm'tees
Pirates, Burglars, Gamblers, Thieves, and Counterfeiters arrested!

In another place will be found the report of the Committee appointed to draw up a statement in regard to the transactions which have created so much excitement for the past week among the inhabitants of Prairie du Chien and vicinity. - The prisoners were tried before the Vigilance Committee on Monday, and five of them were sentenced to have their heads shaved and to receive from ten to thirty lashes on their bare backs. The first part of the sentence was carried into effect the same evening - one of the prisoners named Geo. Robinson (a negro) was compelled to perform the task, which he done very unwillingly. After their heads were shaved they presented the most comical appearance, which greatly excited the ____ of those who witnessed the operation. In the morning a hollow square was formed in front of the jail, and the prisoners were led out one by one and punishment inflicted according to the sentence, which was read to them.

The body of one of the prisoners, named Fagan, presented the most horrible appearance, when stripped - half a dozen horrible gashes, and a wound on his back which looked as if it had been done with a pistol ball; his head was covered with scars, and his whole looks and _____ betrayed the villain.

"Gurley" was ordered to receive twenty-five lashes; but by mistake only fifteen were administered, and he was conducted back to jail. On his way back he was heard to threaten the life of the man who flogged him, and to intimidate him it was deemed expedient to give him his full allowance, which was very forcibly done by a gentleman, who received three enthusiastic cheers from the crowd for the manner in which he administered the sentence of the court.

The Captain of the steamer Galena informed a citizen of this place that about ten days ago the people of Dubuque shipped up to this place half a dozen hard characters, and the rascals who were punished here were doubtless the same ones. Part of the gang were arrested at McGregor, and we learn that the Vigilance Committee there have handed them over to the proper legal authorities.

[Submitter note: There followed a condensed version of the article above.]

This affair has created the most intense excitement, if any of the robbers who have been punished are ever caught here again they will assuredly be hung.

[Submitter note: The same paper and date gave the report of the Prairie du Chien Vigilance Committee, and a news item about the burglary of the Hudson City Bank, Hudson, Wis., which seems to be attributed to the same gang in the above articles; as follows.]

A Report of the late Proceedings

The recent proceedings of the citizens of this place, organized as a Vigilance Committee, in the arrest, trial and punishment of certain desperate characters, and the supposition that exaggerated reports of it may be sent abroad, render it necessary that a correct and authorized account should be made public. A committee has been appointed to prepare a true statement for publication, and they comply with the request of the meeting which appointed them, by giving a faithful narrative of the whole affair.

For some time past there has been a belief prevalent in the public mind, that the towns on the Upper Mississippi have been the lurking places of Robbers; and depredations frequently committed in this neighborhood established the fact. On Friday of last week, a crowd of hard looking fellows were observed about town for the first time; and Thursday afternoon an old gentleman, in passing through this place, to his home in Seneca County, Ohio, fell into the hands of this crowd; was made drunk and robbed of fifty dollars at a disreputable negro saloon, the head-quarters of the gang.

Immediately after the robbery, two of the gang, who gave their names as Wm. Charles (nick-named "Curley") and Charles Williams, (one-eyed) started out on the Prairie towards the bluffs, but were followed by two or three of our citizens, arrested and brought back to a Justice's Office. The Justice committed them to Jail, setting the next morning as the time for their trial. The same day two or three of their comrades, made or repaired some false keys in one of our blacksmith shops; and that night the Jewelry Store of Messrs. Dudley & Beaty, in the upper part of town, was broken into and robbed of some $2000 worth of property.

Friday morning the two fellows, who had been arrested for robbing the old man, were brought out of jail, but as the old man had left on the cars for the East, (having, it is supposed, been bought off) there was no one to appear against them, and they were released.

It may be stated here, that half a dozen or some such number of these fellows were running through the streets drunk, stopping at eating-houses and refusing to pay their reckoning, stealing whatever they _____, threatening to "clean out the town," jumping on our citizens, and beating them, drawing revolvers, knives, and kicking up the devil generally. The proper authorities being insufficient to perform their duties, the rowdies were permitted to do pretty much as they pleased.

Saturday, information was received, that barges or other kinds of boats were secreted among the islands, somewhere near the mouth of the Wisconsin, containing stolen goods; and that some citizens of McGregor, who went to investigate, were fired upon by the parties in the boat. This raised considerable excitement, which was increased by a Vigilance Committee from the upper part of town, of thirty men, who immediately arrested several of the suspicious characters on the ferry boat as soon as it touched our wharf, and also arrested several more found in a negro saloon near the wharf. The saloon in question has been recently opened, and discovered to be a house of ill-fame, and the rendezvous of all hard characters.

There were twelve arrests altogether. Saturday evening the citizens of the lower part of town held a meeting, talked the affair over, and concluded that something has to be done to rid the town of this importation of thieves. They appointed a Committee of fifteen well known, respectable citizens, to report some plan of organization at a meeting to be held Monday morning; after which they adjourned to attended a meeting which had been called in the upper part of town, at Union Hall. The meeting, at Union Hall, was large and composed of the best citizens of the town; and upon motion being made to remove to the Court House, and have the prisoners brought out and examined, it was carried amid much applause.

Accordingly the assembly repaired to the Court House; appointed a President of the meeting, and three lawyers to conduct the examination. The Court room was crowded, and conversation and suggestions were freely indulged in, as to the best method of eliciting the truth from the prisoners. It was believed they were a portion of an organized gang, and that a knowledge of their whole operations in the past, and their intentions for the future, would be incalculable use to us citizens, as well as to the officers of the law. It was agreed that the prisoners should be made to confess this much, if possible; that for this purpose, they were to be made to believe they would be hung if they concealed anything.

The ringleaders, one by one, were brought before the Committee with a rope around their necks. While no violence was meditated or intended, it was supposed this method of examination would persuade them to tell the truth; and sufficient evidence was brought to light to satisfy the public mind, that they were connected with the recent depredations, and belonged to an organized gang of thieves and outlaws. The examination being only partly through with, at four o'clock Sunday morning, it was postponed until Monday morning 10 o'clock.

Monday morning, before the trial commenced, a public meeting was held at Bank Hall, when the following address was reported:

To the People of Prairie du Chien:
The Committee of Fifteen, appointed by you at a public meeting held Saturday, May 1st, to prepare some definite plan of operations to meet the emergency of the times, beg leave to submit the following report;

Occasions occur in every community - no matter how well governed, how peaceable and free from depredations of outlaws they may be - when it not only seems but is necessary to resort to summary means to effect a reform. Occasions occur when some unusually flagrant violation of law is committed by criminals, which calls for more immediate punishment than that administered by the ordinary forms of justice. Offenses are committed, which in some communities, either do not entitle their authors to punishment, or else the enactments to punish, have, from being long disregarded, come to be looked upon as dead-letters. It more frequently happens, in criminal cases that, while the public may be almost positively certain that accused parties are guilty, there cannot be sufficient evidence elicited to convict them; and they are turned loose in community to commit fresh depredations, hoping to be shrewd enough to again escape the punishment prescribed by law for their offences. In such cases, if the offence is of such magnitude as to render its repetition an object to be dreaded, experience has proved, that then, if ever, popular justice has the right and it is its duty, to deal with the offenders so effectually, that they will be powerless to repeat the crime.

"Such a case has occurred at this time, and is the cause of this manifestation of popular feeling."

"While the people of Prairie du Chien are law-abiding, and gratefully acknowledge the benefits flowing from a wise administration of justice; and while they would frown down any attempt to effect by mob law that which could be effected by the constituted authorities; they hold it to be their right and their duty in cases where the civil authorities are incompetent to preserve the peace, to take such prompt and effectual measures as to them shall seem best, to ferret out and bring to ______ punishment criminal characters; to break up the filthy haunts of dissipation and sensuality which brings disgrace upon our vicinity; and to protect their rights and maintain the good name of the town."

"In all cases where public action is independent of the usual process of law, it is requisite that the causes which lead to it should be definitely stated."

It is notorious that for some time past our city has been made the headquarters of numerous suspicious, ill looking, characters, who, having no visible _______ means of support, are supposed upon pretty good grounds to follow unlawful vocations; in short, we believe they rely upon the gambling table, the burglars tools, the stool-pigeon's tricks, if not the assassin's knife as their means of support.

We believe they are an organized gang, driven from cities, and that they are making a descent upon our own as well as other river towns, for the purpose of theft, house breaking, pocket picking, house burning, gambling, drinking, &c. This opinion is substantiated by these facts.

"Something like a dozen of suspicious characters were arrested Saturday, and are now lying in jail to await their full trial, sentence and punishment by the people."

"Your committee would recommend that in whatever manner these prisoners be dealt with so that it is short of maiming or death, the persons so dealing with them be _______ individually and collectively."

"Your committee would suggest, very respectfully, and urge upon this meeting the importance of appointing a Committee of Public safety, composed of 100 or more citizens; and that they be invested with Discretionary Powers to bring to immediate justice violators of the law, and to break up [illegible words] haunts of _______ and ________ which may be discovered - relying upon the honor, love of justice and good character of the citizens composing said committee to do nothing that shall bring reproach upon the town."

The above report was unanimously adopted as the ______ of the meeting, and the Newspapers of the city were requested to publish it.

The proceedings were commenced at the Court House at 10 o'clock, and closed at five. All the prisoners were examined.

They gave their names as follows:
Tony (negro)
Geo. Steel (negro)
Chas. Williams
John Dougherty
Wm. Charles
Michael Fagan
Geo. French
Ed. Pardee
Geo. Robinson (col)
Thos. Lee
Sam. Jones
Thos. Collins

A jury of twelve citizens were appointed to consider the evidence against the prisoners, and report the sentence to the meeting. They retired to the jury room, and after being out about half an hour made the following report:

"Your committee in giving their report, beg leave to state that they have reviewed the case of each prisoner separately and carefully; that those whom they have dealt leniently with, they believe to be entitled to mercy; and that those whom they have sentenced severely, they believe merit their punishment. They have to report that Chas. Williams, Wm. Charles, John Dougherty, Geo. French, Michael Fagan and Geo. Steel, have proven to be hardened, desperate characters, guilty of crimes, and that they have their heads shaved, receive from 10 to 30 lashes on the back, and be sent down the river; and be informed that if they are ever caught here again they will be dealt with as they deserve."

"That Ed. Pardee is a young man whose greatest crime is having been caught in bad company; that he be given into hands of three of our respectable, substantial citizens to be talked to about his error and be given some good advice."

"That the negro Geo. Robinson shall shave the heads of the other prisoners and leave town in ten hours, and be informed if he is ever caught here again he will receive 25 lashes."

"That the negro Tony be sent out of town and advised not to come back during the remainder of his natural life."

"That Thos. Collins be discharged from custody immediately, as a person entirely free of guilt."

"That Thos. Lee be discharged from custody, as his only crime was being drunk and caught in bad company."

"That Sam Jones be given into the custody of our Lower Town citizens to be disposed of by the committee in that part of town."

"The meeting accepted this report of the jury; it is sufficient to say the sentences were put into execution Tuesday forenoon, in the street in front of the jail, in the presence of one thousand citizens, who sympathized with the movement and participated in carrying it into effect."

A meeting of all the citizens was called the same afternoon, at Union Hall, and it was unanimously resolved to sustain the committee. A permanent vigilance committee was organized, officers elected, patrols established, and all necessary means have been adopted to prevent farther depredations.

Prairie du Chien Courier, Prairie du Chien, Wis., Thur., 6 May 1858, Items Column

The Hudson City Bank has been burglariously broken open and $5,000 taken from the safe. The thieves have not been arrested...........Two or three robberies have occurred in this town within a week, and it will be seen by another article that the citizens have taken the law into their own hands, and justice will be done.


Clayton County Journal
, Guttenberg, Iowa, Thur., 27 May 1858, [section dealing with the trial of George Scoville and James Howell]

District Court
The District Court convened on Monday, the 17th inst.; Judge Murdock presiding.
The trial of Howell and Scoville created quite an interest in the minds of our quiet loving citizens, and the Court House was full all the time the trial lasted.

State of Iowa vs George Scoville and James Howell. - Indictment. Deft. Scoville pleads not guilty; put on trial; jury empanelled; The testimony was as follows:

Mr. Tuttle sworn - Have had some goods in store taken by attachment from George Upright and C. H. Shaw; on the first of March I examined the boxes and found some of them had the goods taken out and the boxes filled with paper; found one flannel shirt and two pairs of boots; the goods were taken at different times; the first goods taken were the Upright goods, and the second were the Shaw goods: I made it a practice of watching the warehouse at night: One night heard some one say "George, there are armed men in the house"; have recovered about two-thirds of the goods.

Cross examined - Some of the goods were marked J. Bell and some J. Howell, but none marked George Scoville.

Mr. Peck sworn - Went down to Clayton and came back to the island; found Howell and Scoville, and told Kee he had better arrest them, which he did; I then looked for the boats, found the goods on the island; left them there and came away with the prisoners ; saw the goods afterwards over Baugh's store; the island is in Clayton county about one mile below and opposite the mouth of the Wisconsin river; and about five miles below McGregor; the island is about five miles long; one box was marked J. B. Howell; they were the same boxes I saw on the island; there are 15 or 20 islands in the river near the one where the goods were; when I first saw Scoville he was walking towards me, but turned round immediately on seeing me and went the other way; there were two boats there; one large and one small one; the large one was drawn up on the land entirely out of the water.

Mr. Kee sworn - Went over to Prairie du Chien, and started down the river; found Howell and Scoville on the island, together with a lot of goods; arrested them both and stayed all night on the island; afterwards saw the same goods and the largest boat at McGregor; the island is not in sight from the river; searched the river going down; did not find them, but found them coming back.

Mrs. Bell sworn - Lived in the old ferry boat house, about two miles above McGregor: we moved there about the last of September: knew that George brought some goods there about 4 or 5 weeks after we moved there; the goods were brought in the night and put up stairs; Scoville came to our house late in the fall, and came three or four times afterwards; heard Howell and Bell say the goods were Tuttle's; the first goods came about the last of October, about 2 o'clock at night; were brought by Howell and Scoville; more goods were brought the last of the winter or the first of spring, think it was in March; the first lot was brought in a skiff; George brought goods two or three times; think the Tuttle goods were brought after the steamboats stopped running. We left the house a day and a night before Howell and Scoville did; did not go at the same time because Bell and Howell were not going together any more; on arriving at the island the boats did not land together, because Howell wanted high ground to draw his boat on, as it leaked.

W. H. Harding sworn - Am acquainted with defendant; Bell moved into my house in August; stayed about two months, and then went to Prairie du Chien; Scoville has lived at McGregor about six or eight months; I went after the goods on the island; took them down to Clayton the first day; the next day took them up to McGregor; there were two boats; one large and one small one; found them in Clayton county; after we got the boats to McGregor we left them on the boat the first night, and the next day carried them to the upper part of Mr. Baugh's store.

Cross-examined - Mr. Scoville has lived in McGregor six or eight months; he worked in a meat market; was considered rather a hard case in McGregor by the inhabitants generally; started the goods from Clayton in the steam ferry boat; went part way, then took a skiff and went to the island; we then brought the house boat and put the goods and both boats on it, could not get them up that way; afterwards hitched the boat to the Fred Lorenz and took them to McGregor and put them over Mr. Baugh's store.

Mr. Tuttle re-called - Put the first goods in the storehouse the 2nd day of November; first discovered the loss about the last of November.

Cross-Examined - First knew George Scoville in the fall; saw him first in the meat market; he was always in the market when I was there, don't know as I ever heard any say he was dishonest before this prosecution commenced; have heard him spoken well before by John Collins; think it was more than a week after he went to the other meat market.

Testimony For The Defense
J. Howell sworn - First saw George Scoville in November last; I went in my boat to a raft; and when I got there I heard a man groaning; went to him and found him sick; he gave me some money to get him some medicine; I got him some, and then got him to Call's and doctored him; I then gave him some more medicine to cure himself if he got sick again; the next time I saw him was at a place where Bell was building a boat; George never had anything to do with the goods, and he never knew what was in the boxes.

Cross-Examined -These transactions commenced just before the close of navigation last fall; George came up to help me put goods on the boat in the morning about daylight; I went to the Eagle Hotel and called him; there was no one up when I called him; there was part of a barrel of flour on each boat, which was taken from the dock at McGregor; started after Bell that night, intending to put George off before we got there, but got wind bound and had to lay up till morning; never had any conversation with George about who the goods belonged to; I intended to work the boat myself, with the assistance of my boy, but the wind was so high I had to hire an extra hand, and because I wanted to keep Bell in sight. I left when I did because Bell owed me some money and I wanted to keep along with him so he would not give me the slip. I have not lived on the river long; I came to Galena two years ago last March; I first knew Bell at La Crosse last July; I was at the time nearly blind; had some assistance from Bell in doctoring my eyes; did not tell Mrs. Bell to say the goods all came from La Crosse; am not acquainted with many men connected with any gang on the river; don't know how many there are in the gang, but should think there were about four; never saw George a half a dozen times from the time we left; myself and Bell were two of the men that Mr. Tuttle says he overheard talking outside of the warehouse; who the other was I will not tell; I would not tell if you would hang me; should be afraid of personal injury to myself if I should tell all I know about the gang; they have a set of laws by which they are governed, and they are bound by an oath, which if it is broken is death; I have not taken the oath, but there are men who told me what they would do if I told what I knew; there has been men here who said they would set me at liberty and kill all the keepers if I would say a word. I do not know where Bell is now, but I do know that he has been in this town since I have been here, for I have talked with him; have not heard he was arrested in Milwaukee last week.

The above is all of the testimony that we have obtained, but the rest of it is of minor importance.

The Jury, after being out some length of time came in and said they could not agree on a verdict, because they could not tell what importance to place on the fact of defendant being found with the goods at the time of arrest. The Judge said that evidence of being found with the goods without some other evidence connected with it was of but little importance, and should have very little weight in the minds of the Jury. They again retired, and after a short time returned with a verdict of "Not Guilty", and the defendant was discharged, with admonition to keep out of bad company hereafter.

Defendant Howell being arraigned, pleads guilty; thereupon it is ordered by the court that he be taken thence to the Penitentiary and confined to hard labour for the term of two years and six months.


Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, Burlington, Iowa, Tue., 1 June 1858

The Sheriff of Clayton County passed down river, on Tuesday evening, on his way to Ft. Madison with one of the ringleaders of the band of pirates, the arrest of whom has lately caused such excitement at McGregor.

Having deposited his charge in the penitentiary, he returned yesterday. The Sheriff stated that the band to which the prisoner belongs consists of two hundred men; and from the description he gives of the modus operandi of the gang, they were drilled in a most admirable system of doing business. A plan had been formed for the robbery of the Catholic Church at Prairie du Chien, - from which the thieves expected to obtain silver, &c, to the amount of $15,000, but it was frustrated by the timely arrest of the parties at McGregor.

Our energetic friends up the river are entitled to a great deal of credit for the ________promising manner in which they are trapping these scoundrels. As we have plenty of material, it is to be hoped that Burlington will not fall behind her contemporaries in this good work.


Clayton County Journal, Thur., 10 June 1858

Another Pirate Caught

We learn that Bell, one of the Mississippi pirates, the one that was shot by Mr. Peck, was arrested last week by a policeman named Carpenter, who was employed to watch for him. He was found in Michigan, and recognized by the mark Mr. Peck gave him when he shot at him on the boat, shortly after the time of the arrest of Howell and Scoville. It is thought that this arrest will be the means of breaking up the gang, as Bell is thought to be the master spirit among them. How true it is we cannot tell, but it certainly is a step towards it, and if the pursuit still continues the band will in a short time be broken up entirely.


Burlington Daily State Gazette, Burlington, Iowa, Wed., 16 June 1858. From the McGregor Times

Chase of a River Pirate

The McGregor, Iowa, Times, gives an account of the pursuit and capture of Captain Bell, leader of a gang of river pirates, who was taken through this city the other day by officer Carpenter, of Dubuque. Bell was shot at and wounded at the time of the dispersion of his gang at McGregor. "The course pursued by him after having escaped from his boat at the time he was shot, shows that he was well aware of the dangers surrounding him, and proves his fitness to be the leader of any band of desperadoes, whether bent on robbery or murder. Mr. Carpenter found that upon leaving Wyalusing, Bell went into the country some nine miles, when he began to inquire the way to Mineral Point, professing to be a hunter from Texas, calling himself Sam, and that the gun shot wound on his head was the result of an accident. He was then traced to Darlington; from thence to Illinois, then to Carey's station, McHenry county, Ill., where the officer found that a man answering to Bell's description had been there four days previous inquiring the best route to Rock Island, but after searching for two days in that city and Davenport, not hearing of him, Mr. C. went back to Chicago, thinking, as he afterwards learned, that Bell did not go to Rock Island, but made the inquiries he did in relation to the route there to elude his pursuers."

"In Chicago, Mr. C. by the merest accident, heard of him near Waukegan, Ill., and upon going there found that he had gone to Grand Haven, Michigan. After following him nearly over the whole state he traced him sufficiently close to be satisfied that he was in Allegan county, and after obtaining a requisition from the Governor, arrested him at Pier Cove, Allegan county, Michigan, where he was employed peeling hemlock bark."

"At the time of his arrest, Bell was sitting at the table, Mr. C. being in the house, stepped behind him, and had one of his hands secured before he was aware of it, and upon Bell rising up, he was assisted to fasten the other; thus ironed, he was put into a carriage in waiting, which, within two minutes after his arrest, started with him to Kalamazoo, where he was put on the cars, and started for Chicago."

"Bell was found in a vicinity infested with a band of scoundrels engaged in counterfeiting and practicing other kindred accomplishments, eight of whom have recently been arrested, and are now in custody, showing that he was not slow to find men of his own tastes, and among whom he could expect sympathy."


Burlington Daily Iowa State Gazette, Wed., 16 June 1858. From the St. Paul Minnesotian, St. Paul, Minnesota, 10 June, 1858

The River Pirates Again

Our readers will remember that a few weeks since, we published an account, in connection with the narrative of the breaking up of this gang of robbers near Prairie du Chien, of one of the villains who had a large amount of gold on his body, jumping overboard from a boat to elude arrest, but was sunk by the weight of the coin in the attempt to swim ashore, and drowned. We learn from the officers of the War Eagle, that the citizens who were active in ferreting out and routing the band, caused the river between the island where the band kept their rendezvous, and the shore, to be dragged. The body was found day before yesterday, with $8,000 in gold, and a lot of Hudson Bank bills, thus proving conclusively that that band were the ones concerned in that daring robbery. It should be a source of gratitude to everybody living on the Upper Mississippi, that this wide spread confederacy of desperadoes has been broken up. - St. Paul Minnesotian, 10th


The Journal, Guttenberg, Iowa, Tue., 14 Sept. 1858

More Robbery 

The town of McGregor seems to be doomed to an everlasting watchfulness on account of the many depredations committed there. The following which we condense from the North Iowa Times shows in some degree what is going on there almost daily. It seems that a week ago last Friday night, some men entered the store of Mr. D. S. Cook by means of removing a pane of glass from one of the side windows, then opened the door and commenced transferring goods from the store to some boxes outside, with all the coolness of the practical housebreakers of the city. This was about half past eleven o'clock, before the town was asleep or even quietly in bed. Mr. Cook's family slept in a room above the store, yet strange to say none of them heard the burglars, and but for the timely interference of some of the inhabitants who had mistrusted them, by firing a pistol, frightened the robbers away he would have lost a large amount of goods. The self-organized detective force of McGregor then went to the houses of John A. Brown and Charles Duel, the two recognized robbers, and in the house of Brown was found the greater part of the goods which were stolen from Mr. Werder some time ago. Duel is young at the business, the Werder robbery being the first business. He had instructions from Brown who has been in McGregor for some time and had gained the confidence of the people to such a extent that he was elected one of the Township Constables last spring. Duel has been captured but Brown was still at large but strong hopes were entertained of his capture in a short time.


The Journal, Guttenberg. Iowa, Tues., 21 Sept. 1858

The court opened yesterday but did no business beyond impaneling and charging the Grand Jury. The case of Bell, the notorious Mississippi pirate, is the first case to be tried this morning. There is a full attendance this week. Several lawyers from Dubuque are present besides the full strength of the Clayton county Bar. The probability is, there will be few if any civil cases tried as there are criminal cases enough to occupy the attention of the court all week.


Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye, Sat., 25 Dec. 1858

The Upper Mississippi river pirates, or such of them as have been arrested, have just been tried and sentenced at McGregor, Iowa. Bell, the captain of the crew, was sentenced to four years in the State Prison; the rest for shorter terms. There is complaint that their sentences were to light. Over $8,000 of property stolen by these fellows has been recovered.


(Submitters note: Although the following article does not note a direct connection to the Mississippi River Pirates it does make a reference to Brown, who was a Constable and was put on trial later as can be seen in the article shown below. As this occurrence happened in the same time frame as the pirate affairs I include it here.)

The Journal, Guttenberg, Iowa, Tues., 21 Sept. 1858

A Slippery Fellow

The McGregor Times says: that on the complaint of O. C. Lee, Esq., James Call was arrested by Deputy Sheriff Tuttle and Constable Kee, as one of the persons concerned in the attempted robbery of Cook's store. Call was taken before a justice, examined and committed. He was then taken by Kee to the Livery Stable, and while waiting for a team to go to Garnavillo jail, knocked Kee down and made his escape. He was afterward found rolled up in a blanket in a shanty where two women were sick with the ague. He was again arrested, tried and handcuffed. Tuttle, Kee and Hibbard then took him to Garnavillo and surrendered him to the jailor. It was now dark and as the jailor went into Calls cell to give him something to eat, the prisoner (still handcuffed) upset the jailor, ran over Tuttle who was in the hall, and again made his escape. Tuttle fired at him as he was leaving but the night was dark and pursuit was out of the question. A hundred persons were on the ground immediately, but he got into a cornfield near by and made for the woods, and was still at large. The Times says he has been seen not far from there and promises to come into Court all right but will not stay in jail.

Brown has not been taken.


The Journal, Guttenberg, Iowa, Tues., 28 Sept. 1858. (condensed)

District Court

On account of criminal cases on the docket to be tried, there was but little other business done except that which was settled without a trial by jury. Charles Duel, one of the men engaged in the robbery of Cook's store plead guilty and was sentenced to one years imprisonment in the penitentiary. Patrick Ryan who was indicted for stealing hides from George Everett, was tried and acquitted.

J. Bensell, indicted for assault and battery on the person of J. Halstead, was also tried and acquitted.

Constable Kee was arrested on the complaint of an Irishman from whom he took some money when he was arrested by Kee, who refused to give it back to him again, but according to the Irishman's story divided it with Brown, another Constable. Kee was held to bail in the sum of four hundred dollars.

Trial of Bell

Quite an interest was excited at the trial of Bell, the Mississippi pirate, at our Court last week. He had employed the best of counsel and made a vigorous defense.- Messrs. Scott, Odell, Noble and Drummond for the prosecution and Messrs. Potter, Vanorman, Munson, and Ben M. Samuels, of Dubuque, for the defense. The trial commenced on Thursday morning and lasted two days. Below is in substance of the evidence produced on the trial.

For the Prosecution
N. M. Tuttle sworn - Lives at McGregor; did not know Mr. Bell until last spring; think the prisoner is the man; had some goods left in my possession by Mr. Upright to sell on commission; kept them some time; in October last they were taken away by him and moved to the upper end of town; they were afterwards taken by me on an attachment in favor of C. Shaw, and stored in the warehouse; in November I discovered some of the goods belonging to the Upright stock were missing; discovered the loss on moving the boxes to make room for others; tried to find the goods; 1 canton flannel shirt was all that I found belonging to the Upright stock; more goods were taken at different times during the winter; the warehouse was locked with a padlock; I afterwards saw the goods on a covered flat-boat near the foot of main street, McGregor; knew they were the same goods by the mark that was on them; the other goods were taken as the property of C. H. Shaw by attachment; kept a watch in the warehouse from the first of March until the goods were disposed of; found the lock was broke on the morning of the 28th of Feb., 1858; saw the same goods or a portion of them on the flat-boat; some of the boxes were marked J. L. Bell and some J. Howell; took the goods from the boat to the second story of the store of Mr. Baugh; there were two boats, one large and one small one.

Cross-examined - Do not know that Bell was in the warehouse at any time; Fuller and Peck helped me watch the warehouse; Mr. Upright took the goods from me to North McGregor; they were brought back in October; first discovered the loss in November; did not think any goods were stolen until I moved the boxes to make room for others.

S. J. Peck sworn - Know Mr. Bell; knew him first in the fore part of May in a covered flat-boat in the Mississippi river on an island between McGregor and Clayton; started on Friday morning in pursuit of the supposed persons that stole the goods; went down to Clayton without seeing them; then came back till we came to an island where we arrested Howell and Scoville and a boy who was with them; took the boy with us in the morning to lead us in pursuit of Bell; found him in his boat; Bell presented his pistol at me and threatened to shoot and when he came out of the cabin I discharged my pistol at him; there was a woman and I think two children with him on the boat; saw some boxes on the boat; saw them in the room above Mr. Baugh's store; Bell was arrested in Allegan county, Michigan; Bell said Howell assisted him in packing up and getting the boat to Sandy Havens; the goods that were found were in boxes, trunks and bundles; afterwards saw the same boxes at McGregor; a portion of the goods were marked J. B. Howell and some J. Bell; on Saturday went with a warrant to arrest Bell, Howell and Scoville; Mr. Kee attempted to take Bell but did not succeed; this was before I shot; we were not about the boat more than three or four minutes; there was one shot from the boat after I shot; I stood in our skiff when I fired at Bell; I then went back to the prisoners on the island; there were boxes in a tent on the island; afterwards took the prisoners to McGregor. The goods at the tent were brought up in Howell's boat; saw the same boxes in the warehouse that I saw at the boat.

Mr. G. Church - Am acquainted with Mr. Bell, become so since the transaction referred to. Had charge of some goods on a boat near the foot of main street, McGregor: Mr. Kee wished me to take charge of them; do not know what kind of goods they were; saw Bell's name marked on some of the boxes; had possession of the goods two nights and part of two days;- then gave them up to Mr.Tuttle; there was another lot of goods brought up and put on the same boat.

Cross examined - The boat called the Pirate boat was the largest one.

Mr. A. F. Kee - I was a witness before the grand jury in the case of the robbery; left McGregor to go in search of the boats; went to Clayton but did not find them; went back up the river until I come to an island on which we found a tent and in the tent some goods; found Howell and Scoville and arrested them; stayed all night, in the morning left them in charge of Ralph and with Mr. Peck went in search of Bell and found him in his boat looking out at us; spoke to him and said "good morning" he said "good morning""; told him I wanted to speak to him; he came up and squatted down on the deck of the boat; I put my hand on his shoulder and said "you are my prisoner." He then jumped back and ran into the cabin drew a pistol and said "G_d D__n your souls I will blow you to hell"; I told Mr. Peck to draw his revolver and at the same time drew my own; told Peck to fire at first sight; I soon heard the report of a pistol; asked Peck if he had fired and he said he had; heard the sound of something falling on; and directly after heard the report of another pistol and the whizzing of the ball close by my head.

We then went back to the prisoners and took them up to McGregor; there was a woman and two children on the boat together with some goods of different kinds; saw the same goods afterwards in the room above Mr. Baugh's store.

Cross examined - Brought up the goods on Bell's boat - the other boat came up the next day; delivered the goods to Mr. Church; did not see the Howell goods from the time I left the island until I saw them in Mr. Baugh's store; got the prisoner to McGregor about 8 or 9 o'clock in the morning and left them with Mr. Tuttle; started back for the boat about 10 o'clock on the Ferry Boat; went on skiff to Bell's boat; found Mrs. Bell and the children; cut the boat loose, took it down to Clayton because I could not get at the other boat with that one.

Mr. A. J. Church - Was examined before grand jury in relation to Mr. Bell; was one that went on Ferry Boat to go after the boats at the island; went in a skiff to Bell's boat; after we got there Mr. Kee told me to take charge of the inside of the boat; noticed some boxes of goods, boots and shoes, trunks and various other articles; saw no boxes except they were marked J. L. Bell; other marks had been obliterated and J. L. Bell painted on instead; these goods were taken to McGregor and left with Mr. G. Church; afterwards saw them in the upper part of Mr. Baugh's store.

Mr. Harding - After the arrest of Howell and Scoville I went on the Ferry Boat in pursuit of the other boats; took the smaller boat and tried to get it up to McGregor but could not, then went to Clayton and stayed all night, and in the morning took the horse Ferry Boat and endeavored to go up but were not able to do it and again went back to Clayton. The steamer Fred Lorenz then came along and took us in tow as far as Wyalusing where we were met by the ferry boat, which towed us the rest of the way. Bell lived in a house of mine some 6 or 7 weeks then moved to a house about a mile above town; first moved in my house sometime in July.

Mr. Tuttle recalled - Mr. Baugh occupies the building in which I put the goods;- Found on opening the boxes at the store some tools such as hammer, cold chisels, files, &c., besides lock and skeleton keys; have part of them here; they were among the goods found among the goods on both boats.

Cross examined - Did not give the prosecution an inventory of the goods

- End of testimony on part of prosecution.

Defense Called:
The Clerk Of Court who produced the record of the trial of Howell and Scoville; next Mr. Samuels read the indictment of Howell and Scoville.

Defense Rested.
Mr. Odell then addressed the Jury on part of the prosecution for about half an hour reviewing the testimony, and was followed by Mr. Munson for the defense, neither of these gentlemen spoke long but both to the point. Mr. Samuels for the defense then followed and in a speech of about two hours duration showed he was well versed in law. He made strong appeals to the sympathies of the jury in behalf of the prisoner.

Mr. Noble wound up for the prosecution and occupied about two hours making an able speech after which the Judge gave the Jury their charge and as it was about 8 o'clock p.m. they were permitted to go and get their supper. About midnight they brought in a verdict of guilty.

In the morning Bell received his sentence which was imprisonment to hard labor in the penitentiary for four years.


(Submitters note: Many people of Northeast Iowa and several of the local newspapers, including the North Iowa Times, The Journal and The Lansing Mirror, took issue with Judge Murdock over his perceived leniency when sentencing those found guilty of the piracy/robbery crimes. One article in the Times censured Judge Murdock for his leniency and stated that the next man caught doing an unlawful act would be settled "without cost to the state", which means without saying it in so many words, they were to be tried by the law of "Judge Lynch". Over the time period between the end of the trials and the date of the article below, the area newspapers published articles attacking the Judges perceived leniency, to which the Judge replied to them by letters which were also published. Below is an article that is a kind of summation of the trials, the outcomes and of things not brought out in the articles above.)

The Journal, Guttenberg, Iowa, Tues., 15 Feb. 1859. (as reprinted from the North Iowa Times as it is credited at the articles end, the date this was published by the Times is not given. Note also that this edition of The Journal also printed a letter, dated 9 Feb. 1859, from Samuel Murdock to A. P. Richardson, Editor of the North Iowa Times, in which Murdock refutes much of the information in the North Iowa Times's original printing. The Murdock letter mentions that a Benjamin and Gilbert Douglass were present when Judge Murdock agreed to lower the bail of Keys, provided he would give Judge Williams for the amount.)

The Trial of Brown -- Judge Murdock

We published, some weeks since, under the first half of the above caption, an article reflecting somewhat severely, though respectfully, upon the conduct of Judge Murdock for the exercise of ill timed leniency towards the pirates and the robbers who were taken here and tried before his court.

That article was copied by many of our exchanges; among others by the Lansing Mirror. Judge Murdock, in a letter to the editor of the Mirror, bearing date Jan. 11, takes exception to our statement and in a column of that paper dissipates, to the satisfaction of his friend Mr. Chatterton and of himself at least, all our charges.

On our first reading the letter of exculpation, we thought to let it pass without a reply. Our personal relations with the Judge are of the best character, and it is not in our hearts to do him an unkindness; he has been retired from the bench and probably in all his life will never be a Judge again; it might be as well to leave our friend before the public in as good shape as possible.

But, on the other hand, we profess to treat men and parties fairly, to touch personal or official character as rarely as possible and to say nothing except what we can establish, and, for the reputation of the Times as a reliable journal, we are compelled to notice the letter of our esteemed friend Judge Murdock.

The publication of his letter and our own comments would take up too much space, and we therefore condense into paragraphs the facts as stated by the Judge, leaving his pleadings out, of course.

1st - Brown was indicted, plead guilty, begged mercy, was sentenced for two years; afterwards, on an appeal from his wife and children, 6 months were taken off. The Judge "had no right to know that he was a McGregor Constable, or how much money it had cost to catch him"; some of "the best citizens of McGregor visited the Judge's private residence before the trial and begged a light sentence on account of his family - the very men too who had spent their money freely to catch him were the visitors".

2nd - Bell was to be sentenced for 5 years, the full term, but before his sentence, Keys, an indispensable witness against him, was indicted for another offence, and this fact caused the Judge to take off one year.

3d - Howell, a large portly man, almost blind, turned his sightless ball up to the Judge and received a sentence of 2 years and 6 months.

4th - English George was not left off on parole as the Times charges, but he had a trial before a jury and was found "not guilty".

5th - Deuel went for one year, but this short time was given because of appeals of the best men in McGregor, in behalf of his wife and children.

6th - Keys gave bail for $400 and left the country. "The amount of theft charged against him was only $60 and the bail was governed accordingly, and if the bail is not responsible, the Editor of The Times ought to have been generous enough to tell his readers that a McGregor Justice took it, instead of leaving inference that I am responsible for the absence of Keys".

The above are the points made by the Judge - The balance of his letter consist of allusions to the horrors of lynching, appeals to the feelings of his readers with an occasional reference to the Goodness of his own heart and that of the Editor of the Times; he expresses a belief "that the Col. regrets" having censured him, and winds up by saying that "the people of McGregor though wronged by a gang of villains and desiring, at one time, more punishment for them, now say generally that they are satisfied".

Our comments on each point must necessarily be brief.

1st - We must that the Judge "had a right to know that Brown was a Constable", or he has no right to the exercise of discretion as to the time for which any prisoner is sentenced. A Judge has no right to receive visits at his "private residence" from the friends or the foes of a prisoner who is to come before him for trial; this admission leads to the idea that the Judge was in the habit of trying the merits of cases at his "private residence" and not upon testimony in open court - an inference which is confirmatory of the charge which his enemies have heretofore made against him, but which we have on all suitable occasions condemned as unwarranted by even the color of fact. But if a Juryman may have no private conversation with any interested party to a suit during the pendency of the trial, what right has a Judge to hear parties at his private residence ?

The goods stolen by Brown of Mr. Werder (an industrious, worthy, poor man, who also had "a wife and dear little children") amounted to near $500 - they were secreted for weeks under the bed upon which his "heart-broken wife" slept, and though the Judge may have "had no right to know" this fact, yet as it doubtless came to his private ear, it should have balanced his right to pity for the "sobs and tears" after detection overtook them.

2d - Bell, we are informed by men whose official duty about the court enabled them to know the fact, was not committed on the testimony of Keys - on the contrary, his testimony was damaging to the State. Nor was Keys indicted until after Bell was sentenced - his case may have been before the Grand Jury, but the Judge had "no right to know it !"

3d - Howell, though partly blind, could see to steal goods all winter; he was cunning and hypocritical and affected almost total blindness. Dept. Sheriff Tuttle, who has just returned from Fort Madison, tells us that he is well as ever. His sentence, however, was heavy considering the sympathy which his sightless balls awakened; but probably no one visited the private residence of the Judge in his behalf.

4th - English George, we now learn, was "tried by a Jury", but the charge of the court was such that no man could regard it and convict him. While the Jury was out, standing 7 for conviction to 5 against, further instructions of a lenient character were received and when the Jury came in with their verdict the Court had the indelicacy to anticipate their finding and to approve in advance, the wisdom of a decision which they were instructed to reach.

5th - Deuel's case was probably not very bad - he is believed to have been more fool than rogue, and but few regret the lightness of his sentence.

6th - Keys was bound over by the McGregor Justice in the sum of Eight Hundred Dollars - in default of bail he was imprisoned - after which the Judge went to the prison, told Mr. Benjamin (the bailiff) to take Keys to McGregor and give him a chance to procure bail at Four Hundred Dollars, one half the amount originally required by Justice Arnold. Keys gave security to his bail in property and then ran away. Whether the bail was "responsible" we do not know, nor had we alluded to it before. Keys was also a Constable.

In conclusion we will say that we do Not Regret writing the article to which the Judge replies; we did regret, and still do, that a proper regard for our duty as a journalist required any allusion to the matter farther than to record the decision of the Court - Our town was the synonym of Robbery for months, and after the exertion of our best citizens to break up the gang of villains who were preying on our property and destroying the reputation of our village as a place of safety, the Administration of the Law listened to the childish whimperings of detected criminals, and held audiences at his private residence for the accommodation of appealing parties whose motives, if not suspicious, were certainly not in consouance with public interest or public sentiment. We regret all this.

Judge Murdock is a man of great humanity; this is universal opinion, confirmed by every man who knows him; but his Judicial career is not defensible, and the less he or his friend Mr. Chatterton do in this line the better. For the information of the public we now say that our course in this matter is approved by (we are informed) the unanimous voice of our "neighbors", and we have been obliged to protest with much earnestness against getting up of a written indorsement of it on the part of the leading citizens of McGregor. -North Iowa Times.


~Unless otherwise credited, the news articles were compiled and transcribed by Reid R. Johnson for Clayton co. IAGenWeb~


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