Excerpts from An Illustrated History of Monroe County, Iowa - 1896
CHAPTER XI ~ JUDGE LYNCH and CRIMINAL MATTERS.
Notwithstanding the oft-repeated assertions of sentimentalists that there was less crime committed in the good old pioneer days, it remains hard, unrefuted fact that there was actually more lawlessness in pioneer days, in proportion to the population, than now.
Education, which goes a long way towards subduing the ranker, unrestrained human passions, had not so wide a spread as now, and while there were really not many flagrant criminals in the community, guilty of the higher crimes, the dockets of justices of the peace were crowded with records of neighborhood broils, assault and battery, hog-stealing, burglary, and now and then an attempt to commit murder.
The first murder in the county was committed by James Gordon, on the 19th of September, 1854. On the morning of that date Gordon used some offensive language to his sister. Gordon's step-father, Thos. Arnold, ordered the former to leave the house. Gordon delayed, and Arnold seized his gun and attempted to drive him out, when Gordon stabbed him twice, once in the side and once in the abdomen. Arnold died in a few hours, and Gordon fled. He was overtaken and captured by Sheriff Porter and posse, and brought back to Monroe County for trial. He stood his trial for commitment, under Squire Teas, on the charge of attempting to commit murder. He was released on $800 bail for his appearance in court, and later was acquitted on sustaining a plea of self-defense. The crime was committed about five miles southeast of Albia, on a farm now  owned by John Haller.
The following is a sample of the criminal dockets of those days, and was the docket of State cases in the May term of the District Court of 1866.
State of Iowa vs. A. M. Myers, charged with murder in the second degree; change of venue from Mahaska County.
State of Iowa vs. Thos. Barker, attempt to commit rape; continued, the defendant not having been arrested.
State of Iowa vs. D. P. Clay and Jacob Hull, larceny; continued.
State of Iowa vs. Moses Cousins, Jr., and W. B. Cousins, keeping intoxicating liquors with intent to sell in violation of law.
State of Iowa vs. Chas. Ross, assault with intent to commit murder.
State of Iowa vs. Darcus Billings, abandoning a human child; continued as above.
State of Iowa vs. Samuel Rhinehart, perjury; acquitted.
State of Iowa vs. Jas. A. B. Sims and Geo. Edwards, larceny; continued.
State of Iowa vs. Jas. Atkinson, assault with intent to commit murder; acquitted.
State of Iowa vs. Jas. Austin, nuisance, keeping intoxicating liquors; indictment.
State of Iowa vs. Martin Cone, petit juror, fined $10 for contempt of court, for disrespectful language; fine remitted.
Not long afterwards, Clay, who is mentioned in the foregoing docket, stole a horse from Thomas Forester, residing a few miles west of Blakesburg. Mr. Forester and Mr. Thayer, now of Avery, and a member of the Monroe County Vigilance Committee, tracked the thief into Missouri and captured him at Gallatin. Thayer started home with him and Forester remained at Gallatin [Missouri] in search of his horse. Thayer placed his prisoner on the horse which Forester had ridden to Gallatin, and had his feet tied together underneath his horse. When approaching Albia near the Coal Creek bridge, three miles southwest of town, two men sprang out of the bushes and handed Clay a revolver. Clay struck Thayer a murderous blow on the side of the face, which knocked him from his horse. Thayer still wears the scar. Clay then made his escape. Clay was a chum of Jake Hull, the Gibsons, Garrett Thompson, and others.
In September, 1866, James Austin, who ran a grocery and saloon in Albia, on the south side of the Square, shot and killed Thos. Davis in the former's saloon in a quarrel over two glasses of beer. Austin was finally acquitted on establishing a plea of self-defense. His case was tried at Centerville on an indictment for murder in the second-degree.
In November, 1866, two young men by the name of Wiley, who lived on Cedar Creek, and who had been indicted by the District Court for stealing cattle, made their escape from the custody of J. L. Duncan, who was guarding them at his residence. They were handcuffed and chained together, when they escaped, and, making their way to Cedar Creek during the night, in some way succeeded in breaking their shackles. They secreted themselves in a coal-bank near their father's premises. The latter, discovering them, brought them to Albia and delivered them over to the authorities. They were sentenced for six months.
On the night of September 21, 1868, Chas. Brandon, of Mahaska county, was taken to the woods and hanged by a crowd of Vigilantes from Monroe County. Brandon was accused of horse-stealing. An action was instituted in court for $10,000 against the lynchers, and $800 damages awarded. The defendants were Reuben Way, Daniel C. Gladson, Matthew Maddox, B. F. Deats, Lewis Maddox, Wm. Martin, Jas. Hoagland, Geo. Neal, and Wesley May.
On August 5, 1869, Thos. S. Hulligen, proprietor of the Gilmore mill at the hamlet of Urbana, in Urbana Township, was fatally stabbed by Geo. W. Wallace. Wallace and Jeff Hawk, the latter the engineer attending the mill machinery, got into an altercation, and in the quarrel the former kicked Hawk in the face. Hawk armed himself with a carpenter's mallet, when Hulligen interposed and ordered Wallace to leave the mill. Wallace refused, and Hulligen seized him and attempted to eject him, and while in the act of thrusting him through the door, Wallace stabbed Hulligen in the breast. Hulligen then released his hold, and, seizing a club struck Wallace a blow on the head. Wallace again stabbed his victim, and was again struck by the club in the hands of the wounded man. Hulligen died a in a few hours, and the murderer escaped, but was soon captured. He was tried on a charge of murder in the first degree, and was sentenced to seven years in the penitentiary, where he served out his term.
In 1866 Ross and Mann, two notorious horse-thieves, were sentenced to the penitentiary at Ft. Madison. Ross was sent up for five years and Mann for two years.
The most noted chapter, however, of this reign of terror, when Monroe County and adjoining counties were overrun by a gang of horse-thieves, was the lynching of Garrett Thompson by Monroe County Vigilantes in June, 1866. During that year, and for three or four years previous, the settlers lived in a constant dread of an organized band of outlaws, operations extended over Illinois, southern Iowa, and Missouri. The most notorious of these criminals was Garrett Thompson. He and several others of the gang had drifted into Iowa at the close of the war, and had been active in the guerrilla movement on the Missouri border, where they had fully opportunity to ply their lawless calling while under the disguise of auxiliaries of the Confederate army of Missouri. So thoroughly organized was this gang that the civil authorities were unable to capture them, or to bring them to justice whenever the Vigilantes succeeded in making an arrest. The committee finally concluded to mete out summary justice to the next thief that fell into their hands.
On the night of June 13, 1866, James McFadden had a fine span of horses stolen; and on the night of the 16th Mr. Woodruff was robbed of $90 in money; and on the next night E. M. Bill had a horse stolen, together with one belonging to Benjamin Ashbury. Not long previous, Henry Wilson had a horse stolen and never recovered; also a horse was stolen from Mrs. Taylor, a neighbor of Wilson and the widow of Jas. Taylor, of the Thirty-sixth Iowa Infantry, who was captured at Mark's Mills and who died in prison at Tyler, Texas. On the same night that Ashbury's horse was stolen, saddles and bridles were stolen from Robert Buchanan. A short time previous, a wagon was stolen from Mr. Joseph Bone.
At this juncture the Vigilance Committee began a systematic hunt for the outlaws. They started out in every direction the compass, determined to ride for two days, and if in that length of time any trace of the thieves could be found, they resolved to follow in pursuit until a capture was made. One squad of the pursuers struck the trail between Albia and Blakesburg, and followed the fugitives into Van Buren County, where they lost the trail.
Suspicion finally rested on Garrett Thompson, who lived about four miles west of Blakesburg, where the Christian church now stands, close by the Center school-house in Urbana Township. Thompson was absent when the horses were stolen, and returned with a new wagon a week later. He told several conflicting stories concerning how he came in possession of the wagon. It was also discovered that Thompson's daughter, Mrs. Ellen Eliis, stole the bone wagon, assisted by Harrison Gibson. The wagon was tracked to the residence of Mr. McWilliams, in Missouri.
As the Vigilance Committee had come into possession of sufficient evidence to hold Thompson in custody, they arrested him, together with Thomas Smith, Harrison Gibson, John Hull, Hiram Hull, and the two Hill brothers, of Wapello County. Thompson was arrested near Blakesburg while attempting to make his way to Missouri. Smith was arrested the same night, in Albia.
Thompson was brought to Albia and guarded by Sheriff McDonald in a building where the Union office now stands. His arrest attracted a large crowd. The Sheriff had his prisoner in the front room, and while Colonel Anderson was cross-questioning him, the room began to fill with spectators. Finally, the Sheriff, seeming to realize that there was something significant in the movement of the crowd, placed his man farther in the rear, and seeing Mart Giltner and a few others making a stealthy forward movement, McDonald sprang to his feet, and, drawing a large revolver, ordered the crowd to stand back. At the same time Thompson began shouting to the crowd that if they hanged him, they would be hanging an innocent man.
The crowd then seized Thompson and started out of town with him. When near the fair-grounds, where Dr. Gutch's residence now stands, they had wagons in waiting to carry all to the timber. While the mob was en route on foot to the wagons, the Sheriff stepped into the street and commanded the bystanders to "fall in." Some obeyed the order, and a small posse was organized to pursue and rescue the prisoner from the mob.
Geo. Cromer, a harness dealer and a pugnacious spirit, who was with the mob, seeing the Sheriff rallying his posse in the rear, ran back and charged upon the posse. Captain John Porter, who had been conscripted into the posse, squared off for a fight with Cromer. The warlike motions of the two belligerents attracted the attention of the rescuing party, and the prisoner was forgotten. In the meantime the mob had loaded the prisoner into a wagon and were on their way to Avery Creek.
They pitched tent at a point about six miles southeast of Albia, in the woods, close to where Samuel Miller lived for many years. Messengers were sent out in every direction to summon the populace. The other prisoners were brought on the grounds and closely guarded.
About 500 people had assembled by noon of the next day. A sort of court was improvised on the grounds, under an elm-tree. A chairman was appointed, and the sense of the meeting was taken, which was that a jury of twelve good men impaneled to try the prisoners. A marshal was chosen, who excluded all boys from the grounds, and persons of suspicious character. He was also instructed to preserve order and prohibit profane or boisterous language.
The jury was then called, and the witnesses and the prisoner brought forward. After a through examination, the jury retired, and, after careful deliberation, returned a verdict of "Horse-stealing and other outrages—viz., house-burning and murder."
Then the forman arose and in a loud voice, which re-echoed throughout the still forest, announced to the vast throng the verdict. A motion was then made that "Garrett Thompson be hanged by the neck until dead." Some one than made a motion to amend, so that the prisoner be simply tarred and feathered. This latter motion was finally withdrawn, and the original motion carried with but one dissenting voice.
A committee of ten was then appointed to notify the prisoner of his sentence. He was given twenty minutes to confess or to make any statements. He refused to divulge anything, and the time was extended to forty minutes; he still refused to confess, seeming to be under the impression that the people were trying simply to frighten him.
They they began to attach a rope to a branch of the tree, and a wagon was wheeled under it. The prisoner was ordered to get into the wagon; he did not comply, and was lifted in by the crowd. He still believed their movements were but a ruse to frighten him into a confession. A goodsbox was placed upon the wagon, and he was told to mount it, after the wagon had been wheeled directly under the tree. He refused to mount, and Andy Stamm stepped brusquely forward, and, addressing him, exclaimed: "G—d d—n you! get up and die like a man." He was placed upon the box, and a member of the Vigilantes adjusted the noose. Even then the prisoner exhibited no anxiety, still hoping to be released at the last moment. D. H. Scott then offered a fervent prayer for the salvation of the soul about to be launched into eternity.
When Mr. Scott began the prayer, Thompson then realized for the first time the seriousness of the situation.
He said that if they would grant him a little time, he would try to divulge something. Time was given, but at the expiration of forty minutes he divulged nothing. The other prisoners were then brought forward, and placed in a row in front of the gallows. To them it was a moment of terrible suspense. They did not know but what they, too, would be executed next. The wagon was then pushed from under the tree, and while it was in motion, and the doomed man was clinging on it with but the tips of his toes touching, he muttered that he had killed one man. The next instant the wagon passed from under him, and the huge body of the Missourian dropped with a thud. At the same time a swarm of caterpillars, or "measuring-worms," dropped from the overhanging branches, suspended by their webs, as if in mimicry of the horrible tragedy.
The other prisoners were withdrawn, and the crowd dispersed, save a few who remained to assist the son and wife of the outlaw to lift the body into their wagon. When this was done, the wife and son drove off with the body, vowing vengeance on the citizens. They went towards Eddyville, and told the settlers along the way that their relative had fallen out of the wagon and that a wheel of the wagon had run over his neck and broke it.
All the other prisoners were released, except Tom Smith, who turned State's evidence and thus save his neck. Smith was a Monroe County soldier, and had some friends among the soldiers, who had known him as an inoffensive man. It was probably largely due to their influence that he escaped the doom of Thompson.
He afterwards admitted his complicity in horse-stealing, but stated that for two years he did not know he was hauling stolen horses. He spent the remainder of his life in Albia, and regained the respect and confidence of the community.
At a later meeting of the Vigilance Committee, in June, 1866, a note was presented and read incriminating David Marvey and John Foster, two suspicious characters living near Orleans, a small village in Appanoose County, near the State line. A committee of three was detailed to go and arrest these two men, and in obedience to their instructions they went to the vicinity of Orleans, and learned that two men had been seen near Drakeville riding suspicious looking horses. The parties were arrested, and twenty or more of the citizens of Davis County volunteered to escort the men with their captives to Monroe County. The prisoners were placed on horseback, and the same evening the troop arrived at the residence of Wm. Stoops. As it threatened rain, the prisoners were taken to private residences and guarded until the next morning. In the morning, the populace were notified of the arrests, and hundreds gathered on the grounds.
A motion was made that a committee of three be appointed to wait on the prisoners separately, and to receive any confessions which they might be induced to make. They were to assure the men that if they made a clear, plausible confession of all their thefts which would implicate others engaged with them, and also lead to the recovery of stolen property, they would be turned over to the civil authorities to stand trial by due course of law, instead of being lynched on the spot. The prisoners confessed to the stealing of twenty or thirty horses and several hundred sheep. The prisoners were then delivered to the sheriff of Davis County, together with a copy of their confession.
At this meeting of the committee R. B. Arnold suggested that John Hull, who had been arrested with Thompson, but who had been acquitted through lack of sufficient evidence against him, be brought before the committee to explain for what purpose he and Harrison Gibson had purchased a quantity of nitric acid. It was confessed that they had given the acid to Garrett Thompson, who had used it in burning the foreheads of a couple of horses which had been taken up by Mr. Selby, of Urbana Township, and which were supposed to have been stolen and turned loose by Thompson. By applying the acid, white spots could be produced in the face of a dark-colored animal, thus concealing its identity. The horses were produced on the grounds as evidence. Hull was then released from custody.
When Tom Smith was arrested and confined in the Ottumwa jail, Isaac Watson, E. M. Bill, and A. M. Giltner visited him and obtained a full confession. He stated that the Hulls were the most active and desperate horse-thieves of the band. He also stated that Thomas Forester's stolen team was down in Missouri, near where D. P. Clay and Jake Hull were living. Forester then went to Missouri and recovered his team, which he had not seen for nearly two years. Smith also made other important disclosures which satisfied the Vigilantes that his statements were true.
The two Hulls were arrested and placed under $1,600 bonds to appear in court. Their case was continued to the November term, 1867, and their trial was conducted at Ottumwa on a change of venue. Hiram was acquitted through some intricacy of the law, but John was convicted and sentenced to the penitentiary for five years. He took an appeal to the Supreme Court, and, pending its decision, was released on $1,000 bonds. He fled the country, and left his bondsmen to forfeit the amount. Clay was also arrested, as already stated herein.
To the prompt and summary action of the Vigilance Committee is due the credit of exterminating one of the most daring hordes of outlaws that ever terrorized a civilized community. The members comprised the very best element in society, and in view of the tardiness and uncertainty of the civil power in punishing criminals, the action of the Vigilance Committee has always been approved by the public.
Some years prior to the episodes narrated in this chapter, Monroe and other southern border counties were over-run by a band of horse-thieves whose organization was more extensive than that of subsequent date. A chain of operations extended from Indiana to Nebraska, and a complete record of their lawlessness is given in a little volume found in nearly every pioneer library, entitled "Bandits of the Prairie."
A detective named Bonny finally came in their midst, in the disguise of a counterfeiter. He gained their confidence, learned their secrets, and, like a sleuth-hound, tracked them one by one to their hiding-places and arrested them. But few of the band escaped the gallows. Monroe County was scarcely organized at the time, and none of the gang were lynched on Monroe County soil. The Hodge brothers were hung in Van Buren County.
Shack Phipps was another member of the gang, and was a relative of the Long men. Phipps returned, and settled on a farm in the western part of Iowa. There is at least one other member of this notorious gang residing at present in Monroe County. He was a boy at the time, but was accused of being an accomplice. Whatever may have been his relation to those bandits at one time, he has since lived down the stigma by a most exemplary life. He has since then held responsible office of public trust, and ever since the writer first knew him, many years ago, he has been held in universal esteem.
The murder of Chris McAlister, a farmer who lived near Blakesburg, in Wapello County, on the night of November 6, 1883, led to one of the most sensational lynchings ever recorded in the history of the State. For some months after the tragic event no clue could be discovered towards the apprehension of the murderer.
At length suspicion began to attach itself to Pleas Anderson, a married man of about forty years of age, who lived on a farm in Urbana Township.
Since the date of the murder, Anderson had made occasional remarks which appeared suspicious to his neighbors, and his strange actions on several occasions tended to strengthen the suspicions. Anderson already had an unenviable reputation as a pugilist, bully, and a ruffian in a general way. He had, at different times, been mixed up in several shooting scrapes, and was known throughout all the southern tier of counties of Iowa as a hard citizen. He and his brother William were finally arrested June 8, 1883, on a charge of complicity in the murder of McAlister, on an information sworn out by L. T. Stewart, of Blakesburg, based on circumstantial evidence.
They were lodged in the Ottumwa jail, and on examination William was released, no evidence being shown to implicate him.
Pleas was examined before Justice ORR, of Ottumwa, and enough circumstantial evidence was drawn out in the examination to warrant the holding of the prisoner to await the action of grand jury. He was indicted for murder in the first degree, at the next term of the District Court, and his attorneys secured for him a change of venue to Mahaska County.
Anderson was arraigned in court in Oskaloosa, December 13, 1883, and indicted on the charge of murder in the first degree; and, after a long and tedious trial, lasting over a week, he was acquitted. There seemed to be a state of general disapprobation in consequence of the acquittal of Anderson, yet he returned to his home in Urbana Township. About this time his residence was consumed by fire, and he moved in with his father-in-law, Mr. Fielding Barnes, whose residence is about two miles southwest of Blakesburg.
Anderson, on his return, conducted himself rather insolently, especially towards the witnesses who had testified against him in his late trial. On the night preceding the murder of McAlister, he shot into the house of S. G. Finney, a neighbor. For this he was indicted by the grand jury of Monroe County at its fall term of 1883, but, after a long delay, he was tried and acquitted.
On Monday evening, December 29, 1884, five men residing in Monroe County went to the residence of Fielding Barnes, who lives near Blakesburg, and where Pleas Anderson and family were residing, Anderson being the son-in-law of Barnes. The men secreted themselves near the barn, and when Mr. Barnes and Anderson came to the barn to feed the stock for he evening, men covered them with revolvers. Anderson was seized and driven to Blakesburg in a sled. From Blakesburg he was taken to the Prairie school-house, two miles east of Blakesburg, and while en route, the mob informed everybody that Anderson would be tried for the murder of McAlister.
About 9 o'clock p. m. the crowd, which had increased to one hundred or more people, was called to order by the leader of the Vigilance Committee, and a jury of eight persons was appointed to determine what punishment should be meted out to the prisoner. A short time after a verdict had been rendered convicting the prisoner of killing McAlister, eight masked men suddenly filed into the room, disguised in old quilts and blankets. They marched in and surrounded Anderson, and one of them, picking up a rope which lay on the floor, and which contained a noose, placed it around his neck, and the prisoner was thus led out and loaded into a sled and driven to the locality where the murder was committed.
On arriving at McAlister's place, a sled was driven under a large cottonwood-tree and the rope passed up over a limb. Anderson was then lifted upon a spring-seat, which was placed on the sled. He was placed with his face towards the door in which McAlister was murdered, and given a few moments to talk. He protested his innocence, and requested a person in the crowd to draw off his boots, which was complied with. He also requested some one to tell his wife to keep the children together and try and do the best they could. The sled was then driven from under him, and he was hung.
The mail-carrier from Ottumwa, passing early next morning, saw the body hanging and reported the fact. The body was frozen stiff when cut down.
Several, if not all, of the lynching party were afterwards apprehended and brought before the grand jury, but they were released without punishment. It was generally supposed that the murder of McAlister was perpetrated by two persons, but no second party was ever apprehended.
On the 22d of March, 1893, Lewis Frazier, a German living between Carbonado and Oskaloosa, called at the house of Mrs. W. H. Smith, in Hiteman, to see his wife, who was a sister of Mrs. Smith. He wanted his wife to either return home with him, or else give him custody of their two children. She refused, and a quarrel ensued. Mrs. Smith took up the quarrel, and Frazier stabbed her fatally. She died in about twenty minutes. Frazier fled, and was pursued and captured by Deputy Sheriff Joe Lewis and an assistant deputy, about four miles from Hiteman, on the same day. The officers started to return to Hiteman with their prisoner, but were overwhelmed by a mob of about a hundred men from the mines. They seized Frazier and hung him on a tree in Hiteman in the evening of the same day of the murder. At the inquest held over the remains none of the witnesses seemed to recognize any of the lynchers.
Source: Hickenlooper, Frank. An Illustrated History of Monroe County, Iowa: A Complete Civil, Political, and Military History of the County, From Its Earliest Period of Organization Down to 1896. Chapt. 11. p. 171-182. Albia, Iowa. 1896.
Transcriptions by Sharon R. Becker, September of 2010