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Double Tragedy -
Lynching of Kephart

The following is a chapter from "The History of Jefferson County, Iowa", Pages 410-412, published by the Western Historical Company of Chicago in 1879.



On Saturday, the 29th day of June, 1860, T. B. Barnett, while fishing in Cedar Creek, one mile and a half north of Batavia, in Jefferson County, discovered, in a state of nudity, the dead bodies of a woman, a little girl about six years old, and a boy apparently aged about twelve years. The woman and the girl had drifted partially under a tree that had fallen into the creek, and the boy was found a short distance below under a log. Mr. Barnett spread the alarm through the neighborhood, and a messenger was sent to Fairfield about midnight after the Sheriff and Coroner. The latter held an inquest on the dead bodies and elicited the facts embodied in the report of the Coroner's jury, which were as follows:

State of Iowa, Jefferson County, ss.--An inquisition held in Batavia, Jefferson County, State aforesaid, before Thomas Barnes, Coroner of said county, upon the bodies of three persons lying dead, found in Cedar Creek, near where the Iowaville and Lancaster State road crosses the said creek, there lying dead, by the jurors whose names are hereunto subscribed. The said jurors, upon their oath, do say, that the said persons, names unkoown (sic - unknown), came to their death by some person, as there are four large cuts on the head and face of the woman; one on her forehead, and just before her right ear; jaw broken; and behind her right ear, skull broken; and on the back part of the head, skull broken, and the brains oozing out; another wound on the back of the head, skull smashed, with a bruise on the left arm. The girl had her right cheek, with part of her upper lip and part of her nose, upper jaw-bone and teeth, cut off, with her under-jaw considerably fractured.

We, the jury, are of the opinion that the wounds were sufficient to produce immediate death. The woman had blue eyes, dark auburn hair, and was about thirty years of age. The boy had also blue eyes and auburn hair, and was about eight or nine years old. The girl had blue eyes and auburn hair, and was about three years old.

All of which we submit this first day of July, 1860.
A. Collins,
H. P. Holmes,
John Adams, Jurors.

Thomas Barnes, Coroner of Jefferson County.

The County Judge, with commendable energy, immediately issued the following handbill, offering a reward for the arrest of the murderer:


A woman and two children were murdered in this county on Friday evening last, and the bodies thrown into Cedar Creek, about nine miles west of Fairfield. The murderer is supposed to be about six feet high, of ordinary weight, dark complexion, without whiskers, and when seen, on Friday afternoon, was unshaven and was wearing a half-worn Leghorn hat and dirty white shirt; he was without coat or vest. He was driving two yoke of oxen to a wagon. The wagon was an old, light two-horse wagon, muslin cover, dirty and old, but sound. The lead yoke of cattle was the smallest, and of a yellowish-red color with some white; the other yoke was dark-red and brindle, the brindle being on the near side. An old-fashioned red and match-work coverlet was over the fore end of the wagon. With the team were two dogs, one a reddish-yellow, long-haired dog; the other, a puppy four or five months old, of a bluish-black color. From the tracks where the bodies were carried to the creek, it is supposed there were two persons concerned in the murder.

On behalf of the county of Jefferson, I offer a reward of $200 for the apprehension of the murderer or murderers.

William K. Alexander, County Judge.
Fairfield, Iowa, July 1, 1860.

An additional reward was raised by subscription among the citizens of Fairfield.

Sheriff Robb started at once for Batavia, where he learned that an old man and a little boy, with an ox-team, answering to the description given in the hand-bill issued by the Judge, had been seen on the road on the day of the murder, near where the bodies had been found. The Sheriff, David R. Huffstutter, Harrison Smith, William A. Teagarden, H. A. Miller, Andrew Smith, Lewis Spurlock and Samuel Espe started in hot pursuit on the Sunday following the tragedy, and eventually tracked the party described to Upton, Scotland Co., Mo., four miles south of which place they found the team and man and boy.

The old man, whose name they learned was John Kephart, aged sixty years, gave up without resistance. The little boy seemed alarmed and fled crying to one of the party for protection. The little fellow told the Sheriff that his name was Willis; that the dead woman was his mother, and that he did not see her killed; awaking in the night, he saw her lying in the wagon, dead, with a large gash in her head. He saw Kephart kill his little sister and brother. They awoke, too, when his mother was killed, and jumped out of the wagon, and Kephart had some trouble to catch them, as they ran under and around the wagon to keep out of his reach.

The boy first remembered seeing Kephart in Muscatine, Iowa, when he came to move his (the boy's) parents and family south. His father's name was William Willis. It was ascertained that Kephart and the Willis family lived in Cherokee County, Mo., for a time, where he kept a grocery and sold whisky to the Indians. In the spring of 1860, he started for Iowa. The boy further stated that his mother, whose name was Jane Willis, and the children, whose names were Joseph S., aged twelve, and Maria Jane, aged six years, were killed near Eddyville, Iowa, and that the bodies had been hauled a distance of thirty miles.

Some account of Kephart's career was gathered from various sources. He had resided near Trenton, in Henry County, in 1850, and was considered a man of considerable means. He was at one time a preacher in the church of the United Brethren, and, at the time of the murder, had his certificate, or license to preach, with him. He was the father of nine children, all respectable citizens, and at the time of the murder had a wife living in Washington County, Iowa. While a resident of this section, he was engaged in a number of disreputable transactions, falling into the clutches of the law and being confined in jail. Kephart was for a time associated with the noted land pirate, John A. Murrill, whose rendezvous was a cave situated some distance below Louisville, Ky. In the year 1833, in Lancaster, Fairfield Co., Ohio, for having been concerned in several murders with that noted criminal, he was a prisoner at the bar, and was condemned to death, but contrived to make his escape.

As soon as the Sheriff reached Fairfield with his prisoner, a preliminary trial was held before the County Judge. He waived an examination, and was then regularly committed to jail. On the first night of his incarceration, the Sheriff, on entering the Jail, found his prisoner hanging by the neck against the door of his cell, and immediately cut the rope. The would-be suicide falling heavily to the floor, received a very severe contusion of the skull, which almost knocked what life out of him still remained after his attempt at hanging. He was, however, eventually restored. He had secured a rope with which his captors had bound his feet together when he was first taken, and which was still fastened about one ankle when he was committed to jail, and which he had secreted about his person.

On Thursday morning after the murderer was secured, a large body of well-armed men, on horseback, in wagons and on foot, marched into town in good order, proceeded directly to the jail, which they surrounded, and called for the keys. The lynchers, as they proved to be, were mostly from Wapello and Jefferson Counties -- the citizens of Fairfield being generally opposed to their summary mode of procedure. Speeches were made to the mob by Judge Alexander, Messrs. Wilson, Acheson, Negus, Slagle, Lamson and others, who made every offer that might satisfy them that the prisoner would be safely kept until a fair trial, according to law, could be given him. Their offers and arguments were answered by loud cries to open the doors, with increased turbulence and excitement. Several of the mob procured a post, which they brought to bear as a battering-ram against everything that stood between them and their victim. The doors soon gave way and the murderer was immediately seized and borne by four men to a wagon and driven off under guard. The wagon containing the prisoner stopped at nearly every house on the road, in order that all should see the fiendish murderer. As he was quite faint during the trip, buckets of water were thrown over him. When the procession arrived at the place of execution -- at the spot where the bodies of the murdered woman and her and her (sic) children had been found -- the crowd had been augmented to 1,200 persons, and there were 2,500 people - some from a distance of thirty miles -- awaiting their arrival on the ground, about four hundred women being included among the number, who had gathered here to witness the execution of a human being. The roundabout road by which the prisoner had traveled made the distance about thirteen miles from Fairfield.

About 3 o'clock in the afternoon, the prisoner was brought forward by two men, who assisted him up the ladder to the platform of a gallows that had already been prepared. There was no trial, as all were convinced of his guilt; the services of a minister were neither offered nor asked for, and ten minutes were allowed for confession, which he employed by stating that he was innocent of the murder of the woman. He also asked if his shroud was made; on hearing which, he was shown his grave, and told by some one in the crowd that he would get no shroud. After his hands had been secured behind his back, a handkerchief fastened over his face and the rope placed around his neck, the rope that held the trap-door under his feet was severed by a blow from a hatchet in the hands of one of the party, and the prisoner was launched into eternity directly over the spot where the bodies of his victims had been found.

Resolutions were then passed, disposing of the property of Kephart, which were to the effect that the money discovered in the wagon -- amounting to $428, which had been found concealed in a keg of soap-grease -- the wagon itself and the oxen, should be given for the benefit of the living boy of the murdered woman; and a guardian was then and there appointed for him. The body was taken in charge, for the purpose of dissection, by some physicians who were on the ground. The citizens soon afterward dispersed to their homes to attend to the peaceable avocations of life, and the remembrance of the part that they had taken in lauching a red-handed murderer into the presence of a higher tribunal that that of man, sat easily on their minds.

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