Volume X, No. 3, Spring 1983
FORSYTH REMEMBERS AN OUTLAW
by Vickie Hooper
Photography by Lisa Goss
There was absolutely nothing good about Alf Bolin. During the Civil War in Taney and Ozark Counties in southern Missouri, he was the cruelest man alive. He robbed and killed without mercy, anybody that got near him or stood in his way. Old timers said he was the meanest, ugliest looking man south of the north pole. The only good thing about him was his death.
When his death occurred, people rejoiced by dancing in the streets of Forsyth and Ozark. It was one of the happiest days of their lives, one that they would never forget. They celebrated with all their hearts for they no longer had to fear the bushwhacker, Alf Bolin.
Nor have the people in Forsyth forgotten the great rejoicing at his death even today. The legend of Alf Bolin's atrocities lives on in the hill country around the White River. Once again in May 1982 the people thronged to the little county seat town to celebrate the end of his terror. Rather than the impromptu gathering of tremendous relief of the first time, this Alf Bolin day was carefully planned. In addition to the square dancing in the streets, there was country music groups all day, a chicken and dumpling dinner, cake walks, and to climax the day, a wedding.
Where Alf Bolin spelled death and the destruction of normal home life, the modern celebration of Alf Bolin's death was to emphasize a beginning with a wedding in the streets.
"Who the heck was Alf Bolin?" These words were printed on buttons and signs around the square. For visitors who did not know the legend and history of Alf Bolin, there were people and literature ready to explain. Doug Mahnkey had collected most of the stories about him.
Alf Bolin was born near Spokane, Missouri, in Christian County. No one would ever have guessed he would one day be the most notorious bushwhacker of all times. Not much is known about him, but he seemed to be an average boy trying to make the best of what he had.
It was believed that he and his sister were orphans later and lived at Old Man Bilyeu's place. The Bilyeus saw that he got plenty of food and brought him up as they did their own.
In school he was a good student. Tales have it that he was the spelling champion. He was 'a good woodsman and skillful hunter. All this pointed to a normal life. But being from the border regions of a border state, he was soon to be one of the many victims of the Civil War.
During the early period of the conflict, a Union soldier shot from ambush at Alf. This incident just may have started his wild career of vengeance and murder, for his victims were often relatives of Union soldiers. Alf searched for other men like himself who could be some use for his revenge. He became the leader of a gang of about twenty men who went on raids against inhabitants from northern Arkansas, throughout Taney County and into southern Ozark County.
Unfortunately the Civil War in Missouri caused more misery than in most states because about half of the Missourians were Union sympathizers and half had Southern inclinations. This led to many problems. Men had to pick which side they would support, causing brothers to fight against each other. More or less it was neighbor against neighbor--a time that breeds outlaws.
Another condition which permitted outlaws to exist is that during the war the able men were away fighting either because they volunteered or were forced. Whichever army came through would conscript any men they could find. The women and children and old men were left to live as they could to raise the food for themselves and what stock the maurad-ing armies or outlaws spared them. With law enforcement systems broken down, with alternate periods of Union or Confederate Army occupation, men like Alf Bolin and his gang had free sway. The inhabitants lived in constant terror, hiding any older boys or men as well as any livestock from the armies and outlaws.
Alf Bolin took advantage of these hard times. He and his gang robbed, raped and killed without mercy with no one to stop him.
One of the victims of Alf's raids was Dave Titsworth, a sixteen-year-old boy from Walnut Shade. Dave was taking a few letters to the Day Post Office which his family had written to his sick father in the Union Army when Alf deliberately brought his pistol from his holster with his dirty hand, aimed at Dave, and shot him in the chest.
Some old women, who had seen the shooting, asked Alf if he was not ashamed. Alf replied, "Get into the house and shut your mouths if you want to save your scalps. That makes nineteen I've killed."
Though he was seriously wounded, Dave did not die. Betsey May and Susan Keithley cared for and nursed him until he was well.
Alf even went back to old Dad Bilyeu's place and threatened to kill his former benefactor although Bilyeu had probably been the closest thing to a father he'd ever known. Mrs. Bilyeu got the best thing she could find for Alf, a huge batch of maple sugar and watched him gulp it down while he counted his bag of money. When he left, he took Dad Bilyeau's best saddle horse.
Hosea Bilyeu and Big Ike Lewis were teenagers during the war. They had been digging a grave for a relative and were on their way home when Alf's band rose from behind rocks and started after them. The boys ran to safety.
These were a few of the lucky ones. Most of the people Alf ran into didn't live long. On Camp Creek he murdered James Johnson, the uncle of Wood Johnson, the Presiding Judge of Christian County. He killed Bob Edwards near Bluff in Taney County. At Murder Rocks, a place where many travelers were killed, he shot in the back two Union soldiers home on leave and returning to their duties with the army.
A twelve year old boy, Bill Willis, climbed a rail fence with corn in his arms to feed a horse on Roark Creek just north of Garber. Bolin shot him dead. Sad faced women buried him in a shallow grave under a mulberry tree on Roark Creek.
One of the saddest stories was of Mr. Budd. He was an eighty-year-old man who drove a yoke of oxen into Taney County from Christian County to get a small amount of corn from someone living along White River. Not much corn was raised during this time, so any was precious. He needed the sparse amount of corn to make meal for the bread for the needy women and children in his neighborhood. On his way back across the river, Alf and his band stopped him. They forced him to wade into the water and stand there as they shot several rifle bullets into his body. When the last shot finally killed him, the flow of the water carried away his body.
Through this time, the Union Army had tried unsuccessfully to track him down. Alf and his men, all experienced woodsmen, were hard riders and knew all the trails, mountain passes, caves, and fords on White River. In spite of this, the army decided to try to capture the shrewd woodsman in South Missouri in his own hills.
To help them with their plan, the army got a smart lady, Mrs. Foster, the wife of a southern officer who was being held prisoner in Springfield, Missouri, and was in danger of execution. Though her husband wore gray, Mrs. Foster was a Union sympathizer.
Mrs. Foster lived near the Arkansas line where Alf and his gang camped at the time. Alf had gone to her house many times for his meals while her husband was gone. So, in exchange for the freedom of her husband, she decided to help.
Because of his coolness and bravery the Union officers also got the help of Zack Thomas, a native of Missouri who had enlisted in the Union Army in Iowa. Thomas made his way unarmed and slowly to Mrs. Foster's house disguised as a very sick and weak Southern soldier who had been captured but had escaped, trying to make his way back home.
He stayed upstairs at Mrs. Foster's house for many days pretending to be sick. On February 2, of 1863, Bolin came to dinner, so Thomas made a small noise. Bolin heard him and ordered him to come down, threatening to kill him. Mrs. Foster explained that the man was sick and was on his way home.
The sly Mrs. Foster set the dinner table close to the fireplace, "because of the chill," with the "sick" Thomas nearest it. By the fireplace she had placed a coulter, a long, sharp, steel blade used on a plow. Seeing it, Bolin immediately became suspicious, but Mrs. Foster allayed his fears by explaining that it was to be made into horseshoes and that she used it as a poker. Bolin lay his pistol on the table.
After the big meal of ham, potatoes and green beans, Bolin leaned over the open fire to rake a live coal into his pipe. Thomas seized the coulter and struck him in the back. They drug him into a back room thinking he was dead, but when they heard him moan and struggle, Thomas stabbed him many times until he was sure dead. They could not use a pistol because the ready-to-kill band that was always near would hear.
Thomas sneaked out in the darkness and went to a Union camp to send officers for Bolin's body and Mrs. Foster.
The soldiers stopped at every house along the way to Forsyth telling everyone that the killer Alf Bolin was finally dead. There was great relief. Bells rang. To claim the reward, someone had to take his body to the United States Army Post at Ozark, about thirty-five miles north.
But by the time the body reached Forsyth, it was rotting with the odor unbearable. The soldiers decided to carry just the head for the rest of the way for the proof he was dead. Colbert Hays enjoyed slicing the clotted face with blood-matted hair from the rest of the stenchy body with his sharp, two-headed axe. In Ozark, willing hands placed the head on a pole in the public square for people to see, children to throw rocks at and women to spit on. The rest of the body was buried on Swan Creek Road.
People danced all around the pole and in Forsyth and other settlements in rejoicement of his death. They no longer had to fear him and no more fourteen year old boys like Hosea Bilyeu would have to join the army to get away from him. Those whose husbands were away at war no longer feared to sleep at night. Old men could walk along the trails once again without jumping at every noise, fearing an ambush. Even though the war was not yet over, the families in the sparsely settled hill areas along the Arkansas border of Missouri could resume normal activities without the continual dread of the Bolin gang.
The merriment continued long into the night--a rejoicing of great relief from years of constant fear, and hope that the war would soon be over.
Some one hundred and nineteen years later on May 15, 1982, the celebration of Alf Bolin's death was resumed in Forsyth. Now in the peaceful pretty little town on the banks of the dammed-up White River, which is now Bull Shoal's Lake, the citizens, remembering the time of terror, celebrated its end once again. This time it was all pleasant and enjoyable. In the midst of the fun of dressing in costume, the music, the food and the many activities, this celebration, as the first celebration, also had a serious purpose. Climaxing everything was the wedding of Holly Renee Sun and Johnny Lee Chambers in a beautiful wedding ceremony on the streets of Forsyth.
Where Alf Bolin represented hate and death, this couple promised love and life.
"...Unto you both," said Reverend Maxine Price, the minister, "I would say, let not your voices lose the tender tone of affection nor your eyes forget the tender ray with which they shone in courtship day, and greatest of all, let God be in the throne above all else at all times."
The only good thing about Alf Bolin was his death.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.