Volume 36 , Number 1 , Summer 1996
In the spring of 1875, citizens of Stone County, Missouri, feared that their county seat would become engulfed in uncontrollable violence. Rowdy Ozarkers, a short time earlier, had formed a locally styled vigilante group that began to threaten the business of local government. Disruptions were so great that civil authorities worried that due process of law was beyond their enforcement. Direct appeals from local government to the states commander-in-chief, Governor Charles H. Hardin, brought a quick responsedispatch of the adjutant general to Galenain an attempt to stabilize volatile emotions. The state was successful, and what transpired became only a ripple in widespread civil unrest that gripped southern Missouri for a generation following the Civil War. The episode, however, has intrinsic interest due to the involvement of Missouri s most famous nineteenth-century artist, George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879).
Governor Hardin (1875-1877) appointed Bingham as Missouris adjutant general in January 1875. Bingham was already famous as a frontier artist and painter of portraits for Missouri elites, and he had become quite affluent. After a fashion, he had long entertained political interests. He became a Whig in the 1840s, served a term as a state representative, 1848-1850, and later became a member of the new Republican party. As the Missouri-Kansas border troubles evolved into the Civil War, he became disaffected with actions by Kansas Unionists and Missouri officers, particularly Gen. Thomas Ewing. During the Civil War, Governor Hamilton Gamble appointed Bingham as a Union Democrat to the office of state treasurer (1862-1865) of the provisional government. Remembering his outrage at Ewing, Bingham immortalized the generals infamous Order No. 11 with an uncomplimentary painting in 1868. Bingham lived in Kansas City during the postwar years, consorted with Democrats, and championed their positions. When Charles Hardin became governor, Bingham was eager to serve in the new administration.
While Bingham faced the challenges of becoming acquainted with his new responsibilities in Jefferson City, Stone County became a setting for increasing civil unrest. Bingham concluded to governor Hardin in March 1875 that "it appears for a considerable period the laws against crime have been rather feebly enforced within the limits of the County. This perhaps has been owing more to the timidity of officials not fully informed of their duties and powers and afraid of transcending the limits of their authority than to any willful delinquency on their part." The local disputes had caused the recently elected (November 1874) prosecuting attorney, Francis Gideon, to become ineffectualthe circuit judge would have to rely upon appointed special prosecutors. The local perception of inadequate protection under the law spawned a secret order, the Sons of Honor, a vigilance committee sworn to address their version of community justice.
There were several local events, more than we can describe, that in their totality led to the appeal for state intervention. Two of those, however, are core disputes, running parallel in litigation through multiple terms of court, which involved persons in continuing conflict with one another. The lack of local legal talent and the desire to have winning representation led the primary litigants to Springfield, where they retained Greene County lawyers to compete with the special prosecutors in Galena.
John M. Williams, who had served briefly as an appointed prosecuting attorney in 1872, became a focal point in a local feud. In a series of litigation
begun in 1874, complaints were filed against Williams for "disturbing the peace of a family," "felonious assault," "assaulting to rape," "damages," appeal from probate court," and "exposure of person." These complaints resulted in $5.00 fines, forfeiture of bonds, and dismissals through 1875.
Meanwhile, Jasper N. McKinney had created a public scene at Mayberrys Ferry on July 4, 1874. In this celebratory setting, McKinney carried a revolver. Later, Sheriff John Cloud arrested him for carrying a concealed weapon and he was released on bond. In October, Township Constable John Barker arrested McKinney for "disturbing the peace of a family." He entered the house of Sarah Miller "in an abrupt manner" and abused and cursed her, threatening to shoot her. Justice of the peace court indicted McKinney for "loud and offensive conversation by indecent conversation and by threatening, quarreling, challenging and fighting...." Regionally prominent exConfederate colonel E. Y Mitchell, a resident of
Springfield, was now special prosecutor in this case and others. James R. Vaughn, attorney in Ozark, joined elected prosecutor Francis Gideon and Mitchell to prosecute cases in 1875.
Toward the end of winter in March 1875, John M. Williams, Jasper N. McKinney, James H. Cox and others became combatants in episodes that ignited extreme anxiety in local government at Galena and in Jefferson City McKinney had marshalled a number of men around himself and founded the Sons of Honor, pretending to act under the authority of the governor, and rode with his armed gang of men intimidating any opposition. They claimed they would "bring criminals to justice," administered oaths to members of their order demanding defense of the group at all costs, and bound members to secrecy "under penalty of death."
In early March, several men, presumably members of the secret order, gathered on Saturday night around the courthouse. They were angry over the many indictments in the office of circuit clerk that affected them personally and some of their friends. Under the cover of darkness, they proposed to burn the courthouse. The proposal lacked a decisive leader, so they rode some seven miles west of town to a respected friend, James H. Cox, and asked him to do it. Cox (1843-1936) was a vocal farmer in Stone County. During August 1861, rebels murdered his father and neighbors and he hid in the woods from the Confederates, later enlisting in the 6th Missouri cavalry at Rolla. Thus, Cox was not one to shy from conflict, but he refused to burn the courthouse. The gang returned to Galena, broke into the courthouse, and stole all the current court recordsones pertaining to civil and criminal processand ones concerning the collection of school taxes. They left town with the records and hid them under dry leaves in a field near Coxs house.
It was not long before a participant or someone who witnessed the brazen act confided in Sheriff John Cloud. The sheriff formed a posse and headed west. James Cox sat at his table eating breakfast when the posse rode up to his fence. Cox motioned them into the yard. Sheriff Cloud said that Cox "might consider himself under arrest." Cloud "hauled out his paper and commenced reading, but could not read it good and gave it to the young clerk," who did. Cox asserted his innocence and blamed the gang, men who betrayed me and left the papers here to cast suspicion on me." Missing from the cache found
at the farm, however, was a previous indictment against Cox for an assault, as well as others against men in the neighborhood. After Cox gave his deposition to the circuit clerk, he was arrested for "breaking and plundering the courthouse," offered $1,000 bond, but refused to pay it. County Court Justice Samuel Farmer remanded him to jail. Four days later, on March 18th, friends of the accused presented bail, and Cox was released.
A few nights following the release of Cox, violence occurred near Galena. Armed men approached the house of John Williams. They hid behind a picket fence while agitating fowl and domestic animals into making noises to draw Williams outside. Williams, suspicious and armed with a shotgun and revolver, came out. The Sons of Honor immediately fired four or five bullets into his chest, but miraculously Williams survived the barrage due to standing sideways while he was hit. Williams returned fire, and by the light of the moon recognized two of his five assailants, Jasper McKinney and John Butler, before they fled into the woods.
Sheriff Cloud arrested McKinney and Butler for felonious assault, and they appeared before Justice of the Peace John Kindall. The justice required $5,000 bail each. Immediately, eight or ten armed Sons of Honor appeared before Kindall and demanded a reduction in bail. Kindall, intimidated by threats, set it at $1,000 and released the defendants. (One of McKinneys bondsmen was recent Stone County sheriff William F. Websterperhaps a suggestion that the local conflict did reach into courthouse politics.) McKinney, Butler, and their confederates left the courthouse and on the streets of Galena fired their guns into the air, threatening any onlookers.
At this point, Samuel Farmer, an aging county judge, appealed to Governor Hardin on March 25th. Farmer recounted the shooting of Williams, adding that the Sons of Honor had recently nearly whipped another man to death. He described how the McKinney-led band boasted that they would control the upcoming grand jury, empaneled to investigate all the recent disturbances in the county. Farmer asked if a recent state law of 1874, passed for the suppression of outlawry, and specifically the proscription of carrying concealed weapons in Missouri, might be used to send state aid to Stone County.
Gov. Hardin charged Bingham "to investigate the reported recent outrages in Stone County..." and the adjutant general appeared in Galena a few days later. Bingham scheduled interviews with the county and circuit clerks, sheriff and deputy sheriff, judge of the county court, and several prominent citizens, and he spoke with special prosecutors. He "instructed them as to the extent of their powers under the law to protect the court, impressing upon them the importance of prompt, decisive action... [saying] every county was able to prevent or suppress lawlessness and he intended to rely upon the manhood and intelligence of the good people of every county [to do so].
Hardin and Bingham, using prior examples from the governors of Pennsylvania and Ohio in their mining districts, instructed the Stone County court to use the entire county as its posse, if necessary, to control community violence. Special Prosecutor E. Y. Mitchell placed much of the blame for local corruption at the door of the Republican prosecuting attorney (Francis Gideon) and several of his confederates; this allegation, however, may have been for political and personal differences. Bingham wrote Hardin on
March 30th saying that Stone County was, indeed, in a deplorable condition and that violence was expected at the upcoming term of circuit court. Bingham closed the letter saying that he would remain to do what he could for the maintenance of proper legal authority.
The following Monday, Circuit Judge Washington F. Geiger arrived from Springfield to convene the court. Bingham was on hand with all the local officials and many interested citizens. Judge Geiger instructed a grand jury and empaneled a petit (trial) jury. Geiger gave a forceful outline of "illegal combinations pretending to take the law in their own hands," denouncing the acts as "treasonable in their nature." The grand jury had secured possession of the constitution of the Order of the Sons of Honor with details of initiation and description of their meetings. Geiger and the court promptly handed down thirty-two indictments, a large num ber for one term of court in rural Stone County; twelve men quickly forfeited bond and disappeared rather than stand trial. (The indictments in the Williams shooting included Jasper McKinney, John Bulter, Hopkins "Hop" Ashby, Riley and Pleasant Jones, William Phillips, and William White. It appears that the defendants ultimately received light judgments, were acquitted, or left the county; the ringleader McKinney, referred to as an "Arkansas desperado" in one newspaper account, died not long after Bingham left.)
On April 13th, Bingham concluded in a report to Governor Hardin that "perfect order and quiet prevailed in the courthouse and vicinity." The adjutant general left Galena saying that "no further violent interference with due process of law need be feared in Stone County." Judge Geiger had promised to monitor the local court and report any problems to Governor Hardin. The same day, Circuit Clerk H. M.
Fisk wrote his viewpoint to the governor, praising Hardins prompt response to Samuel Farmers appeal. "We had the quietest time during the late session of the Circuit Court that I ever knew here," said Fisk. He credited Adjutant General Binghams presence as having had a "very salutary influence." Fisk said that the "turbulent element" among them was "quite over-awed" by the firm and decisive judicial proceedings. The chief taxpayers in the Sons of Honor reacted immediately to Binghams warning that if peace did not reign in Stone County, the state militia would be sent at taxpayer expense. This costly solution to their continuing quarrels startled them, and several withdrew from the secret order right away while others said they would disband at the next meeting.
Bingham and local authorities quelled tempers in the immediate conflicts in Stone County, and for all practical purposes an administration of justice continued unabated. The Jefferson City press described Binghams role as one that brought a positive moral effect and "inspired local officials with courage and confidence" to fulfill their duties. However, Prosecuting Attorney Francis Gideon did resign the following January and litigation from the thirty-two indictments continued. Locals nominated one William Eaton to replace Gideon, but because Eaton was under indictment for stealing a cow from the Jasper N. McKinney estate, Governor Hardin refused to appoint him. Patrick C. Berry advised the governor that "we have no person in Stone County that has been admitted to the bar who is fit for prosecuting attorney." He recommended that an endorsement from Judge W. F. Geiger and Congressman John Phelps be required for any appointment. The circuit court continued with special prosecutors for a couple of years due to continued squabbling over the lack of qualified lawyers for the office.
James H. Cox continued to be a presence around the courthouse. In December 1875, a jury found Cox not guilty of stealing the county records; apparently he never named those who raided the courthouse. In
October 1876 he disturbed the grand jury room by "loud and unusual noise, by loud and offensive and indecent conversation and by threatening and quarreling" and promptly received an indictment for his behavior. Cox was under another indictment for an assault with a deadly weapon from an 1872 fight with Elijah Kelly. In August 1877 a jury decided that Cox had acted in self-defense.
The Sons of Honor turned out to be a short-lived vigilance committee. It threatened to be much more, and may well have been, were it not for Governor Hardins swift dispatch of Gen. Bingham to Galena. Some tempers also probably cooled sooner than later with the untimely death of Jasper McKinney. Parenthetically, it was not until November 1879 that Stone County sent its first felon to the state penitentiaryfor bigamynot for community violence or a "raid upon the courthouse."
From the view of state government, Hardin and Bingham had many other fish to fry and could not spend an inordinate amount of time in the backwoods Ozarks. Hardin was fighting to reduce an immense war debt, and politicians were preparing for the state constitutional convention in Jefferson City. As adjutant general, Bingham was investigating fraudulent financial claims stemming from the Civil Waran investigation that would require his presence in Washington, D. C., and gain considerable attention in the statewide press. He and the governor were concerned about the reputation of the state in some newspapers as a land for outlaws, but in Stone County, the "turbulent element" was easily identified and dealt with.
In Central Missouri in May 1875, Bingham and Hardin formed a secret order of their own in organizing and enrolling a secret service militia in Clay Countythe James and Younger gangs were still at large. The Galena affair did prove valuable for Bingham the following year when he returned to the Ozarks to arbitrate vigilante activitythis time in Ripley County, where self-styled Ku Klux Klan were on the rampage. But those southeast Missouri episodes in Binghams eventful years following the Civil War are interesting stories in their own right that remain to be explored.
Readers may consult a number of sources for materials. They include Circuit Court Docket, 1873-1879, Stone County, Mo.; Circuit Court Case files, Stone County, Mo,; Civil Register, v. 5, 1865-1904, State Archives; correspondence in the Adjutant
General Collection, Governor Charles H. Hardin Papers, Secretary of State Michael K. McGrath Papers, and Biennial Report of the Adjutant General...1875 and 1876, all in the Missouri State
Archives, Jefferson City, Mo.; contemporary newspaper accounts for the prisoner to the penitentiary may be read in the Jefferson City Peoples Tribune, 11.5.1879; and for Binghams trip to Stone County in the Jefferson City Daily Tribune, April 6 and 10, 1875, Jefferson City Peoples Tribune, April 7 and 14, 1875; and Binghams first biographer, Fern Helen Rusk, George Caleb Bingham, The Missouri Artist, 1917.
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