Sunday, 12 June 2011

Missouri after Jesse James and a Leek Woman 1884

This is an episode from the bloody aftermath of the American Civil War, which catches in its snares a Leek woman who had moved to the United States with the intention of starting a new life in a community with people of like mind. The story is carried in a Leek paper of May 1885 with the eye-catching headlines

A terrible adventure
A Leek woman and her husband shot
The shooters lynched

The Leek woman who was subject to this assassination attempt was Mrs Dickenson whose maiden name was Bromley. She had one point lived in Church Street before marrying and moving to the States arriving in New York in 1882. The Dickenson’s were one of twelve English families who set out west with the idea of forming a socialist commune in Texas. Throughout the 19th century there were many attempts to found communities such as New Harmony in Connecticut by Robert Owen or the fictitious community that appears in "Martin Chuzzlewit" by Dickens. And of course there exists today religious communities such as the Amish who live in the states of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The party of settlers arrived in Springfield Missouri where four of the group amongst them the Dickenson’s were tempted by the offer of land in South West Missouri close to the border with Arkansas in the area of the Ozark Mountains. They arrived in 1883 and settle in the Tanney County area to grow tobacco and coffee living in a community according to their deeply held principles of cooperation. Unfortunately they arrive into an area devastated by the Civil War, which despite ending 20 years before was still blighting the area. In truth, that part of the United States had been in a lawless state for many years prior to the war of 1861-5. The states of Kansas and Missouri were notorious for maundering banditti, some favourable to the continuation of slavery and others not. In the 1870s and 80s their numbers were swollen by discharged soldiers of both north and south with scores to settle and harbouring grievances. The most famous being that of the James- Younger gang of fervent confederate sympathies who fought a ferocious guerrilla war with the authorities and northern sympathisers with a tendency to rob banks. However, the gang had broken up after the disastrous Northfield Raid and Jesse James had been shot dead by Bob Ford in St Joseph, Missouri in April 1883.
The downfall of that gang did not put an end to the lawlessness and this was especially true of Southern Missouri. In Tanney County between 1865 and 1885 despite their being 40 murders no one was bought to justice: it is believed that many of the juries were packed with relatives or Confederate sympathisers. Some residents of the state resolved to tackle the anarchy amongst them Mr Dickenson, by use of violence if required. A group lead by the imposing Nat Kinney who was 6 foot 6 inches tall formed a vigilante posse, which were called the Bald Knobbers. They met secretly on the mountaintops of the Ozark Mountains posting sentries on the rocky outcrops of the peaks from whence they acquired their nickname.
It was a violent crime against the Dickenson that lead to the first bloodshed. The Dickenson ran a store and post office that Mr Dickenson who was a great fan of the writer would later name Dickens. The store was based at the isolated community of Eglington. The Dickenson’s got into a dispute with a pair of vicious young hoodlums called Frank and Tubal Taylor who were supported in their crime wave by Elijah Sublet. The row was over credit for a pair of boots. The young men reached for their guns as explained in a letter published in the Leek Times of the 25th May 1885. Mr Dickenson described what happened.

"Just after 7 pm, Frank Taylor entered the Post Office. I was sitting on a bench by the fireplace outside the counter…. He took hold of me by the throat and said that he had come to settle with me. I got up intending to reach for my pistol, which was just behind the counter. I just got one step and said, "Loose me" when he put his pistol straight in front of my face and fired. Elijah Sublet and Tubal Taylor were then in the room, and Frank and Tubal tried to drag me out. My wife came to my assistance as soon as she heard the first shot, and as soon as she appeared Frank pointed a pistol at her head and fired. After a little struggle I got released. During the whole of the struggle I heard 4 or 5 shots. The whole affair last a few minutes.

The first shot entered my upper lip, taking a portion of left jaw and three or four upper teeth; one shot went through Mrs Dickenson’s head straightaway, about two inches behind the right ear; another ball went into my right shoulder, steering its way into the right side of my neck; another went through Mrs D’s thumb; another went through my coat sleeve, another grazed Mrs D’s cheek and eyebrow. Our wounds are not serious.
The account ended with the information that the young men were intent on murdering the couple as they had fired at their heads. A Hue and Cry was raised for the Taylor’s. They quickly made their escape and hide in local caves before surrendering to the sheriff on the promise of protection. The Taylor’s were placed in jail in the principle town of the area Forsyth. However was in store for these unfortunate young men was an invitation to what in the Old West was called a " Neck Tie Party".

The New York Times then takes up the story in an article, which is dated 10th December 1885

At about 10 o clock the following night a band of men, estimated about 150, rode into the town and posted their guards at different points and with sledge hammers, forced open the jail doors. The two Taylor’s begged piteously for their lives, but all to no purpose. They were quickly marched out and taken away. The next morning their bodies were found hanging to the limb of a scrub oak tree two and a half miles west of town. It was generally believed that the Bald Knobbers did the lynching.
After that incident the violence and the numbers of vigilantes grew although

others dropped out of the "Bald Knobbers" sickened by the lynching of the Taylor’s. The gang’s became more harsh and sought to impose their own will on the community seeking to correct such " lawlessness" as gamblers, couples who lived in sin or "loose" women into changing their ways. Sometimes they intimidated those who spoke out against the vigilantes or who were considered "ornery" About 18 people were killed for speaking against the gang. The gang swaggered around the local counties and began to act as despots themselves. They began to alienate former supporters. Many people in Southern Missouri began to see them as tyrants and felt the call to resist.

A reaction set in and groups of armed men called "anti bald knobbers" were formed to oppose the vigilantes. In 1887 the Bald Knobbers attacked families of men who were critical of them. Shotgun blasts and explosions were directed at family cabins. The cries of the women and children bought neighbours to the scene of carnage as two men were shot gunned to death and others including children injured. This caused a national outrage and action to cause the vigilantly bands roaming the state 20 members of the gang were arrested. Four were sentenced to death and clumsily executed.

A member of the anti bald knobbers murdered the leader of the Bald Knobbers Kinney in August 1888 and was found not guilty at a subsequent trial on the grounds of self-defence. The bloodshed and the intimidation petered out by the end of the century although the events left much bitterness in local communities.
The story however did achieve a national prominence with the publication in 1907 of a novel depicting the events. The book by Harold Bell Wright " The Shepherd of the Hills" became a best seller. In fact it was the first American novel to sell 1 million copies. A silent film was also made of the book in 1919. Southern Missouri became a tourist attraction on the strength of the history attracting 5 million Americans a year to theme parks that play out the events in a family friendly way.

As for the Dickenson’s they opened a bigger store by the end of the 1880s about a mile from their close brush with death. The Post Office Dickens remained open till 1952. Mr Dickenson became a successful businessman and later judge and a prominent local member of the Republican Party in Missouri.