When my library director first pitched the idea of doing a library podcast, one thing she definitely wanted to include was local history and she handed me the folder on a dynamite story to kick the off the podcast: the only known public hanging in my county, which happened in 1882.
The Patsy Devine Case remains one of the more popular episodes because everybody loves some true crime and a good, ol’ fashioned hanging. The next local history episode I did was The Courthouse Murder. This 1855 case had everything: a bitter rivalry, an amputation, chloroform, one of the first uses of the insanity defense, and an all-star prosecution team that included future president Abraham Lincoln. He, along with his presidential opponent Stephen A. Douglas, also defended the first man accused of murder in my town way back in 1840.
As it turns out, for a period of time, my little town was quite the murder capital.
I’m currently working on not one, but two murders of police chiefs that occurred within three years of each other. It was something I stumbled upon while researching our most corrupt mayor (which was a fun one) as he was a witness to the second chief’s murder. It was while reading that article that I found out that the second murdered chief was present at the first murdered chief’s killing and was appointed chief as a result. It was like a murderception and I eagerly descended down that rabbit hole.
Which led to an article featuring a list of murders that occurred over a 60 year period between 1855 and 1915.
Oh yeah. My tiny town was Wild Westing it back in the day.
The list includes:
-A shooting in 1864 that I haven’t found details of yet, but I know the guy posted bond at the pre-trial which was held in a different town for reasons.
-A double homicide in 1896 in which the 24 year old husband shot his wife (who’d filed for divorce) and mother-in-law in the yard with a shotgun before running down the railroad track and attempting to commit suicide by throwing himself in front of a train. Unfortunately for him, the cow catcher did its job and yeeted him off the tracks very much alive and under arrest.
-A man who was shot and killed in a Christmas Day poker room squabble in a saloon in a neighboring town in 1899. The victim’s name is the same as that of a man who stabbed the postmaster to death in my town’s post office during the Civil War, but I’ve yet to find any connections between them.
-Another bar fight in 1901 saw a 40 year old man kill another man by hitting him over the head with a beer bottle. The man pled guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced by the same judge who later presided over the murder trial of the second police chief’s killer.
-Because men have always been delicate creatures unable to cope with rejection, a man shot and killed a woman he mistook for the woman who’d turned down his marriage proposal in 1906.
-In August of that same year, a dispute between a 60 year old man and a 53 year old man over chickens, access to a well, and insulting one man’s wife ended when the husband of the insulted wife shot the offending man. The killer was found not guilty by reason of self-defense as the victim was allegedly beating him with a bucket at the time of the shooting.
-To continue with the theme of men old enough to know better getting uptight about farm animals, a 60 year old man shot and killed a 68 year old man in July of 1909 because the horse the victim had been pasturing in a vacant lot next to killer’s house had been eating the man’s sunflowers. The argument that ensued was escalated when the sunflower owner’s wife got involved and the victim called her “a goddamn liar”. The man was later arrested by the first police chief who would be murdered almost exactly a year later.
Okay, so maybe it wasn’t wall-to-wall homicides back in the day, but it’s still pretty significant for a small town that was even smaller then than it is now. Growing up here where the default is that nothing happens, it’s wild to think that back in the day folks were shooting each other over horses eating sunflowers and chickens getting into flowerbeds and insulted wives. That’s something that happens somewhere else, even in the long, long ago.
But it all happened right here.
In fact, those murdered police chiefs both died within blocks of where I live right now.
Hey, just because nothing happens in a small town now doesn’t it mean it wasn’t happening then.