Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Lynch law in Missouri


I am by profession a civil engineer and surveyor, and about the year 1832 I was employed by the authorities at Washington to make a survey of a large tract of land known as the “Indian Reserve,” lying within the boundaries of the State of Missouri.

The policy of the United States government has always been, so soon as a State became pretty well settled by the white man, to remove—either by persuasion or force—those Indians who still remained within its limits, to the great North-west Territory. For it is a well-established fact that the contiguity of the two races is advantageous to neither, and is especially injurious to the red man, whose love of “fire-water,” and disposition to confound the rights of meum and tuum, constantly bring him into collision with the settler.

The tribe which had hitherto occupied the tract of country referred to above, had just been persuaded, after considerable negotiation, to sell their lands and migrate further west, and already a cloud of squatters had descended upon the “Reserve,” their object being to secure the pre-emption right, as it is termed, to the soil. This is a privilege—accorded by the Federal Government to the actual occupant and cultivator of any piece of ground constituting part of the national territory—of priority of purchase, at a certain fixed price, whenever the lands of which it forms a part shall be surveyed and offered for sale. In this way it may sometimes happen that a man will occupy several hundred acres of government land for years, without its having cost him in the first instance a single dollar; and when, finally, it is brought into the market, he enjoys the alternative of purchasing it at a merely nominal price, or, should he decline to do so, of obliging whosoever else may buy it, to pay him a fair and reasonable compensation for the buildings he has erected, and the labour he has bestowed upon the land he has brought under cultivation.

In this case, however, certain wealthy individuals in Missouri were so thoroughly alive to the value of the “Reserve,” that urgent representations were made by them at Washington, of the advisibility of having it immediately surveyed and thrown open to purchasers. Ostensibly, indeed, this request was preferred for the purpose of enabling the poor man, who should desire to raise money on mortgage to improve his farm, to do so, by showing a clear title; but, in reality, to secure for themselves so profitable an investment as the purchase of that portion of the land not already occupied by squatters would necessarily be. Having succeeded in interesting an influential member of the government in behalf of the scheme, they had but little difficulty in obtaining the concession they solicited, and I was ordered to set out immediately for the scene of my future labours. Having always entertained an almost unconquerable aversion to the sea, I preferred the fatigues, and even dangers, incidental at that time to the overland journey, to making the voyage to New Orleans in a sailing-vessel, and then ascending the Mississippi in a steamboat, which was the route then generally adopted to reach Missouri.

I set out quite alone on my expedition, for instructions had been furnished me by the government to engage a competent staff of assistants from among the members of my profession I should find in St. Louis. At that period, railroads there were none in any of the Western States. On the larger rivers there were a few steamboats, by which, at irregular intervals, communication was maintained between the principal cities on their banks; but on the smaller streams—which are now thronged with craft of every description—an almost unbroken silence reigned, only occasionally disturbed by the paddle of the canoe or dug-out of the solitary settler. The stage-coach has never been a favourite style of travelling in the West, and, in fact, the roads throughout that section of the United States were at that time, with few exceptions, but ill adapted for any vehicle of more delicate construction than an ox-cart.

On reaching Louisville, therefore, I was obliged to accommodate myself to the custom of the country, and continue my journey from thence on horseback. I was accompanied by my coloured servant, Ned, whose services I had hired from his owner in that city, and who, mounted on a steady old mare, carried the box containing my theodolite—the tripod supporting which was composed of rods ingeniously jointed, so as to fold up when not in use—and other surveying instruments, with that ludicrous assumption of dignity and sense of the importance of his trust, so characteristic of the negro race.

“In the desert,” saith the proverb, “no man meets with a friend.” And the same assertion might have been made with considerable truth of any of the Border States thirty or forty years ago. I had, therefore, taken the precaution of being well armed. The revolver of Colt had not then been invented, and the knife to which Colonel Bowie gave a name, and which was destined to prove so formidable a weapon a few years afterwards in the struggle between Texas and Mexico, was not yet known to fame. But I carried a short rifle slung frontier fashion across my shoulders; a pair of English double-barrelled pistols graced my holsters; and a long heavy two-edged knife, of that kind called by the Mexican a machête, hung suspended, in a leather sheath, from a belt round my waist. Altogether, I presented a rather formidable appearance, and, indeed, when I first assumed these warlike accoutrements, I was unable to repress a smile at the thought of the queer object I should be considered were I to be seen thus arrayed in my native New England, in any part of which for a man to be obliged to carry arms for his personal security was a practice totally unknown.

I had reached and crossed the boundaries of Missouri without any particular incident having characterised my journey, and was within a few days’ travel of St. Louis, when one afternoon, as my follower and myself were riding slowly along one of those wretched “courderoy” roads then so common throughout the State, we heard the sound of human voices, and on turning an angle of the road which had hitherto concealed them from view, we found ourselves in sight of a group of about twenty men, all well armed, some of whom were stretched upon the ground, whilst others lounged carelessly against the trees. The road at this point diverged in two different directions, and I was about to follow the path which I was aware it was necessary to pursue in order to reach the tavern where I proposed passing the night, when half-a-dozen rifles were raised and directed towards myself and Ned, and a rough intimation given us that we must stop and render an account of ourselves.

I at once perceived that we had fallen in the hands of a band of “Regulators,” as they are called. This is a term frequently applied throughout the South and West to bodies of men who constitute themselves into a tribunal for the purpose of exercising a species of vicarious jurisdiction over those offences to which the ordinary courts of justice administer neither so swift nor so severe a punishment as they conceive them to merit. In other words, they are usually a set of scoundrels, who, having no legitimate occupation, have formed themselves into a peripatetic court, presided over by Judge Lynch; and are at once a terror and a scourge to the locality they infest. For it may be said with truth, that, as a general rule, of all those who fall into their hands, at least two innocent persons suffer for one that is guilty.

To have attempted resistance against such odds would have been madness; besides, I flattered myself that—however disposed may be such tribunals generally to assume as a foregone conclusion the guilt of those brought before them—as I carried with me the means of proving most satisfactorily the legitimate nature of my occupation and journey, I should suffer, at worst, but a temporary detention.

“Oh Lord, massa! dem’s de Reg’lars, sure!” said Ned, in an undertone, his face presenting that peculiar livid appearance which fear produces in the negro countenance. “I wish we was safe out o’ dis.”

I made no other reply than to direct him to be silent; then, riding quietly forward into the midst of the group, I addressed myself to a man of about fifty years of age, who appeared to be the leader of the band, and requested him courteously to inform me why I and my servant had been stopped. While I was speaking, I observed a man, with his feet fastened together and his hands tied behind him, who was bound to a tree a few yards off. He was evidently the prisoner for whose trial the “Regulators” were assembled, and although ignorant of the nature of his offence, I could not help feeling some compassion for the poor wretch who had been so unfortunate as to fall into the hands of the ruffianly assemblage around me.

“Why, see here, Strainger!” replied the individual to whom I had spoken, “there’s many of the folks round about as has lost their cattle, and some their niggers, and every man as travels through this here part of the country has got to show his papers. How did you come by that hoss?” casting, as he spoke, an envious glance at the handsome animal I bestrode, “and that nigger?”

I should explain here, with regard to this last imputation, that stealing slaves (with their own consent, of course), and selling them again, the negro receiving for his participation in the transaction a small proportion of the purchase-money, has frequently been engaged in as a lucrative business by a certain class of men throughout the South and West. It is not, however, without its drawbacks, as, if detected, suspension by the neck from the nearest tree is pretty sure to prove the fate of the confederates. Besides this, at the period of which I am writing, the abolition societies of New England had already begun to spread their emissaries over the Slave States; and although the arrangements of the “underground railroad” were not then as perfect as they subsequently became, many fugitive slaves managed by their assistance to reach the North. Thus, to be suspected of being an abolitionist was to find oneself in quite as dangerous a position as if accused of slave-stealing for gain.

I was galled by the insolence of the fellow’s manner, but I knew how necessary it was for me, under the circumstances, to keep my temper. I therefore, without a word, drew from my pocket and handed to my interlocutor my commission from the United States Government, bearing the signature of the Secretary for Indian Affairs. This document—handsomely engrossed on parchment, with a large spread-eagle at the top and the broad Seal of State at the bottom—presented, to the unaccustomed eyes of the spectators, rather an imposing appearance, and, I could see, made considerable impression upon them, for the subsequent portion of my examination was conducted in a somewhat more civil manner. Having with some little difficulty read my commission aloud for the information of his companions, the individual who conducted the interrogatory returned it to me, saying:

“Wall, it ’pears to me it’s ’bout all right. I’ve only one more question to ask you, Mister Scudder,—that’s your name, eh?—Whar did you git that arr nigger?”

“Yes,” said one of the group, scowling at me from under his bent eyebrows; “that’s the talk, judge. How do we know, although he is on Uncle Sam’s business, that he ain’t one of them dam’d Yankee abolitionists that go round, running off our niggers when they git a chance?”

“Hold on, Jim Brown!” exclaimed another of the men, quickly; “you must take that back. I hate an abolitionist like pison, but I won’t hear our Eastern folks spoken of that way, no how. I’m from the old Bay State[1] myself.”

The person thus addressed grumbled out a sort of apology, and peace was restored. I had remained silent during this little episode, and now, as the best reply to the questions which had been addressed to me, I handed to the judge—as his companions called him—my contract with the owner of Ned, in which, in addition to stating the terms on which I had hired him, a paragraph was inserted to the effect that full security had been given for his value.

“It am all right, massa,” interposed my servant to the judge, while that individual was perusing the paper, “I’m Colonel Jackson’s boy; Massa Scudder, he hire me in Loo’ville—here my pass, massa,” handing him, as he spoke, the document the non-possession of which subjects any slave, away from home, to the risk of being arrested and detained on suspicion of being a fugitive, by the first white man he meets.

Our papers having been read and returned to their respective owners, I was informed that I was at liberty to continue my journey. I was about to avail myself of the permission thus accorded, when a mingled feeling of curiosity and compassion prompted me to inquire of what offence their unfortunate prisoner—who had regarded the whole of the previous proceedings with an air of stolid indifference—was accused.

“Hoss stealing,” sternly replied the judge, “and there ain’t a bit o’ doubt he’s guilty, for when he was stopped he was on the critter’s back, and the man as owns him is here. However, he shall have a fair trial.”

“A fair trial,” when the certainty of the guilt of the accused was thus assumed by his judges beforehand! On any other occasion I might have smiled at the obvious contradiction involved in the language I had just heard, but the life of a fellow-creature was at stake, and I shuddered at the thought of the fate that in all probability awaited him—for well I knew that the penalty of his offence by Judge Lynch’s code was death. It was but barely possible, I was aware, that any arguments or intercession of mine would be listened to; nevertheless, I resolved to make some effort in behalf of the unlucky prisoner, should an opportunity for my doing so present itself; and, with this object, I solicited and obtained permission to remain and be a spectator of the trial.

As is usually the case on these occasions, a rude attempt was made to imitate in some respects the ordinary form of procedure in a court of justice; although, as will subsequently be seen, not the slightest regard was paid to that legal principle which, in the American as well as the English system of jurisprudence, prohibits any endeavour to obtain from the prisoner himself admissions which may be used as evidence against him.

A jury was chosen, a judge appointed—the individual who had been addressed by his companions by that title assuming the duties of the office—and one of the group undertook to act as counsel for prosecution. No one, however, seemed disposed to volunteer his services for the defence. The prisoner looked round him slowly, to see if in any one face he could discover traces of either pity or sympathy. As he did so, his eye rested for an instant upon me. I could not resist its mute appeal, and on the impulse of the moment I offered myself as his counsel. I was accepted, and the trial immediately commenced.

The case against the accused was a very strong one.

The farmer, who had lost his horse two days before, swore positively that the animal on which the prisoner was riding when arrested, was the one of which he had been robbed, and this assertion was corroborated by two of his neighbours, who were present. I elicited from them, however, on cross-examination, an acknowledgment that the appearance of the horse in the possession of the accused did not exactly correspond with that of the stolen one—the tail and mane were differently trimmed, and there were certain spots on the one, which the other had not. Nevertherless, I did not succeed in shaking their testimony in the least; on the contrary, I almost immediately discovered that I was very decidedly damaging my client’s cause by pressing the point, for one of the witnesses quietly went up to the horse, which was tied to a tree a few paces off, and rubbing his hand on one of the spots in question, proved most conclusively its artificial nature, drily observing as he did so, that

“Paint war cheap, and a hoss war easy clipped.”

The evidence, in fact, on the point of identity was so positive and convincing, that I perceived it would be useless for me to pursue this branch of the defence. The explanation offered by the prisoner of the manner in which he became possessed of the horse, was a very lame one, and afforded me scarcely a better foundation upon which to sustain the theory of his innocence, than the line of argument I had just been obliged to abandon. He had purchased the animal, he said, of a stranger whom he had met on the road the previous day; but his description of this person was confused and contradictory, and he could show neither bill nor receipt as evidence of the transaction. Neither could he give any satisfactory explanation of whence he came, nor of the nature of his business in that part of the country. His answers, indeed, were given with a dogged sullenness which seemed to imply that he regarded his fate as already sealed, and his trial as a mere form.

When his examination was concluded, I addressed the jury on his behalf, and endeavoured to convince them that as there was a possibility of his tale being true, it was their duty to give him the benefit of the doubt by acquitting him. I touched upon the danger of convicting on purely circumstantial evidence; I urged upon them the well-known legal maxim, that it is better that a hundred guilty persons should escape a merited punishment, than that one innocent individual should suffer, &c., &c. In fact, I brought forward that series of arguments which, time out of mind, has formed in capital cases the staple of the speeches for the defence when the case was desperate against the prisoner. And, on the whole, considering that it was the effort of an amateur, I think that my oration was a very creditable one.

When I concluded my address, I believed, for one moment, from the expression of their faces, that I had made some impression on the rugged natures of my hearers, and had the offence of the culprit been almost any other than it was, it is possible that they might have been disposed to take a more lenient view of the case. But slave and horse-stealing are the unpardonable sins throughout the South-west, and it is no exaggeration to assert that a homicide, or even a murderer, would stand a better chance before a jury in that section of the country than a man charged with either of the above offences.

After a few minutes’ deliberation the jury rendered their verdict. It was guilty—and the punishment—death.

The prisoner received the announcement with the same air of apparent indifference he had displayed throughout. Indeed, so far as the external manifestation of emotion was concerned, I appeared the more agitated of the two. After a brief pause I collected myself, and made a very urgent appeal to his judges to inflict a less cruel penalty than death—a punishment the severity of which, I reminded them, found no warrant in the laws of any one of the States. When I found that a deaf ear was turned to my petition, and that my solicitations irritated rather than softened those to whom they were addressed, I desisted from any further attempt to intercede for the life of the criminal. But I begged them, at least, not to hurry the unfortunate wretch into eternity without affording him some brief space in which to make his peace with Heaven, and prepare himself for the awful fate that awaited him.

“We’ll gie him time enough, Mister, never fear, to say all the prayers he’s a mind to,” retorted one of the band, with a sneer.

I was at a loss to comprehend the latent meaning which evidently lay concealed in his words, but the proceedings of those around me soon enlightened me.

In the mean time I approached the doomed man, and endeavoured to utter such words of sympathy and consolation as were appropriate to his condition. But he interrupted me, saying:

“You’ve dun yer best for me, Strainger, and I’m thankful; but ’twarn’t no use, no how. I knew it was all up with me when they cotched me on the hoss, for, between you an’ me, I did take the critter. The fact is I war dead broke; I lost my pile comin’ down the river—hadn’t a red cent—and was bound to make a raise somehow. But I’ll die like a man: it sha’n’t ever be said that a fellar raised in old Kentuck was afeard to face death in any shape.”

And as he spoke he raised himself as erect as the nature of his bonds would permit, and looked boldly around him with that air of indomitable resolution so characteristic of his people. For the inhabitants of the “dark and bloody ground,” as at one time Kentucky was called, from the terrible wars between the Indians and settlers by which it was desolated, have always maintained pre-eminent throughout the West their reputation for personal courage and daring.

As it was evident that I could be of no further service to the unhappy man, I should now have resumed my journey, had it not been that there was a species of peculiar and terrible fascination about the preparations which were being made for his execution that rivetted me, against my inclinations, to the spot.

One of the party ascended a tree, and attached a rope firmly to a projecting branch; the stolen horse was then brought forward and placed beneath it. The prisoner was partially released from his bonds, his feet were set at liberty, and he walked firmly to the place of execution. His arms having been strongly pinioned behind him, he was lifted on to the back of the animal for which he had paid so dearly, and the rope adjusted round his neck. The whole of these proceedings were conducted in almost perfect silence, even the rude natures of the men around me being to a certain degree awed by the terrible solemnity of the act they were performing. The “Regulators” then shouldered their rifles, mounted their horses, and were prepared to leave the spot, when the judge thus addressed the condemned man:

“Now, Tom Meyers, we’re a goin’ to leave. The hoss has had a good feed, and he’ll stand quiet enough for the next half hour, I calkilate. If you want to pray a bit you kin do so, and you kin start the critter when you’re ready.”

It was to my intense surprise and disgust that I now discovered it was the intention of his judges to make the poor wretch his own executioner, as it were.

“Good God!” I exclaimed, “you cannot mean to aggravate the sufferings of this unhappy man by delaying his death in this manner?”

“See here, Mister,” said one of the party, savagely, “we’ve had too much jaw ’bout this bis’ness already. You had best shut up, or some on us will git riled, and no mistake.”

“Come, Mr. Scudder,” added the individual who had proclaimed himself a native of New England, and who spoke with a somewhat more cultivated accent than the others, “you mean well, no doubt, but you must see that any further interference on your part would be as useless to the prisoner as dangerous to yourself.”

In the angry faces of those around me I read a confirmation of his words, and with a heavy heart I became silent. As we rode out of the wood I observed that the “Regulators” took the same road that I did, and, disagreeable as was to me their companionship, no opportunity presented itself immediately of separating myself from them without doing so in such a manner as to manifest, more palpably than was prudent, my distaste for their society. In about a quarter of an hour, however, we reached another fork in the road, and having directed Ned, in an undertone, to keep close to me, I dropped rather behind the rest of the party, determined that whichever path my companions took, I would follow the other. But the possibility of my desiring to part company with them had, I soon found, been anticipated, and, for certain reasons, provided against by the “Regulators.”

“Mister Scudder,” said the judge, who had been engaged for the last few minutes in a whispered colloquy with three or four of the party, “straingers who travel out West must abide by Western law. We’ve dun what we consider justice on yonder critter, and we won’t allow no man to hinder it. You needn’t git mad,” he added, as he perceived the colour rise in my face at this brusque language, “but you’ve got to go ’long with us for an hour or two, so that we may be certain that you don’t take the back track and set the feller free.”

I had no alternative but to yield obedience to this decision, and we continued our route in silence. We had not ridden many miles when the rapid gallopping of a horse was heard behind us, and in a few moments the animal which had been the unconscious instrument of punishing the wrong done its owner, dashed into our midst, covered with foam, and evidently much terrified. Whether his rider had himself precipitated the catastrophe, or whether the horse, tired of standing still, had started off of his own accord, can never, of course, be known; but to those who are acquainted with the natural timidity of the animal, and the readiness with which he is startled by anything not within the ordinary range of his experience, it will not appear surprising that he should have been thoroughly frightened at finding himself relieved of his burthen in so sudden and so unusual a manner.

It was to me an almost inexpressible relief to know that all was over, that whatever the sufferings of the unhappy wretch had been, they were now ended. And it was with a much lighter heart that, so soon as the slight confusion incident to stopping and securing the horse had subsided, I resumed my journey.

“I guess, Mr. Scudder,” said the judge to me with a grim smile, “we needn’t trouble you now to go ’long with us any further than you’ve a mind to. You’ve seen how we treat them as steal our hosses, and you kin tell your folks when you git back East, that we sarve nigger-stealers the same way.”

While this stern warning was yet ringing in my ears, the whole party struck into a gallop and were soon out of sight. Such was my first, but by no means my last, experience of Lynch law in the West.

W. C. M.

  1. Massachusetts.