Missouri in the 1870s: How People Lived

“A Bachelor in His Study” (rawpixel)





From old issues of the Jefferson Democrat, painstakingly transcribed for the Jefferson County Historical Society, we can extract the gentle amusements of life in these parts a century and a half ago. If you fancied yourself “book-larned,” there were debates: “Question—Resolved that man is the architect of his own fortune.” (Six yay, six nay.) For those with more vigor: a wolf chase. For the ladies, the county fair, with “some very fine jellies” and prizewinning toilet cushions in worsted wool, canvas, and silk embroidery. (Also there were “infant saques”—did they bag their babies?)

In August 1878, the mania was flying kites—at night—lit by Chinese lanterns. A benefit for the Catholic church—a moonlight picnic and social hop—was pronounced the social event of the season. “Miss Julia White occupied the Gypsy wagon and dispensed the past, present and future to all patrons,” the newspaper reported. Catholics may have mistrusted ouija boards and Tarot, but there was apparently no bias against fundraising fortune-telling. There was also a post-office, which, if the reference is to the venerable kissing game, raises a brow as well. The fishing pond does not, rubber duckies being incontrovertibly amoral.

All was not gentle, however. The Potosi Horror, in 1870, was the massacre of a family of French Creoles, their bodies then burned “to shapeless masses of cinder and ashes.” Five innocent people gone, the murder solved when a fourteen-year-old boy told the sheriff he had stood outside the cabin and, peering through a crack in the wall, watched his brother and his brother’s friend attack them with an axe.

On a slower news day, we are told that “Miss Cora Hensley came home last Thursday and with several of her young friends spent an agreeable evening eating nuts, pulling candy and sweeting each other generally.” Young men, meanwhile, were drinking and scuffling, or heading off for adventure. “Peter Strickland and Lawrence Hensley have gone to Colorado to spend the summer in search of fortune,” the paper reported. And in 1880, an entire committee, appointed by the St. Louis Merchant’s Exchange, went to Hot Springs, Arkansas, to prospect for silver.

Back home, much of the news was economic: “John N. Smith is still at his old stand,” we are told, “ready to accommodate the traveling public with fresh beer—five drinks for a quarter.” The newspaper also noted a butcher’s promise “to continue to supply the people of Hillsboro with fresh beef,” selling as cheaply as any man and cutting it up and salting it to boot. But if people bought from farmers and left him with beef on his hands, he warned, he would have to quit.

Fairness was demanded, compassion urged. In 1880, the editor told people needing deeds from the recorder’s office that they “must have some patience with Mr. Johnston, as his afflicted father demands all his time and attention, and he has got behind with his office work. The old gentleman is in a fearful condition, nearly 78 years of age and a cancer eating away his face.”

No one worried about HIPPA. Nor did the news need to be momentous: one item announced that “Wm. Loesche is having the entire front of his building painted—cornice, white; blinds, green; doors, grained oak; brick painted and peneiled.” And the newspaper regularly listed how many bushels of wheat and oats each farmer’s machine threshed. “Judge Reed McCormack showed us this week a bunch of wool twenty-three inches in length, cut from a year old half bred Cotswald sheep of his raising,” we are told. “The whole fleece weighed nine pounds.” “Sam’l A. Reppy brought to our office, yesterday, a turnip which measures twenty-three inches in circumference, and weighs four pounds and two ounces. We don’t claim that this is the largest turnip raised, but we simply think it is big enough to talk about until somebody finds a larger one.”

My favorite, though, is the report of a shoemaker who, “on entering his shop one morning last week found, standing in one corner of the house, a two-year old calf. It is supposed that the calf was thinking its time had come.”


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Pride of place colored the reporting. We are told that “Wilton Pipkin has returned home after an eighteen months sojourn in Texas. He says that if he owned both Texas and the place where the wicked have to go when they die, and had to select one or the other for his summer residence, he would rent out Texas to somebody else.” When another man wrote from the Colorado mountains, saying that “from the 13th of December to the 30th of March he did not see a single person except his partner,” the editor added, “We would call that a rather lonesome country.”

Far better to have the clashes that come with lively society. The paper cheerfully rounded up the charges and sentences that resulted: “John Baldwin, for carrying deadly weapons, pleaded ‘guilty, Lord,’ and was fined $10.” “W.R. Everett, indicted for maiming his wife’s cow, pleaded guilty and was fined $25.”

From this distance, it is sometimes hard to tell if the Jefferson Democrat’s editor was sincere or sarcastic, as when the railroad depot at Kimmswick was robbed. The railroad agent “had his valise taken, and he is minus four boiled and starched shirts. He has the sympathy of his friends for this great loss.” When the sheriff discovered a bundle of small tools hidden at the jail, the paper’s tone could have been wry or just matter-of-fact: “two files, some pieces of steel for saws, etc. It is presumed that they had been brought there for Mr. Sidney to work his way out of jail with.”

Gun violence was already a worry in 1866: “A difficulty occurred between Mr. Jacob J. Harmony, of this county, and his son Jacob, which resulted in the death of the son, from a shot fired from the gun of the father,” the paper reported. “The killing of men is becoming entirely too common of late, and the good men of our county must take some measures to put a stop to it.”

That never happened. And for all but murder, the newspaper’s stance was relaxed. No note of disapproval—rather, a cheering-on—when two men got into a fight at a ball: “Atwood knocked him down with a chunk of mineral, but Maness held the field and vanquished his enemy after all.” But the editor does turn avuncular when he learns that two nervous young men “quietly walked out in the dark to a smooth grassy field, and after the usual preliminaries, went to work to established the fact as to which was the best man. After a few kicks and blows they clinched and fell and Jim cried ‘nuff.’ We understand that Jim wants to try it over in the daytime, but our advice to him is to seek for some better business.”

When a family began feuding, their initial weapons were hoop-poles, and no one was seriously hurt. Then came violent threats, then gunshots, with three six-barrel pistols emptied fast and “old Mrs. Wideman, shot in the arm, a pretty bad wound.” Then, the editor weighed in: “This has been a very disgraceful affair all the way through, as family disturbances always are.” He added dryly, “It is fortunate that no lives were lost, though if they had all been killed, it is needless to add that the Jefferson Democrat would not have lost a single subscriber.”

A follow-up noted that the grand jury “decided to let the Wideman family settle its own difficulties in its own way.” Rioters were discharged on their own recognizance, and the only man kept in custody was a bystander who had thrown a rock. “The inference is, that the jury did not consider that it was his fight, and they want to teach him not to meddle with other men’s affairs.”

The editor did not hesitate to analyze the characters embroiled in such affairs, however. After a skirmish in 1879, he wrote that “Higginbotham is a gentleman when sober, and should never let liquor get the better of him, for then he is dangerous, even to his friends.”

Laissez-faire about others’ issues, people still embraced vigilante justice about their own. After a triple murder on Dry Creek in 1880—its victims a young married man, his mistress, and their unborn babe—the man’s father-in-law and brother-in-law were swiftly arrested. Yet when Eddie Corp was convicted of attempted rape, he “was given two years in which to learn a more useful trade.”

Attitudes change.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

Read also: “Missouri in the 1870s: Marriage and Its Scandals”