Missouri News in the 1870s: Race and Social Issues

An antebellum photo from Boone County, Missouri.





The Civil War was over. Reconstruction had begun. How were Blacks faring in rural Missouri? The editor of the Jefferson Democrat does not sound like a wholesale bigot, but he wrote within a societal grid of long-established prejudice, wariness, and condescension.

In 1871, for example, the newspaper reported: “Two Negro Militiamen were executed at Union Court House, S.C. on Friday last for the murder of a white man named Stevens. Ten other negroes were hanged some years ago by masked men for the same crime, thus making twelve lives in all taken for the murder of one person—certainly a complete and fearful vengeance.”

We would call it something else.

By 1878, the editor was weighing in freely on “a cold blooded murder” of one Black man by another, a topic far less fraught. It happened Christmas night, at a festival held by “the colored M.E. church.” The men started arguing in church, went outside, and “soon a pistol shot was heard.” Aaron McPete staggered to the steps of the church, gasped that Monroe Guy had shot him, and died thirty minutes later. “Guy acknowledges the killing, but claims to have done it in self-defense,” the editor noted. “Coroner Pipkin held an inquest but elicited nothing in addition to the above. The general opinion here is that a first-class job of hanging would have a healthy influence in this portion of the moral vineyard.”

One senses authorities going through the motions as quickly as possible, everybody’s mind already made up. But the editor did get reamed for his tone. On February 7, he wrote, wiping the sarcasm from his pen afterward: “I suppose hereafter when a murder is committed in this locality, I shall have to ‘put it gently,’ and for example, say: On last Christmas night, while attending a very pleasant affair at the colored M.E. church, two of our fellow citizens of A.D. stepped out of church; one of the gentlemen, Mr. Monroe Guy, of our city had borrowed a pistol to shoot off. Mr. McPete, the other gentleman, who resided at Valle Mines, happened to get in front of Mr. Guy’s pistol, and was shot through the heart; this so injured Mr. McPete that he was a subject for Coroner Pipkin the next morning.”


A year and a half later, there was a follow-up: “The St. Francois County Banner asserts that Monroe Guy was under the influence of liquor when he killed McPete. We do not like to spoil a good text for a temperance lecture, but a regard for truth compels us to say that the statement made by the Banner is false.” Did he know that for a fact? In any event, Guy was put to death, unlike all the feuding, dueling, brawling White men.

Richest of all is a separate article on the case, noting that the circuit clerk helped his “crippled father-in-law” stock a refreshment stand on the day Guy was executed. The editor stressed that nothing intoxicating was sold and the clerk “neither received or expected a cent of the profits: he spent the day attending to the duties of his office. The fact though that he purchased part of the stock for the concern has been considered sufficient license for certain dirty individuals to malign and slander the county officials, and accuse them for seeking to profit by the poor negro’s misfortune.”

Complaints about a clerk’s lemonade stand rated more ink than any exploration of cause before a man was put to death?

When a crime was White on Black, here is what happened: “A negro named James Coons was shot last Wednesday by a white man named Benton. Coons swore out a warrant against Benton, but no arrest has yet been made.”

But short of murder, Black crimes with Black victims were taken fairly lightly: “Edward and Carter Lyons were each fined $50 for assault. These are the colored men who tried to carve up a gentleman of their own color.” Overall, you get the sense of teams choosing up sides. In Crystal City, there is a dispute over a cow: “The plaintiffs are white men and they proved their cause by an abundance of white testimony. The defendant is a colored man, and he also had an abundance of testimony of his own color. The white men gained the cow and a verdict for $5 damages. The jury was composed of white men exclusively.” In 1879: “Defendant’s counsel demanded for their client a jury of his own color, and the request was granted.” The result? A hung jury.

What was not reported about anyone Black? Social events, trophies and feats, business news, births, deaths, marriages… Pretty much any news except crime.

Those living in want or with mental illness were often referred to with even less respect. Though today’s woke language can be an irritant, I wince to read all the accounts of “an idiot pauper” or “a lunatic”—the latter category including even Abe Lincoln’s widow. “This unfortunate woman is evidently in want of more brains,” the editor wrote, calling her incompetent to take proper care of herself and saying she “should be placed in a lunatic asylum, forthwith.” His critique offers no evidence of instability; rather, he is outraged that she begged the nation for a pension, dishonoring her husband, and then went off to Europe, sending back letters of her failing health but also “little touches of romance” with a Dutch baron who might “take her to his heart and home, which Heaven grant that he would do, and let America be free of this walking farce.”

At least Mary Lincoln wangled some cash. The safety net in the 1870s was a few strings of knotted hemp, and people were forced to take desperate measures. A widow murdered her infant and toddler because she feared they would starve. A mother committed her adult son to jail for three months: “William is not of sane mind, and his mother takes his means of keeping him from harming her.” Friends and relatives were the first recourse, their struggles regularly reported in the newspaper: “General Partney, a young man of Big River township, has lately become demented, and is putting his friends to a good deal of trouble.”

There were no social workers, no support groups or agencies. Men who beat their wives were occasionally fined—one had to pay $50, “on complaint of his better half.” An orphaned boy, age eleven, left an uncle’s care “black and blue, from his head to his feet,” the editor noted. “It is hard to realize the existence in our county of such a brute as the man who can beat a child, but the evidence is too plain to admit of doubt.”

Eviction of renters took place, but they seem to have been less coldly bureaucratic. “Sheriff Jones performed a very unpleasant duty last week, that of executing a writ of ejectment on W.T. Seals,” we are told. “He had to remove the family and effects by force, and the crying of the woman and children was almost too much for him.”

Lesser crimes also won some sympathy: After John Thistle had served his time for stealing horses, “the citizens here gave him enough money to take him back to his family in Kansas.” But the prison suicides that so trouble us today were taken as a stroke of luck. When a man jailed for murder in Farmington hung himself in his cell, the editor wrote, “The crime committed by him was such a cold blooded, unprovoked affair, that Cunningham was thought by many to be insane. At any rate he has saved the state a big amount of cost, and Sheriff McMullin an unpleasant job, and there are probably but few who will mourn his demise.”

Feminism did not yet exist, but the newspaper did acknowledge a woman with a medical degree: “We still have three doctors and one doctress.” When a writer reminisced about the turn of the previous century, though, he wrote that “every man tanned his own leather and…the wives and daughters, too, were real, genuine women, for they all understood carding, spinning, weaving and making.” Young ladies in the 1870s, he sighed, were still abed late in the morning, “snoring away, while the mother is sweating over the fire getting breakfast. The balance of the day is spent in dressing, primping, visiting, &c.” The future of humanity was understood to be in peril.

The past is useful—for romanticized nostalgia, stubborn stuckness, clues about what remains constant, and reminders that there has been at least a bit of progress.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.


Read also:


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

“Missouri News in the 1870s: How People Lived”