I. Murder at the University-An Introduction
On March 4, 1851, at the State University in Columbia, Missouri, there occurred one of those incidents that from time to time break up the stately progress of the academic year. It seems that young George Clarkson got in a brawl with a fellow student. Upon hearing of this unseemly affair, the faculty convened and docked each of the combatants fifty marks. Professor Robert Grant, coming late to the meeting, encountered Clarkson on the steps and asked how the matter had been resolved. Clarkson replied, "I am very well satisfied but I will give him a whipping yet." (1) Divining from this remark that Clarkson had not gotten the faculty's message and that further breaches of the peace might be expected, Professor Grant reported it to University president James Shannon, who reconvened the faculty and summoned Clarkson to return. (2)
Clarkson did not respond gracefully. The outraged scholar confronted Professor Grant on the portico of the college building, accused him of scheming to have Clarkson put out of the University, slashed at him with a whip, and struck him with a cane.  President Shannon intervened and told Clarkson to behave himself, to which the young man replied by cursing Shannon and saying "that if he did not mind his business [Clarkson] would cane him." (4) For his part, Professor Grant exhibited remarkable sangfroid and walked away. (5) once Clarkson was restrained, the faculty resumed its conclave and voted to expel him. (6)
Clarkson was enraged and would not be mollified. He armed himself with a pistol, told fellow students that he intended to kill Grant before the night was out, and began searching the town for the unsuspecting academic. (7) Alarmed by Clarkson's threats, several students sought out Professor Grant at a nearby tavern where he was taking a guitar lesson and warned him. (8) In addition, a faculty colleague who encountered Clarkson searching for Grant dispatched a slave to the tavern with a note bearing "six or eight lines apprising [Grant] that I apprehended Clarkson was seeking another conflict with him." (9) Grant responded by scratching out a message to a friend asking him to send "one of his best revolvers" over to the tavern. (10) The revolver arrived. The lesson concluded. Grant stepped out into the street and was confronted by Clarkson, who held a pistol in one hand and a stick in the other and struck Grant with the stick. (11) The professor told his assailant to go away or quit (12) or that "he did not want to have any fuss with him," (13) and tried to pass on, but Clarkson struck him again. (14) Professor Grant drew his gun, turned, and fired. (15) Nearly simultaneously, Clarkson's pistol discharged. (16) Clarkson missed. Grant did not. (17) Mortally wounded, Clarkson lingered a few days, but ultimately expired. (18)
Professor Grant immediately surrendered himself to the sheriff. (19) At a preliminary hearing before a justice of the peace held on March 14, 1851, (20) Grant was released after a finding of self-defense. (21) The circuit attorney nonetheless presented the case to the grand jury in August, but it refused to indict. (22) Free, but perhaps dismayed by the turbulent character of mid-Missouri college life, Grant promptly relocated to California. (23)
Murder always fascinates. It is central to much of the world's most enduringly popular literature, from Oedipus to Hamlet to The Sopranos. In real life, the stories of why and how people kill each other and how the law responds can reveal a great deal about a time, place, and culture. That the Civil War and its aftermath defined modern America is a historical truism. (24) Here in mid-Missouri where I teach law, the truism is a palpable truth, discernible in the names on our streets and buildings, the racial geography of our towns, and the nature of our political and social arrangements.
In the quarter century centered on the Civil War, 1850-1875, at least fifty-three homicide cases came before the courts of Boone County, Missouri, of which Columbia is the county seat. In addition, during the War, there were at least twenty killings of Boone County civilians that resulted in no legal proceedings. (25) (The War also claimed the lives of several hundred uniformed or irregular soldiers in Boone County outbreaks of the guerrilla conflict that flared across Missouri from 1862 to 1865, but those deaths are not the subject of this Article. (26)) Most of the homicides that reached court occurred within the county. Some were killings elsewhere transferred into Boone County on a motion for change of venue. In many of these cases, the Missouri State Archives retain the complete trial court files. In other instances, we know of the homicide and its legal resolution only through newspaper reports or the reminiscences of lawyers. As a long-time criminal lawyer with a sideline in legal history, I surmised that these cases might open a unique window on Boone County in the Civil War era. I have been gratified to discover that, to a remarkable degree, the story of these killings is a chronicle of the place and period.
But why begin with Professor Grant's fatal encounter with young Clarkson? Perhaps simply because it resonates with me, employed as I am at the same university from which Grant took his hasty leave. Moreover, although disgruntled young scholars armed with whip, stick, and gun are happily now rare, the idea of responding to outbreaks of youthful insubordination by calling for one's best revolver has an undeniable panache sadly absent in modern pedagogy. However, the real reason this Article begins with Grant's case is that it is illustrative of a number of the patterns and themes that emerge from a careful study of Boone County's Civil War era homicides.
The first point on which Professor Grant's case is similar to so many other Boone County killings is that he got away with it. Perhaps that turn of phrase is a little harsh to Grant since the deceased was an enraged undergraduate with a cocked pistol whose dispatch the law of any era might have excused. But the most immediately striking fact about Boone County killings is that, although the homicide rate was not especially high by mid-nineteenth century standards, (27) the conviction rate was very low. Of the fifty-three homicide cases known to have been processed by Boone County courts from 1850-1875, only eleven verifiably resulted in a conviction for any grade of criminal homicide. (28) Two other defendants died while awaiting trial, (29) and we do not know the outcome of four cases, either because the Boone County records are incomplete (30) or because the cases were removed to other counties and further records cannot be located. (31) In short, between 1850 and 1875, a Boone County manslayer had a roughly two-out-of-three chance of avoiding any legal sanction, even if identified by a court as the killer. Comparisons between time periods are difficult, but these odds are far better than those faced by a modern murder suspect. (32)
Moreover, while we may think of the western American frontier of the mid-nineteenth century-of which Missouri was a part-as a time of stern retributive punishments, only three of the eleven Boone County convictions were for first degree murder, which carried an automatic death penalty, and only two of those defendants were hung. The third was spared when the Governor concluded that he was insane and commuted his death sentence to commitment to the state asylum. (33) This aversion to convictions for capital murder seems to have been a well-known and enduring community characteristic. According to one old Boone County practitioner, there were no convictions for first degree murder between 1870 and 1897. (34) At all events, the statistics suggest a community and criminal justice system remarkably indulgent toward killing, a circumstance that itself seemed worthy of exploration.
So my examination of Boone County's murders began with an effort to find adequate explanations for one local behavioral peculiarity. As it proved, finding those explanations required excavation of an economic, legal, and social order now long gone, but which, if it does not rule us, certainly influences us from its grave. (35)
II. Boone County and Central Missouri in the Mid-1800s
Missouri joined the Union in 1821. (36) It was then and remained the only slave state west of the Mississippi and north of the Missouri Compromise line of 36[degrees] 30' North. (37) Boone County is situated just to the north of and directly across the Missouri River from the state capital of Jefferson City in the agricultural zone created by the flow of the Missouri across the state from Kansas City to its junction with the Mississippi at St. Louis. It is part of an area referred to before the Civil War as the Boonslick or the "Boone's Lick Country" (38) that afterwards became known as "Little Dixie," so called because it was settled primarily …