Getting Away with Murder (Most of the Time): Civil War Era Homicide Cases in Boone County, Missouri

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C. Race and Murder After the Civil War

When the War ended in the late spring of 1865, Missouri faced an unsettled future. Almost uniquely among the states of the reunited country, it could neither acclaim with one voice the return of its victorious Union sons, nor close ranks to console the defeated soldiers of a failed rebellion. Virtually every community in Missouri was home to both winners and losers and their families and sympathizers, and, particularly in central Missouri, to a large population of newly emancipated black freedmen, some of whom had fought for the Union. This potentially incendiary mixture presented innumerable difficulties which would take decades to reach equilibrium, and some of which resonate to the present day. But perhaps the most vexing and uncertain question in the War's immediate aftermath was the status of black people, newly free, but excluded by emancipation from their former place in their communities' economic and social arrangements. Certainly Missouri's freedmen hoped for a genuinely new dispensation in which they would enjoy, not only freedom in law, but something approaching equal political status and social opportunity.

It did not happen. Indeed, precisely because Missouri, though remaining loyal to the old flag, had been a slave state, Missouri's black population never enjoyed even the brief flare of political and social influence experienced by their brethren in the reconstructed Confederacy. (274) For some years after the War, those whites who had been partisans of the Confederate cause were disenfranchised in Missouri, which gave a more liberal cast to its politics. (275) Nonetheless, particularly in Boone County, even the unflinching Unionists like Switzler, Rollins, and Guitar were often former slaveholders who acquiesced grudgingly to the inevitability of emancipation, but never abandoned their views about the essential inequality of white and black or their embrace of the racial hierarchy that had made slavery acceptable. Whatever hopes for a genuinely new social order Boone County's black population may have harbored in 1865, they were rapidly disabused, as two murder cases of the period graphically demonstrate.

On Christmas Day in 1865, a white man named John Payne was drunk in downtown Columbia. Harrison Gentry, a friend of Payne's and a deputy marshal for Columbia, (276) wanted to get Payne home before he drank any more. Wishing to avoid intervening officially, which would have required arresting and fining Payne, Gentry enlisted the aid of William Coleman (277) and Robert P. Reid and asked them to persuade Payne to go home. (278) Reid located Payne in the company of a black man named West Young, but Payne would not agree to go home and walked away with Young. Coleman followed, apparently remonstrated with Payne, and returned with him, Young following. Young stepped up from the street onto the pavement where Reid was waiting and said that Payne should not go home. Reid "shoved him off and told him to go off about his business." (279) Young stepped back up on the pavement. According to Reid, Coleman told Young to stand back several times, but Young said, "By God, I have as good a right to my say as any man." (280) Reid testified that Young "rushed up close" to Coleman, (281) but Verge Russell, the lone black witness, said Young was merely leaning against a tree. (282) Whatever the case, Coleman pulled a knife and stabbed Young just above his collarbone. Although the wound did not initially appear serious (Young himself walked over and reported his own stabbing to deputy marshal Gentry), it apparently cut something vital in the chest cavity and Young died on New Year's Day 1866. (283)

Deputy Marshal Gentry arrested Coleman immediately after the assault and seized the bloody knife from his pocket. Coleman denied trying to "hurt" Young but diluted the force of this disclaimer by saying, first, that "if he had it [to] do over again he would not be so easy with the negro or would stick him deeper" and, second, that "if West or any other nigger bucked up against him he would stick him deeper. …


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