Missouri County in Rebellion for 31 Years

Here’s a fun telling of the tale of how St. Clair County, Missouri resisted collecting taxes to pay off investors in fraudulently-issued railroad bonds, from the issue of The Century Magazine:

A County Thirty-One Years in Rebellion

Being the Story of a Rural Community in Missouri wherein a Public Office Is a Private Calamity

by Frank Wickizer

When a candidate for a county judgeship in St. Clair County, Missouri, makes the race for office, he does so with the understanding that, unless he would spend the time in jail, he must put in his term of office skulking in the brush, a fugitive from justice. This is because he will be in contempt of the United States court. For the Federal tribunal has been trying to compel St. Clair County to pay interest on bonds issued in to assist in the building of a railroad. The road was never built, and the county declines to obey the court’s mandate, not believing in paying for goods which were not delivered. For the county has been in open and successful rebellion against the Federal authorities.

Meanwhile the people, through their officers, are paying the penalty of their rashness. The county is virtually bankrupt. Here public office is a species of martyrdom. Still, there is no lack of competent candidates, and even the county bench, upon which falls the brunt of the burden, has never been without its full quota of three judges. Without inquiring deeply into the ethics of the situation, there is a refreshing quality about the unselfishness with which they obey the will of their constituents; right or wrong, they display something which is not far removed from heroism.

The position in which St. Clair County finds itself is the sequel of a State law passed just before the war, the purpose of which was to encourage the building of railroads. Under this law a county court was privileged to bond its county, in order to subsidize a railroad project, without submitting the proposition to a vote of the people. During the first decade after the close of the war the courts of one hundred and seven counties in Missouri availed themselves of this new prerogative. Of these counties all save three — Knox, Dallas, and St. Clair — long since canceled their obligations. Many of them were swindled by the promoters, but, the bonds being in the hands of “innocent purchasers,” they paid because the Federal court compelled them to pay. Knox County, it is understood, is willing to compromise with the bondholders as soon as certain pending litigation is closed. As to Dallas, the debt it owes the bondholders exceeds by several hundred thousand dollars the total valuation of all property, personal and real, in the county, and the creditors long ago dropped all negotiations looking to a settlement.

There was a time when St. Clair County was by way of being a mining community. Silver was discovered, and it was known that the hills contained deposits of some of the baser ores; but, as a step preliminary to the development of these resources, it was necessary to secure railroads.

Railroad-building throughout the State was then almost a craze — the reaction from the stagnation of war times. Besides, river traffic was on the wane. Osceola, the county-seat, once at the head of navigation on the Osage River, with fleets of steamers from St. Louis and Kansas City at its ports, and with a great tributary region in Arkansas and the Indian Territory for which it was the natural trading-point, felt that its commercial importance was declining, and a master-stroke was required to reëstablish its connection with the outside world. The time was ripe for the leading citizens to listen to the voice of the tempter, and his visit was not long deferred. He came in , and his scheme was to build a railroad from Clinton, a short distance northwest of Osceola, to Memphis, Tennessee, which would put Osceola on a direct line of road between Kansas City and Memphis.

It sounds almost like travesty to say that the court selected , as the date for entering its memorable order directing the county treasurer to take stock in the venture; but it is the solemn truth. By the court’s ruling the county was bonded in the sum of $250,000, and the treasurer was instructed to deliver the bonds to the projectors of the the Tebo & Neosha Railroad Company “when the contract is let.”

The contract was let a few months later, and the promoters received their bonds. There were some preliminary surveys, and a gang of laborers went to work in the northern part of the county, piling up earth for a “fill.” The bonds were sold to “innocent purchasers.” Taxes were levied to pay the first year’s interest; then one day the construction train pulled out with a gang of laborers, and was never seen there again. A mile or so of fill, with some rotten ties and rusted rails, now remains as a monument to the short-sightedness of the county judges who wrote, “to be delivered when the contract is let,” instead of “when the work is done.”

During the years following the transaction the feeling against the railroad swindlers grew daily more bitter, and the determination to resist payment became more deeply rooted. But the “innocent purchasers” were clamoring for their dues, and , they secured a judgment in the Federal court.

The succeeding steps followed in quick succession. The county court was ordered to make a levy to pay the claim; it declined to comply. The Federal court issued a mandamus; it was ignored. The county court was cited for contempt; it disregarded the summons, and United States marshals were sent to arrest the recalcitrants.

This procedure has been observed many times since, but then it was new: the limitations of the higher court were not so well known then as now. The citizens of St. Clair began to have misgivings as to the outcome, and to feel the necessity of doing something to appease the powers. A conference of the wise ones was called, and immediately afterward it was announced that a plan had been devised to meet the bond interest without taxation. Each property-owner was to be requested to contribute of his personal effects according to his means, one giving a horse, one a cow, and another a hog or two — all to be put up at public auction at the county-seat on a certain day. A formal notice of this sale, with a statement as to its purpose, was sent to each of the “innocent purchasers” and to the Federal judge at Kansas City.

But it seemed to take a long while to collect the personal property, and the date of the sale was postponed from time to time until nearly two years had elapsed. Then, the vengeance of the court being imminent, the auction was advertised for the last time. The day arriving, cattle, horses, hogs, and sheep were received in most gratifying numbers. The scene on court-house square suggested a live-stock exhibit at a county fair. The auctioneer rang his bell and shouted himself hoarse, and the assembled farmers and the few non-residents took a most active interest in the proceedings; but yet the sale was not a success, as success at auctions is usually computed. No one seemed to want to buy. The auctioneer’s clerk stood ready, with pencil poised above his book, but not a single bid did he record.

There are those who have the hardihood to hint that this was the exact situation contemplated by the conferees when they planned the “sale.” The non-residents, of course, were not in the secret, but it is explained that they were easily won over to the native way of thinking.

This fiasco was a great shock to both bondholders and Federal judges. It served to make the marshals more zealous, and to send the value of the bonds down at a phenomenal rate. Within the next six months they dropped to twenty-two cents.

One side-issue of the “sale” is worthy of mention here. After the live stock had been corralled in the square, it was checked off to determine if all freeholders had contributed their share, and it was found that, among others, one Sam Peden of Doyle township was delinquent. The sheriff forthwith rode out to Peden’s farm to demand his tithe, and there found assembled half a dozen of the most rabid partizans of repudiation.

“You’ll have to dig up a critter er two, Sam,” he announced.

By way of answer, Peden threw his rifle to his shoulder and ordered the sheriff off the place.

A Visit from the Deputy Sheriff (Drawn by J.N. Marchand. Half-tone plate engraved by J.W. Evans)

This act of rebellion not only served to foist Peden upon the county bench at the next election, but to keep him either there or in some other county office for nearly twenty-five years. He has been arrested several times, and has spent much of his time in jail, but it is said that his experience has served only to strengthen his faith in the rifle as an arbiter of- vexed questions.

Not long after the bogus stock sale, — to be exact, on . — a gang of masked night-riders called at County Treasurer Wonacott’s residence at midnight, and forced him to go to the courthouse and turn over to them the taxbooks. These books contained the delinquent tax-lists for railroad bonds and other purposes, covering a period of ten years. The next morning the charred remains of the books were found among the hills south of Osceola.

It would seem to one not in sympathy with the prevailing spirit that the county judgeships would go begging at election time; yet the opposite is true. They are the most eagerly sought of all the offices within the gift of the county. The people say to the aspirant: “Your duty will be to refuse to make a tax levy to pay the bonds; if chased, to hide in the brush; if caught, to lie in jail. As to your salary, it will be one hundred dollars a year in discounted treasury warrants and such glory as falls to the lot of martyrs.” This seems to satisfy them.

As well talk surrender to a Patrick Henry as compromise in St. Clair County. The story of this stubbornness can be read everywhere between the lines of its history, retarding education, reducing wheat and corn acreage, frightening away foreign capital, depressing property values, paralyzing business, and keeping its treasury in a perpetual state of deficit. No county in the State, perhaps, is so blessed with natural wealth. Its hills are rich in lead and zinc ores, oil has been found in paying quantities, and there are virgin deposits of mineral paints; yet all these resources are undeveloped, or virtually so. The people themselves are too poor to develop them, and foreign capital, having been bitten once, will not venture again. So the population contents itself with stock-breeding, a desultory kind of agriculture, and — defying the Federal court.

To evade the United States deputy marshals, the county judges have had to place themselves in some extraordinary predicaments, not all of them consonant with judicial dignity. “Hiding out” was the regular order of business. Judge Thomas Scott, shorn of his long white beard, remained under cover for a year, thereby winning the sobriquet of the “Swamp Fox.” Every stranger was a suspected sleuth, and every loyal citizen a “stool-pigeon,” his duty to inform the fugitives of the stranger’s movements. So the judges spent most of their time in the brush.

Belated farmer lads, groping through the woods at night in quest of strayed cattle, have chanced upon the court in session on a fallen tree. With an arsenal of small arms as their square and compass, without light save such as was reflected from the masked lantern by which the clerk wrote his minutes, the judges here performed the humble rites of their office, being always alert to adjourn and scuttle into the brush should a twig break or the foliage of a bush stir suspiciously.

Again, when the wind caused trouble with the clerk’s papers and lantern, or when it was feared that deputies prowling in the neighborhood might be attracted by the light, these farmer lads have seen four shadowy figures — three judges and a clerk — struggle through a tangle of shrubbery and disappear in the mouth of a cave. In such cases the approaches were invariably guarded by volunteer sentinels.

Tribune Cave and Salt Creek Cave: Salt Creek cave is the largest cave in the St. Clair County region. The main chamber, after a depth of forty feet, branches off into several minor passages, which also subdivide into smaller cavities. Tribune Cave overlooks the Osage River near Osceola. Until recently its mouth was concealed by wild grape, and other vines. Both of these caves have been favorite refuges of county judges. (Drawn by Harry Fenn, from photographs. Half-tone plate engraved by S. Davis)

Nevertheless, the marshals were quite as resourceful in the expedient as were the judges, and showed themselves willing to take extraordinary pains. Take for example the case of Joseph H. Graham, a deputy marshal of St. Joseph, and his co-worker, Henry W. Pyatt of Joplin. Being newly appointed officers, and unknown in the region, they were assigned to work on the St. Clair County case. This was in . They met in Kansas City and agreed upon a plan of campaign.

Pyatt’s case was made easy by the fact that he had a married sister living in Osceola. Through the influence of his brother-in-law, he secured a position as helper at the ’Frisco depot, and at once took up his residence at the home of his sister. Graham had to work out a more elaborate plan. Deciding finally to palm himself off as a commercial traveler, he secured the necessary trunks and cases, and laid in a line of grocery samples. Unfortunately, he knew nothing about the grocery business, and realizing that his ignorance would be detected by the first retail dealer that he approached, he set out resolutely to take a primary course in the theory, practice, and technic of commerce. He haunted the wholesale houses of Kansas City to acquire the language and manner of the trade; he fraternized with drummers, studied pricelists, schooled himself in the late novelties of the grocery market, and finally took a graduate course of one week on the road with a veteran drummer as master, all at his own expense.

Pyatt in the interim had kept him posted as to conditions in Osceola. “On the ,” he had written, “the judges will hold court openly in the court-house, relying for safety on the fact that they are known to no one save the natives. This will be our chance.”

St. Clair County Court-House, Osceola, Missouri (Drawn by Harry Fenn, from a photograph. Half-tone plate engraved by S. Davis)

Graham arrived , put up at the Commercial Hotel, and began canvassing the local grocery-stores. It must be that the schooling stood him in good stead, for it is not of record that his inexperience was detected. During he had an opportunity to consult with Pyatt. The latter had gathered some information as to the personal appearance of the two judges in contempt, Sam C. Peden and James M. Nevitt (David Walker, the third judge, not having fallen under the ban of the Federal court), and the details of the attack were arranged.

By farmwagons began to arrive from every point of the compass, and by court-house square was hedged about with a compact rank of them. Farmers, stockmen, county officials, and townspeople stood about in knots, engaged in conversation; and in one of these groups, the deputies knew, were the men they sought, but to pick them out by applying the loose verbal description Pyatt had received was no easy task. Peden had been designated as “tall, lank, and swivel-jointed, with a drooping blond mustache”; but half the men in the yard seemed to answer to this. And the description of Nevitt as a man “not quite so tall as Peden, but heavier and with a stoop to his shoulders,” was not less indefinite.

Graham and Pyatt stood in the entrance of a dry-goods store, selected as a point of reconnoiter because the clerks were too busy waiting on a crowd of women to notice them. It was agreed that they should stay there until court opened, when the judges, they thought, would disclose their official identity by taking their positions on the bench. They would then swoop down, each entering by a different door, and arrest all three. Later they could ascertain which was Walker, and release him.

At the sheriff’s “Hear ye! Hear ye!” the groups converged upon the picturesque ruin used as a court-house. Graham, meanwhile, acting on a happy impulse, had caused a report to be circulated among the women in the store that a marriage was about to be solemnized. He had seen the bride, and she was beautifully dressed. In the next five minutes not less than twenty women, remembering that they had occasion to speak with their husbands or fathers, sauntered with studied leisure across the street, all their faculties alert to catch a glimpse of white organdie and nun’s veiling.

Carefully gauging their speed, to give the women exactly time to reach the court-room and no more, the deputies followed. It was as they had expected: St. Clair County being essentially Southern in sympathies and gallantry, there was a mighty moving of chairs and shuffling of feet as the masculine wing of the assembly hastened to find seats for the late arrivals, and the confusion served to mask their own appearance.

At the end of the room farthest from the doors thirty or forty men stood closely massed about a table. Idealizing that now was the time and this the place to strike, the deputies charged for the crowd. Instantly a clarion voice hushed the whispers of chivalry and the drone of business, and a pair of brawny arms seized Pyatt about the waist from behind, pinioning his arms to his sides. Some one else essayed the same form of attack upon Graham, but he broke away. “The deputies! The deputies!” screamed the voice. Pistols flashed into sight, and there was a rustle of skirts as the women whisked out into the corridor.

Meanwhile Graham had succeeded in drawing his own weapons, and, with a revolver in each hand, he plunged into the crowd about the table. Behind that human rampart, he believed, sat the judges, and it was his business to arrest them before they had time to mix with the rabble.

He was surprised at the ease with which he accomplished it. The crowd separated before him like the Red Sea under the rod of Moses; the clock on the wall had ticked less than five times since the alarm was given, and there, serenely occupying the chairs which stand for the “county bench,” sat his quarry.

“Gentlemen, you are my prisoners!” he cried. “Throw up your hands!” And then to the crowd: “Men, move back and give us room! Stand back!”

But there was no occasion for the latter part of the command, for through the entrances into the corridor and through the windows opening upon the veranda the crowd was melting as if by magic. There was something ominous about the facility with which the program had been carried out: it was not exactly in keeping with the community’s reputation, this display of the white feather without even a show of resistance, and when Graham looked into the faces of his prisoners it was with a sinking sensation that he recognized he had been duped. Two were farmer lads, mere striplings scarcely out of their teens, and the third was a mulatto.

A few of the late audience looked back over their shoulders in departing to mock him with derisive laughter and sallies of bucolic wit. Only two remained; these stood at a window looking out upon the street. Pyatt had disappeared. Graham glared at the nondescript trio before him, weighing the question as to whether he should take them into custody for aiding Federal prisoners to escape; but an instant later the sound of pistol-shots in the yard below helped him to decide. There was, perhaps, bigger game afoot. The pair at the window became suddenly perturbed at what they saw, and bolted for the stairs. Graham followed.

Having reached the lawn, he saw, just outside of the inclosure, a crowd of excited farmers and stockmen about a lumber-wagon. On the spring-seat in front sat two men and a boy; standing in the rear of the wagon, his pistols trained upon the other occupants, was Pyatt. The crowd about was sullenly demonstrative and rapidly growing. Graham, his weapons still in hand, charged them, firing a wild shot or two as he ran, by way of moral effect.

The incidents of the next few seconds followed each other so swiftly that no two accounts agree. Some blows were struck with clubbed weapons; one or two knives were flashed; a revolver was discharged; there was a chorus of shouts, a tangle of legs and arms, and then two things happened: Graham, having fought his way to the front wheel of the wagon, popped his pistol into the face of the nearest occupant. In the same breath the other adult occupant leaped to the ground and ran, Pyatt after him, while the boy, too terrified to move, sat dumbly holding the reins.

Again Graham repeated the standard formula of the arresting officer: “Judge Nevitt, you are my prisoner!”

This was the critical moment of the scene. A shrewd tug from behind must have tilted Graham off the wheel and given the prisoner at least a chance for his liberty, but the rabble let it pass unimproved, and the next instant suffered the humiliation of seeing the bracelets clicked upon the wrists of the presiding judge. A groan, a hiss, some smothered imprecations and muttered threats, and the incident was closed.

“I was sitting on the piazza, of the Commercial Hotel about five minutes later, Judge Nevitt by my side,” said Graham, in telling the story, “when Pyatt came sauntering up from the field with Judge Sam Peden in tow. Both were splashed with mud, and had about them other evidences of a hot burst of speed. The judge’s ‘swivel-joints’ had not disqualified him for the sprinter class. It seems that one of the features of the chase had been the leaping of a six-rail snake-fence, an obstacle which both had cleared at a bound. As they approached the piazza I overheard their conversation: they were talking about other hurdle-races they had known.”

“How did you get on to their judgeships?” I asked Pyatt, aside.

“Why,” said he, “when that fellow grabbed me in the court-room, I dallied with him a while until I had him where I wanted him, and then sprang a wrestling trick on him. It worked, and I wriggled loose. About this time every one was bolting for the doors. I tried to get back where you were, but three or four husky chaps got me in front of ’em, and hustled me out. When I reached the foot of the stairs, I saw quite a crowd around a lumber-wagon. They were boosting two men and a boy up into the spring-seat, and while one man untied the team, two or three others were hooking the tugs. They were all laughing — seemed to be tickled half to death about something.

“Of course I supposed all this time that you had nabbed the judges in the court-room, as I saw you had the drop on the three fellows in the chairs; but when I saw those two men on the spring-seat reach down to shake hands with some one in the crowd, I got a hunch that you had barked up the wrong tree, so I fired a few shots in the air and swooped down on ’em. Well, you know the rest. Gee! but that fellow Peden is a sprinter!”

After the first six months, Peden attempted to secure his freedom by resigning his office as county judge, but the ruse was only partly successful. He was kept in jail until within a few weeks of the expiration of his term. Judge Nevitt served out his time without a murmur, and upon his return to Osceola was given an ovation.

Deputy marshals came into the county in all manner of disguises. They came as insurance, book, lightning-rod, and patent-medicine agents, as mining engineers, as government surveyors; and one, who had some gift of locution, turned temperance lecturer and stumped the county in the interest of total abstinence. Spurious buyers of live stock would haunt the principal towns for weeks, talking nothing but cattle, and bogus land speculators took long drives, encouraging meanwhile the conversational talents of their guides. But all such invariably tipped their hands before leaving, usually by making a bold attempt to arrest some one supposed to be a county judge. The result was that every visitor, for at least the first six months of his stay, was under suspicion.

The wealthier and more substantial citizens profess to believe that, in electing the present judges, the county took a step which is the beginning of the end. They maintain that the present incumbents of the county bench represent a higher order of intelligence and business sagacity than their predecessors; that there will be no more skulking in the brush, no more citations for contempt, and no further clashing of authority; but that the court with becoming meekness will submit to the people a proposition to compromise with the bondholders on a basis of $231,000, the face of the original bonds minus $19,000 which has been paid, the interest to be eliminated. The county judges admit that they have some such plan in view. However, it is thought in some circles that this project is “loaded”; that in its essence it is like the stock “sale” of ; and that as no one would bid then, no one will vote now. But of course that would not be the fault of the judges.

Weight is given to this theory by the fact that the bondholders have inadvertently admitted the weakness of their position. About two years ago several of the heaviest holders issued circulars to their comrades in misfortune, the purpose being to call a meeting to discuss the St. Clair County case and to arrange for the passage of a bill by Congress enabling Federal courts to enforce collection of claims against towns, counties, and other unincorporated communities.

“Experience with the St. Clair County case,” the circular added, “shows how helpless are the United States courts in this respect.”

One of these circulars, by hook or by crook, found its way to Osceola, and within a week news of its contents was in the mouth of every taxpayer. Naturally they exulted in this admission of their strength, and its effect will not be to hasten compromise.