Today’s history hunt began with this picture:
I had to go all the way to a New Zealand paper before I found my first mention of this in online newspaper archives. From the Bay of Plenty Times:
Judge E.T. Lane, presiding judge of Cass County, Mo., United States, who with his associates Judges Wray and George have been prisoners in Jackson County Jail for several months, has been nominated for the legislature by an overwhelming majority over two opposition candidates. He, with the other Judges, was sent to prison by United States Judge Phillips for refusing to obey an order of his court directing a tax levy to pay bonds voted by Cass County years ago for the construction of a railroad which has never been built. The three prisoners are the most popular men among the farmers of that section to-day.
If this sounds familiar to you, you may be thinking of a very similar case in Kentucky in , also concerning an unpopular tax levied to pay off bonds for a railroad that never happened.
These judges may have had good reason to prefer jail to complying with the order of a higher court. An New York Times editorial notes:
…some fourteen years ago [R.S. Stevens] was mixed up in a complicated railroad bond transaction in Cass County, Mo. According to our recollection, there was a fraudulent issue of one hundred and sixty-two county bonds of the denomination of $1,000 each, and through a certain land grant railway trust company, of which R.S. Stevens was agent, the citizens of Cass County were saddled with a debt of $229,000, for which the county never received a dollar of consideration. There was something of a disturbance over this affair, as we remember it, and we believe that Judge Jehiel C. Stevenson, Mr. J.R. Cline, and Mr. Thomas E. Dutro were subsequently shot to death at Gun City by citizens of Cass County during the adjustment of the difficulties growing out of the issue of fraudulent bonds.
In Vernon County, the judges explicitly said that they were bowing to public pressure:
Being… the servants of the people, we have felt our duty to obey their instructions. In obeying these instructions we have been compelled, though against our own convictions of right, to refuse to levy a tax for the purpose of meeting the rapidly accumulating interest of our railroad bonds. In thus refusing we have placed ourselves before the higher courts in such a position that we are not only liable, but certain to be arrested, imprisoned and fined for contempt of their authority. From which, resignation is our only means of escape.
(The Governor refused to accept their resignations, so even that wasn’t going to do the trick.) Here’s more, from the Deseret Semi-Weekly News of :
Judges Sent to Jail.
Kansas City, . — Judge Phillips of the United States Circuit court sentenced Judge Ray, Blaine and George of Cass county to jail until they make some arrangements for the payment of the bonds voted by that county in aid of the Tebo & Neosho railroad. He also imposed a fine of $500 on each of the three. The sentence of the St. Claire county judges were postponed until . In the two counties voted $750,000 and $1,000,000 respectfully to aid the construction of the road. It was never built, but the bonds fell into the hands of innocent purchasers, who have obtained judgment repeatedly, but have never been able to collect it. Judge Phillips ordered the county judges to issue a special tax levy for the indebtedness, but the judges have repeatedly declined, and Judge Phillips finally determined to summon and commit them for contempt.
The Missouri Bond Tragedy.
A Deplorable State of Affairs the Outcome of Voting R.R. Bonds.
Another chapter of misery is opened up in the history of the bond cases in Missouri, says a dispatch. One of the St. Claire County Judges, who had been in prison for several months for contempt of the Federal Court, was released on parole to attend the funeral of his daughter, who had died at a lunatic asylum, to which she had been driven by the imprisonment of her father. Before he could arrange for the removal of the body he was called to the bedside of his wife, who was not expected to recover from the shock caused by the death of the daughter under such cruel circumstances. And the husband is so much prostrated that it is feared he may not long survive the death of his wife, and may not even live long enough to be taken back to jail.
The people voted bonds for the construction of a railroad which was expected to benefit them. The corporation to which the bonds were delivered did not complete the line, and the counties repudiated the debt, interest on which had been piling up ever since about . The bondholders obtained judgments in the United States Circuit Court, and the County Judges have steadily refused to order a tax levy for the purpose of paying the debt. Judges were elected only to go to jail. Two months ago the people of Cass County agreed to a compromise of 70 per cent, which was acceptable to the bond-holders, the fines of the Judges were remitted, and they were freed from imprisonment, one of them going direct from the jail to be sworn in as a member of the General Assembly. It is probable that the wave of sympathy aroused by the affliction of Judge Copenhaver will cause the people of St. Claire County to demand a similar compromise. It is said that both of the Judges are in favor of submitting the question to a vote of the people. But such a vote may not be ordered for some months to come, and during that time one or both of the Judges will have to lie in jail. The situation is not a pleasant one to be contemplated by the fellows who misapplied the proceeds of the bonds.
More on Judge Copenhaver’s troubles can be found in the Nevada, Missouri Daily Mail (also here, which notes that Copenhaver was imprisoned for judicial intransigence twice over an eight-year period over this case), which also reported on his return to jail:
Judge Benjamin F. Copenhaver… passed through this city on his way to Kansas City where he expects to be confined in jail again. Despire his recent troubles he seemed cheerful and hopeful, and said he was willing to make any sacrifice for the benefit of St. Claire county.
A proposition to pay off the bonds was presented to voters later in , but was defeated, and so the judges went back to prison:
Kansas City, . — Three Judges of St. Claire County, so long imprisoned in the jail in this city for contempt of the United States Court in refusing to order a tax levy to meet railroad bonds and released pending a vote in St. Claire County on a compromise proposition, returned to this city .
The bond proposition was defeated some days ago, and, as they were only out on parole pending the election, they came to report to Judge Phillips. Judges Copenhaver and Lyons went directly to the jail, but Judge Nevitt stopped at a hotel for the night. They may be committed to some other jail on account of too lenient treatment here.
A.L. Webber, in the book History and Directory of Cass County, Missouri devotes chapter 13 to this fiasco. Webber agrees that R.S. Stevens was “one of the greatest scoundrels of his day,” along with his henchmen James R. Cline and A.D. Ladue.
In this book, the Gunn City shootings cap a case of government corruption that plays out like a great train robbery, and certainly helps explain why the people of Cass and St. Claire were reluctant to tax themselves to pay off railroad bonds. Among those indicted (but acquitted) in the Gunn City shootings was William P. Barnes, whom you can see mentioned as one of the later intransigent judges in the Cass County Courthouse inscription.
The book also includes these details:
In St. Claire county the judges were elected with the understanding that they would stay in the timber or in jail, as conditions might require, during their term of office. Deputy United States marshals searched for them in the forests and the people of the county helped hide their fugitive officers. Occasionally the courts would meet at nights and transact their business, and the next that would be heard of the judges, would be when deputy marshals would be gathering them in to the federal courts.
Jeremy Neely, in The border between them: violence and reconciliation on the Kansas-Missouri line notes that in St. Claire county “a group of citizens broke into the courthouse, seized the county’s tax assessments, and burned them, thereby complicating the job of local officials who might try to collect further railroad taxes.”
Following the footnote brings me to David Thelen’s Paths of resistance: tradition and dignity in industrializing Missouri:
St. Clair’s taxpayers joined the movement in the 1870s to repudiate the debts, but the county’s new leaders wanted to repay the investors. Afraid to try taxing the residents, they decided to raise the interest by staging a huge livestock auction in , the proceeds to pay off the railroad bond interest. On auction day, however, “no one seemed to want to buy” any animals. To bondholders the “great shock” of the auction’s failure proved the depth of local resistance to railroad taxes.
By the tax season rumors began to circulate that the county court was planing [sic] to tax residents for the bonds. On the night of , a gang of armed men rode into the county seat of Osceola and held tax officials at gunpoint while its members stole all the official tax records. The gang warned the county court judges that they would be lynched unless they resigned immediately. Lawmen recognized individuals in the gang but took no action because they knew residents admired the gang more than they did the court. The gang destroyed the tax records, and that meant that the county had no way of taxing anyone. All three judges resigned and, at a special election, voters selected three dedicated Greenbackers, one of them a relative of train robber Cole Younger who could presumably be trusted not to ally with railroads…
Early in rumors of new taxes began to circulate again. Around midnight on , an armed gang forced Deputy Treasurer K.B. Wooncott to take its members to the county offices. The gang seized the railroad tax book and escaped into the night. Once again the county was incapable of collecting taxes. After an “investigation,” the prosecuting attorney, J.B. Jennings, announced that he could only discover “the charred remains” of the tax book. No one was prosecuted: No one paid railroad taxes.
Another technique mentioned in Thelen’s book:
Under renewed popular threats of physical harm, county courts in Knox and Macon devised schemes in that prevented the county treasuries from ever having enough funds to pay railroad debts. The higher courts rejected this dodge and ordered an end to civil disobedience by local taxpayers and county courts.
Thelen also says:
Since local taxpayers believed that the judges were, finally, obeying public opinion, they helped the judges evade the marshals and the law. Homeowners welcomed and hid any judge trying to escape the marshals. In Dallas County the court met in the woods, under culverts, in barns, and other places where marshals were not likely to look. At the county seat of Buffalo, residents developed an elaborate network to warn the judges whenever a stranger appeared who might be a marshal. These new forms of representative government, featuring imprisoned local officials and court meetings in the woods, restored to taxpayers the traditional control that citizens had exercised over elected officials. The plain truth was that those officials had abdicated their governing function, leaving the field of battle to local taxpayers and remote investors.
It wasn’t until that Cass County finally settled with the remaining bond holders. (Some counties held out until as late as .)