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Oxley Johnson

and the Death of

William Christopher Chapman

by Neil Allen Bristow1

 

In the years not long before the Civil War, several families in south-central Kentucky left their farms among the rolling hills of Barren County and crossed the Mississippi to settle on the vast, open plains of northern Missouri, probably drawn by the prospect of cheap government land and driven by erratic agricultural conditions in the mid-1850s. The migration may have been spurred by the depression which followed the Panic of 1857, the twelfth of the periodic low points in national economic cycles.2   Among the migrants were the Harrison Stallsworth family and their kin, including members of the Samples, Chapman, Crawley, and Johnson families. Although we don't know exactly who led the migration or when they made the move, such communal wanderings were not uncommon in American history. Court and census records reveal clusters of the same names moving from one community to another, in stages, from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific coast.

Although the straight-line distance from Glasgow, Kentucky, to Cainsville, Missouri, is only about five hundred miles, the journey probably entailed traversing twice that distance. Some of the wanderers may have traveled by steamboat, down the Green River and the Ohio, then north to Saint Louis and west up the Missouri to Saint Joseph, following routes established since the 1820s. If they took their livestock with them, they may have covered most of the distance on foot, over unpaved, dusty, rutted country roads or gravel turnpikes only slightly better, where they had to stop every few miles at a toll booth and pay a fee for every person, horse, wagon, cow and pig.

If their journey took place in 1859 or 60, Oxley Johnson and his new wife, Martha Ann Stallsworth, may have been able to "take the cars" for at least part of the journey. Although railroads of the time were still mostly local affairs, noted more for their financial instability and high accident rates than for their extensive or reliable schedules, Missouri rail promoters had been able to complete (with large amounts of assistance from enthusiastic state and local governments) an east-west route from Hannibal on the Mississippi 206 miles to Saint Joseph in 1858. A year later, the North Missouri opened its line from Saint Louis by way of Saint Charles as far as Macon, where it connected with the rails of the Hannibal & St. Joe.3

Our footloose ancestors were part of a larger movement. By 1860 Missouri had passed Kentucky in population, nudging into eighth place by 2.3 percent. Reflecting the settlement of the Great Plains, the population center of the United States, which in 1790 was near Baltimore, within the smell of saltwater, had by 1870 shifted to southern Ohio, not far from Cincinnati.4

Most of these transplanted Kentuckians supported the Union in the Civil War. Although some of their forbears had been slave owners in generations past, the settlers of Harrison County, Missouri, were independent small farmers, most owning a quarter section (160 acres) or less, working the land with the help of their growing families, and joining with their neighbors when the labor of a single household was not sufficient for the task at hand. By 1875 they were well established, some, like William Christopher Chapman, taking active roles in the political life of the community. Chapman had been elected County Judge in 1866 and re-elected in 1869. (In Missouri, as in Kentucky, the office is legislative and administrative rather than judicial, corresponding to what in other states is known as County Commissioner or Supervisor.)5

The Chapmans owned 106 acres on the Grand River north of Cainsville, next to Christopher's father-in-law, Lorenzo Dow Samples. The Chapman land also bordered that of Oxley Johnson.6  
Property in southeastern Clay Township
From the 1876 Atlas of Harrison County
William and Oxley had a lot in common. They were both born in Barren County, probably within a few miles; William was only thirteen months older than Oxley. There is no evidence that the two young men knew each other in Kentucky, but they likely moved in the same circles. Both had served in the 23rd Missouri Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. According to Army records, they were even the same height, five feet ten inches, a little above average.7   They were also members of the same fraternal order, the Odd Fellows.8   Chapman's wife, Emily Jane Samples, was first cousin to Oxley's wife, Martha Ann Stallsworth, both women being granddaughters of Jesse Stallsworth and Nancy Ginn.

Both the Chapmans and the Johnsons had other ties to the Stallsworths. For example, William's elder sister, Sophronia Frances Chapman, had married Martha and Emily's uncle, Thomas Jefferson Stallsworth; after his death in 1866 she married the widowed William S. Crawley, whose first wife, Mary Stallsworth, was Tom's sister. Oxley's elder brother, John W. Johnson, married Martha Ann's younger sister, Nancy Jane Stallsworth. The intermarriages among these families, which began in the early 1800s, continued in later generations, knotting a tangled skein of cousins too intricate to detail.9

I first became aware of the case when I noticed in a book of local cemetery records that William Christopher Chapman's tombstone inscription bore the phrase, "Killed by O. Johnson.10   Since I knew of no other "O. Johnsons" in the neighborhood, I was intrigued by a possible aspect of my great-great grandfather's character not in keeping with all that I had learned before. A little more research turned up three different versions of the death of William Christopher Chapman at the hands of Oxley Johnson, 10 January 1876. Although superficially different, they are not necessarily contradictory regarding the causes.

The only surviving contemporary account of the shooting was published in the Harrison County Republican within a few days and reprinted by the Jefferson City Daily Tribune about a week later (18 Jan):11

(Unfortunately, no one bothered to save copies of the Harrison County Republican from the 1870s, and the few extant issues of papers from nearby counties are silent, so there are no contemporary accounts giving any further details of the affair.)

Goodspeed's History of Harrison County, published a dozen years later (1888), characterizes the event thus:12

Family tradition, as recounted by Winonah Chapman Sawyer over a century later (1983), gives a more colorful version:13

Like many family tales, this version has all the marks of having been "improved" through telling and retelling over the years by the addition of mythic elements. Mrs. Sawyer's informant was William's granddaughter, Bronna Helen Chapman, who was born in November, 1909, almost thirty-four years later. Bronna's father, Simeon Bird Chapman, was only five when his father died, and was unlikely to have any reliable memories of the event. Several particulars of her story are contradicted by the contemporary account in the local paper. Although William was brought down by a shotgun discharge, it was not to his head, but to his lower body. Had his head been "nearly blown off," he could not have called out nor survived long enough for a neighbor to come to the scene "in time to see Mr. Chapman breathe his last." The news account also indicates that the fatal meeting was at William's instigation, rather than Oxley's and that the matter concerned a debt rather than a romantic triangle. What are we to make of these differing accounts?

Bronna's and Winonah's description of an alleged duel probably owes more to Hollywood than to history. Formal duels were pretty much things of the past by the 1870s, even in Kentucky, where some of the hot-blooded gentry of the ante bellum Bluegrass had cheerfully dispatched one another with proper attention to the niceties of the code duello — a written demand for satisfaction, seconds hurrying back and forth to settle arrangements, careful selection of matched pistols, a meeting late at night or in the early morning mists, supervised by judges and attending physicians. No one would have dreamed of taking a rifle or a shotgun to an affair of honor.14

On the other hand, Goodspeed's use of the term "feud" conjures up images of generations of Hatfields and McCoys nursing ancestral grudges and of the Missouri "bushwhackers" of the Civil War, inflicting casual and indiscriminate slaughter upon their neighbors as part of a violent and bloody anarchy in which anything was allowed. As one of the leading historians of the state, William E. Parrish, observed:15

The confrontation between William Christopher and Oxley fits neither of these extremes; it was closer to a schoolyard scrap gotten out of control. There may well have been long-standing tensions of a personal or financial nature, brought to flashpoint by some word or act by one party or the other, but absent more detailed evidence from the time we are left to speculate.

Since the published sources are inconclusive, as were the films of court records available at the State Archives in Jefferson City, I decided in mid-July of 1995 to make a detour to visit the Harrison County Courthouse in Bethany to see if I could find the records of Oxley Johnson's trial.

The Circuit Clerk's office in the blocky solidity of the WPA-era courthouse in Bethany offered some relief from the heat wave, which had been felling livestock and a few humans throughout the Midwest. When I explained my quest to Laura DePriest, the present Circuit Clerk, she directed me to racks of massive handwritten tomes bound in red leather. Although the century-old records had not been indexed, we found that Record Book H contained synopses of actions taken by the court. If a transcript or précis of the proceedings was made at the time, it has since been lost. We did make a brief but fruitless search for more complete trial records in the basement, but a thorough exploration would have taken a week. Ms DePriest did mention that there was a tale, perhaps apocryphal, of a previous clerk having tossed some of the old records into a convenient ditch to make room for new. Whether true or not, the story was enough to break a historian's heart.

Although the surviving documents record only the bare outlines of court actions, they are enough to follow the case. Oxley probably surrendered himself to the Sheriff, George Graham, within a matter of hours in Cainsville. He was arraigned before two neighborhood Justices of the Peace, John C. Stoner and William McElfish and allowed to post bail.16 He apparently escaped confinement in the stone jail in Bethany. Had he not been granted bail, it is doubtful that he would have appreciated the iron doors or the new iron cells which had been installed the year before.17   The bail allowed by the local magistrates was appealed, and on the fifth day of the next regular session of the court, 31 March, Oxley appeared before Circuit Judge Samuel A. Richardson who approved his release on the posting of a twenty-five hundred dollar bond and his promise to appear in September. His sureties were Samuel H. Glaze, and William C. Frazee.18   Glaze (1816-1907) was a resident of Madison township, who was part owner of the Cainsville mill where Oxley had worked for several years after the war, and Frazee was a prosperous merchant in his forties.19   Curiously, Frazee was also listed as a witness for the prosecution.

Both parties agreed to continue the case.20   Why was Oxley released on bail? After all, he was charged with the most serious offense on the books, murder. First, he was an established member of the community, with a growing family and property to ensure that he would not flee.21   Second, there may have been some feeling that the prosecution's case was not as strong as it might have been, and the prosecuting attorney, Daniel S. Alvord, may have felt he needed more time to develop a case.

At that same session in March, both the prosecution and defense presented their witnesses, who were bound over to appear at the September term of the court. The State named only three: About the first, Manuca [Monica?] T. Ramsey, nothing is known, though a Moses Ramsey appears in the 1870 census. The second was John H. Samples, who was William Christopher's brother-in-law. The third witness was the most interesting — William C. Frazee, who as mentioned above stood surety for the defendant.22

The defense listed fourteen witnesses:23 Martha S. Johnson (Oxley's wife); John C. Stoner (Justice of the Peace for Madison township, who had been Oxley's supervisor when Oxley served as township constable); LaFayette Harrison (a resident of Madison township); William C. Allman; John R. Stallsworth (one of Martha's cousins); Endsley Addison (living in Madison township); Samuel Baker; George Washington Stallsworth (1854-1934, Oxley's brother-in-law, who was married to Lucinda Samples, possibly a cousin of the Widow Chapman); William Harrison Stallsworth (1844- —, another brother-in-law, married to Sarah Crawley, living in Holt County, Missouri); Pleasant Wishon (a neighbor in Clay township, he was a 60-year-old farmer from Virginia); John W. Johnson (Oxley's elder brother); Oliver H. Burns (1839-1899, a member of the Cainsville Board of Trustees); George W. Flint (1833-1901, a Cainsville merchant); and Samuel H. Glaze, who was one of Oxley's sureties mentioned above.

When September came, the matter was again continued, the defendant's bail renewed, and the witnesses again bound over to appear the following March.24   Why the case was put off for a year is not explained in the records. Such delay was unusual for the time.

When the case finally came to trial on Tuesday, 28 Mar 1877, the crowds gathered at the new brick courthouse in Bethany. The building, completed in 1874 at a cost of $13,000, was a source of some pride in Harrison county. The curious and concerned citizens tramped up the stairway, past the county offices on the first floor to the spacious courtroom on the second floor, with its 21-foot ceiling.25

Within easy view of the courthouse, just up the hill behind the public square, was the place where Sheriff George Graham, assisted by a posse of forty, had supervised the hanging of Joseph P. Hamilton 30th October 1874, in the climax of one of the most sensational trials of recent years. Hamilton, a hired hand, had shot his employer in neighboring Mercer county in July of 1871. He claimed to have been enticed into the killing by his employer's young wife, who is said to have promised to share the estate as well as her affections with Hamilton. The notoriety of the offense caused a change of venue to Harrison County, where Hamilton was convicted two years later and sentenced to hang. An appeal to the Governor for clemency proved fruitless. The remorse of the condemned man must have been tinged with bitterness. His inamorata had been acquitted.26

The prospect of an exciting murder trial probably insured higher than usual attendance. The jury was chosen in a matter of minutes from among those present.27   The twelve selected appear to have been representative of the white male population of Harrison County.28   The ten jurors whose ages are known had an average age at the time of the trial of 46 years. The ten whose property ownership is known held an average of 209 acres. Most were Midwesterners, with birthplaces in the Ohio Valley; two were born in seaboard states (Pennsylvania and New York). Only one was born abroad, and none hailed from Missouri.29

J. H. Skinner, the first juror chosen, owned 167 acres in Cypress township. James C. Tucker, age 43, was a grocer in Bethany in 1870. William P. Clark, age 38, owned 40 acres in White Oak township. The third juryman selected, Robert Dixon, left no record. Hezekiah J. Herring, age 40, owned 300 acres in Colfax township. Samuel Jordan, age 52, owned 140 acres in Washington township. Samuel J. Moore, just turned 36, owned 85 acres in Clay township. Hiram P. Hornback, age 46, was owner of 520 acres in Sherman township. John Taggart, age 47, an Irish immigrant, owned 70 acres in Sherman and Adams townships. John Armstrong, age 57, farmed 80 acres in Lincoln township. Ezra T. Baldwin, a prosperous farmer with 240 acres in Dallas township, was serving as County Treasurer and Collector, and had just turned 40. William B. Gillespie, who owned more than 450 acres in Cypress township, was the eldest at age 65.

Presentation of the case by the prosecution and defense took only a few hours. Jury deliberations may have extended into the evening or have been carried over to next morning.

Postcard of the courhouse where Oxley was tried
The 1874 Courthouse six decades later, not long before it gave way
to a new building.(The bandstand was not replaced.)
Although we lack a full transcript, or even a summary of the testimony presented, we can speculate on the nature of Oxley Johnson's successful defense. In a homicide, the presumption seems to have been that there was a murder, and the only effective defense to a charge of murder was that of self defense.30   The courts did not recognize a claim of diminished capacity. The concept of a "Twinkie defense" was unthinkable; an attorney bold or foolish enough to raise such an excuse would have been met with scornful laughter, if not calls for his disbarment. (The prosecution passed up the opportunity to pursue a lesser charge such as manslaughter.)

The witnesses summoned by the defense were family members, neighbors, and businessmen in nearby Cainsville, none of whom, so far as we know, were present on the banks of the Grand River on that cold, winter Monday more than a year earlier, so they could not have described the actual shooting. Nor would have their general testimony about Oxley's good character carried much weight. What they could testify about were the events leading up to the fatal moment. The defense had to convince the jury that William Christopher Chapman had held a long-standing disagreement with Johnson, a disagreement that was known not just to the families, but to the neighbors and even to people in town. Beyond that, they had to convince the jurors that Chapman had demonstrated by word and deed that he was hostile to the defendant, that the slain man was in fact the aggressor and not an innocent victim. In short, that William Christopher Chapman had brought about his own death and that Oxley Johnson had no choice but to defend himself.

Whatever the testimony of the witnesses revealed, the defense was successful. Early on the 29th, the foreman of the jury, Ezra T. Baldwin, announced the verdict, "We the Jury find the defendant not guilty."31   Judge Richardson then ordered that Jacob T. Garrison, who had succeeded George Graham as Sheriff, discharge Oxley from custody. He further ordered "that he have judgment against the plaintiff for his costs herein expended and that the clerk certify the same for payment."

Emily Jane Chapman, the widow, who had brought a civil action for wrongful death, dropped her suit. "Comes now the plaintiff herein by his [sic] attorney and says she will prosecute this cause no further but dismisses the same whereupon it is ordered that the defendant go hence without day [delay] and that the defendant have Judgment against the plaintiff for costs herein expended and that he have thereof execution.32   One year, two months, and 18 days after William Christopher Chapman died, the matter came to a conclusion, as far as the law was concerned.

Six years later, Oxley Johnson and his family moved to Wilson County, Kansas, where he lived for another four decades, and died at the age of 86, a respected and well-liked member of the community. The widowed Emily Chapman remained in Harrison County, and died in 1890, age 55. She is buried next to her husband in Fairview Cemetery near Cainsville.


Postscript: I recently came across a copy of the grand jury indictment, dated at the March term, 1876, which does describe in legalistic excess the fatal event itself, though it does nothing to clarify the background which led up to the tragedy. The jurors held that Oxley "did inflict in and upon the breast and stomache of him the said William C. Chapman and divers other parts of the body Of him the said William C. Chapman several mortal wounds each of the breadth of one quarter of an inch & of the width of a quarter of an inch & of the depth of six inches..." and noted that Chapman "did suffer and languish for the space of five minutes..."33


Notes:

(Click on the footnote number to return to the text.)

1 The author is the great great grandson of Oxley Johnson.

2 Encyclopedia of American History, 536.

3 Paul W. Gates, "The Railroads of Missouri, 1850-1870" Missouri Historical Review 26: 126-141. Homer Clevenger, "The Building of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad" 36:32-47. Perry McCandless, A History of Missouri, Volume II, 1829 to 1860. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1972), 147, 206.

4 U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1975); Rand McNally, 90. For a comprehensive view of European-American expansion across the continent see Dale Van Every's quartet of books on the frontier, especially, The Final Challange: The American Frontier, 1804-1845 (New York: Morrow, 1964).

5 The most famous Missouri County Judge was Harry S Truman, who presided over the affairs of Jackson County, emerging with a reputation for honesty remarkable for Kansas City.

6 Harrison County Historical Society, Combined Atlases of Harrison County, Missouri [1876, 1898, 1917] (Evansville, IN: Unigraphic, 1979), 21. Oxley's 140 acres lay in Section 35, Christopher's 106 straddled the line with Section 36 to the east.

7 Consolidated Service Records. National Archives.

8 Chapman's gravestone is decorated with the IOOF links, and Johnson's obituary notes he was a charter member of the Cainsville lodge, founded in 1865. Neodesha [KS] Register, 2 Oct 1919.

9 More information can be found in the sketches assembled by the Cainsville Historical Book Committee, Cainsville and Community History, Cainsville, Missouri (Bethany, MO: Bethany Printing Co., 1991). Winonah Chapman Sawyer, Chapman: A Family History through 12 Generations (n.p.: author, 1983), covers that family. A database including the Johnson and kindred families is on WorldConnect.

10 Harrison County Genealogical Society, Harrison Cemetery Records to 1984 (Decorah, IA: Anundson Publishing Co., 1985).

11 The same article was also printed in the Jefferson City People's Tribune, 26 Jan. Both are on film at the Missouri Historical Society Collection, Ellis Library, University of Missouri, Columbia.

12 History of Harrison and Mercer Counties, Missouri (Chicago: Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1888 [1972]), 286.

13 Sawyer, 75. Steve O'Neal, a grandson of Bronna Helen Chapman, informed me in March 2004 that some Chapman family letters survive that might shed more light on the affair, but I have not seen them.

14 See J. Winston Coleman, Jr., Famous Kentucky Duels (Lexington: Henry Clay Press, 1969).

15 A History of Missouri: the Missouri Sesquicentennial Edition. v. 3. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1973.), 70.

16 Motion to Reopen and Reconsider by Oxley Johnson, 14 Jun 1904. Oxley Johnson Pension files, Claim No. 237,502. Photocopy of original documents in National Archives. The amount of the bond was $1,000.

17 Goodspeed, 244.

18 Oxley's Motion to Reopen (above) erroneously cites the new bail amount as $1,500. Circuit Court Record Book H, 402.

19 A biographical sketch of Mr. Glaze appears in George W. Wanamaker, History of Harrison County, Missouri (Topeka: Historical Publishing Co., 1921), 471. Frazee is mentioned in Goodspeed, 360, 379.

20 Circuit Court Record Book H, 399.

21 By this time Oxley and Martha had six children, ranging from the 15-year-old Mary Catherine down to 3-year-old Lillian. Their second child, Nathaniel, had died in 1864.

22 Circuit Court Record Book H, 401.

23 Circuit Court Record Book H, 400.

24 Circuit Court Record Book H, 495.

25 Goodspeed, 242.

26 Goodspeed, 292 ff.

27 Circuit Court Record Book H, 601.

28 Women, of course, could not serve on juries; they took no official role in civic affairs, unless they were parties to a case or called as witnesses, as were Martha Johnson and Munica Ramsey. The non-white population or the area was miniscule.

29 Information on the jurors and witnesses was gleaned from the 1870 Federal Census, as well as Goodspeed and Wanamaker and the Combined Atlases.

30 Without examining Missouri statutes and case law of the time, it is enough to observe that murder is generally defined as the unlawful taking of human life with premeditation or malice aforethought. Manslaughter covers instances when the homicide lacks premeditation or malice, arising from sudden passion or reckless action. Self defense is a form of what is termed excusable homicide.

31 Circuit Court Record Book H, 618.

32 Circuit Court Record Book H, 617. The widow or her attorney may have sensed the weakness of her case, because she withdrew her civil suit before the jury in the murder case returned its verdict.

33 The copy was included among the hundreds of pages of Oxley's pension files. Read the full text in all its obsessive, incantational glory.

 


I have tried to identify all those whose names appear in the trial documents, and to provide some background information. Your help in filling in the blanks would be appreciated.
I invite your comments and corrections. Drop me a note.

Go to the Indictment.

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Copyright © 2000-2004, Neil Allen Bristow. All rights reserved.
This page updated 25 September 2006.