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Rankin Family History Project

Perry County Republican

Perryville, Missouri, 1903

Crime of the Century

On the 17 of June, 1843, now a little less than 60 years ago, the first, and so far as I have been able to learn, the only lynching that St. Francois county ever indulged in occurred in Farmington.    The tragic occurrence is only remembered, not only by the writer, but by many of the older residents of the county still living.   The event that led an outraged public to take the execution of the law into their own hands on this occasion may be briefly stated as follows--  

On the night of the 10th of January, 1841, James Layton, a dissolute, worthless character, living in Perry county, came home drunk and drove his wife and little son out into the winter night and storm.   Mrs. Layton, who was Layton's second wife, was at the time, about to become a mother, and her little stepson attempted to make their way through the darkness to a neighbors.   But she was persued by the drunk-maddened demon, who overtook her and the child as they were crouching over and trying to warm themselves by the embers, where some laborers had been burning brush in a clearing during the day.  

Seizing one of the green sticks that had been burned to a sharp point, at the first blow he struck down his helpless and unresisting victim and continued to beat her until life was extinct.   Then, with brutality from which an ordinary savage would have turned from in horror, he thrust the pointed club through her body and thus literally pinned to the earth his wife and unborn child.  

Layton at once fled, leaving his little boy, who had been a witness of the whole horrible affair, alone with his dead stepmother.   The child made his way to a neighbor's house and related the tragic story.  

The next mourning [sic] the neighbors flocked to the scene of the tragedy and were horrified by what they saw.   Though at that time the telegraph was unknown and the newspapers were few and far between, the new spread quickly over Perry and all the adjoining counties.  

It was, nevertheless, nearly a year before Layton was arrested.   He was found in hiding in Wayne county and brought back to Perry where he was put on trial, charged with murder in the first degree.  

His own son, the little 9-year-old boy, who fled with his mother on the fatal night was the only witness put on the stand.   But so clear and convincing was his story that no cross-questioning of the lawyers could confuse or shake it, and upon the conclusion of the trial the jury was scarcely 10 minutes in bringing a unanimous verdict of guilty.  

The interest in the case instead of dying out, had increased, and now that sentence had been passed on the wretch the whole country breathed easier in the belief that justice at last was about to be meted out to the wife murderer.  

But on an appeal which Layton's lawyer took to the supreme court the judgment of the trial court was set aside and the case remanded for a new trial.   Then followed another tedious delay, during which the case was brought on a change of venue to St. Francois county.  

At the May term of court, 1843, the case came up for trial the second time, and as before Layton's little son was the only witness called, but on his testimony the father was again convicted and sentenced to death on the 17th of June following.  

Owing to the peculiarly atrocious features of the murder and the long delay that had already followed its perpetration, the deepest interest was felt in the approaching execution.   By 10 o'clock on the morning of the 17th, fully 3,000 people, many of whom had come 20 or 30 miles, were assembled in and about the public square in the then little village of Farmington, all eager to witness the execution.  

The jail in which the prisoner was confined was a two-story log structure, the first story being built with triple walls.   Access to this "dungeon," as it was called, could only be had by a flight of stairs on the outside to the second story, from which the entrance was made by a trapdoor near the middle of the floor.   Through this the jailer descended by means of a movable ladder, which was drawn up after being used, and the heavy trap-door shut and securely locked.  

[Old jail at Farmington -- Click to see a larger view]

Around this dingy little building the people crowded, each morbidly eager to see the culprit when he should be brought to his death.   At a few minutes after 11 o'clock the sheriff with considerable effort crowded his way through the dense mass of humanity to the foot of the stairway that led to the jail.  

As he ascended the stairs it was observed that he held a paper in his hand and it was taken for granted that this was the death warrant and as soon as it was read to the prisoner he would be brought out and the execution would at once take place.  

On reaching the top of the stair, however he paused, turned toward the crowd and waved the paper above his head to attract attention.   Amid almost breathless silence he announced to the crowd that the paper he held in his hand, and which he had but a few minutes before received from the governor, contained an order for a stay of execution for 30 days.  

The effect of this announcement was keen disappointment and was quickly succeeded by a feeling of deep indignation, and as the honest farmers recalled the mutilated form of that young wife and her unborn babe the appeal to their manhood was too strong to be surpressed, and what at first was only murmur of dissatisfaction in a few minutes swelled into a roar of indignation that would be satisfied with nothing short of life.  

No one knew how or by what process the determination was reached, but in a few minutes it was universally understood that the jail was to be forced and the prisoner handed without further delay.   A few of the more conservative citizens pleaded with the mob to allow the law to take its course, and in deference to this suggestion a vote was ordered and all in favor of hanging were requested to take one side of the square while those opposed were to take the other.  

It was found that an overwhelming majority were in favor of hanging. In another minute a rush was made for the jail, and with heavy iron bars and sledge hammers the door was soon beaten down.   The trapdoor to the "dungeon" was next pried up and half a dozen of the lynchers descended, and having tied the prisoner's hands behind him and placed a rope around his neck they carried the trembling wretch bodily up the ladder to the second floor and out on the platform at the head of the stairs.  

An open buggy, from which the horse had been unhitched, was backed up to the foot of the stairs, and in this the victim of the mob's vengeance was placed and willing hands took hold of the shafts and rapidly drew the vehicle under the rude gallows tree improvised for the occasion.   At this juncture the culprit was given opportunity to speak but on his declining to avail himself of it the rope was thrown over the beam and secured and the buggy was quickly drawn from under.   The body swung back and forth for several minutes and then was still.  

The brutal murder of Mary Layton was avenged.    The crowd quickly dispersed, the body was cut down and buried, and during the 70 years that have elapsed since then St. Francois county has not felt again called upon to usurp the prerogative of the constituted authority, and it is safe to say that but for law's delay this lynching would not have been charged to her account.  

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The Rankin Family History Project began in 1997 with a simple 3 generation family chart.   Inspiration came from our grandmother who has shared a lot of great stories and really got us going when she loaned us her copy of Maryland Catholics on the Frontier by Timothy O'Rourke;   and also from Alex Haley, whom we had the pleasure of meeting shortly before Roots was published.   This site is dedicated to our great-grandparents.   Without them, we would not be here.  

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