"Judge Lynch" Visits Clarksville

When Marshal Walter Meloan woke up and got dressed on Sunday, June 6, 1898 it is doubtful that he had even the slightest premonition about his imminent death and the mob violence it would ignite.

About 9:00 a.m., the Ottumwa Belle, a steamboat excursion from Keokuk, Quincy, and Hannibal, which was carrying a group of about 300 African Americans, arrived at the wharf in Clarksville, MO. As church bells were ringing, beckoning late-arriving worshipers, and the crew was securing the boat to the dock, the passengers began to disembark. Two excursionists, Curtis Young and Leana Bryant, both from Hannibal, began fighting. Young began to beat Bryant and drug her back to the boat. Some accounts state that a gun was brandished and her life was threatened. Regardless of the exact details, the fight soon spread throughout the boat.

About 11:00 a.m., the manager of the boat, Ed. Duncan, went ashore to look for Walter Meloan, the City Marshal, to get assistance subduing the unruly crowd. He found Meloan at the Collins House. Upon hearing about the ruckus, Meloan gathered his things and quickly went to the ship with the manager. Not expecting too much trouble, Meloan boarded the ship unarmed, except for a baton. Based on the allegations made by the boat’s manager, Meloan placed Curtis Young under arrest. A struggle ensued. A shot was fired from the crowd and the ball entered Walter Meloan’s head about two inches behind his left ear and exited, passing entirely through the brain. Mortally wounded, Meloan was taken back to the Collins House, where he died minutes later.(1)

News of the Marshal’s murder spread quickly. Armed townspeople arrived on the scene and helped hold the passengers at bay until Sheriff Hopke and Prosecutor Emerson arrived. William Taylor, an African American barber, who once served time in prison for murder, boarded the ship, aimed his pistol at Curtis Young and led him off of the boat.(2) Three other men (Sam Young, Robert Taylor, and Charles Bohon) were also arrested as accomplices. They were taken to the calaboose and held at gunpoint until the key was retrieved from Marshal Meloan’s pocket. During the investigation, witnesses were questioned so that the Sheriff and Prosecutor could be apprised of the situation once they arrived later that afternoon. The results were inconclusive. While some witnesses emphatically stated that they saw Robert Taylor shoot Marshal Meloan, others vehemently claimed that they saw Sam Young pull the Trigger.(3) Later that afternoon, the four men were taken from the calaboose, placed in a boat, and were transported a little over one mile upriver to Tibbets Island. Once they arrived at the island, “an attempt was made to get the truth from them.”(4) Although none of the newspaper accounts give details regarding how the men were treated during their “interrogations”, it can be assumed that a great amount of force and intimidation was used. During the interrogations, Charles Bohon maintained that he was not on the ship when the fatal shot was fired, Sam Young, Curtis’s brother, claimed to be upstairs playing cards when the shot was fired, and Robert Taylor alerted the vigilantes to the fact that Curtis Young had recently served time in the Monroe City jail for shooting a man.(5)

Frustrated that the suspects did not confess, the men were taken back to the calaboose, where they were placed under armed guard as an armed, angry mob began to form outside. The mayor tried to reassure the citizens that justice would be served. He told the crowd that he would have the preliminary hearing at 9:00 a.m. on Monday morning, but the angry residents did not give him the chance.(6) About midnight, 200-300 armed citizens forced their way past the sheriff, placed ropes around the necks of Curtis Young and Sam Young, and led them north of town near the Vinegar factory.(7) When they arrived at the grove of maple trees about a mile north of town, each loose end was thrown over the branch of a maple tree. The mob pulled the ropes until the men were dangling from their respective branches. Each end was tied to a nearby tree and after a few minutes both men died of strangulation. Their lifeless bodies swinging four to five feet off of the ground, they were visible from both the Burlington Railroad and the turnpike – for all to see. A crowd gathered on Monday morning to view the bodies and Sheriff Hopke quickly ushered Robert Taylor aboard a northbound train to avoid more bloodshed.(8)

On the surface, this particular case appeared to be a matter of what Michael Pfeifer called “rough justice.” In a frontier society, communities were far removed from the authorities. Travel was slow and the judicial system was inept. Lynchings served both as a means to ensure that criminals did not escape punishment and as a symbol that subsequent violators would be dealt with in a similar fashion.(9) In this light, lynchers were simply performing a job that government was failing to do.(10)

Although the first families of Pike were from the Upper South, for the first twenty years, they were truly a frontier society, operating without a state government. The absence of a strong local government forced residents to protect themselves. They did for themselves what a government could not. They broke their own soil, built their own houses and formed their own towns. This sort of “rugged individualism” was passed down to the next generation, who were adults by the time the Young brothers were lynched. Attributing this story to one of mere frontier justice, however, seems to oversimplify the situation. Sure, Missouri was a frontier state, but it had a southern flare.(11)

The lynchings that took place in 1898 were not the first hangings in Pike County. In 1841, a slave was legally hanged in the square in Bowling Green for murdering his owner, Resin Mackey.(12) A crowd of several thousand showed up to watch the spectacle. The public nature of the state-sanctioned execution served multiple purposes. First, it assured the public that the relatively young local government would protect them. More importantly, it served as a warning to the slaves who might contemplate committing a similar act. In 1883, William McDowell was lynched by a mob.(13) Similarly, the lynching of the Young brothers in 1898 served to warn future excursionists and the local black population what might happen if they stepped beyond the bounds of the racial hierarchy. The public nature of the lynching, with crowds forming in broad daylight, and its highly visible chosen location suggested that participants of the mob were also trying to send a message to would-be violators and passersby. In addition to steamboats, African American railroad excursions were relatively common through Pike County. The trip from St. Louis to Hannibal took passengers through Clarksville and within viewing distance of the bodies. Regardless of whether the bodies were actually seen by African American excursionists is a moot point. Newspapers across the nation wrote about the mob’s action.(14)

In addition to sending a message to the local and transient African American populations, newspaper accounts tended to allay any fears of the public that charges might be filed against the participants in the lynchings. Each article named the members of the Coroner’s jury, which concluded that “Curtis and Sam Young came to their death by being hung by parties unknown to us.”(15) In a town the size of Clarksville, MO it is unlikely that a mob of 2-300 people could convene without one of the participants being recognized. Implicit in the Coroner’s findings was an acceptance by the authorities and approval for additional mobs to act in a similar fashion. After all, a large number of Pike County residents were directly connected to the murder of two men, while even more were accomplices to their murder. The Coroner’s report essentially said that he had no idea who killed the Young brothers. More importantly, his office was not going to pursue the guilty parties. A second jury, which was also listed by name, was convened to determine the actual events leading to the death of the City Marshal, Walter Meloan.

Coroner Finley’s report stated that the evidence “showed conclusively” that Curtis Young grabbed and held Marshal Meloan, while “Sam Young, or Robert Taylor” shot Meloan in the back of the head.(16) The report went on to say that “the great preponderance of the testimony pointed to Sam Young” as the man who fired the shot, “thus confirming the belief of the infuriated citizens that the right parties had paid the penalty for committing such a cowardly deed.”(17) The implicit “pat on the back” that was given to those involved was based on a burden of evidence (preponderance) ensured. This second jury’s findings suggest a reason why participants would not be pursued – they probably got the right guy anyway.

In case the black citizens of Pike County did not get the message regarding insubordination, in the same issue, The Clarksville Sentinel ran a sidebar story that told of the burning of a Shreveport, LA “negro who assaulted and attempted to murder Mrs. Sarah Parish, white, widow…”(18) Another sidebar story cavalierly explained that Wm. Ruby, a “colored, private” in Kentucky “came near having his neck stretched by hemp” because he “repeatedly violated rules.”(19) The implication was that violations of rules, especially if whites were involved, could be deadly to African Americans. More importantly, the editor seemed to be making light of other lynchings while the blood of the Young brothers was still fresh on the hands of Pike County residents. Almost two decades after the lynching of the Young brothers, Pike County witnessed a series of racialized vigilantism that far surpassed the events of June 1898.