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Behind the big themes, celebrated figures, and dry dates of history are the interesting stories of life in the past and ordinary people. Southeast Missouri has a varied and rich history that you often don’t hear about in history classes. Join Bill Eddleman of the State Historical Society of Missouri to hear about these stories with “Tales of Days Gone By.” Listen in on the second and fourth Thursday of the month during Morning Edition (7:45 a.m.) and All Things Considered (4:44 p.m.)

“The Most Remorseless Banditti That Ever Infested this Country…”: The Myers Gang in 1881

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Headlines from Missouri newspapers in May 1881 involving the New Madrid and Wayne County gun battles. There was widespread fear and concern locally until authorities killed or caught the perpetrators.

Residents of parts of southeastern Missouri were shocked to hear of the actions of a criminal gang during the late spring and early summer of 1881. Four men who had met socially, Jesse Myers, Robert Rhodes, James Hamilton, and Frank Brown were the primary members.

Rhodes married a widow Knox, who inherited property. He squandered all but a small farm. Rhodes made several efforts to gain possession of the farm, but his wife’s brother-in-law Silas Knox interfered. The group conspired to kill Knox and his family. Armed with three pistols and a shotgun each, they opened fire at Knox’s house on May 9. Knox escaped to fetch the county sheriff, but gunshots wounded a hired man, a woman, and one of the children.

Sheriff Waters collected a 12-man posse and headed toward the property. The group ran into the outlaws at Bayne’s Store, 10 miles from New Madrid. An additional 15 men assembled, and the group unexpectedly found the gang secured behind logs in a thicket. The gang opened fire from 15 feet away. Robert LaForge died instantly, and gunfire wounded three others. The posse retreated to the store, and Myers walked up to the dying LaForge, shot him again, robbed him, and fled. The lawmen’s fire hit Rhodes, who surrendered at a nearby house. He died of his wounds three days later.

Despite over 150 men searching for the others, they managed to escape by traveling through woods and swamps at night. The gang intended to reach Mill Spring in Wayne County, where Hamilton’s mistress lived, and proceed west.

The gang arrived near Greenville on the morning of May 20 and stopped at a house near Mill Spring to eat breakfast. A man purchased several pairs of shoes at a Greenville store and aroused suspicions, so Sheriff John T. Davis and county collector James T. Hatton pursued. About 2 ½ miles south of Greenville, they ran into the fugitives. Neither thought they had to be at high alert, and Hatton had no firearm. Myers shot Davis in the face, the bullet lodging in his brain, and Hatton sustained a head wound. Hatton was able to ride back to town and raise the alarm. Both received mortal wounds, and newspapers reported Davis as fatally wounded. Both recovered but Davis experienced seizures after a few years. Sheriff Davis died of complications after surgery to remove the bullet 17 years later.

Soon dozens of men combed the countryside for the shooters. Those pursuing including Capt. W. T. Leeper, who had been a Union officer during the Civil War. He and three other men went toward Campbell’s Switch, a spot often frequented by fugitives. They waited on the platform until just past daybreak on May 21, when Myers and Hamilton appeared. The two walked past the party, and Leeper recognized Myers. He called for the two to halt and raise their hands but instead they raised their guns. Leeper fired his shotgun, hitting Myers. Hamilton ran, and the other posse members opened fire, killing him.

Brown separated from the others, but residents sighted him near St. Francis River, and he surrendered near Piedmont. Myers recovered and both men stood trial in New Madrid in June. Upon a guilty verdict, the county hanged both on July 15, 1881.

Bill Eddleman was born in Cape Girardeau, and is an 8th-generation Cape Countian. His first Missouri ancestor came to the state in 1802. He attended SEMO for two years before transferring to the University of Missouri to study Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. He stayed at Mizzou to earn a master of science in Fisheries and Wildlife, and continued studies in Wildlife Ecology at Oklahoma State University.