© 2024 KRCU Public Radio
90.9 Cape Girardeau | 88.9-HD Ste. Genevieve | 88.7 Poplar Bluff
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
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 from 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.)

A Haunting: The Murder of the Lapine Family

A view of the Potosi City Cemetery showing the tomb of Moses Austin. The State Historical Society of Missouri, Missouri Postcard Collection, P0032.
The State Historical Society of Missouri, Missouri Postcard Collection, P0032.
A view of the Potosi City Cemetery showing the tomb of Moses Austin. The State Historical Society of Missouri, Missouri Postcard Collection, P0032.

Local lore holds that the cemeteries between West High and West Breton streets in Potosi are haunted. What appears to be a single cemetery is three: the City Cemetery, the Old Masonic Cemetery, and the Potosi Presbyterian Cemetery.

One of the most gruesome stories behind the tales of haunting involves the murder of five members of the Lapine family, all buried in the City Cemetery. The story begins with two miners, John Armstrong and Charles Jolly, coming to Potosi to sell some of their minerals on Saturday, November 19, 1870. They used the proceeds of their sale to buy cheap whiskey, which they drank liberally. They then started for home with Jolly’s younger brother Leon, aged about 14, and called at the Lapine cabin a mile and a half north of Potosi on their way. The men told Leon to stay outside, but he witnessed the events through a hole in the cabin wall.

David Lapine was an older man, a French Creole miner, and had married a younger wife, Louisa. The couple had one child. Mary Christopher, Louisa’s sister, and her young child lived with the family. A dispute developed between Jolly and Armstrong and Mary Christopher. David Lapine attempted to intervene, whereupon Jolly drew a revolver and shot Lapine four times, killing him instantly. Louisa Lapine tried to prevent the deed, and Jolly knocked her down and shot her dead as well. In the meantime, Armstrong found an axe, knocked down Mary, and decapitated all three adults. The men then killed both children with the axe.

Jolly and Christopher set fire to the cabin to attempt to conceal the crime. It burned to the ground with the victims’ remains inside. The murderers stayed in the area until Monday morning, then fled. The cabin was isolated, and the murders occurred at around midnight, so 36 hours elapsed before neighbors discovered the tragedy. They contacted Sheriff John T. Clarke and in canvassing the neighborhood managed to locate Leon Jolly, who told his story. A vigorous pursuit followed, and the pursuers capture the murderers near Rush Tower in Jefferson County. The posse held the murderers at the house of one of their captors that night before returning to Potosi. Authorities gathered the remains of the victims in one box and interred them together in the City Cemetery.

By the following weekend, rumors of lynching had grown in town. Sheriff Clarke deputized around 25 men to stand guard at the jail. Around 1 a.m. Sunday morning a mob of around 40 men appeared and demanded the murderers. Clarke ordered the mob to disperse when 4 or 5 shots came out of the mob. The guards sought shelter and returned fire, killing one and wounding others. The mob dispersed.

The trial occurred during the December 1870 term of Circuit Court. Testimony from Leon Jolly and other witnesses to the behavior of the men before the crime and after their capture constituted the prosecution’s case. The accused claimed they had taken a different route home and were nowhere near the cabin. The jury returned a verdict of guilty in 10 minutes and the judge sentenced them to death.

The execution of Jolly and Armstrong occurred in the Court House Square in Potosi two weeks later, on January 27. To compound the heinous nature of the crime, both hangings went badly. Armstrong strangled slowly when the noose failed to work correctly, and the rope nearly severed Jolly’s head.

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.