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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.)

Savage Treatment: The Murder of Nathaniel Cook, Jr.

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Missourians were shocked to learn of a brutal murder in Dunklin County on August 6, 1851. The victim was Nathaniel Cook Jr., shot from ambush in a cypress swamp about four miles south of Kennett. The body showed evidence of “…savage treatment—having been pierced by a number of shot and several rifle balls.” The number of deadly projectiles was two or three in formal accusation documents. The State charged five men—James B. Baker, Nathaniel Baker, Joseph Pelts, Lewis W. Chandler, and William Jordan—with the murder. Jordan turned State’s evidence and implicated the other men.

Nathaniel Cook Jr. was from a prominent family that came to Missouri before the Louisiana Purchase. His father, Nathaniel Cook, was the founder of Cook’s Settlement in St. Francois County, part of the first Missouri Constitutional Convention, ran for Lieutenant Governor, and was a founder of Fredericktown. Nathaniel Sr.’s brothers included Missouri jurist John D. Cook and Daniel P. Cook, Illinois lawyer and politician for whom Cook County, Illinois is named.

First reported in The Southern Democrat of Jackson, other papers copied the murder article widely, including the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator under the title “Another Fearful Record of Southern Violence and Crime.”

A grand jury returned indictments for murder against the five accused, with Jordan as a star witness and many other witnesses summoned. Unfortunately, originals of many of the case documents, including witness depositions, burned in 1872 in a Dunklin County courthouse fire or have not survived. What we know about the trial and eventual outcome are from copies and original documents from Cape Girardeau County.

Four of the defendants requested a change of venue, citing extreme prejudice and the likelihood they would not get a fair trial. So, the State moved the trial to Cape Girardeau County.

In the indictments, the men were accused of lying in wait for Cook, then shooting him in either the side or hip or both, then firing at his head, leaving “one mortal wound of the depth of two inches and of the breadth of one inch” which killed Cook instantly.

Sarah and Elizabeth Redman deposed that James B. Baker was at the Thomas Redman farm at the time of the murder. LaFayette Sexton further deposed that Bakers, Chandler, Pelts, and others were arming themselves at the Cook home on the day after the murder in anticipation of a fight. Nonetheless, they were taken into custody without incident. Authorities jailed Jordan, the star witness, in Scott County before moving him to Jackson for part of the trial. None of his testimony survives.

Several witnesses for the defense questioned the reliability and character of Jordan to undermine his evidence. The defense and James B. Baker through his lawyer logged a constant barrage of motions and objections, as well as attempts to instruct the jury. No motive for the murder is in surviving documents, although one newspaper account suggests others had been targeted in a general disagreement between those accused and Cook and his friends.

The defense was successful in their strategy. After nine days of proceedings, the jury found all defendants not guilty. The county attempted to redraft an additional indictment, which the Court dismissed as an attempt at double jeopardy.

No one ever paid for the murder of Nathaniel Cook Jr. The passage of time and loss of documents obscure the reasons for the murder and for acquittal, although one reason could have been reasonable doubt.

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.