Chalfant: Is ‘liar’ worth fighting over? In this case, no

January 9, 2013

The holiday festivities in the neighborhood southwest of Versailles in 1901 included a country dance that most likely involved some alcoholic refreshment along with the music and dancing.

Sometime during the evening, a scuffle broke out among the attendees and Lennie Lawrence suffered a slight cut on his nose. The cut was inflicted by Len Riggs, who was thought to have used a knife given to him during the fight by his step-brother, 25-year-old Henry Owens.

The Lawrence family and the Riggs family were neighbors. After the altercation, the families became, according to the Sedalia Democrat, “bitter enemies.” Neighborhood gossip said that each “had sworn to kill the other on sight.”

Both of the men had bad reputations as drinkers and brawlers. Lawrence was considered a “bad man” who had been involved in several shootings. Owens was known for his bad temper and willingness “to fight at the drop of a hat.”

Neighbors predicted that the two men would make good on their threats; the Democrat notes, “It was expected there would be a tragedy the first time the men met.”

The men did not wait long to settle their disagreement. On the second Friday of January 1902, James Lawrence went to Versailles. He proceeded to drink until he had spent all his money and was forced to pawn his pistol for $3.50. He spent the night in Versailles.

On Saturday, Henry Owens came to Versailles. When he heard that Lawrence was also in Versailles, he anticipated that trouble might arise. Rather than stay out of Lawrence’s way or leave town, Owens went to the Avery Hardware Store and bought a spring-back knife with a four-inch blade.

At about 1 p.m. Saturday, the men met in front of Heinamann’s Saloon on the square. Lawrence asked Owens why he had given his step-brother Len the knife he used to cut Lawrence’s son. Owens denied providing the weapon in question. Lawrence called Owens a liar.

Those proved to be fighting words. Owens pulled the knife he had purchased earlier that day and attacked, stabbing Lawrence repeatedly. The first wounds were not serious, and Lawrence had a chance to retreat, but as the Democrat pointed out, he “took his punishment bravely, remarking that a ‘Lawrence had never been known to take the back track.’ ”

Owens continued stabbing Lawrence, inflicting cuts on his side, back, abdomen and neck. The Democrat reported that the members of the crowd that gathered to watch the fight attempted to intervene, but did not do so until Lawrence died from the 13 stab wounds Owens had delivered.

The crowd began to talk of “rough usage,” probably a lynching, for Owens, but the more sensible people prevailed and Owens was taken to the Morgan County Jail. The coroner, as required by law, convened a jury which came to the obvious conclusion that Lawrence had died as a result of knife wounds inflicted by Henry Owens. Owens maintained that he had killed Lawrence in self-defense, though none of the witnesses reported that Lawrence had attacked Owens.

The self-defense plea raises questions about what actually happened and whether Lawrence made any movements that Owens might have thought constituted an attack. Another question involves the threats Owens had made and whether Lawrence felt threatened enough to provoke a fight. Yet another question involves the nature of the verbal threats Lawrence had made, coupled with his reputation for violence.

The Democrat’s comment about Lawrence’s “bravery” in “taking his punishment” raises some questions about attitudes at the time, especially whether some people believed that being called a liar was a slur that should be punished by a physical attack.