Chalfant: Sedalia, scene of the crime(s)
Sedalia, according to the December 1881 issues of The Sedalia Democrat, fell victim to a wave of criminal activity. Reports of muggings and thefts appear daily in the newspaper, as do stories of con games perpetrated on the unsuspecting. The city police and county sheriff worked diligently to apprehend the perpetrators, but with little success. The Dec. 17, 1881, Democrat notes two such crimes.
One began on the train. Michael Shea, a quarry worker at Rockville, was en route to his home in Warrensburg when he met two men and began drinking with them. By the time they arrived in Sedalia, Shea was “pretty well under the influence of liquor.” The men went from the depot to Cohn’s pawn shop, where Shea bought a watch. They then proceeded to the train yards, where Shea’s new-found friends convinced him they could hop a freight train and save the fare to Warrensburg. The three men found an empty boxcar, got on board, and the two men jumped Shea, robbed him of $33 and his newly purchased watch. They fled, leaving Shea to sleep off his liquor. The next morning, Shea awoke, hung over, and went to the police station to report the theft.
Another of the crimes also began on the train. Mr. Scott of Chetopa, Kan., was on his way to purchase some land in Cooper County, Mo., when he encountered a band of swindlers. One of the men approached Scott, engaged him in conversation, and discovered that he was carrying a large sum of money. He suggested a card game, and Scott acquiesced. The other swindlers joined the game of three-card monte, a game made illegal because it was so often used to cheat others. Scott lost his money, and the men left the train. When Scott arrived in Sedalia, he reported his theft to the police.
In the midst of reports such as these, The Democrat offers readers some assurance that the police are successfully coping with at least the most serious crimes.
One of the stories that day involves Charles Moore, accused of murder, and J. Volney Ryan, accused of an insurance swindle. The two men had been incarcerated in the Pettis County Jail during the spring and early summer of 1881. The county jail was notoriously insecure and jailbreaks frequent. On July 24, these two men succeeded in escaping.
The two had shared a cell. Friends outside the jail provided them with saws and files with which they were able to cut through the bars that separated their cell from the corridor. A chisel, provided by the same friends, enabled them to break through the bricks and mortar of the walls and escape. Sheriff Connor sent posses into the neighboring counties, sent messages describing the men to sheriffs throughout the country, and offered rewards for their apprehension.
Ryan traveled about the south, perpetrating similar scams to those that had resulted in his conviction in Sedalia. Within six weeks, according to The Democrat, he “was wanted in a dozen places for new offenses.” He was finally caught in Tennessee, while being sought not only by Tennessee authorities, but also by Texas law enforcement. Connor went to Tennessee and interviewed Ryan, who reported that he and Moore had parted company in Sedalia after their escape.
Moore, meanwhile, was said to be “skulking in the mountains of Virginia” near Pennsylvania. Connor wrote to sheriffs there, and was rewarded for his diligence. Moore had been captured in Fayette County, Pa., and was being held pending a request for extradition from the Missouri governor. Connor set about getting the necessary documents and hoped that Moore “will soon be back in his old quarters.”
The second criminal apprehension involves a murderer wanted elsewhere who came to Sedalia and walked into the arms of the Sedalia police. At about 11 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15, three tramps wandered into the police office and asked for a room in the jail where they might spend the night. Vagrants often sought shelter in jails, and the Sedalia police willingly provided a night’s rest to the unfortunate homeless.
Officer DeLong recognized one of the men as fitting the description of a man named Wyatt wanted for the murder of George Amey in Fort Scott on Dec. 13. Wyatt was the son of a prominent farmer north of Fort Scott and an accused horse thief. Wyatt had disappeared from the area until Dec. 13, when he visited Adam March’s saloon in Fort Scott, met former acquaintance George Amey, and played cards with him. The two men left to go “see a couple of girls who lived in the south part of town.” While on the way, Wyatt shot Amey, robbed him of a $20 silver certificate and two $10 bills, and left him for dead. Amey was found and taken in by Jacob Rapp, who lived nearby, but Amey was not expected to survive.
DeLong questioned the man, who claimed to be John Coates, a native of Canada, whose mother still lived there and whose sister had married a clergyman. He admitted to having been in Fort Scott at the time of the murder, but claimed to be sleeping in the Fort Scott police station then. Fort Scott officials were contacted, and Constable J.R. Cheesman came to identify Wyatt/Coates. He was unable to identify him positively, but did take him into custody for a return to Fort Scott for trial.
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