Franklin County Horse Thieves - 1858
by William G. Cutler (1883)

In 1858, a number of horses were stolen in the county. Suspicion fell on two men named Shaw and Johnson, and finally their guilt became sufficiently evident to warrant an arrest. They were taken to a house on upper Middle Creek, tried by a "Squatters' Court," and sentenced to be hanged.


A party headed by P. P. Elder came up from Ohio City to prevent the hanging, if possible, and succeeded for a time in saving the lives of the condemned. But at night they were taken past the Sac and Fox Agencies to an island in the Marais des Cygnes and hanged to a tree. This was a serious blow to the business of horse-stealing in that part of the county.

In 1863, an organization, distinguished by the name of the "Red Heads," existed in Missouri. They plundered and murdered Unionists and Rebels indiscriminately. Mutual attempts were made to capture them, and they were at length driven into Kansas, locating in different parts of the State. In January, 1864, one of their number, James Bailey, went from Lawrence to Ohio City, and went to work for John Hendricks. He also became a mail carrier. At this time, James Fitton was County Treasurer, and H. F. Sheldon, Registrar of Deeds. Each had a key to the county safe. One morning in the latter part of February, Bailey was missing, as was a horse belonging to Hendricks, his employer. It was also found that the safe had been opened, considerable money stolen as well as some valuable papers, and Mr. Sheldon's key to the safe could not be found.

While no suspicions were attached to Mr. Sheldon, yet, fearing such might be the case unless the thief were caught, he adopted the most vigorous measures for the capture and return of Bailey, the suspected criminal. Sheldon pursued, and captured him at Gasconade, Mo. Upon arriving at Jefferson City, the prisoner was placed under guard, while Sheldon returned to a railroad cut, in passing through which he had seen Bailey throw something out of the car window. Here he found some $300 of the amount stolen, and some of the papers. Bailey, after again escaping, and being recaptured, was taken to Lawrence, where he was induced to confess belonging to the "Red Heads," and to give information which fastened upon them the guilt of numerous other thefts in the county and vicinity, and which led to the breaking up of all their many bands.

Among those exposed, were the old man Stevens and his two sons, living near Stanton, Miami County, who had committed several thefts. It transpired that the three had stolen a pair of mules belonging to a Mr. Tulloss, of Peoria Township, and one of the boys had stolen a span of horses from a Mr. Roberts, and sold them at Fort Scott for $400. Upon his return he had accepted from Mr. Roberts $25 to assist in finding and capturing the thief. The mules had been taken to Leavenworth by the elder brother.

On the night that these developments were made, the father and younger brother were arrested by eighty-three citizens of the neighborhood, and hanged to a tree. The older brother was captured by the Sheriff, C. L. Robbins, and taken to Ohio City. On the night of his arrival, he was taken to the woods by about sixty of the citizens, and likewise hanged to a tree. These summary proceeding had a tendency to discourage horse-stealing again for a time.

Through the confessions of Bailey and Stevens, the leader of the whole gang of the "Red Heads" was apprehended and captured. At the time of his capture, he was playing the role of a Methodist minister, leading a camp meeting in Jefferson County. He and four others were hanged within a mile of the camp-meeting grounds. Bailey hanged himself in the Lawrence jail. All the money stolen from the county safe was recovered, except about $275. Mr. Sheldon was exonerated from all blame in connection with the affair, ex-Gov. Wilson Shannon giving it as his opinion that reasonable care had been exercised by him in protecting the county's property, which was all the law required.


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