The Story of Cole Younger – 13 The Palmyra Butchery

As long as Pete Donan was the editor of the Lexington Caucasian, that paper once each year published an account substantially in this wise:

“So long as God gives us life and the earth is cursed with the presence of McNeil we feel it to be our solemn duty to rehearse once every year the story of the most atrocious and horrible occurrence in the annals of barbarous warfare.”

“On Friday, the 17th day of October, 1862, a deed was enacted at the fair grounds at Palmyra, Mo., which sent a thrill of horror through the civilized world.”

“Ten brave and true and innocent men were taken from their prison, driven to the edge of the town, seated on their rough board coffins, for no crime of their own, and murdered like so many swine.”



“By the hell-spawned and hell-bound, trebly damned old blotch upon creation’s face, John McNeil, until recently by the grace of bayonets, Tom Fletcher, and the devil, sheriff of St. Louis county.”


“Shot to death!!”

“There was our poor, handsome, gallant boyhood friend Tom Sidener—”

“As pure a soul as ever winged its flight from blood-stained sod to that God who will yet to all eternity damn the fiendish butcher, McNeil.”

“Poor Tom!”

“He was engaged to be married to a young lady in Monroe county.”

“When he learned he was to be shot, he sent for his wedding suit, which had just been made, declaring that if he couldn’t be married in it; he intended to die in it.”

“Arrayed in his elegant black broad cloth, and his white silk vest, when he mounted his coarse plank coffin, in the wagon that was to bear him to his death he looked as if he was going to be married instead of shot.”

“The very guards cried like children when they bade him goodbye.”

“Raising his cap and bowing to the weeping women who lined the streets, he was driven from their sight forever!”

“Half an hour afterward six musket balls had pierced his noble heart, and his white silk vest was torn and dyed with his martyr blood!”

“There was poor old Willis Baker, his head whitened with the snows of more than seventy winters—”

“Heroic old man!”

“With his white hair streaming in the wind, he seated himself on his rude coffin and died without a shudder; refusing with his last breath to forgive his executioners, and swearing he would ‘meet them and torment them in hell through all eternity.’ ”

“There was that helpless, half-idiot boy from Lewis county, who allowed himself to be blindfolded; then hearing Sidener and the others refuse, slipped up one corner of the bandage, and seeing the rest with their eyes uncovered, removed the handkerchief from his own, died as innocent as a lamb.”

“There were Humstead and Bixler, and Lake, and McPheeters.”

“And there was that most wondrous martyr of them all—young Smith, of Knox county—who died for another man.”

“Humphrey was the doomed man.”

“His heart-broken wife, in widow’s weeds, with her eight helpless little ones in deep mourning, that was only less black than the anguish they endured, or the heart of him to whom they appealed, rushed to the feet of McNeil, and in accents so piteous that a soul of adamant must have melted under it, besought him for the life of the husband and father.”

“She was brutally repulsed.”

“But Strachan, the monster of Shelby county, whom the angel a few months afterward smote with Herodian rottenness—Strachan, whose flesh literally fell from his living skeleton—Strachan, who has long been paying in the deepest, blackest, hottest hole in perdition the penalty of his forty-ply damnation-deserving crimes was provost marshal.”

“He saw the frantic agony of the woman; called her into his office and told her he would save her husband if she would give him three hundred dollars and then submit—but oh! humanity shudders, sickens at the horrid proposal.”

“The wretched, half-crazed, agonized wife, not knowing what she did—acceded to save her husband’s life—and the next morning she was found lying insane and nearly dead, with her baby at her breast, near the public spring at Palmyra.”

“And after all this, her husband was only released on condition that another should be shot in his place.”

“Young Smith was selected.”

“And then ensued a contest without a parallel in all the six thousand years of human history.”

“Humphrey refused to let any man die in his stead, declaring he should feel himself a murderer if he did.”

“Smith protested that he was only a poor orphan boy, and so far as he knew there was not a soul on earth to grieve for him; that Humphrey had a large family entirely dependent upon him for daily bread, and it was his duty to live while he could.”

“And Smith, the simple country lad, only seventeen years old, the Hero without a peer on all Fame’s mighty scroll, took his seat on a rough box—and was shot!”

“Will not God eternally damn his murderers?”

“We might dwell for hours on the incidents connected with this most frightful butchery of ancient or modern ages.”

“But why go on?”

“The murder was done!”

“The Confederate government talked of demanding the murderer McNeil.”

“Then a ‘memorial’ was gotten up, and signed by two thousand Missourians, recommending the heaven-earth-and-hell-accursed old monster, on account of his Palmyra massacre, to special favor and he was promoted to a brigadier-generalship.”

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