Welcome to the first story of the new year, everyone! I’ve been excited to get this one out, and, even though it’s a little bit later than I had planned, it’s finally here. This story was suggested to me by John, a longtime fan from Missouri. I’ve been wanting to tell it for a while, so I hope that you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. Thank you, John!
This is going to be the very first two-part episode that I’ve done. I originally intended to do both parts together, but I wanted to give proper attention to the story. Trust me, you’ll want to hear both parts.
With the new year, we have some changes coming to the table. First and foremost, I’ve decided to cut the podcast/blog back to every two weeks instead of every week. There’s a lot of reasons for this, but the one that I really want to share with you is that I’ll be working on some new books.
There are a lot of you who came to the podcast because you were a fan of my writing, and so I’m very proud to be working on giving you more of what brought you here in the first place. Things are still be worked out, so I’ll be sure to keep everyone posted to any further developments.
If you want to stay cutting edge current with what I’m up to, you can find me on my Facebook page, The Kitchen Table Historian, or on twitter, Instagram, and, of course, where ever you listen to your favorite podcasts.
Speaking of writing, if you’d rather read the podcast instead of listen, don’t worry! I post a transcription of each and every podcast that you can find on the above social media sites, as well as my website, www.johnbrassardjr.com. If you go to the site, please take a moment to look around and learn more about me, my work, and what I can do for you.
As always, I ask that you would please like, subscribe, recommend, write a review, or tell a friend (or five) about the podcast. This helps more people to find their way to the table, and allows these great pieces of history to spread even further.
Okay, all of that stuff is done now. Let’s get to what you came for – the story.
Ugly hot. That’s what my old boss used to call it.
That sticky, nasty, clingy heat that instantly causes you to sweat so much you soak your clothes through. The air is thick enough that it feels like you’re breathing underwater, and if you can manage much more than a fast walk across the parking lot to your car, you more than likely look like it, too.
Often, it’s not the high temperatures that bother people the most- it’s the humidity. In what is the constant, wonderous variety that is Midwestern weather, at least for a few weeks every summer the humidity has to try and compete with Equatorial rainforests. Combine that with the already high temperatures, and the warm months of the central United States can become a horrendous.
What do we do? We adapt. We acclimate ourselves to the changing weather. To help alleviate the pressure of the transition, we complain. A lot. When it gets worse, we complain louder and more often.
We break out the summer wardrobe, put a couple more six packs in the fridge, and get the boats ready to go out on the water. Most importantly, we crank up the AC and set aside a few extra dollars from the paycheck to handle the extra electricity cost. We know it’s going to be worth it.
At night, when we come inside from a day in the sweltering hot weather, we sit down in our favorite chair, have a cold drink, and enjoy the air conditioning. As we enjoy our chilly 60-degree air, we make sure to complain about how hot it is. And the cycle continues, day after day, for the duration of our summer.
Willis James was completely ignorant of all this as he made his way to work under the hot Missouri sun. It was August 3, 1877, traditionally the hottest month of the Midwestern summer. Modern electric fans, let alone modern air conditioning, was still decades away from even being invented yet.
A farm hand in his twenties, Willis James worked for his brother-in-law, William Lewis Spencer, on his farm. Lewis, as he was commonly known, had married James’ older sister several years before, and they had enjoyed a good life together. Unfortunately, that had come to an end a few years before, when she had passed away.
Spencer was a good farmer, and was pretty successful at it. Most importantly, though, he could afford to pay for James’ help as a farmhand. That morning, James was probably already going over what had to be taken care of as he walked into the yard of the Spencer residence.
He stopped for a moment. Something seemed odd.
James could hear the sounds of the farm animals, but there weren’t any sounds of people. It was almost a necessity for any farm family to rise early to start on their chores. For twenty-year-old Alice and eighteen-year-old Jane, Spencer’s daughters and the oldest of the children, that would mean handling anything to do with the house. They most likely did the cooking for the entire family, which would have been done before they all went out to feed and care for the animals. After breakfast, they would have cleared the table and then started in on their day.
But there was nothing. No sounds came from the house at all. There wasn’t any sound of Spencer or his sons, Charley, seven, or Willis, ten, working around the yard, either. Just quiet, and an odd stillness. It bothered James, but, bothered or not, there was still work to be done. Besides, it was probably just his imagination.
He made his way across the yard and walked up to the front door of the house. It was a large, one room log cabin with a loft above the main room with enough space for another bed. Maybe one day Lewis would get around to building a more modern house, but probably not.
It probably wouldn’t be too much longer before Alice and Jane got married and moved out. With just the boys at home, there wouldn’t be much of a reason to build some fancy new place when the one you had was clean, dry, and warm.
James opened the front door and stepped inside. It seemed even hotter inside, and the darkness at the edges of the room made the heat seem closer, more intimate, like you were wrapped in a blanket. Somehow, that humidity seemed almost sinister, more like a python curling around your body to squeeze the life out of you. Everything was still, and when James looked to his left, he saw why.
There, on the bed, were the bodies of Jane and Charley, unmoving and covered in blood. Horrified, James thought to check on Alice, who normally slept in the loft. Climbing up, he found her on the bed, mangled and bloody.
James ran outside, adrenaline coursing through his veins. He was breathing fast, and with a small effort of will, James made himself think for a moment.
He hadn’t seen Lewis or Willis inside, so that meant that they could still be alive somewhere. But where? Suddenly, he remembered that it was Lewis’ habit to sleep in the barn loft in the hotter summer months.
. For years, Spencer had been in the habit of taking a bedroll out to the loft when it got too hot to sleep in the house. He had a roof over his head if it rained, and there probably wouldn’t be any chance of a strange critter snuggling up next to him as he slept. When Willis Spencer had gotten old enough, he had followed his father’s example, often following him up when the warmer weather set in.
James jogged over to the ladder leading to the loft. They had to be up there. Stepping onto the first rung, he began to climb.
A few seconds later he could see his brother-in-law and his nephew, laying there on the floor, exactly where he thought they would be. Then he saw more blood, and he knew that they were dead, too.
He went back down, jumping off the last few rungs. As soon as his feet hit the dirt, James began to run. His blood surged in his ears, his heart thumping in his chest. The heat was forgotten now, the harshness of the sun ignored. He needed help, needed to tell someone what had happened.
Going to the nearest neighbor, Willis told them what he had seen on the Spencer farm. The neighbor gathered what they needed, and sent word to others around the area to come to the Spencer’s as fast as they could.
The first few to get there noticed the same thing that Willis James had. The farm seemed too still. As they moved across the yard, however, they could hear something. It sounded like snoring, and it was coming from the barn loft. A few of them went to the ladder and started to climb, while the others walked to the house.
They didn’t have any reason not to believe James. He wasn’t known to tell any tall tales, and there was no good reason to tell everyone in the neighborhood that all of the Spencer’s were dead. Still, he might have made a mistake. He must have, because the last that any of them knew, dead people didn’t snore.
By the time they had made their way to William Spencer’s side, they knew that Willis James hadn’t made a mistake.
Lewis had no eyes. Someone had viciously smashed in the side of his head, taking his eyes in the process. Willis lay a few feet away from his father, his head crushed. In addition, it looked as if someone had stabbed him in the head with a pitchfork lying nearby. Unbelievably, both of them were still alive, though just barely.
Inside the house, the neighbors found Jane, Charley, and Alice, just as Willis James had described.
Jane was dead, a huge crater knocked into her skull. Charley had also suffered severe head trauma, including a fractured jawbone. Like his father and brother, he was also still breathing. Alice lay above on blood-soaked sheets, killed by heavy blows to her face and eyes.
Three local doctors from the nearby town of Luray were summoned, but by the time they all got to the farm, they examined Lewis, Charley, and Willis. They determined that William’s lungs were slowly filling with blood, suffocating him by inches. This was also what caused him to breathe so heavily, which sounded like he was snoring to anyone who didn’t see what happened to him.
The doctors knew the surviving Spencer’s didn’t have long to live. Their wounds were far too extensive, and all that was left for them to do was to make their last moments on earth as comfortable as possible. If they couldn’t heal them, then they could at least see to it that they didn’t suffer any more than they already had.
By noon, the entire Spencer family was dead.
An investigation of the property and a subsequent coroner’s inquest were held. Very little was conclusively decided. Everyone seemed to agree that the killer had entered the cabin through the window near the kitchen area. Inside, an axe covered in blood, hair, and brains was discovered. Obviously, no one had a hard time agreeing that it was the murder weapon, especially seeing as how that the hair looked exactly like Alice’s.
At first, they believed it was just one murderer. The number quickly leapt into multiples, with no precise number decided upon. Some felt that it could have been the work of one person, but others believed that it must have taken at least two people, perhaps more.
Based on knowledge of Lewis and Willis’ summer sleeping habits, many felt confident that the killer, or at least one of them, had stayed at the farm overnight.
If it was just family on the farm, Lewis would only take one bedroll with him and share with either Willis or Charley if they decided to come with him. If they had company, then Lewis would share his roll with their guest while giving another bedroll to his son. When the Spencer’s were discovered on the morning of August 3rd, they both had a bedroll, strongly implying that they had an overnight visitor.
With no other bodies having been found on the property, it was concluded that this unknown person must have been the sole killer or one of them.
No one could deduce exactly how the killings had happened. Yes, the murderer had taken a weapon of opportunity – an axe that apparently belonged to the Spencer’s, and then had hacked their way through the family. But had they started in the house, then worked their way out to the barn? If the killer had slept over, as everyone seemed to think, might they have started there? Or, if there were multiple killers, had the killings started in both locations simultaneously?
The bodies gave a few scant clues, but more toward the suggested order of the killings rather than the identity of the culprit.
It was suggested that Jane had actually woken up during her attack. An examination of her body showed that one of her fingertips had been stripped to the bone, as if she had tried to defend herself from a killing blow. It had failed, tearing the skin and sinew away from her finger on its way to hit home in her skull.
It was then thought that Charley, sleeping next to her, had woken up in the middle of the attack on his sister. The seven-year-old had sat upright, probably confused in those first few moments of wakefulness. The killer, already in a frenzy, struck him while he was in that upright, seated position, snapping his jawbone. He then would have been killed immediately or shortly thereafter.
Beyond these two, the exact order of the killings was anyone’s guess.
The one thing that everyone agreed upon, though, was the motivation behind the murders – money.
Lewis was the treasurer for Folker Township, Clark County, Missouri. Part of his duties was collecting taxes, and it was known that he either kept the money on his person or in his house. At the time of the murder, it was believed that he had an estimated $1000, give or take a few hundred, depending on who was asked.
A thorough search of the house and property was conducted, and the money was never found. This led many to conclude that the murders had taken place because the killer had come for the cash.
Essentially, what authorities were left with at the end of the day was that one or multiple people had committed a horrific murder in order to get the money Lewis was known to have. Someone had spent the night with the Spencer’s. The conclusion of the Coroner’s Inquest was that the family had been killed by the axe.
Beyond that, everything was open for speculation.
The truth be told, investigators in Clark County in 1877 were out of their depth with a murder like this. In their defense, so would have investigators in most large urban areas around many areas of the United States.
Forensic science, even in the larger cities of the world like London, New York, and Paris, was in its infancy. There was no cool guy doing cool poses with their sunglasses dropping forensic investigatory bombshells on people. Even the experts in the field at this time were learning as they went, just developing the techniques that would serve as a foundation for later generations of investigators.
If places like these had so little, then it could reasonably be argued that Clark County, a very rural, agriculturally-based area, had even less.
There would have been no shoe impressions made from any possible footprints, neither would fingerprints most likely have been taken. Anyone and their brother (sometimes literally, in the case of some crime scenes elsewhere in place and time), would have been allowed to walk through and look at the scene. Investigators at that time simply didn’t know any better.
What Clark County investigators did have was a strong work ethic and a burning determination to catch any of those who might have been responsible for the deaths of the Spencer Family. These were people whose ancestors had come into the area and built farms and businesses from nothing. They had pitted their will against the wilderness and had won.
This was supposed to be a peaceful area where people could live their lives in relative peace. They had worked hard at making sure their county was a safe place. These murders were a challenge to all that, and the only thing that would make people feel more comfortable was if the murderers had been brought to justice.
To help further motivate anyone who might have any knowledge of the killings, a reward of $100 per Spencer family member was raised and offered. Furthermore, the Clark County authorities utilized the assistance of the Anti-Horse Thief Association.
Many rural areas didn’t have a very large police presence. There was a sheriff, and maybe a few deputies. These men were responsible for enforcing the law over a vast area that covered miles and miles of woods, fields, farms, and small towns.
To further complicate things, it took a while to get anywhere in those days, and their travel could be stopped cold by washed-out, muddy roads or bad weather. There was no way for a handful of men to arrive quickly to a crime scene on the other side of the county unless they were very close by.
To get around this, the citizens of Clark County took it upon themselves to assist the local law enforcement. In 1863, a number of individuals gathered together to form the Anti-Horse Thief Association. They were responsible for preventing crime in their areas and assisting their fellow members in doing so whenever they were able.
The AHTA, for short, took great pride in making sure that they didn’t just engage in outright vigilantism. They made sure that there was evidence against a particular criminal before hauling them off to jail. The organization’s help was welcomed by authorities, who now had an effective county-wide crime prevention force.
In the face of such a grisly crime as the Spencer murders, they could hardly turn a blind eye in the pursuit of justice.
Over the next several days, an intensive investigation was conducted into what became known as the Spencer Massacre. The AHTA interviewed several people about the murder, and even chased any potential leads that lead out of the region. While they worked closely with the county prosecutor and arrested several people for possible connection to the killings, the investigators failed to come up with any solid leads that panned out.
That all changed when some bloodstained clothing was found. It was better than anything that had been found before, and it got even more interesting when it was discovered that it belonged to none other than Willis James.
Sure, he had been the one to discover the bodies and the first one to report it. That still didn’t mean that he couldn’t also have killed his former brother-in-law and young cousins. The AHTA moved quickly and placed him under arrest as the chief suspect in the Spencer Family Massacre.
Be sure to come back next time to hear the gripping conclusion of this story when we return to Missouri. Trust me – you’re not going to want to miss this one.
Larry, Wood. Lynching of Bill Young. www.ozarks-history.blogspot.com
Maples, Rajah. Spencer family brutally murdered in Clark County in 1877. www.kwqa.com
Dunn, Steve. Group takes another look at 125-year-old murder case. Daily Gate City, 7/17/2002
Hart, Rodney. Group relives infamous event in history of Clark County. Herald-Whig, 10/24/2004
History of Lewis, Clark, Knox, and Scotland Counties, Missouri. St. Louis and Chicago; The Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1887
U.S. Census Records
U.S. Marriage Records