Most of us take our lives for granted.
We wake up and go about our day with hardly a thought toward anything else going on outside of the little world that we’ve made for ourselves.
We worry about what’s going on work, or school, or in our social circles. We think about paying our bills and taking care of the funny noise that our car is making when we drive down the road.
Granted, we’ll look outside of our personal bubbles long enough to see national and international events, but we turn around and filter them to fit inside our space. We know about the hurricane hitting the eastern seaboard, but that information is marginalized because it doesn’t have an effect on us in South Dakota.
The blizzard sweeping across the prairie, however, does. We huddle safely inside our warm homes as the bitter winds shape waves of snow across a sea of endless white drifts. When the storm subsides, we venture out and talk to friends and neighbors about our experiences with it.
As our stories are told and re-told, they gradually weave us together in a web of shared experiences. No matter what our professions or backgrounds are, these things bind us together by association with a shared commonality.
However, when they woke up that morning, none of them expected anything other than a relatively normal day. When Willis James walked up the road to his brother-in-law’s farm on the morning of August 3rd, 1877, he had no idea that his life was about to change forever.
A short time later, he discovered the bodies of Lewis Spencer and his four children, murdered with an axe in the house and barn. Horrified, James had run to the nearest neighbor’s house for help. They immediately went to the farm to see for themselves what had happened, unprepared for the charnel house that awaited within.
Three of the family was still alive – Lewis and his sons Charley and Willis – but had succumbed to their wounds later that day.
An investigation of the property and a subsequent coroner’s inquest were held. While they tried their best, authorities could only reach a few definite conclusions. One was the motivation behind the murders – money.
Lewis had been the treasurer for his township, and was responsible for collecting taxes there. Many people were aware that he could keep that money either on his person or somewhere at his farm. In August 1877, it was estimated that he had about $1000 in his possession.
Although his property and buildings were thoroughly searched, the money was never found. The obvious conclusion was that whoever had killed Lewis and his family had taken it, and had probably committed the murders in order to gain access to it.
Next, everyone agreed that the killer had gained entry into the house through a window near the kitchen. The apparent murder weapon, a bloody axe with strands of what looked like Alice’s hair, was discovered nearby.
It was common practice throughout the Midwest to sleep outside of the house during the hot summer months during the 19th century. Without central air or electric fans, people were at the mercy of the weather to find whatever respite they could.
Some houses featured what were called sleeping porches, a second story porch where the family could sleep more comfortably in the (hopefully) cooler outside air. Other people simply slept outside on the ground, or in an outbuilding like a barn.
Lewis Spencer had made it a habit to sleep in the loft of his barn for years. It was cooler than the house, and the roof kept the rain off of him. Willis had followed in his father’s footsteps as he got older.
When this started to happen, Lewis would often share his bedroll with Willis. If they had a guest, however, he would give his son a separate bedroll and share his own with the guest. When Lewis and Willis were found in the barn, they both had their own bedroll.
Some locals were aware of Lewis’ habits regarding the sleeping arrangements in the barn, and concluded that they must have had an overnight guest. More than likely, that would mean that this person was the killer, and that the Spencer’s had likely known their murderer.
This was also assuming that there was only one killer. While everyone agreed that someone had spent the night in the barn loft with Lewis and Willis, and that they were involved with the crime, that didn’t mean that they were the only one.
With five people dead, some people thought that it would have taken anywhere from two to five people to commit the murders. No matter how much anyone argued, though, no one could agree on a definite number.
Without knowledge of forensics, a science whose fundamental techniques were still being pioneered in 1877, the Spencer’s bodies and the crime scene itself was largely useless. The only item that was found was the axe, and that was determined to have simply been one of the tools on the farm.
With nothing found, authorities moved to the coroner’s inquest, one of the next steps in the investigation.
A coroner’s inquest was, at its most fundamental, a process by which the county coroner determined the official cause of death. After an examination of the bodies was made, many key people who were involved in the case – the first investigators to be at the crime scene, the individual who discovered the bodies, the first neighbors to arrive, etc. – were called to give testimony about what they had witnessed.
Usually done within a day or two of a murder, this gave investigators a way to initially discover any potential suspects. If the crime lacked any evidence pointed to a suspect, then being questioned about the details of the crime might.
Unfortunately, the coroner’s inquest concluded that the family had been killed by an axe, which everyone pretty much knew already.
Clark County authorities weren’t about to give up so easily, though. A horrible crime had been committed in their midst. Outside of a few domestic problems and the occasional fist fight, the area was somewhere safe where people could settle down and raise their children without fear.
Now five people were dead, horribly mutilated as they slept. People needed to have confidence that this wouldn’t ever happen again, and that they could once again sleep without fear. In order for that to happen, the truth needed to be found and justice done.
A reward of $100 per victim was offered to anyone who could provide information leading to a definitive arrest in the investigation. Authorities, with virtually nothing to go on, desperately needed a lead.
In addition to the reward, Clark County authorities turned to the Anti-Horse Thief Association.
Rural areas throughout the Midwest, or even the more settled regions of the eastern United States, for that matter, usually didn’t boast a large police force. Usually it was either a single person, namely the sheriff, or it was only a handful of people.
These individuals were expected to enforce the laws over areas that could cover hundreds of square miles. Roads were often not very good and could be unreliable in poor weather. Any help authorities could get was usually welcomed.
In 1863, the citizens of Clark County, in order to promote and enforce law enforcement in their area, founded the Anti-Horse Thief Association, or AHTA. They prided themselves on keeping their organization as legitimate as possible. Members were to assist the authorities and uphold the law. In that capacity, they would make sure to gather evidence against a person suspected or accused of a crime before they ‘arrested’ them and took them to the sheriff.
Between these self-imposed standards and a membership that stretched from one end of Clark County to the other, the AHTA was a welcome supplement to the existing law enforcement officials of the region. With the murder of the Spencer family, they were needed now more than they ever had been before.
Over the next several days, an intensive investigation was conducted into what became known as the Spencer Massacre. Without any evidence pointing at a specific suspect, authorities essentially began sorting through anyone who even seemed vaguely suspicious. Several individuals were taken into custody and questioned, but all were released. However, they did have a potential lead.
A bloody handkerchief was found on the farm. When questioned, Willis James, Lewis’ brother-in-law who had found the bodies, admitted that it had belonged to him. James, who worked as a farm hand on the Spencer farm, said that he had a nosebleed a few days prior and had used the handkerchief to clean up the blood. He had then either forgot it there on the tree or had deliberately left it. James also had some clothing with spots of blood on it, which he also claimed had come from the nosebleed. AHTA members took Willis James into custody for questioning.
Some people already suspected that James was involved with the murder somehow. He was a trusted family member and employee who would have known about the money and all of the family’s habits. Even if James had accomplices, no one would ever think twice about him staying overnight at the farm. When everyone was asleep, he could have helped his conspirators murder the family and steal the $1000.
James was forced to strip so that he could be examined for any wounds that might have been received during the murders. The next day, he was again questioned, and this time someone noticed that there was a bloodstain on his shirt. James gave them permission to cut it out so that it could be examined by Dr. A.M. Carpenter in nearby Keokuk, Iowa, as well as a pair of pants belonging to another man.
Carpenter was a very well-respected physician by both the public and his peers. After looking at the clothing, he concluded that there was no blood on it. To further support his findings, Carpenter had the clothing sent to an equally well-respected colleague in Fort Madison, Iowa, Dr. J.J.M. Angear. Angear couldn’t find any blood, either.
That September, a bloodstained hat belonging to Willis James was brought to Carpenter for testing. After examining it, he said that he believed that the blood was human. However, Carpenter apparently wanted a second opinion, and so sent pieces of the hat to Angear. Once again, Angear found no trace of blood on the garment.
On October 6th, 1877, Willis James was placed under arrest and placed in the Clark County Jail. Indicted on a charge of first-degree murder, James stayed at the jail through the following April, when his trial finally began.
The prosecution’s case relied heavily on the alleged blood found on James’ clothing and Dr. Carpenter’s testimony. Their strategy started to turn sour almost from the outset.
The defense produced a witness who verified James’ story about the handkerchief, and that he held no ill-feelings toward the Spencer’s. No other evidence presented could prove otherwise, either. The prosecution’s case was shattered entirely when a letter arrived at the courthouse, signed by both Dr. Carpenter and Dr. Angear, stating that they had both concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence for them to definitively say that the blood found was human.
The next day, the case was dismissed due to a lack of evidence. Willis James was a free man.
It had been almost a year since the murder of the Spencer family, and the best suspect so far had just been acquitted of the crime. A few months later, a man named Frank Lane would set into motion events that would not only present a new suspect, but would spread an even darker stain across the history of Clark County, Missouri.
In October 1878, Frank Lane arrived in Clark County. He said that he was a professional detective, and asked to join the AHTA in order to utilize his skills in order to solve the slayings of the Spencer family.
While hesitant at first, the AHTA eventually consented and Lane went to work. After spending some time harassing various people, he eventually settled on one individual, a widower named William Young.
41-year-old William ‘Bill’ Young was a successful farmer whose wife, Mary, had just passed away a few years prior.
Unfortunately, life still carries on, no matter how painful it can be. William still had a farm to run and four children to raise. He was going to need help to make things run smoothly. About a month after Mary died, he hired a woman named Laura Sprouse to be his housekeeper. She moved into the house and stayed with him for the next two years.
At this point, things start to become complicated, and more than a little murky.
What we do know is that in January 1879, Sprouse quit her position and left the Young farm. The following month, she had made sworn accusations against her former employer claiming that Young and two other accomplices had murdered the Spencer’s.
At the beginning of the trial, the evidence presented against Young seemed fairly straightforward. In essence, Frank Lane claimed that he had been investigating another robbery case in the county that he believed Young was involved in. Eventually, he began to suspect that Young was also responsible for the Spencer murders.
At that time, Young had been writing to an Ohio woman named Lydia Bray. Things had gradually taken a romantic turn, and he decided to go and discuss things further with her face to face in late 1878.
When Lane was sure Bill had left, he and an associate, Walter Brown, went to the Young farm to talk to Laura Sprouse. Away from Young, Sprouse told the two men all that she knew about Bill’s alleged involvement with the Spencer murders. In March 1879, she recounted that information to county officials.
Sprouse stated that she had seen Young in bloodstained clothing the morning after the Spencer murders. Later, she had rescued the overalls he had been wearing when he had attempted to burn them in a tree stump. Before he left to see Bray in Ohio, Sprouse claimed that Young had finally confessed to her what she already suspected – he and a few others had murdered the Spencer’s and stolen the money.
Bill Young was arrested on suspicion of murder and, like Willis James before him, placed into the Clark County Jail. Like Willis, Young would be kept there until October that year, when his trial officially began.
The prosecution, relying heavily on Sprouse’s testimony, contended that Young had conspired with two other individuals to rob the Spencer’s. Sprouse testified that she had heard the three of them talking about the crime, and that he had later confessed the whole thing to her in private. He had threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone.
Sprouse also claimed to have seen Young wearing bloodstained pants around the time of the murder, and that he had attempted to burn them in a tree stump. She said that, while he wasn’t looking, she ran over and snatched them out before they could be destroyed.
All of this was made more plausible by the fact that Bill Young had already served prison time for committing 2nd Degree Murder in 1860, when he was in his early twenties.
He and three other men had killed a man whom they thought had stolen a horse. Young was sentenced to a relatively light 8-year-term. Released in 1864, he had promptly returned home to his family in Clark County. Regardless of how law-abiding his behavior had been in the several years since then, his prior conviction still demonstrated that Young had the capacity to commit murder.
The defense contended that Laura Sprouse had been bribed by Frank Lane to give her testimony. He had known that Walter Brown and Sprouse had been romantically involved when they were younger, and that Brown still held a lot of influence over her. With Brown’s help, Lane had been able to convince Sprouse to go along with his scheme.
Early in the course of the trial, Lane vanished. No one could find him, and people started to think that he had left the region entirely. One day, he was found on a road near Kahoka, the county seat of Clark County. He had been badly beaten, but recovered after a few days.
Although the identify of the three individuals he claimed to have attacked him was never discovered, popular opinion demonstrated the deep rift that the murder trial had been cleaved into the populace of Clark County.
Some people believed that Lane was innocent, and had been attacked by some of Young’s friends in retaliation for the trial. Others believed that Lane was a fake, and that the whole attack was a set up.
Whatever the reason, Lane suggested that his assailants had stolen Young’s bloody pants. While he couldn’t say outright that they were responsible, he was clear on his claim that the last time he had seen them was shortly before he was attacked.
Being unable to produce a key piece of evidence that had allegedly been in your possession was bad enough, but the prosecution was to make Lane’s life even more uncomfortable.
In front of the assembled courtroom, Frank Lane was exposed as a fraud. His actual name was Daniel C. Slater, and he wasn’t really a detective. Lane, or Slater, was an ex-convict who had just finished serving a prison sentence for forgery in Illinois. Regardless, this still didn’t completely disprove the case that he had helped build against Young.
The trial continued, with neither the prosecution or defense able to gain the upper hand. On October 25, Young was found not guilty by a jury of his peers and finally released.
His family was waiting for him, along with Lydia Bray, who had travelled from Ohio several months prior in order to support him.
The two were madly in love, and Young and Bray decided that there was no better way to celebrate his acquittal than by tying the knot the following day. Afterwards, they took a short train ride to Keokuk, Iowa, for a few days to have a short honeymoon.
While he had been found innocent, the dividing opinions about his guilt were still there. Many people thought that Young truly was innocent, and there were many others who were convinced of his guilt. One of the loudest critics of the acquittal was, not surprisingly, Frank Lane.
He had led the charge against Bill Young from the very start, and still believed that the farmer was guilty. Unfortunately for Young, there were several people listening to what Lane had to say.
Several people were bitter over the acquittal they thought – no, they knew – that Bill Young was guilty. Regardless of what the court said, justice still had to be done. And if someone couldn’t take care of a problem for you, then sometimes you just had to do it yourself.
The Young’s were warned of the impending trouble waiting for them back home at several different points along their way back to Clark County. Bill, however, was determined that he wouldn’t be pushed around by anyone anymore. He was going to go home with his new wife and settle in.
After arriving at their farm, the Young’s sat down to eat together. Joining them was J.C. Coffman, one of Bill’s attorney’s, as well as two local women who had come to visit with Lydia.
As they ate, someone noticed that there were two men standing by the barn. Probably both curious and irritated, Bill went outside and demanded to know what they wanted and what they were doing there.
Soon, others began to join them, and a large, angry mob slowly formed. Among them was Frank Lane.
Inside the house, Bill and his oldest son, John, who was about eighteen years old, began to fortify the house. They barricaded the windows and the doors, and set pistols in the windows to give the illusion that there were several defenders inside.
After surrounding the Young home, the mob demanded that everyone come out except Bill himself. Coffman and the two visitors left, but Young and his family stayed put.
Eventually, the tensions that had been simmering for so long broke. Shots rang out across the yard as men in the crowd took aim at the house. Young fired back, answering as many of their shots as he could.
A cease-fire was eventually called, and two men from the assembled group went inside to discuss terms of surrender with Young. Bill agreed to pay all of his court costs incurred during the trial, and even said that he would take his family and leave Clark County. However, he was adamant that he would not confess to the Spencer murders. He said that he had nothing to confess to.
This was unacceptable to the delegates, and they went back outside to deliver the news to their compatriots. Soon after, the shooting started again.
Young tried his best, but couldn’t maintain his defense for long. Someone saw him stand up in an upstairs window, bleeding profusely. The mob then heard the Young children shouting that their father had been killed, and took that as their cue to rush the house.
They burst inside and went upstairs, where they found Young lying on the floor, surrounded by his family. He had been shot four times, including in the neck, chest, and forearm. Some men grabbed Bill and carried him down the stairs and out into the yard. Others took the family and locked them all into a bedroom.
Accounts vary as to what exactly happened next. Some would later say that he confessed, others claimed that he didn’t. Either way, the end result was the same.
After being stood in a wagon, a noose was put around Bill Young’s neck. The other end of the rope was attached to a heavy beam that ran across the top of a nearby gate. The wagon was removed, leaving Bill Young to hang until he was dead.
Despite their clamoring for justice to be done in the murders of the Spencer family, no one in the mob was ever brought to justice for the hanging of Bill Young.
Frank Lane, one of the chief instigators of the entire thing, was eventually arrested for his role in the hanging a few years later. Because of a legal technicality that was in his favor, authorities were forced to let him go. Lane quickly left the area and vanished into the mists of time.
When most people woke up on October 26th, 1879, they must have thought they knew what justice was. Many had already made up their minds whether or not Bill Young was guilty or innocent. While some, regardless of what their opinion was, were content to move on with their lives, others were not.
Disgruntled and angry, they allowed themselves to be whipped into a homicidal frenzy. They had made up their minds that justice wasn’t to get a confession from Bill Young; it was to see him swing at the end of a rope. That was the only justice that would satisfy them.
Today, opinions still vary on whether he was innocent or guilty. Regardless of what our opinions may be, we can’t change the past. It is fixed, no matter how much we may want to change it.
When the Spencer’s went to bed the night of August 2nd, 1877, they no doubt believed that they would wake up the next day and carry on as they always had. When William Young woke up on the morning of October 26th, 1879, he probably believed that the storm had passed and he was going to get married and return to a normal life.
One hundred and forty-one years later, what has become known as the Spencer Family Massacre is one of the oldest unsolved murders in Missouri history. William Young, officially acquitted of their murder, will still forever be linked to them in death.
Dunn, Steve. Group takes another look at 125-year-old murder case. Daily Gate City, 7/17/2002
Dunn, Steve. Spencer murders present classic case of ‘who dun it.’ Daily Gate City, 7/18/2002
Dunn, Steve. Gone but not forgotten. Daily Gate City, 8/5/2002
Hart, Rodney. Group relives infamous event in history of Clark County. Herald-Whig, 10/24/2004
Wood, Larry. Lynching of Bill Young. www.ozarks-history.blogspot.com, 5/20/2018
Maples, Rajah. Spencer family brutally murdered in Clark County in 1877. www.kwqa.com
Bill and His Bride. St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, 10/26/1879
The Dead Desperado. St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 10/31/1879
Hanged At His Home. St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 10/30/1879
The Last Link in the Chain. St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 3/6/1879
Laura Sprouse Leaves the Stand. St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, 3/23/1879
The Slaughtered Spencers. St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, 3/22/1879
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