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A Murder In Vernon County, Missouri





In the summer of 1854 there occurred on Clear creek, in the eastern portion of this county, a most atrocious murder, which created intense excitement and interest at the time and was a topic of conversation among the people for years. The murderer was Dr. Samuel Nottingham, who lived on the east side of Clear creek, in what is now Virgil township, and his victim was his own wife, Mrs. Sarah Nottingham.

Dr. Nottingham was a native Kentuckian, but had lived for some years in Indiana before coming to Missouri. He was well educated, naturally intelligent, and was a thorough graduate in medicine from

the Cincinnati Medical College. In Indiana he married a Miss Collins, who bore him several children and died at last under somewhat suspicious circumstances, at the hands of her husband, as many

thought. Coming to Missouri he was again married to Mrs. Sarah Duncan, a young widow lady, the relict of David Duncan, and the daughter of Nathan Jarrell, an early settler in the northern part of

Dover township.

Physicians were scarce at that day and Dr. Nottingham had an extensive practice. He was a church member, a man of no open vices, and was generally esteemed. But at heart he was a man of violent

temper. Aroused to anger he became furious and vented his passion on what should have been considered the tenderest objects of his care and consideration, his wife and children. When in good humor he was a fond husband and a kind parent. With his second wife he did not live altogether agreeably. She was a good wife to her husband and cared for his children as tenderly as if they had been her own; but she was a woman of spirit and would resent very readily any ill treatment towards her from her husband or anyone else.

One evening Mrs. Nottingham was engaged in milking when the doctor rode up from a professional visit in the country. He began bantering his wife in apparent good nature, and she responded in

kind. Presently she said, "If you don't go away and let me alone I will milk on you," and pretty soon she threw a few streams of warm fresh milk in his face and on his clothes. Although this was done ill

mere sport, the doctor flew into a violent passion, ran up to his wife, kicked her, upset her milk, pulled her about by the arms and finally gave her a blow on the head with his fist. Mrs. Nottingham resisted

for a time as well as she could, but when her husband struck her she turned away and said, " Now, you have struck me; I won't live with you any longer. I am going home to my father, and I will never come back;" and bursting into tears she started off in the direction of the residence of her father, Nathan Jarrell, a few miles away.

Disliking a public exposure of his inexcusable conduct, and dreading perhaps the vengeance of his wife's father and her brothers, Dr. Nottingham followed after his retreating spouse, and overtaking her

remonstrated and expostulated with her against her leaving him. Finally, as he afterward confessed, he admitted that he had done wrong, and implored her forgiveness, promising that he would never again

mistreat her if she would return home with him and let an be forgotten. But to all of his entreaties his wife returned the one reply, " I won't live with any man who abuses me; I can never love you again,

and I won't forgive you." At last, becoming desperate under the influence of combined passion and feeling, shame, remorse, fear, apprehension and anger, the doctor called to his wife to stop, and when

she refused he caught up a stone as large as his fist and held it in his hand while he dealt his wife the murderous blows.  The missile struck the poor lady in the temple, crushing her skull and killing her almost instantly. It is believed, however, that in his frenzy the murderer added a few more blows to finish the work.

The scene of the murder was in the timber, near Mulberry creek, in the southeastern part of Virgil township, about a mile and a half west or northwest of Virgil City. Seeing that his wife was dead,

Nottingham dragged :and carried the body to a shelving bank or projecting cliff, forming a sort of cave, where he concealed it for the time, darkness having come on, and then returned to his house. He

informed his children that their step-mother had gone to her father's, but that he would go after her the next morning. And the next morning he did ride over to Mr. Jarrell's, taking a neighbor with him,

and made inquiry for his wife as if he expected to find her there. On the way his companion found a black silk handkerchief which the woman had dropped. That night, or the following, Nottingham dug a

grave and going to the cave where his wife's body lay, he attempted to carry it away and bury it. But Mr. Nottingham in life was a stout, well-formed woman and somewhat over-sized, and though her

husband handled her body with ease on the night of the murder, yet when he tried to take it from the cave he could not move it. Accordingly, with It large pocket knife, he cut the body in two, and carried

each part to the grave separately and buried it, covering it, however, with but a few inches of earth; the grave or pit was but a shallow, incomplete affair, re8embling a ditch or trench.

For some days the mysterious disappearance of Mrs. Nottingham was the sensation of the neighborhood. There was not a general opinion that she had been murdered; only a few suspicioned such a thing. The prevailing theories were that she was hiding in the timber in order to worry and punish her husband, or else that she had left the county for good; a few thought that she had committed suicide.

Searching partie8 were organized and scoured the country and there was the greatest excitement. But Nathan Jarrell believed that his daughter had been murdered, and one day while he was riding with

his neighbor, Daniel Pryor, on the search, his attention was attracted to a brace of buzzards wheeling about in the air, while two or three of their companions were perched upon the limbs of some trees beneath. Surmising what had attracted these scavengers of the air to the locality, Mr. Jarrell dismounted and soon discovered the remains of the poor woman.

The alarm was given, the body identified beyond dispute, and Nottingham at once taken into custody. A preliminary examination before Esq. Samuel Dunnagin, at Dunnagin's Grove, resulted in his being

committed to jail to await the action of the grand jury. There was Borne talk of lynch law but it was not put into execution. The prisoner was confined in jail at Clinton, there having at that time no suitable

jail in Bates county. of which this county then formed a part.

Nottingham was indicted soon after and tried at Papinville, the then county seat, before Judge Wm. Wood. He was ably defended by Waldo P. Johnson, but as ably prosecuted by John M. Bryant, the

circuit attorney, then and now a resident of Marshall, Saline county.

The evidence was overwhelming and he was speedily convicted. As the verdict was "guilty of murder in the first degree," the prisoner was sentenced to he hung. No attempt seems to have been made to procure a reversal of the conviction or a modification of the sentence. The records of Bates county containing the proceedings in this case are lost, but old settlers do not remember that there was an

appeal, although a long time intervened between the murder and the execution. The prisoner was taken back to Clinton jail, and here he wrote out a lengthy and complete confession of his crime and the attendant circumstances. This confession was given to Dr. Albert Badger and was sent to a printing office at Lexington and copies printed and sold throughout the country.

Nottingham was hung at Papinville in the fall of 1855; Sheriff Gabriel M. Stratton was the executioner. A large crowd was present at the execution. A public hanging always brings out a large concourse of people, and at that date in this sparsely settled country, sensations were so rare that this incident was regarded as an epoch. People came from as far south as Carthage, and from Osceola and all the region around about to "see the fun."

J. S. McCraw, an old resident of Bates county, who was one of the jurors that convicted Nottingham, said that when the jury was brought in to report the verdict, Morgan Settles stood within reach of the prisoner with a rope concealed under his coat ready to throw over Nottingham's head, while others stood near to draw it if the verdict should acquit him.

---History Of Vernon County, Missouri 1887 (with slight corrections)

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