Thursday, June 06, 2013

John McGinnis's body lies a-mouldering at Goshen

The view to the southwest Tuesday from Goshen Cemetery into the Chariton River Valley.

My cousin, Ilene, finally has tracked down John McGinnis, who on June 28, 1889, shot and killed Lucas County Sheriff William B. Ramsey down there between Freedom and Derby. As it turns out, those who knew Goshen Cemetery, along Highway 65 northwest of Derby, always had known he was buried there. It was just that we didn't.

John's grave is marked by a field stone. Having seen Ilene's photo of it, it's embarrassing to report I couldn't find it for sure Tuesday after a trip to Lucas and the greenhouse. So don't take this collection of field stones  to be the McGinnis graves (a child reportedly is buried nearby) until I do some more checking with Ilene.

This search for McGinnis started with a collective and as it turned out misleading memory in the Freedom neighborhood that John had been buried hurriedly in a fence row west of that ghost town after he was shot and killed himself --- and there's still a possibility someone is buried there, but it isn't John. Ilene intends to continue her investigation and see what she can find out.


I've written before about Sheriff Ramsey's death, the second time a Lucas County sheriff had been killed in the line of duty in less than 20 years. You can access that here. But here's another, shorter report, from the Humeston New Era of July 3, 1889:

Special to the New Era

The final capture of John McGinnis culminated in a terrible tragedy on last Friday morning, June 28. He was staying at Mr. Stafford's about three miles southeast of Derby, and by his violent actions and threatenings had alarmed the people so that they sent for Sheriff Ramsey to come and arrest him. He came Friday morning, bringing constables Myers and Nafus, from Chariton with him; also called at H. Blous' on the way and took him along, the sheriff giving Blous one of his revolvers while on the way.

Arriving at Stafford's barn where John was, he came to the door and met the sheriff in a friendly manner and they shook hands, and immediately John threw up a revolver with his left hand and shot the sheriff through the center of the breast, then turned the weapon on Constable Nafus, who sprang to one side, the ball passing through the barn door and striking Nafus in the right side inflicting a severe flesh wound.

Nafus shot John in the neck, then ran away being badly wounded. John then leveled on Blous, who had the Sheriff's revolver in his hand, when Blous shot him through the head and killed him.

Sheriff Ramsey walked about twenty steps and fell dead in his tracks. He was taken home to his wife and five little children, and his arrival created the most intense excitement in Chariton, and as the news spread, through the county also. He served through the war in Co. 9, 34th Iowa Volunteer Infantry. He was a most excellent and honorable man, and in every respect an exemplary citizen. That he was respected by all classes is evident by the fact that, although a Democrat politically, he was elected by a large majority when our county went Republican by about four hundred majority. He was buried Sunday, the people going from all over the county to pay the last tribute of respect to him whom they had known and loved so long.

Sheriff Ramsey is buried at Mount Zion Cemetery, north of Oakley, but reports in the Chariton newspaper  neglected to mention what became of his killer's remains. The New Era report, however, provided the details as well as additional information about McGinnis and his family. It continues:

McGinnis was buried at Goshen Saturday, by the side of his child which was buried there a number of years ago. His wife and family are in Washington Territory, where they have lived for about six months. McGinnis has always been an industrious, honest man. About a year ago while digging a well, an iron crank fell in the well striking him on the head. He soon after developed symptoms of insanity. In due time he was adjudged insane and was taken to the asylum at Mt. Pleasant, from which he soon after escaped, and came back here and began a reign of terror in the neighborhood, taking the combative turn of mind he went armed continually and threatened the lives of a great many. The tragic end has long been anticipated and there is now a feeling of great relief that he is gone, although intense sorrow that a good man had to die with him.


The question then is, why did John McGinnis turn bad? Was it really a blow to the head, or was it a mental disorder that in this day and age might have been defused with medication and therapy? It seems unlikely we'll ever know for sure, but it is possible to find out more about John and his condition in newspaper reports of that time.

Born during 1850 in Wapello County, John was a son of Johnston McGinnis, a farmer and cooper, and his wife, Mary, natives respectively of Kentucky and Maryland. Johnston had arrived in Wapello County from Indiana ca. 1843 with his first wife and their son, Smith, born about 1840. The first wife died and he married Mary Margaret Mummert on Jan. 28, 1848, in Wapello County.

Prior to 1856, the family had moved west to Lucas County's Warren Township and a daughter, Tamandra Annabelle, had been added to the family. Smith, however, was not enumerated with his family and siblings in that year.

Johnston McGinnis died between 1860 and 1870 and on Sept. 24, 1874, son John married Mary E. Taylor in Lucas County. They had two children who survived, Viola and Liddie, and apparently one who died young. His mother, Mary, age 70, was living with John's family when the 1880 census of Warren Township was taken, nine years before the tragedy occurred.


John was a farmer, but dug wells on the side --- and gained renown for his skill in that area. The Chariton Democrat of June 24, 1886, reported that "John M. McGinnis is the champion well digger. Last Thursday at 3 o'clock he prepared to dig a well for Mr. Wm. Leazear near Derby; at 4 o'clock next day Mr. Leazear had a new well completed for use, twenty seven feet deep, and Mr. McGinnis had the money in his pocket for his work."

Two years later, however, The Democrat reported in its issue of March 22, 1888, that "Mr. John M. McGinnis, the famous well digger of Warren township, was last Friday suddenly stricken with brain and heart trouble, and his condition for a time was very serious. John is a large and very strong man, and being delirious for a part of the time, was hard to take care of. If he didn't choose to take his medicine that was the end of it, for no person could make him take it. Now, however, we are glad to report, he has taken a turn for the better, and will get well if he takes care of himself. But he had a very close call for his life."

John's condition deteriorated instead, and on March 29, the Democrat reported that "J.M. McGinnis, whom we reported last week as dangerously sick, is now a raving maniac. Last Sunday evening he escaped from the neighbors who were there to watch him. For much of the time he appears rational enough, and on the evening in question, he said he "believed he would sleep upstairs." In the morning it was found he had let himself out the upstairs window with a rope, and was out probably all night. During the day following, Monday, he returned, having been to Corydon. In the evening he was taken by the sheriff to the asylum at Mt. Pleasant. We are sorry this great affliction has come upon John and his family."

The Chariton Herald's report, in an edition also dated March 29, added details, reporting that "Mr. John M. McGinnis, of Warren Township, was brought before the Commissioners of Insanity on Monday and was found insane and committed to the hospital at Mt. Pleasant, whither he was taken by the sheriff of Tuesday."

"Mr. McGinnis," the Herald story continues, "has been ailing for about three or four weeks, his mind becoming deranged. For the last week or ten days he has required constant attendance, his conduct at times being so violent and threatening as to endanger the lives of his friends. He received a severe blow upon the head from a windlass crank while digging a well some time last fall, and some are inclined to attribute his derangement of mind to that circumstance."

McGinnis escaped from the Mt. Pleasant asylum during the fall of 1888 and returned home. "Our Derby correspondent again refers to the strange case of J.M. McGinnis, recently escaped from the Insane Asylum at Mt. Pleasant and continues in hiding in the woods near his former home in the south part of the county," The Democrat of Oct. 4, 1888, reported. "From all accounts Lucas county is to have a veritable 'Wild Man of the Woods.' The reports are that McGinnis lives in the timber day and night, and has continued to do so for some time, that he is well armed and desperate, threatening death to any who attempt his capture. And it is highly probable that he means it."

It may have been at about this time that John's wife and children packed their belongings and headed west to Washington Territory, most likely attempting to put as much distance between themselves and their now-deranged husband and father as possible.

But eventually that fall, McGinnis disappeared and some degree of peace returned to his own neighborhood.

In May of 1889, however, he reappeared. The Democrat of May 16, 1889, reported that "our readers will remember the excitement occasioned about Derby a year ago last March by John McGinnis becoming suddenly and violently insane. He was sent to the asylum at Mt. Pleasant. Last September he escaped therefrorm and came back home. He eluded the search of the sheriff and other officials and lived in the woods, subsisting on what he could find, sleeping in hollow logs and haystacks. After a few months of excitement McGinnis passed away from public notice and his fate has been a mystery.

"Last Monday the unfortunate man turned up again. He visited two men in Warren township that day --- Reub. Shore and Lewis Bonnet. He said he had been in the Indian territory. He is apparently all right again, a fact which will be cheering news to a host of old friends in the county."

As it turns out, The Democrat's report was overly optimistic. Shortly thereafter, John apparently burned his now-vacant former home near Derby to the ground. Little more than a month later, he shot Sheriff Ramsey to death and in turn was killed himself.

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