Sunday, July 11, 2021

Murder and retribution in the south of Iowa

The 10 minutes of fame allocated to the Mercer boys --- 21-year-old Valentine and his brother, Hiram, 19 --- as "the most notorious desperadoes along the Missouri border" had expired by Dec. 9, 1881, when all that had been mortal of the two young men arrived in Chariton in a crate.

Unloaded at the C.B.&Q. Depot from a west-bound freight car, the crate was hauled to another loading dock and placed aboard a south-bound train on the southern branch, headed for Leon, where an inquest would be held and positive identification made.

A few days later, The Chariton Leader of Dec. 15 reported, "The bodies of the two Mercer boys passed through here Friday, en route for Davis City. They were both packed in one box."


The Mercer boys were sons of an itinerant family of day laborers headed by Henry and Celia Ann Mercer that had washed up near Davis City --- not far from the Missouri border southwest of Leon in Decatur County, Lucas County's neighbor to the southwest.

The two young men --- as well as other family members --- had a reputation for trouble that accelerated exponentially on the afternoon of Wednesday, Nov. 16, when Davis City Marshal R.D.R. Topliff and his deputy, blacksmith John D. Enloe, attempted to arrest the pair for stealing a large quantity of potatoes from a neighbor.

The Mercers, armed with pistols, were apprehended but not disarmed in a pool hall, then began to scuffle with the two lawmen en route to jail. Valentine fired shots that killed Enloe instantly and seriously wounded Topliff. They then fled Davis City firing indiscriminately, inflicting minor wounds on two bystanders.

A posse was formed, but lost track of the pair as they fled south through Missouri.


In the immediate aftermath, law enforcement agencies across Missouri were alerted by telegraph to be on the lookout for the pair and Iowa Gov. John H. Gear authorized a $1,000 reward --- $500 for each brother --- dead or alive.

Back in Decatur County, Sheriff E.J. Parker and County Treasurer Ezekiel J. Sankey headed together into Missouri to follow up on leads, but eventually Parker returned to Leon and Sankey continued alone, acting under a direct commission from the Iowa governor.

During early December, word reached Sankey that the brothers had been spotted in the vicinity of Ozark, the county seat of Christian County, Missouri --- just south of Springfield.

There, he joined a posse formed by the Christian County sheriff and so was on hand for the Mercer boys' last stand, as reported in The Indianola Herald of Dec. 15:

Tuesday's Register contains the following account of the noted Mercer Bros. The sheriff of Decatur had traced them to Christian county, Mo., where he found that the sheriff of that county had finished the business. He had succeeded in running the game to cover.

On Wednesday Sheriff White, of that county, learned that the Mercer boys were stopping at the home of a woman named Gideon, near the town of Endeville. Gathering a posse he started for the house. Arriving there the party made a concerted rush, broke down the door and found the Mercers in the room. Both were on their feet and held guns in their hands.

Their surrender was demanded, but Hiram, the eldest, drew his rifle on the party. It failed to go off, and before Valentine could fire, one of the sheriff's party discharge his gun into the body of Hiram, riddling him with buckshot and killing him instantly.

By the same discharge Valentine's arm was terrible shattered. He sprang through the back door and started for the brush, the posse after him in full pursuit. He ran nearly half a mile, and finding his pursuers gaining, and realizing that his capture was inevitable, the desperado halted at the top of a small hill. Turning upon his pursuers, he waved his revolver in defiance and placing it to his right temple, pulled the trigger. When the party reached him he was dead, his brains bespattering leaves for several yards around.

The outlaw's end was as tragic and horrible as his career of crime had been. The story of the lives of these two desperadoes, if it could be told, would stand as a parallel with the career of Billy the Kid or his compatriots of the western prairies.

On Saturday last, on the train from Chariton to Davis City, were the dead bodies of the Mercers, accompanied by Mayor Chas Lillie and E.J. Sankey of Davis City, Sheriff White of Christian county, and one or two of the men who were in at the death.


The bodies of the Mercer boys were taken into Ozark and put on public display for an appreciative audience, then crated and shipped to St. Louis, up to Burlington, across southern Iowa to Chariton and finally to Leon, where an inquest was held and positive identification made.

Sankey took charge of the reward offered by Governor Gear --- $1,000 plus $289 in expenses --- on behalf of Decatur County, paying it out to Missouri posse members.

While in Des Moines to collect the reward, he was interviewed by a reporter for The Iowa State Weekly Register which reported on Dec. 16 that "Mr. Sankey had with him a photograph of the dead desperadoes as they looked laid out in their coffins, the caskets set on end and the bodies being bared to the waist to show the wounds. They were beardless, and both were young, between 22 and 25 years of age, but have long been considered hardened cases. The country in the vicinity of their old home breathes easier."

Later that month, another Mercer brother --- Henry --- was arrested in Decatur County and charged with stealing a horse some three months earlier while he was employed on a farm near Afton. He did not resist.

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