Murder Mystery: The Cane Hill Murders
Lying in stark white contrast to the gray ashes around them, the bones of two little girls were viewed in horror by their neighbors in the Washington County community of Cane Hill. The morning light did little to dispel the dark deed committed the previous night, June 15, 1839. The carnage claimed the lives of William Wright and four of his children. Left to mourn the dead were five other children and Mrs. Wright, who had fled and run about a mile to sound the alarm at a neighboring household.
William Wright had become quite prosperous as a hog farmer supplying the Cherokee Nation with bacon. Though he had maintained a cordial business relationship with the Indians, other white settlers and the Indians were suspicious of each other, and violence between them was not uncommon. White outlaws used the distrust to their advantage by committing crimes and blaming the Cherokee and, indeed, upon hearing the news about the Wright slayings, some Cane Hill citizens speculated they were all in danger from an Indian attack. Such fears were laid to rest, however, as Mrs. Wright related the events leading up to the worst night of her life.
James Barnes, a handsome man from a respectable family, operated a grocery store on the Cherokee border. Mrs. Wright said that on the day before the murders, her husband’s wagons, laden with bacon, had passed Barnes’s grocery, but Barnes didn’t buy any. Instead, he rode to the Wright farm and purchased the meat there. He paid Mrs. Wright with silver and paper money. She placed the coins in a tin box on the fireplace mantel and the cash in the pocket of her husband’s vest that was hanging on the wall.
The following night, Mr. and Mrs. Wright awoke as three men rode up to their cabin and asked to stay the evening. When Mr. Wright opened the door, the intruders stabbed him with a Bowie knife. A teenage daughter, who went to the aid of her dying father, was shot in the forehead. An older daughter escaped into the woods. A grown son attempted to flee, but was struck on the head and suffered a fractured skull; though he survived, he was left with permanent brain damage. The two youngest girls were slain, as they lay helpless in each other’s arms; historical accounts vary as to whether the girls were stabbed or shot. A toddler hid in a cornfield and was unharmed. Mrs. Wright ran out the back door, leaving her infant son in the house. No doubt she thought the men would come after her and spare him. Who could imagine the butchery of an innocent baby? But the little one was massacred along with the rest. Two small boys escaped the slaughter only because the killers didn’t see them in a trundle bed. After finding Wright’s money, the men set fire to the house and disappeared into the night.
A group of 36 vigilantes formed The Cane Hill Independent Regulating Company to investigate the murders and bring the guilty to justice. Among the suspects rounded up were grocer Barnes; William Bailey, a gambler, new to the area; John Richmond, a farmer; and Ellery Turner, a farmhand. The accused were released, however, after providing alibis and character witnesses. The vigilantes continued to hunt for the killers and urged citizens to report anything out of the ordinary.
About two weeks after the committee released the original suspects, a drunken Asbury Richmond was overheard accusing his brother John of the Wright family murders. This was enough to arrest and try John Richmond, Barnes and Turner. William Bailey eluded capture. While under guard, Richmond tried to escape. Dragged back before the frontier court, he confessed and said the plot to rob and kill the Wrights was hatched by himself, Barnes, Turner, Bailey, a man named Jack Nicholson, and another conspirator whose name Richmond could not recall. The entire gang rode to the Wright farm that night, but Richmond said it was he, Turner, and Bailey who actually committed the murders. After the deed was done, Nicholson was entrusted with the stolen money until local tempers cooled down. He left for the Indian Territory and was never caught. The unnamed sixth man was never captured either.
Still proclaiming their innocence, Barnes and Turner were convicted and sentenced to hang along with Richmond. On the morning of July 29, 1839, the trio sat on their coffins in the back of a buckboard that stopped under the gallows tree. As nooses were placed around their necks, the men looked out over a crowd of about 1,000 spectators. Then the wagon driver pulled forward and the condemned men, kicking and twitching, slowly strangled to death.
In December 1839, William Bailey was apprehended in Pulaski County, returned to Washington County, and sentenced to death. Under the gallows tree, he started to confess, saying, “I will now make a statement which will turn these hills upside down.”
But someone in the watching crowd shouted, “You can’t live yourself — let your friends live.” Supposedly, the speaker was the only member of the committee who had voted to acquit the accused men. Bailey uttered not another word and was hanged.
Over time, doubt was raised about the guilt of Richmond, Barnes, Turner and Bailey. The evidence against them was all hearsay, and some citizens thought the trial amounted to nothing more than a kangaroo court. Various sources claim that at least two of the defendants were tortured, flogged, denied water and threatened by burning.
Years after the lynchings, a man named Jack Nicholson, while on his deathbed in the Indian Territory, confessed to his involvement in the Wright murders. Also, during the California gold rush of 1849, a man named Young, formerly from Cane Hill, made a similar admission.
So, were the guilty punished, or did innocent men die? Sometimes we leave history to judge a person or an event, but in this case, even history can’t tell the whole truth.