The Great Quantrill Mystery
Davis Fit Hugh
William C. Quantrill
Did he live in Gregory?
| In the spring of 1887, not too long after the
end of the civil war, a stranger who introduced himself as Captain
Crocker rode into the little town of Gregory in Woodruff County. He was a
stately man with white hair, a white goatee and he looked very imposing as
he sat astride a truly beautiful horse. He wanted to buy some land, he
announced, and he had the cash in the saddle bags to pay for it. He chose
a tract of land in what was then known as the wilder- ness some 12 miles
south of Augusta, and he and his wife set about clearing some acreage and
building a log cabin on the newly acquired property.
At first Captain and Mrs. Crocker kept very much to themselves, working hard on their small farm and improving their home. Mrs. Crocker seldom left her house, but when neighbors started calling her they found her to be quite a gracious hostess. Captain Crocker rode his horse quite frequently into Gregory and to Augusta making new friends wherever he went. He had a kind of military bearing and he was recognized as an expert horseman.
But there persisted an air of mystery about the Crockers, and neighbors and friends began to piece together bits of information. Someone said that Mrs. Crocker was the sister of Cole Younger, a notorious Bandit in Missouri. And it was rumored that the famous Jesse James and his brother Frank made several nocturnal visits to the Crocker farm.
Then one day when Captain Crocker was chatting with friends in the livery stable at Augusta, a newcomer by the name of Hutchison approached him and said, "You, Captain Crocker, are the man I knew as Quantrill. I was in the Federal Army and was captured by your men. It was you who finally let me escape."
Captain Crocker looked at the man and smiled slowly. "You are mistaken, Sir. My name is L. J. Crocker, and furthermore I think that Quantrill would have shot any Yankee soldier that he captured."
That incident started a new flood of rumors. Was Captain Crocker in reality the infamous William Clarke Quantrill, the feared guerrilla fighter, the leader of a large group of desperadoes who tried to aid the Confederacy by burning, pillaging, murdering in forays in Missouri, Kansas, and even Kentucky? Could this stately gentlemen who had made so many friends in Gregory and Augusta, and who was adored by children when he visited in their homes, could he possibly be that same Quantrill who had been described in the newspapers as "The bloodiest man in the annals of American history, the father of American outlaws, a killer who had butchered women and children."
The legend of Quantrill was well known in Arkansas. According to one version, Quantrill started on his career of murder for revenge because as a youth he and his older brother had started out for the Colorado Territory in covered wagons. Somewhere along the route they were overtaken by 32 Kansas Jayhawkers who seized their mules and wagons and left the two brothers in a pool of their own blood, thinking that they were dead.
The older brother was dead, but young Quantrill by some miracle survived. He lay for two days beside the body of his dead brother until he was rescued by a friendly Indian and his squaw who nursed him back to health.
With revenge uppermost in his mind, young Quantrill joined the Kansas Militia as soon as he recovered his health. He worked constantly on the firing range until he was a crack pistol shot and an expert rifleman. He had learned the names of the men who had murdered his brother, and using the name of Charles Hart, he set out to track them down. One by one he killed them with a shot through the temple, the way his brother had been murdered. Of the 32 Jayhawkers only two escaped and only because they had moved to California.
When the Civil War began Quantrill knew a lot about revenge murders. He had been born in 1837 at Canal Dover, Ohio, but when the war began he espoused the Confederate cause and collected around him several hundred guerrillas, many of whom were deserters. Their mission was the aid the Confederate forces with hit and run attacks against Federal garrisons, and to avenge what Quantrill called Yankee atrocities. In these wild revenge forays Quantrill's band sometimes sacked, burned, and murdered whole communities. The mention of his name brought terror to Northern sympathizers in Missouri, Kansas and Kentucky. Whole battalions of Federal troops were sent out to track him down with orders to bring him in dead or alive.
Finally in a farm house in Kentucky Quantrill and a small number of his band were surrounded by Federal troops. He and his men fought desperately from the windows and doorways of the farm house until their ammunition was exhausted. Quantrill was badly wounded in the shoulder by a bullet that that rangled down through his body, and his left hand was mangled. After the surrender he and one of his men who was even more severely wounded were taken to the military hospital at Louisville, Kentucky.
There, according to one legend, William Clarke Quantrill died.
Not so, according to another legend! Here is what really happened:
Quantrill, who was so badly injured that he lay quietly in his bed, pleaded with the authorities to let his wife visit him. Finally they agreed. Then one of the most bizarre escapes in all of America history took place.
When Mrs. Quantrill arrived in the hospital room, Quantrill's companion in the next bed had just died. They stripped the dead man and dressed the body in Quantrill's uniform and placed it in Quantrill's bed. Then Quantrill himself put on his wife's clothes. She in turn put on the dead man's clothes, was gagged and tied, and lay down in the dead man's bed. Quantrill, dressed as a woman, walked away a free man. Mrs. Quantrill was discovered bound and gagged, gasping she had found her husband dead in his bed and had been attacked by the other man n the room who made her exchange clothes with him and then tied her up.
The authorities believed her story and as a result of this dramatic escape plot no further search was ever conducted for Quantrill. Instead the Louisville hospital records reflect William Clarke Quantrill died of his wounds and that an unknown member of his gang managed to escape.
This entire legend was well known to the residents of Gregory and Augusta at the time, but the question remained: Was Captain L. J. Crocker in reality William Clarke Quantrill? Or was he shot?
There are bits and pieces of evidence indicating that probably Crocker was in truth Quantrill.
For instance, E. B. Matkin Sr. who at one time operated a store in Gregory, said that he saw a telegram sent from Webb City, Missouri, notifying Mrs. Crocker that one of her kinsmen , a Younger, had died. Furthermore Matkin said, "Captain Crocker always wore a glove on his left hand. I never saw him without it." That, of course, was the hand that was badly wounded in the Kentucky soot-out.
General Peyton Campbell, now retired, wrote that as a teenager he spent many weekends with the Crockers and that the Captain was one of his favorites. "His stories of Quantrill," General Campbell wrote, "were racy, colorful, historically factual, delightful - and full of mystery. I often asked him if he were Quantrill. He always smiled, but never denied it."
But the real evidence, a sort of confession in fact, came from Senator W. E. Ferguson who had held many public offices in Woodruff County was a gentlemen highly respected by all who knew him. Senator Ferguson had seen a picture of Quantrill in a St. Louis paper which was an exact likeness of Captain Crocker. The Senator and the Captain were good friends and Mr. Ferguson often invited Crocker to stop by his home. It was in one of these meetings in the Ferguson home that Captain Crocker finally admitted that he was the legendary Quantrill. He asked Senator Ferguson to write his story but to withhold it from publication until after his, Crocker's death.
Senator Ferguson did write the story but unfortunately the manuscript was burned in a warehouse fire that destroyed other valuable papers.
Captain Crocker, or Quantrill, take your pick, lived on his farm near Gregory for 50 years, from 1867 till his death in 1917. No one seems to know for sure what happened to Mrs. Crocker, but it is assumed that she rejoined some of her relatives in Missouri.
But even to this day there is still a mystery about that stranger, Captain L. J. Crocker, who rode into Gregory on a fire horse in 1867. Could William Clarke Quantrill, the guerrilla killer and murdering avenger, could he possibly have been transformed into the genial, friendly, Captain Crocker who won so many new friends in Woodruff County? Who really knows?