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Baptist preacher, William Busby, baptized congregants in Mississippi

Rev. William C. Busby, right.

(Photo courtesy Patty Scott, Fifth Street Baptist Church)


For the Courier-Post

An early February thaw left the river across from Quincy, Ill., free of ice on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 1860, and at Hannibal, three boats had already been able to navigate their way north from St. Louis.

It was early in the season for such commerce, but steamboats weren’t the only attraction along Hannibal’s riverfront that February. On Valentine’s Day, 1860, a newspaper, the Waukesha Freeman, Waukesha, Wis., offered details of a baptism ceremony staged in the cold – but not icy - waters at Hannibal, which attracted from 1,000 to 2,000 spectators.

Four gentlemen and seven ladies were submerged into “the limpid waters of the noble Mississippi,” the Wisconsin newspaper reported. “It is said to have been an impressive scene.”

The officiating Baptist minister was the Rev. William C. Busby, educated at the Bethel Male and Female College, and ordained during April 1856 at the age of 23. He served Hannibal’s Baptist Church, located on the northeast corner of Church and South Fourth Streets, from 1856 to 1862.

When Rev. Busby died some 56 years after his ordination, in December 1912, he was identified by the Quincy Daily Herald as “one of the most prominent and best known citizens of Marion county.”

His years of service to Northeast Missouri are but a faint memory now, but his role was prominent in the eyes of his fellow citizens throughout his lifetime.

The Dec. 27, 1910 edition of the Quincy Daily Journal noted that Rev. Busby had performed more marriages and officiated at more funerals than any other Baptist preacher in North Missouri.

Perhaps the most notable funeral preached by Rev. Busby was for ex-Congressman William H. Hatch, during December 1896.

A prominent wedding took place on Feb. 7, 1912, when Rev. Busby officiated at the marriage of Harry E. Kilmer, an attorney and farmer from Centerview, Mo., and Miss Evelyn C. Baskett, at the Hannibal home of the bride’s parents, Dr. and Mrs. J.N. Baskett.

In December 1880, Rev. Busby officiated at the marriage of Miss Mary Bowling to Mr. Gillette of St. Louis. Miss Bowling was the daughter of Alexander Bowling of Hannibal.

Kentucky born

William C. Busby was born in Sharpsburg, Ky., in 1833, the son of Lewis and Eliza Busby. He came to Northeast Missouri with his parents when he was still a boy. He was educated in Palmyra, where he learned the tinner’s trade under an apprenticeship with Ezra Starr Barnum. He used wages earned as a tinner to pay for tuition to Bethel Baptist Male and Female College. He was ordained into the ministry in 1856 at Hannibal.

In 1864, he opened a hardware business at 212 N. Main Street, Hannibal, while at the same time continuing with his ministry throughout Northeast Missouri. He closed out his hardware business in 1912, just months before his death.

He served as moderator of the Bethel Baptist Association for thirty years, and among places in this vicinity, he filled the pulpits at Hannibal, Little Union, Shelbina, Pleasant Hill, New London, Woodland and Salem, all in Missouri.

Wife and mother in law

In 1858 William C. Busby was married to Hannibal native Virginia Halsey, the oldest of Harriett Halsey’s three daughters. Mrs. Halsey died in October 1894 and is buried at Riverside Cemetery in Hannibal.

William Busby’s remains lie beside those of his wife in Lot G 140 – just to the north of the flag pole - Hannibal’s Riverside Cemetery.

Halsey followed

gold seekers

to California

Virginia Halsey was just 12 years old when word came via a stranger that her father was dead.

William Halsey, a prominent member of Hannibal’s Baptist Church and a respected citizen of the community, was one of an estimated 200 Hannibal men who left for California in 1849-50 to seek riches during the Gold Rush. A difficult, months-long trek for the fittest of the fit, disease and death took a commanding toll on those who ventured out on the months-long journey either on land or by sea.

William Halsey, who chose to return home via ship south from California in 1850, either by crossing the Isthmus of Panama Canal or traveling around Cape Horn, died of cholera some three days’ journey short of the port of New Orleans, at the age of 42.

A gentleman who came in on the stage coach at Hannibal in December 1850 brought the sad news to Halsey’s family and friends that he had personally witnessed the death of the Hannibal man aboard the ship. (Source Western Union, Hannibal, Dec. 12, 1850)

Young Virginia, along with her mother, Harriett, and younger sisters, Mary, age 8, and Elizabeth, age 6, were effectively on their own in this fledgling town of 2,000 inhabitants.

The town itself, which at least temporarily lost 10 percent of its wage earners to the Gold Rush, suffered nearly as much as the individual families whose husbands and fathers dropped their plows and headed west.

A reporter from the Marietta Ohio Republication wrote about the Hannibal experience on May 22, 1851:

“The emigrants from here to the golden sands of the Pacific, were among the best citizens, because they nearly all belonged to the working class. Many of the lands which they left … remain unoccupied for the want of labors.”

Mrs. Halsey, left alone to raise her daughters, was the subject of special legislation in the general assembly of Missouri in August 1853, termed “An act for the relief of Harriet Halsey, widow of William Halsey, deceased.”

The act allowed her to make and execute the necessary deeds of Hannibal’s Baptist Cemetery, previously administered by her husband. The act also allowed her to collect all demands against others, growing out of the sale of any lots or lots, in the cemetery.

This status helped her keep her family of daughters financially afloat, until 1858, when Virginia Halsey, by then 18, married William C. Busby, the newly ordained pastor of the Baptist Church at Hannibal. William Busby moved in with his new wife’s family, and continued on as breadwinner during the ensuing decades.

William and Harriet Bowling Halsey, married in 1835, were among Hannibal’s earliest settlers. In 1830, the population of Hannibal was 30. By 1837, the population had grown to between 400 and 500. Hannibal’s first newspaper, the Commercial Advertiser, was published in 1837, a year before the Halsey’s first daughter, Virginia was born.

Note: Thanks to Patty Scott and Peter Danielsons for their research assistance for this story.

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