Folktale relates town’s horror over Meeks’ family murders
William Taylor was publicly hung on May 30, 1896, at Carrollton, Mo. He was convicted in the grisly murders of members of the Gus Meeks’ family. Photo Source: 1977 History of Sullivan County. Accessed via the Linn County R-1 School District website
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
“Tell me a story from your childhood,” Levia Baker Carenen’s granddaughter, Peggy, begged during sleepovers during the mid 1940s and 1950s.
Mrs. Carenen had grown up on a farm at Madison, Monroe County, Missouri, in a house, which began as a log cabin and was later expanded to accommodate a growing family.
The tales that Mrs. Carenen told her granddaughter were reflective of her rural, Central Missouri heritage, and of the era in which which she lived, 1895 to 1961.
Story telling from this era was an art, described by Wikipedia as folklore. A verse such as which follows, spoken from grandmother to granddaughter, served as an oral depiction of real-life events, passed through generations by word of mouth.
Today, in her mid 70s, Peggy Carenen Rice of Kansas City remembers a portion of the true-life verse that her beloved grandmother shared during those sleepovers.
“Just one mile from Browning at the foot of Jenkins hill took place an awful murder by the Taylors George and Bill,
“Gus Meek, his wife and children were taken from their home, taken by the Taylors to meet their fatal doom,
“They put them in a wagon and headed for a straw made grave, but little did they know that Nellie, God would save.”
Levia Baker was born in 1895, at Madison, Monroe County, Mo., to John A. and Anna M. Baker. Less than 100 miles away, on May 11, 1894, there took place the grisly murder of the Gus Meeks family, in Browning, located in Linn and Sullivan counties. One child survived the massacre, 7-year-old Nellie.
That child would subsequently identify the Taylor brothers who killed her family, and both men were convicted. Bill Taylor was hung for his crime on April 30, 1896 at Carrollton, Mo., and his brother, George, escaped and was never re-captured.
The St. Joseph Herald told of the murders a day after they occurred.
“A most atrocious crime was committed last night near Browning. Gus Meeks, his wife and two children were murdered outright, and another of Meeks’ children, a girl seven years old, was so badly injured that she may not recover.”
It seems that William P. Taylor, cashier of the Peoples Exchange Bank, Browning, Mo., and his brother George, a farmer, had several charges pending in court: forgery, arson and larceny. They, along with Gus Meeks and Abner Page, were charged with stealing 31 head of cattle from W. McCullough of Milan, Mo.
Gus Meeks entered a guilty plea before being sentenced to the penitentiary. Once there, the governor offered Meeks a pardon, in exchange for his testimony against the Taylor brothers.
The Taylor brothers, the newspaper reported, wanted to get rid of Meeks, and offered him a deal. They would help he and his family leave the area prior to their trial, so Meeks wouldn’t have to testify. They negotiated a price to be paid to Meeks: $1,000.
Gus Meeks agreed, and on a dark night loaded his family into a wagon owned by the Taylors. Instead of taking them out of the area, however, the Taylors took the Meeks family to a point near the Jenkins school house in Linn county, a short distance east of Browning, where two additional people were waiting.
“Gus Meeks was first shot. Mrs. Meeks (who was pregnant) jumped out and she also was killed, the murderers then took stones and beat the brains out of two of the children and left the other for dead. The murderers then loaded the whole family into the wagon, and hauled them nearly two miles to the Taylor farm where they were buried under a straw stack.”
The straw stack was set on fire, but failed to ignite due to recent rains. Little Nellie regained consciousness, and walked a short distance to a neighboring farm, where she was cared for and help was summoned.
Details of the murders were reported via newspapers throughout the country. The Shelbina Democrat of July 4, 1894, reported that the Taylor brothers, who had fled the area after the murders, were captured in Buffalo City, Ark., and they were returned to the area for trial. A lynching sentiment existed within the county, so the Taylor brothers were jailed at St. Joseph, Mo., for their own safety.
The St. Joseph Herald reported on April 2, 1895, that it had been determined that little Nellie Meeks would not put on the trial stand because, since the murder, she had lived with B.F. Pierce, one of the prosecuting attorneys. It was decided not to give the lawyers for the defense a chance to argue to the jury that the child had been taught to tell her story about the crime. Instead, she spent the days during the trial at the home of Mrs. Mirick. “She has always said, and says yet, that it was George and Bill Taylor who killed her parents and sisters.”
The Shelbina Democrat, on April 3, 1895, described Nellie as “A pretty little thing with blue eyes and auburn hair.”
State Republican, Jefferson City, May 7, 1896:
William Taylor was hanged on April 30, 1896 at Carrollton, Mo. The State Republican in Jefferson City reported that the town of Carrollton “was crowded to overflowing with people drawn to the small town by the execution. So great was the crowd in town that a wire rope was stretched 100 feet from the jail beyond which none were permitted to pass who did not possess a permit. William Taylor and his brother, George were convicted of the murder of the Meeks’ family in 1894. The latter escaped from jail and remains at large.”
Two women who traveled by train to Milan on April 30, 1896, were Mrs. James Taylor, mother of the condemned man; and Mrs. Martha Jane Meeks, mother of Gus Meeks, the murdered man.
The St. Joseph Herald reported on May 1, 1896, that Mrs. Taylor traveled so that she could take charge of the body of her son after the hanging. Mrs. Meeks hoped to witness the hanging in order to avenge the death of her son.
“The two old women had known each other well in years gone by and as they rode in the same car from Milan to Bogard they recognized each other. They did not speak, however.”
Mrs. Meeks, mother of Gus Meeks, was admitted - with her blind son, G.W. Meeks. The St. Joseph Mo. Gazette reported on May 1, 1896:
“The sheriff took Mrs. Meeks into the jail dining room and told her that she might stand in the passage leading to the stockade in plain view of the scaffold while Bill was hanging. The white haired woman seemed greatly pleased with the opportunity she would have to see the murderer of her son and his family avenged.”
The State Republican at Jefferson City reported on May 7, 1896, that William Taylor had been a law student in Columbia at the state university in 1884. “He was a morose, non communicative fellow and did not hold a high rank in his classes. He left before graduation,” the newspaper stated.
Just prior to his death, Bill Taylor ordered a metallic casket for immediate transportation to Laclede, Linn County, Mo., and there by wagon five miles northeast thereof to the neighborhood of Yount Cemetery for burial.
Nellie Meeks Spray
Nellie L. Meeks and Albert R. Spray, both of Morris Township, Milan, Mo., were united in marriage in January 1904. The Milan Standard reported on Jan. 11, 1904: “Miss Meeks was only about seven years old at the time of the brutal murder and is now in the full bloom of young womanhood. She is one of Sullivan county’s excellent young women and will make Albert Spray at worthy wife. The groom is a young man of good character.”
A year later, Nellie gave birth to a daughter who would be named Hattie. Unfortunately, Nellie died in childbirth.
Albert Ross Spray remarried and started a new family. He died April 2, 1979, in Brookfield, Linn County, Mo.
Hattie P. Spray, married to Albert Lee Daniels of Linn County, died Feb. 6, 1997, at Wichita, Kansas.