top of page

James Withers’ wives had trouble keeping him in tow

This 1952 photo of the businesses along the Market Street Wedge show the neighborhood where the wife of James H. Withers lived circa 1910-15. Her apartment was on the second floor of a three-story building on the south side of the street, two buildings west of Schanbacher saloon, which later served as Schanbacher Bros Meats. Hedges Supply Co., can be seen in this photo, featuring the Westinghouse sign in front. It was located at 1227 Market; Schanbacher’s building was 1233 Market; and Mrs. Withers lived at 1237A Market. COURIER-POST PHOTO BY OTIS HOWELL/STEVE CHOU COLLECTION.


James H. Withers, 32 and a native of England, found himself in a curious predicament on the evening of Monday, Nov. 21, 1892.

Hired to help build a well for John B. Shepherd at Frytown, on the Cut Off Road (later renamed St. Mary’s Avenue) near Hannibal, he lowered himself into a previously dug hole on the property via a ladder. There he worked alone during the day, possibly stacking stone. At one point near the supper hour a man employed by Mr. Shepherd stopped to borrow the ladder. He drew it out of the well, and promised to return with it soon.

But that didn’t happen.

Meanwhile, back at the house, Mrs. Shepherd assumed that Mr. Withers had left for the evening and thought little more about the work going on at the well site.

That was, until a knock came at her door during the early morning hours of Tuesday, Nov. 22.

Mr. W.L. Rose, who lived at 261 Market, had secured a horse and rode it out to Hannibal’s outskirts, and came to Mrs. Shepherd’s door seeking information regarding Mr. Withers. Mr. Rose had been alerted by his neighbor, Mattie Withers, that her husband had failed to come home the night before.

Mrs. Shepherd assured Mr. Rose that Mr. Withers had left for home the previous evening, but Mr. Rose didn’t accept that answer as fact. He proceeded to the well site, and found Mr. Withers at the bottom of the well, where he had spent the entire night.

The Quincy Daily Journal of Nov. 23, 1892, told of Mr. Withers’ condition upon his rescue.

“In answer to an inquiry as to how he was getting along, he replied that he was all right, but was rather cold and exceedingly hungry. He was at once released from his imprisonment and returned to work after he had laid in an unusual amount of provender.”


Withers married Martha (Mattie) M. Kinner Tompkins on Feb. 19, 1892, at Pike County, Mo., just nine months prior to his well entrapment. Both had been married before, and she had a son by her previous marriage, Vollie A. Tompkins, born in 1884. At the time of the entrapment, she was pregnant with their first child, Mattie B., who was born just two months later. A son, James Elvie Withers, was born in 1896.

Just as their previous marriages had failed, this one ended as well, sometime after 1900.

Mattie Withers married Enoch Taylor, who at one time worked for the street car company. Throughout their marriage, they lived in a house they owned at 623 Willow. Enoch died in 1936, and Mattie died in 1946. She broke her hip in a fall on Market Street in Oakwood, and died of complications from the fall at Long’s Nursing Home in Hannibal. She was 86. They are buried both buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

Went missing

The well entrapment of 1892 wasn’t the last time a wife of James Withers would awake wondering where her husband was.

In February 1903, Virginia B. Todd and James Withers exchanged vows. At the time he was employed as a foreman for the Imperial Lime Kiln, and the two seemed to be living an enviable middle class life.

But looks can be deceiving.

Ten months after their wedding, Virginia Withers reported her husband missing.

Once again, the Quincy Daily Journal made note of Mr. Withers’ errant status. Nov. 30, 1903:

“A few days ago he left for parts unknown and his wife is out on the hunt for him. The mother of Mr. Withers says that Mrs. Todd is his sixth wife.”

He may have returned home for a time, but by 1907, Mrs. Withers was the sole occupant of the apartment they had shared at 115 ½ Market St. Well, except for her mother, Julia F. Butters, who moved in after Mr. Butters died. The apartment was two doors west of Gottlieb Schanbacher’s Saloon, and was upstairs over “The Snow Drift Restaurant” operated by H.E. Hughes.

When the census taker came a calling in 1910, Virginia (or Virgie as she was known,) was still married, but once again didn’t know the whereabouts of her husband.

In 1914, Mrs. Virgie lived at 1415A Market, upstairs over the R.F. Waelder funeral parlor. She still didn’t know where her husband was. Apparently, he liked it that way.

Chillicothe, Mo. 1910

James (Harvey) Withers arrived in Lancaster County, Mo., near Chillicothe around 1910. In fact, the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune made mention that he was a guest at the home of Alida Megar near Sturges on December 16th.

He presented himself as a single man, and soon called her farm and home, his home.

Mrs. Megar was 20 years Withers’ senior, 70 years old when he arrived at her doorstep. Also living at the house was Mary E. Burlew. When the widow Mrs. Megar – who had no children of her own – penned her will a few years later, she named both Burlew and Withers as her beneficiaries, to split her estate. In return, they would live with and care for her until her death.

Death called her to eternal rest on March 27, 1915.

The probate process began, but Withers was in a hurry for his share of the money. So he made a deal with Burlew that she would buy out his half of the estate. He was scheduled to receive his portion on Saturday, Sept. 4, 1915, but a mixup occurred, and delayed the payout until the next day.

But the next day - before he received the money - he was dead.

According to newspaper accounts, Withers was drinking throughout the day on Saturday.

He returned to his rented room over the Busy Bee bakery in Chillicothe and complained to a neighbor named John Truog that he didn’t feel well. Mr. Truog summoned a physician, who administered to Mr. Withers. Sunday morning, Mr. Truog checked on his friend again, and found him unconscious. The physician once again arrived and discovered that Withers had a wound on the right side of his head at the base of the skull and one on the right side.

He was taken to the hospital, but was too weak to undergo surgery. He died at midnight. He never regained consciousness.

There was an investigation and a postmortem examination, but it could not be determined whether Mr. Withers fell as the result of his intoxicated state, or if he was struck with some object. He was buried at Edgewood Cemetery in Chillicothe, Mo.

As there were no known relatives, an advertisement of the estate details was published in the local newspaper.

Six months would pass before Virgie Withers of Hannibal caught wind of her husband’s plight. Arriving in Chillicothe, she filed claim for a widow’s dowery from his estate, and after a hearing, the court awarded her a share.

James Withers was trapped overnight in a well under construction on the John B. Shepherd property in 1892. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

 Recent Posts 
bottom of page