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Nickens’ actions offer a glimpse into secret side of the community

At the time of Emma Hub’s death, Billy Nickens and his long-time wife Rebecca, lived at 122 Glasscock, a half block to the south of the well-known and respected Hofbauer drug store, located at 143 Market St. STEVE CHOU COLLECTION


In April 1893, Billy Nickens of Hannibal had an encounter with the daughter of a German shoemaker that changed the course of not only Nickens’ life, but the German daughter’s life, as well.

On Emma Hub’s deathbed, she signed a statement saying that Billy Nickens was responsible for the condition she was in, and that was all it took for law enforcement officers to go after Nickens for what they had suspected for awhile, but couldn’t prove:

“Uncle Billy” Nickens was performing illegal abortions.

Emma was about 18 when she died. She had been estranged from her widowed father, Jacob Hub, who had thrown her out of the house for her “wild habits.”

She had sought relief from West Side physician, Dr. J.A. Ebberts, 156 Market, who suspected an abortion, but wouldn’t treat her until she admitted the details of her “illness.” Refusing at first to do so, her condition deteriorated. Finally, just before she died, she confessed the details of the abortion, and identified Nickens as the man who performed the procedure.


Billy Nickens was convicted of manslaughter in the second degree in the Hannibal Court of Common Pleas in February 1895. His attorney, George M. Harrison, made a motion for a new trial, which was overruled by Judge Reuben Roy.

Judge Roy sentenced Nickens to two years in the Missouri Penitentiary.

He was escorted to Jefferson City by Sheriff Pratt on the Denver Express.

After serving his sentence, Nickens returned to Hannibal.

At the time of the 1900 census, William Nickens, 67, and his wife Rebecca were living at 127 Colfax Ave. He was once again working as a shoemaker and shoe repairer.

Census records suggest that he and his wife had married in 1868, and spent their years together mostly in Hannibal. They may have had three children together, but by 1900 those children were all deceased.

Billy died Jan. 22, 1904, and was buried in the Old Baptist Cemetery. The cause of death was hepatitis.

Post note

In December 1903, Billy Nickens experienced a fall on a Hannibal sidewalk, resulting in a broken jaw and other injuries. He petitioned the city for $1,000 relief. His wife continued the cause after his death, noting that the fall was a contributing factor in his death a month later. No report was found on whether any settlement was made.

Town character

The June 20, 1875, (about 18 years before Emma’s death) the Hannibal Clipper newspaper described Billy Nickens as “the cosmopolitan colored genius of the West End.

“He can pick the banjo, scrape the fiddle, make box-toe boots, ladies' garters and velvet slippers; or, he can talk love, politics, religion or rheumatics all in one breath. He can fish, fight, dance and sing, and do more scientific devilment in five Your minutes than any West End citizens of civil rights notoriety could achieve in a month of Sundays.”

That’s quite a lot to say about a man of color and limited means, a mere 10 years after the abolishment of slavery in Missouri. But there Billy was, living just west of the Wedge near Market Street with his wife Rebecca, earning a living the same as the 34 other shoemakers (who were white) in Hannibal during those days when men – rather than machines – made shoes.

Hub family

After retiring from shoemaking, Jacob Hub operated a truck farm on his property on Valley Street, near the city limits. The 1900 census reported that he came to America from Germany in 1852, and that in 1900 he was living on Valley Street with three of his adult children,

Annie Hub, 37; Charlie Hub, 30; and John Hub, 24

Jacob Hub died April 7, 1913, and is buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery. He was 77. Anna Hubb signed the death certificate.

The 1890 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map shows the neighborhood where Billy Nickens and his wife lived in 1893. The Hofbauer drug store was at 143 Market, and Billy and his wife lived at 122 Glasscock. Illustration by Mary Lou Montgomery

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