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Life and times of a county coroner

This photo is believed by this writer to be Rebecca and John L. Clayton. Clayton was elected Marion County Coroner in 1890 and again in 1900. A close look at this photo shows a nameplate above the front door, which appears to spell out “J Clayton.” In 1900, Mrs. Clayton purchased a house with a legal description corresponding to the 3100 block of Market Street. Their address in 1920 was 3109 Market, on the south side of Market between Singleton and Darr streets to the north. Anna Schnizlein photo/Steve Chou collection.


Rebecca Clayton, living at Oakwood in Marion County, Mo., answered a knock at her front door in mid August 1891, only to find a distraught woman of mid age on her porch.

The woman had read in the Hannibal Journal about a tragedy at Moody, in Marion County, where two men were struck and killed by a freight train on the “K” line. The accident occurred Monday morning, Aug. 17. A description of the younger of the two men matched that of her son, Reuben B. Hughes.

The mother, Mrs. Charles (Johanna) Abrams, wanted to see the coroner – Mrs. Clayton’s husband James Lohr Clayton – but he wasn’t at home. Instead, Mrs. Abrams shared the story that her son was a carpenter, and had been out in the area since Monday in search of work.

Her son routinely wore a small apron while working, the mother said.

“Mrs. Clayton got her husband’s satchel and took therefrom the apron,” the Quincy Daily Whig reported in its Aug. 21, 1891 edition. “At the sight of this, the grief stricken mother swooned and took on over the apron, as if it was the body of her son.”

Coroner’s life

Thus was the life of the Marion County coroner during the last decade of the 20th Century. The unpleasantries of fatal accidents, illnesses and murders prevailed, each deeming eye-witness reviews by the man elected to determine if death was accidental, natural, or the result of foul play.

Twice the dedicated Democrat, James L. Clayton, asked the voters of Marion County to elect him coroner: in 1890 and again in 1900. Once elected, each time he left office before his term ended.

Indiana native

James Lohr Clayton was born about 1839 to Joseph and Ruth Roberts Clayton. Joseph homesteaded in Hancock County, Indiana, and built a two-room log cabin near Greenfield, Indiana. By 1850, Joseph had moved his family to Polk, Jefferson County, Iowa. By 1860, the Claytons and their unmarried children moved back to their land and cabin in Indiana, and that is where Joseph and Ruth would live out their lives. Joseph died in 1869.

James enlisted in the Union Army on April 18, 1861, and was discharged June 6, 1861, due to disability.

Two the children of Joseph and Ruth Clayton - Emiline, born circa 1837, and James, born two years later - would ultimately settle in Northeast Missouri.

Emiline married Josiah Leamon, who operated the Marion House on Market Street in Hannibal. (The Marion House was just to the west of what today is Ray DeLaPorte’s Carpet Bagger’s Antiques and Furniture store.)

James Clayton married Ruth Hamilton in July 1863, and in 1870 they were living with her father, Joseph Hamilton, at Jefferson, Monroe County, Mo. (Mr. Hamiliton’s occupation was listed in the 1870 census as “gentleman.”)

In 1880, the Claytons were farming at South River in Marion County. They had two children, Samuel E. Clayton, 6, and Lillie P. Clayton, 2.

The following year, Josiah Leamon died, and his widow, Emiline, took over operation of the Marion House, which was located at what would later be numbered 1500 Market Street.

In October 1883, the Clayton’s 5-year-old daughter, Lillie Pearl, died of diphtheria. Both Lillie and her uncle, Josiah Leamon, were buried in Section G, Riverside Cemetery.

County Coroner

James L. Clayton was first elected coroner of Marion County, Mo., in 1890. By 1891, he was apparently disenchanted with the job, and the Palmyra Spectator reported on Aug. 13, that Clayton had been offered a $125 job in Texas, and might resign his office and move to Texas.

Whether he moved to Texas is unclear, but in December 1893, his son, Sam Edward Clayton, died at the age of 20. Sam was buried in Section G of Riverside Cemetery in Hannibal, near his sister and uncle.


On March 8, 1900, the Palmyra Spectator reported that J.L. Clayton had been appointed justice of the peace at Oakwood.

In September 1900, Clayton’s wife, Rebecca, purchased property in Oakwood from Minnie C. Russ. The land transfer published in the Marion County Herald on Sept. 20, 1900, listed the property as part lot 11, subdivision NW 31-57-4. (An examination of this description puts the land at or near what is now 3103-3105 Market Street, Hannibal. In 1920, the Claytons’ address was 3109 Market.)

In November 1900, Mr. Clayton was once again elected county coroner. He thus resigned the post of justice of the peace.


Coroner Clayton was called out to investigate not one, but two separate rail tragedies on the night of Nov. 18, 1901.

The first, Henry Nelson, a farmer who lived near Philadelphia, Mo., was run over by Hannibal and St. Joe freight train No. 69 near the Palmyra junction.

The second fatality, that of Sherman A. Michael, a brakeman for the MK&T Railroad, occurred a half hour later near the “outer depot” at Hannibal.

Both men died instantly.

Second resignation

After Coroner Clayton announced his resignation in September 1904, he moved to Ripley County, Mo., where he purchased a farm about two and a half miles east of Doniphan. Already living in Ripley County was his wife’s brother, John Hamilton.

When he left Ripley County three years later, Clayton told the local newspaper that he planned to visit his mother – who was almost 100 –living in Indiana. (Ruth Clayton died on July 17, 1907.)

James Clayton and his wife settled in Center, Ralls County, Mo.

Rebecca’s brother, John Hamilton, died in 1911; in 1914, James Clayton’s sister, Mrs. Emaline Leamon, died at Hannibal.

In 1920, James and Rebecca Clayton were making their home at 3109 Market St., Hannibal, (possibly the same house that Mrs. Clayton purchased in 1900.)


James L. Clayton died Oct. 22, 1924, at the age of 85. His wife, Rebecca Emma Clayton, died Jan. 2, 1931 at the age of 88. They are both at rest near their children’s graves in Riverside Cemetery.

Mary Lou Montgomery retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Her collective works can be found at

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