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Judge Totsh’s first view of Hannibal: Frozen river

Linda Ham Thompson shared this photo of the Hannibal Police Department, circa 1904. John H. Totsch, who served most of his career in public service for Hannibal and Marion County, Mo., is pictured front row, second from the left. He lost both of his feet in a railroad accident in 1898, but got along just fine with the aid of two prosthetics and a cane.


In 1925, John H. Totsch, long-time justice of the peace for Mason Township, Marion County, Missouri, told a Quincy Daily Journal reporter a story that he had repeated many times before: On Valentine’s Day, 1885, the ice on the Mississippi River at Hannibal was frozen 28 inches thick.

He witnessed it with his own eyes.

As a lad of 8, he moved with his parents, two sisters and four brothers, from Newtown, in Adams County, Ill., across the river to Hannibal. The horse-drawn wooden wagon driven by his father and carrying his large family crossed the frozen river beginning at what was historically known as the old ferry landing in Illinois.

By crossing on the ice, German-born Henry Totsch was able to avoid the toll on the bridge at Hannibal (completed in 1870s), which served both rail and horse-drawn vehicles.

Early years

Born in 1872 to a German-born father and his wife, Anna Keller Totsch, John H. Totsch followed in the footsteps of his older brothers, Charles, William and Jacob, seeking out work in Hannibal’s various industries in order to support himself and help out his family.

His father first went to work as a woodworker for England and Kahl wagon makers at 126 Market, and later established his own wagon manufactory at 314 Market. His older brothers pursued jobs in farming, and one clerked for the Razor grocery establishment on Hannibal’s west side.

At the age of 20, in 1892, John Totsch and his brother Jacob, (then 23) worked as laborers for Herriman and Curd lumber dealers.

But two other career paths caught the interest of these two young brothers, first, law enforcement, and later, railroading.

In June 1893, Jacob Totsch, by then married and living on Hannibal’s South Side, was working for the Hannibal Police Department. On June 1, 1894, he left the force to go to work for the St. Louis and Hannibal Railroad. (He continued to work for this railroad until his death in 1927.) His younger brother, John, became a Hannibal police officer, and like his brother, after a short-lived police career he accepted a railroad position. John went to work for the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad.

Rail era

The lure of the rails was a natural calling in a town such as Hannibal, which served as a hub for both east/west and north/south transportation.

In 1895, there were seven railroads doing business in Hannibal:

The St. Louis and Hannibal, depot, 102 Third, South Side;

CB&Q, Union Depot;

Hannibal and St. Joseph, Union Depot;

St. Louis, Keokuk and Northwestern, Union Depot;

St. Louis and Hannibal, 102 Third, South Side;

Missouri Kansas and Texas, (Katy) 311 Broadway; and

Wabash, at the foot of Broadway.

Rail accident

The MK&T Railroad maintained a roundhouse and switching yards west of Hannibal, near Oakwood in the Bear Creek valley. Working the night shift on Saturday evening, July 19, 1898, John H. Totsch fell victim to a tragic accident. Twenty-one years later, in July 1919, he described the event to a Quincy Daily Whig reporter.

“At that time Mr. Totsch was working in the ‘Katy' railroad yards at night. He was standing on the footboard of a switch engine which was pulling freight cars. Judge Totsch believes that he was knocked in the head that night by a man who afterward disappeared from Hannibal and who never denied that he committed the act. He fell beneath the wheels, suffering the serious injuries.”

The Quincy Daily Herald, at the time of the accident, described his injuries.

“Later he was removed to his home, where both horribly mangled feet were amputated above the ankles. His chances for recovery from the terrible accident are considered good by the attending physicians.”


In fact, he did recover, and fitted with prosthetics, went on to serve as example to others as far as recovery from adversity is concerned. He served during his career in the elected posts of police judge, recorder and justice of the peace.

In between terms of elected office, he worked for a time as a shoe worker at the Star factory; and as a salesman for the Cleveland Artificial Limb Company.


In his capacity of justice of the peace, in mid October, 1932, he found himself in like company.

Miss Janie M. Gambler and John S. Brandon, of St. Louis, came to his office on Center Street, requesting that Judge Totsch perform a marriage ceremony.

The Palmyra Spectator of Oct. 12, 1932 described the scene:

“When Miss Gambler and Mr. Brandon entered his office and explained their mission they discovered (Judge Totsch’s) crippled condition. After the ceremony they told him they must tell him of a very unusual coincident. The groom disclosed the fact that he, too, was minus both legs and walked on wooden substitutes and that his bride was shy one walking implement.”

A big man

During the early 1930s, Judge Tostch had the reputation of being the largest man in the United States to be able to get around with two wooden legs. He told the Quincy Daily Whig in 1919 that at the time of his accident, he stood at an inch over 6 feet, and weighed 210 pounds. At the time of the interview, his weight was 280 pounds. He walked with a cane.


Judge Totsch maintained his office at 211 Center Street in Hannibal, the block informally known in 1919 as “Justice Row.” Fellow justice of the peace, and attorney A.E. Dent maintained his office at 207 Center St. In 1927, there were three justices of the peace in Hannibal, Judge Totsch, Judge Gardner and Judge Hagan.


Judge Totsch retired as justice the peace in 1944, after serving the county in elected offices a total of 44 years. His wife, Blummie Timmons Totsch, preceded him in death in 1935. Death called Judge Totsch home on March 27, 1945, at the age of 73.

John and Blummie were long-time members of Calvary Baptist Church, and they lived most of their married life in the Hope Street/Chestnut area. They are buried together at Hope Cemetery, just south of Hannibal.


Thanks to Archie Hayden of Hannibal, who contributed information for this story.

In the 1980s, Swag Man Antiques, operated by Ferren Sims, was located in this building. Archie Hayden can remember examining a front window of this store, and being able to see the remaining faint outline of “Totsch.”

Otis Howell of the Hannibal Courier-Post took this photo of 211 Center Street (building at right) in September 1954, when it was a commercial refrigeration business. For many years this building served as justice of the peace office for John A. Totsch. He died in 1945. Judge Totsch united in marriage thousands of pre-World War II couples, many within this office space. Today, these two renovated storefronts serve as home to Ava Goldworks. Steve Chou collection.

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. Books available on by this author: "The Notorious Madam Shaw," "Pioneers in Medicine from Northeast Missouri," and "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870." She can be reached at Her collective works can be found at


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