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Music accompanies law enforcement career

The George Wilson Ham family is pictured together in 1903. From left, Merle and Ida Ham with their son, Lawrence; Roy and Lena Ham with their daughter, Vinita; Harry C. and Etta Ham (this photo was taken the year they were married); George W. Ham is standing behind his daughter, Claire, and to their left is George's wife, May; to May's left are her parents, William and Lizzie Reed, and finally, May's sister Edna, and Edna's husband, Al Schaffnit. George and May Ham both grew up in Pike County, Ill. Photo contributed by Linda Ham Thompson, granddaughter of Harry C, and Etta Ham.


Walking his rounds during the night shift of May 11, 1906, George W. Ham, a patrolman for the Hannibal, Mo., police department, encountered a well-dressed, albeit inebriated, 30-year-old man sitting near the car reporter’s house at the north end of the K line bridge.

The man had spent his evening frequenting South Main Street’s taverns, and now as the stroke of midnight neared, sat alone along the railroad tracks.

What was the man doing? Patrolman Ham inquired.

Waiting on a train to Jacksonville, Ill., the tall and handsome stranger replied.

Satisfied, Patrolman Ham offered information regarding which track the expected train would be arriving on, and went on his way.

Shortly thereafter, Wabash fast mail train No. 8 arrived from Moberly. The train came to an initial stop, and the stranger reportedly approached the train, stepping between the tender of the engine and baggage car, with the presumed expectation that he planned to climb onto the roof of the baggage car, thus steal a ride to Jacksonville, Ill.

The release of the air brake, however, caused the baggage car to move forward several inches, thus trapping the stranger between the car and the tender, and squeezing away his life.

The stranger was Clarence A. Corey, a member in good standing of the International Typographical union. He trade was that of a Linotype operator.

Early 20th Century crime

The encounter with this stranger was certainly one that George Ham would not soon forget, but it was just one of many he would face during his years as a Hannibal patrolman, and later as a special operator for the Burlington Railroad.

An example, two years prior, in early March 1904, M. Seal, a farmer living near Saverton, was reportedly en route to a bank in Hannibal with cash in his pocket to the sum of $261. At the site of a little spring along River Road between Hannibal and Ilasco, a wheel of Mr. Seal’s wagon dropped off. While attempting to replace the wheel, three men confronted the farmer, put a bag over his head and rifled through his pockets. Finding the cash and a knife, the three men fled, going south on the river road.

Patrolmen George Ham and John Little of Hannibal were summoned to the scene, and searched the cement plant and nearby woods for the suspects, to no avail.

The farmer’s son, Al Seal, was deputy sheriff stationed at the cement plant, and in the meantime he started south in pursuit of the three men.

The Quincy Daily Whig of March 6, 1904, described the pursuit and capture:

“At Saverton (Deputy Seal) boarded Burlington freight train No. 74 which passed the men on the road. Leaving the train at Ashburn he started back on passenger train No. 3 and met two of the parties at Busch (formerly a small Ralls County community).

“The men were immediately commanded to throw up their hands at the point of a pistol and then taken into custody. Both were placed on the passenger train and brought to Ilasco.”

The third man escaped, presumably with the money.

Musician of note

While George Ham is probably best remembered for his work in law enforcement, he was also a long-standing member of Hannibal’s First Regiment Band, which had the reputation during the early part of the 20th Century as being the best in Missouri. George Ham played the alto horn.

The band performed in Northeast Missouri as well as West Central Illinois. Members utilized the rails in order to transport from Shelby County, Missouri, to Quincy, Ill., and beyond. A memorable performance by the band, led by Prof. J.A. Lambertz, took place in the Opera House at Palmyra on Thursday evening, Nov. 18, 1909. Featured music included “My Old Kentucky Home,” and the crowd pleaser, “William Tell Overture.”

The band, according to J. Hurley and Roberta Hagood in “Story of Hannibal,” was initially formed following the Civil War. Through the ensuing years, rehearsals were held first on the top floor of Brittingham Hall, and later across Broadway above John Dreyer’s Cigar Store, where the City Hall now stands.

In 1898, members of the First Regiment Band included: George Ham, William Copton, Joseph Viehle, C.J. Leonard, James N. Cole, Ernest Call, John Lambertz, director, C.J. Murphy, Alfred L. Call, Fred Lindstrom, Arthur J. Barron, Charles Wilcox, H.F. Schmidt, Fred W. Miller and A.C. Leonard.

In addition to performances out of town, the band gave frequent concerts in Hannibal’s Central Park.

Ham family

George Wilson Ham was born April 15, 1859, one of seven children of William and Elizabeth Elliott Ham, and was raised at Chambersburg, Pike County, Ill. He was married in 1878 to May Reed, one of four children born to William A. Reed and his wife, Lizzie Lynn Reed, also of Pike County, Ill.

Early during their married years, George Ham farmed in Griggsville Township, Pike County, Ill., and the family later moved to Hannibal, Mo.

George and May had four children who lived to adulthood:

Merle Allen Ham (1879-1949)

Roy George Ham (1880-1959)

Harry Cleveland Ham (1884-1970)

Claire Ham (1892-1914)


Few can escape tragedy during their lifetimes, and George Ham was among those who faced his share.

As a special officer for the Burlington Railroad in September 1910, he was seriously injured while attempting to swing aboard a moving train near Hannibal’s Union Depot, which was located on the north side South Main Street, near Bear Creek. The Quincy Daily Whig reported that he slipped, and his left leg was crushed by the wheels of a caboose. Amputation below the knee was necessary.

He was later able to work as a flagman for the railroad, at the Union Station crossing.

The trauma of his accident partially contributed to his wife’s decline; her death came in January 1915, at the age of 54. Their daughter, Claire, who had worked as an operator for Bell Telephone Company, died in July 1914 at the home of her grandmother, Mrs. W.A. Reed in Pittsfield, Ill., at the age of 22.

George Ham, who after the deaths of his wife and daughter, was living at the Hannibal Hotel (associated with the Mark Twain Hotel) was found dead in his bed on April 1, 1916. He was 56 years old.

Note: Archie Hayden confirms that the K-Line bridge was located just to the north of Union Station, near what was once the Hafner Grocery warehouse.

Hannibal’s First Regiment Band, led by John Lambertz, was once considered to be the best of its class in Missouri. Long-time member was George Ham, who worked for the Hannibal Police Department, and later for the Burlington Railroad. In this 1898 photo, Mr. Ham is pictured back row, on the left. Photo contributed by Linda Ham Thompson

May Reed Ham and her husband, George W. Ham, are pictured with their three sons, Roy and Merle, in front, and Harry seated between his parents. Photo contributed by Linda Ham Thompson

Pictured is May Reed, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William Reed of Pike County, Ill. She was married to George W. Ham, a Hannibal police officer and a member of the First Regiment Band. Photo contributed by Linda Ham Thompson

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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