Archive for June 15th, 2015

1899: John Headrick and Carroll Rice, Missourians

1 comment June 15th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1899, young John Headrick was hanged outside Cape Girardeau‘s courthouse for murdering James Lail.

The 19-year-old Headrick was an embittered ex-farmhand of his victim, James Lail — who fired the youth for stealing a buggy.

In July of 1898, he turned up on the farm and found Lail in the barn. Lail’s wife and daughter both saw young Headrick arrive; they would testify that within half a minute of him entering the barn, they heard gunshots.

At trial, Headrick would claim that he shot in self-defense when Lail menaced him with a deadly currycomb (a brush used for horses), offering the prosecutor the opportunity for a bit of sport on the cross-ex:

Q: “You want the jury to understand that you are afraid of your life when a man assaults you with a curry comb?”

A: “Yes, sir, when I am in a place where I can’t get away.”

Q: “Especially if you are armed?”

A: “If I wasn’t armed I would have been killed.”

Q: “He aimed to curry you? He didn’t strike you with the curry comb?”

A: “No, sir, he did not. He struck at me mighty hard.”

Jokes aside, Lail’s surviving family had a terrifying ordeal still to come. As Headrick blasted away at his fallen boss, Lail’s wife Vernie arrived and threw herself over her husband protectively.

The young assailant shot her, too, then began beating her. By now, 19-year-old Jessie Lail was on the scene too. “John Headrick, what do you mean!” she shrieked. “You have wrecked my life forever! You have killed Papa, now you are killing Mother!”

In the ensuing chaos, Vernie Lail tried to make a run for it only for Headrick to chase her down and stab her — to death, or so he thought. Then the young assailant marched Jessie Lail off at gunpoint. Somehow, Vernie Lail survived a slashed throat, a shot through the back, and numerous other injuries to rise yet again and make it a quarter of a mile down the road to her mother-in-law’s house.

“By God, the old woman is gone, you can’t kill her, can you?” Headrick exclaimed to the daughter when they re-crossed the spot where mom’s body should have been. Headrick at this point wisely abandoned the scene of his carnage after trying and failing to extract a pledge from his hostage not to give evidence against him. A posse found him shortly afterwards, hiding in a barn.

The sturdy and surprisingly low-to-the-ground tree on which Headrick was hanged just outside the Cape Girardeau courthouse still stands, or did as of 2010 when it was endangered by a proposed traffic roundabout. Have a gander at the old gallows-tree in this post by Cape Girardeau journalist Ken Steinhoff, here.


Headrick’s hanging took place behind jail walls, but on the same date in Alton, Carroll Rice was hanged before a reported crowd of 5,000 for the murder of his wife.

“Just before the black cap was adjusted, and while his legs were being pinioned, the condemned man broke away form the sheriff and attempted to escape,” press reports ran.

It was worth a try.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Missouri,Murder,Public Executions,USA

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