The History of Keokuk County, Iowa
DES MOINES: UNION HISTORICAL COMPANY.
1880.
 

THE KEOKUK COUNTY VIGILANCE COMMITTEE.

 

This was a body of men banded together for the purpose of bringing to justice certain outlaws, who, in former times, infested that region of country, bordering on South Skunk river, and more particularly that locality commonly known as "Brushy Bend."  The association was composed of the best men of that part of the county, and its object was to assist the officers of the civil law in the discharge of their duty, and failing in this, to take the execution of the law into their own hands, and punishing the offenders.

In 1857, that part of the county before referred to had a bad name, on account of a systemized plan of stealing which was carried on.  In some cases oxen and cattle were slaughtered on the premises of the owner, and the meat and hides taken to the adjoining counties and sold.  In other instances horses, saddles, bridles, corn and potatoes were stolen.  The people were very well convinced who the aiders and abettors of these thefts were, and in some cases the proof was sufficient to secure the arrest and trial of certain persons, but in every case the ends of justice were thwarted by the false testimony of the confederates in crime.  In order to protect their property, and free their country from the bad name which fastened itself upon them, certain citizens or Richland and Jackson townships formed a secret organization, and thus met organized theft with organized force.  The organization in Jackson township was separate from the Richland organization, but not independent of it, as both organizations acted in concert, and with the full understanding of the other.

In 1858 a horse was stolen from David Myers, who lived near the Jefferson county line, about half way between Richland and Ioka.  The two organizations before named took the matter in hand, recovered the horse and captured the thief. The latter, however, by the evidence of his confederates, evaded the law, and was released.

There lived in the region of "Brushy Bend," four brothers by the name of Byers, who were implicated in certain thefts, and these four persons, now, were closely watched by the vigilants.

It was not long till a man by the name of Stalker had a saddle and a bridle stolen.  Ike Bowers, who, about that time had departed to Marion county, for the purpose of attending a camp-meeting, was suspected, and the vigilants sent emissaries after him to watch his movements, and, if possible, trace out the stolen property.  When these arrived on the campground, they found Byers in the very midst of the worshipers, taking a very active part in the conduct of the meeting. They said nothing to him concerning the real object of their visit, and led him by their conduct to suppose that they had simply come for religious consolation. However, while they sat near him in meeting, united their voices with his in singing the songs of Zion, and possibly may have lead in prayer, they at the same time kept a close lookout for the missing saddle and bridle.  In the course of time they found the missing property in the possession of a man from an adjoining county, who, upon being questioned, stated that he had bought them of Byers. Byers was thereupon arrested, and together with the man in whose possession the property was found, brought back to Richland, where he was tried before a justice of the peace.  The evidence this time being conclusive, and his brothers being unable even by their false testimony to establish an alibi, Byers was sentenced to a term in the county jail, whither he was conducted by the proper officers.  Keokuk county in those days had a jail, but it was not remarkable for its imposing appearance or its security.  Upon being locked up, and the officer from Richland offering to shake the parting hand, Byers refused, saying: "It ain't worth while, for I'll be back at Brushy Bend to-morrow."  And sure enough he was, for the following night he broke jail, and was back home nearly as soon as the officer.  The vigilants, seeing that the civil authorities were powerless to deal with such an outlaw, got together the following night, proceeded to the home of Byers, took him out of bed, and placing a rope around his neck led him to the timber.  Just before entering the timber they informed him of their intention to hang him; he asked permission to pray; they granted him thirty minutes, which was occupied in the most fervent supplication.  One of the vigilants who was present at the time, and who had seen him at the Marion county camp-meeting, says, that although Byers prayed most fervently and eloquently at the camp-meeting, the effort on this particular night was peculiarly eloquent and fervent; possibly the pressure of the rope against his vocal organs gave to his voice a particularly pathetic and sympathetic tone.  When the thirty minutes were up the vigilants started with Byers into the timber looking for a suitable limb, the latter all the while looking up, as if anxious to find a suitable place and have the work over with.  At length a limb was found, and the victim was swung free from the ground, but not into eternity, as the vigilants did not all contemplate such extreme measures.  After he had been suspended for a moment they let him down, and informed him if he would confess his crimes and reveal his confederates, they would release him.  This Byers refused to do, and they repeated the operation several times.  At length being persuaded that Byers would die rather than make a confession, they thereupon stripped him, brought forth some whips, with which they had previously been provided, and after giving him a severe castigation, gave him his clothes and told him to leave the country, and not again to return on penalty of being hung in earnest.  Byers left, and was never again seen in that locality.

There were a good many peaceably inclined Quakers living in and about Richland who objected to the measures resorted to by the vigilants, and in order to avail himself of their moral support another one of the Byers removed to Richland where he hoped to continue operations without taking the chances of being whipped.  After he had stolen a number of things the quiet town was nearly scared out of existence, and corportion [sic] lines could scarcely retain its people, when late one night some three hundred vigilants appeared on the street and, after parading through the town with Byers tied to a horse, departed for the timber.  This Byers, likewise, was never more seen in those parts.  He had been served like Ike, and, like Ike, he thought it best to follow the parting injunction of the regulators.

The other two Byers brothers, in due course of time, were detected in the commission of thefts, together with a boy by the name of Wyant and two or three other associates of theirs, all of whom were taken out of their beds at night, a sound whipping administered and ordered to leave the county.  The last one to go was "Lige Byers," who, awhile afterward returned, and upon his earnest protestation and promises of good behavior, was allowed to remain.  He soon fell from grace, however, was waited upon by the ever attentive committee and vanished in the night-time, never again to tread the romantic vales of "Brushy Bend."

While the vigilants were carrying on their operations south of Skunk river an attempt was at one time made to have them indicted.   They were, however, duly informed of the contemplated legal proceedings and were furnished with the name of the prosecuting witness on the day when the grand jury assembled at Sigourney. Certain members of the committee were at the latter place as soon as the swiftest horses could carry them there.  It would not do, however, to commit violence at the seat of justice, so they resorted to strategy.  While the judge was giving his charge to the jury they were entertaining the prospective prosecuting witness at a neighboring saloon, who, by the time he was called, was too drunk to make a coherent statement.  The grand jury thought it beneath their dignity to listen to the maudlin gibberish of a drunk man, so they dismissed him to sober off.  The following night said prosecuting witness was on his way to the Skunk river timber in charge of a body of vigilants and during the remainder of that term of court he could not be found though the grand jury sought him faithfully with deputies and bailiffs.  The vigilants had a most thorough organization and proceeded against offenders in a cool and systematic manner.  When a person was suspected they held a secret meeting and a jury was selected to pass upon the case, the evidence was all given in and the jury retired for consultation; if they acquitted the accused that ended the matter, but if they brought in a verdict of guilty the case was promptly disposed of the following night.  There was a regular annual or monthly assessment made on each member of the organization and thereby a fund accumulated to pay all necessary expenses.

The organization is still in existence and it has not been long since a man who was in the habit of stealing honey left a certain neighborhood very suddenly. He was out late one night and chanced to see a hundred or so of the vigilant's horses hitched at a school house; he went home in a hurry, silently folded his tent and departed.

Transcribed by Steven McBride. Thank you, Steve!

 

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