The Murder of Howell County Jailer Alf Henry
Wed, 11/04/2020 - 10:37am admin
A new century was little more than a couple of weeks old when word of a heinous crime circulated through our local communities. Forty-seven-year-old Alfred Henry was found dead in a locked cell in the Howell County jail in West Plains. Two prisoners were missing.
The West Plains Daily Gazette reported on January 17, 1900, "The city was thrown into a fever of excitement, about noon today, on the discovery of the dead body of Alf Henry in the county jail. All the prisoners were gone, and the outside door of the jail was locked. Henry was evidently killed this morning about 8 o'clock when he entered the jail to feed the prisoners. Just before noon, Mrs. Henry sent one of the children to the home of D.W. Reese, to ask him if he knew the whereabouts of Mr. Henry. He had left home as usual in the morning and had not returned at the usual time for dinner. Mr. Reese's first thought was trouble at the jail. He immediately left home and went directly to the jail. The outside door was locked, but the inner door was unlocked. Mr. Reese then called Josh Mahan to come and look in a window, and he announced the prisoners gone and, at the time, saw the feet of Mr. Henry protruding beyond the cage."
"The Sheriff was sent for, and the jail entered, and the body of Alf Henry was found lying in a pool of blood at the foot of the stairway, leading to the upper cage. The head was mashed and bruised horribly, and blood had run freely."
There had been two prisoners in the jail, Benjamin Richardson, a career criminal from Ozark County, and Ed Grady of Howell County. Of the two, Ben Richardson was a tough character. A career criminal, his history began at the age of 29, when he was convicted of stealing a horse near his home in East Tennessee. He was caught a week after that in Springfield, Missouri, and returned to Tennessee, where he was convicted and sent to prison for two years. Richardson escaped and hid out in Ozark County, where he was soon arrested and served time for petty crimes. He was arrested on January 7 for horse stealing and moved from the Ozark County Jail to the Gainesville City Jail, January 10, 1900, a week before the murder. Ozark County was unaware he was an escapee from justice in Tennessee and Richardson. He was captured an hour later by James P. Harlin and taken to the Howell County Jail for safekeeping.
Following their escape, the two prisoners were spotted leaving West Plains about 8:30 the murder morning. Missouri's Governor and Howell County government issued a one thousand dollar reward for their capture, dead or alive. A large posse was formed, and the woods scoured in all directions.
The Journal reported, "Intense excitement prevails, and threats of lynching are freely made. The body of Henry was removed to Dressler's Undertaking establishment, where it will be properly dressed. A number of young men were called to witness the position and condition of the body when found. Coroner Scanlon was telegraphed for and will arrive on the evening local (train.)"
The exact cause of death was not immediately evident. Still, before the day was out, the paper reported, "A further examination of the body shows the skull crushed by a blunt instrument. Never before has the town been so excited, and crowds are congregating on all street corners."
The evening of Jailer Henry's death, around six, escaped prisoner Ed Grady was captured in Koshkonong. He confessed his escape and told reporters, "Richardson committed the deed and afterward liberated him from his cell and compelled him to accompany him. The paper also reported, "Grady is a morphine fiend, and his mind is not clear. His stories do not agree in all particulars. He was brought to this city on the early train in charge of Deputy Sheriff Boles, Oscar Smith, and John Black. He was very much frightened, fearing rough treatment at the hands of an outraged populace. His story, in part, agrees with conclusions arrived at by the officers after an investigation at the jail. It appears that Richardson had succeeded in breaking his cell door hinge and also rending useless the bolt on the cell door. When the jailer entered the corridor of the cage to hand in his food, Richardson pushed open the door and attacked Henry with either the chair or door-bolt. In the ensuing struggle, Richardson succeeded in knocking him down the stairway. This fall or the blow with the piece of the door would have made the wound which caused his death."
"After taking Henry's pistol, Richardson liberated Grady from the lower cage, took the keys, and both of them walked out, locked the door after them and passed through the eastern part of town, and started across the valley."
The day after the killing, Grady was taken on a handcar along the railroad tracks heading east, where he said they hid the jail keys. It took two tries, but the keys were located, and they determined that Richardson had stopped at several farmhouses trying to sell a watch he had taken from Henry's body. He told the people he met that he was going to Springfield but was seen going further southward. The day after the murder, the posse found an abandoned farmhouse where Richardson had spent the night, and the hunt continued along the tracks to the state line at Thayer.
On January 19, two days after the murder, a boat was stolen on the banks of the Spring River below Mammoth Spring. That night Richardson was captured by one of the most colorful characters in Mammoth Spring. The Journal reported,
"Richardson had gone to the home of Ben Elder, the mayor of the town, and was given his supper. Mr. Elder recognized him from his description and took him into custody. Mr. Elder's story is as follows: 'My dog, which is a ferocious canine, was making a terrible racket, and seemed to be attacking someone. I asked my boy to investigate the trouble, fearing that the dog would injure someone. The boy reported the dog having run a man up a tree. I went to the place and found this fellow. It was dark, and I could not see him. I spoke to him and asked him if he was a tramp. He replied that he was. I told him to accompany me to the house as I always feed tramps. He willingly went along, and I invited him to the dining room. When I saw him in the light, I recognized him from the description given by Judge Evans. I stepped into the next room, sent my boy uptown for the marshal, and told him to bring handcuffs. Then I began talking to Richardson about gigging fish and asked him if he wished to go that night. He replied that he was an expert with a boat, and we fixed a plan for a good time. Then looking at him, I said. 'you are the fellow who killed the jailer in West Plains. I know you.' He mumbled something, and I pressed the question, and he admitted his identity. The marshal arrived soon. I demanded his surrender to which he made no resistance.'"
Ben Elder is a story for another article. He authored a book telling his life story in Missouri and Arkansas, entitled "Drummer Boy of the Ozarks."
Richardson told a different story than Grady but said Grady knew all about the escape plans. He told the Journal, " Two or three days previous to the escape I had succeeded, with the aid of a knife and a piece of pipe, used in the jail sewer, in breaking the bar which locks the cell door. I had concealed my work by hanging my coat on the door hinge, which covered the broken part. It was planned to make our escape the night before. Grady was to whistle if the jailer was accompanied. He did whistle, although the jailer was alone, and we made no attempt. The next morning I paid no attention to his whistle, and when the jailer came in the corridor to set down my breakfast, I rushed out on him. He struck at me with the keys and hit me on my head, stunning me for a moment. I kept at him, and he fell over the railing on the stairway. The fall killed him. I came down the stairs, and he was still breathing. I turned his face up, then went through his pockets and took his watch and knife. He had no pistol. With the keys, I unlocked Grady's cell, and together we walked out."
Company K of the State Guard stationed at West Plains was called out by the Circuit Judge to guard against lynching attempts upon the prisoners. Hundreds of people visited the jail to have a glimpse at the two, and when taken before a grand jury, the courtroom was crowded with spectators. The grand jury indicted both men for murder. Both pled not guilty, and both were bound over for trial set for February 5, 1900, just nineteen days after the murder.
Justice acted swiftly in those days, and on February 7, Ben Richardson was found guilty. After twenty hours of deliberation, the jury gave him ninety-nine years in the state prison. The jury had deadlocked with eight for first-degree murder with a penalty of death by hanging, and four were opposed. The verdict with a conviction of second-degree murder was a compromise. The next day, Ed H. Grady pled guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge and was given three and a half years in the penitentiary.
The West Plains citizenry immediately started making plans to mob the jail, and the prisoners were quickly moved to a train bound for Springfield, where they were held until the two were admitted to the pen.
The story should have ended here but didn't. After serving three years of his "life sentence," Richardson feigned insanity and convinced the prison physicians so well that he was transferred to the state asylum in Fulton, Missouri. Four days later, he led a ten-man group that overpowered guards with Richardson in the lead wielding a knife, and all escaped March 7, 1903.
While Richardson was good at escape, he was not good at staying at large. A month later, he was captured near Yellville, Arkansas, and brought to West Plains.
On June 13, 1903, Richardson was taken back to the state asylum in Fulton, and a day later returned to the penitentiary at Jefferson City.
On the 4th of July, 1917, Acting Missouri Governor Wallace Crossley, following a tradition of releasing the longest-serving prisoners in the penitentiary, pardoned Richardson, and he walked out a free man. Ed Grady served his term of three and a half years and was also set free. Ben Richardson had not been a model prisoner. In June 1901, the Journal reported that he had been a hard citizen and had already been whipped twice.
Murdered Howell County Jailer Alf Henry had his funeral services at his home with many friends in attendance and was interred in the Oak Grove Cemetery. A local memorial fund raised a few hundred dollars for Henry's wife and two children. His son died in 1909 at the age of eight, but his daughter lived in Oklahoma until 1957. Alf Henry's wife also died in Oklahoma in 1926.