Tragedy in Teresita - The 1919 Murder of Pearl Welton
Wed, 05/06/2020 - 4:14pm admin
Fighting on the German front, Howell County boys were in close combat with an experienced foe. Added to that, from 1918 through 1920, we witnessed a worldwide influenza epidemic, women’s suffrage, and prohibition. It was an exciting and historical time. But just as often in this period, the newspapers in the Ozarks focused their front-page attention on a local event: the arrest, trial, and conviction of the first female murderer in our county’s history.
For three years, the murder of Pearl Welton dominated local gossip, and the story used a lot of ink in newspapers all over the Ozarks, throughout the state and nation. The headline of the Mountain View Standard January 24, 1919, read:
“Pearl Welton Murdered! The 23-Year-Old Wife of Frank Welton, Near Teresita, Victim of Jealousy of Carrie Erickson Hofland of O’Neil, Nebraska. Strangles Victim With Bare Hands. Then Drags Body to the Cistern and Gloating Over Victim, Gets Nervous and Drops Child on Mother.”
The Standard wrote, “Friday afternoon of last week (January 17) the news came to this city over the telephone wires, that Pearl Welton, wife of Frank T. Welton of four miles southeast of this city, and four months daughter, had committed suicide by jumping into the cistern at their home (at Teresita.) Dr. J. Bickel of this city was summonsed and found Mrs. Welton dead, but the baby alive and apparently uninjured. At that time, no marks nor bruises were found on the body, and it looked as if they had either fallen in the cistern, accidentally, or she had jumped in with the baby.”
The plot thickened quickly, and officials soon realized this was neither an accident nor a suicide. The evidence pointed to a murder, and a possible attempt to cover evidence of what had really happened. The Standard continued,
“The presence at their home of a strange woman, however, the past few days whom Mr. Welton told neighbors was a relative of his and whom report said was a former wife, aroused suspicion and an inquest was called by Coroner Houston of Eminence for Saturday afternoon. By that time, bruises and scratches had appeared upon Mrs. Welton’s throat, which looked as if she might have been struck with some blunt instrument. Her back was also badly bruised, and a large red mark appeared on her right side under her arm.”
“The absence of any water in Mrs. Welton’s lungs also gave the impression that she was dead before falling into the water, for when death is caused by drowning, the lungs become filled with water.”
“At the inquest Saturday Mr. Welton testified that he left the house, after dinner, for the five-acre timber lot on his farm, about a quarter of a mile from the houses, to get some logs ready to haul to the mill, leaving the two women and a baby at the house together.”
Frank Truman Welton was born in Cleveland, Minnesota, in 1872, so was 47 when his wife Pearl was killed. He had packed a lot of living during his life, especially in the last few years. In 1894 Frank married a woman in Harrison, Nebraska, and census records show him living with her in Holt, Nebraska, until 1910. Records don’t indicate how or when that marriage ended. But also in 1910 Frank Welton was in a common-law marriage to Miss Carrie Erickson Hofland of O’Neil, Nebraska. They got along well, acquired land, and Frank farmed and worked for the railroad until 1917 when he suddenly packed up, left home, and went to Missouri, promising to return for Carrie and her daughter living with them from a previous relationship.
Soon after, on September 15, 1917, Frank was married to Pearl Tyler of Mountain View. He did not notify his common-law wife of his actions. In August 1918, a baby girl blessed the couple. Three months later, Frank Welton’s past caught up with him. His former wife, Carrie Hofland, unexpectedly appeared at his home. Frank introduced Carrie to his current wife as his sister and somehow convinced Carrie to play along. Carrie eventually left the Welton home in Teresita and returned to her home in O’Neil. In Frank’s mind, perhaps the situation was settled. It wasn’t. On January 17, 1919, Carrie returned, and Pearl Welton died.
Returning to the inquest, Frank Welton testified, “About 2 o’clock, he started for the house and was met in the yard by the other woman (Carrie) who told him his wife and baby had jumped in the well and were drowned. Welton says he ran to the well and tied a rope to the well box, let it down, and went down the rope, where he found the baby floating on top of the water. He tied the rope around the body of the child, and the woman drew it out of the well. She returned the rope to him, and he tied the rope around the body of his wife, climbed out of the cistern up the rope, and drew his wife out. Leaving them in charge of the woman, he ran to the home of C.H. Stockman, about one-half mile, and Mr. and Mrs. Stockman came as quickly as possible.”
On the witness stand, during the inquest, Frank Welton revealed to all that the woman who he had been representing as his sister was, in fact, his common-law wife – that he had never been married to her. He stated he had previously told her she had to leave.
Carrie Hofland’s testimony in the inquest “agreed with Welton’s up to her telling him of the tragedy; from there on, their testimony crossed one another. She said Welton went down the rope and had her draw up the baby, and that he then climbed the rope with one hand while holding his wife in the other arm, an utter impossibility. The cistern is 22 feet deep, and there was only 26 inches of water in it at the time.”
Pearl Welton was well-liked in the local community, and feelings ran high that something must be done. A preliminary hearing was held in Eminence four days later, but just before it was held, Carrie Hofland confessed. Her statement to the court was, “After Mr. Welton left the house for the woods, after dinner, I told Pearl I was his wife and had come to stay. We had some few words when I sprang at her and grabbed her by the throat. In the scuffle, we fell to the floor; but I managed to hold onto her throat until I killed her. I then picked up her body and carried it to the cistern, and threw her in, head first. The bruise on her temple must have been caused by her fall, as I did not strike her. The baby kept crying, and I picked it up and went to the well to see if Pearl was dead. Getting nervous, I either dropped the child or threw it into the cistern, I don’t know which.
Based on Carrie Hofland’s statement to the Prosecuting Attorney, witnessed by the Sheriff and Justice of the Peace, Frank Welton was released, and Carrie Hofland was taken to jail in Eminence.
An angry crowd gathered earlier outside the home of John House, Justice of the Peace in Teresita, demanding Carrie be turned over to them for lynching. The Sheriff settled the crowd down by telling them Carrie had confessed. She next was removed under guard from the Shannon County Jail and taken to the Howell County Jail in West Plains for safekeeping.
According to newspaper reports Carrie Hofland had planned to have a quick trial and plead guilty, and a special of the Shannon County Circuit Court was called. But, she changed her mind and procured the services of Attorneys L.B. Shuck of Eminence, and Green and Green of West Plains. She was strengthened by the arrival of her 17 year old daughter Myrtle Hofland from their home in Nebraska. The daughter had known nothing of the dual life of her step-father, and thought her mother and Welton were married.
Questions continued to be asked of Frank Welton and in May 1919 he was charged with Bigamy in Shannon County Court. Carrie Hofland was used as a witness against him. Carrie was described as "a mild voiced, medium sized woman, neat appearing, and does not look like she would commit such a crime as charged with."
Carrie's case was heard in Van Buren in June 1919 and hard fought. The Current Wave newspaper in Eminence reported that Carrie during the trial seemed to have very poor memory, "and she claimed to forget what she had testified to before, and all details of the fight (with Pearl Welton) she had told about. Whether she actually forgot or was playing a part is a guess." She steadfastly refused to implicate Frank Welton in the crime. The jury rendered a verdict of Second Degree Murder against Carrie and she was sentenced to ten years in the Missouri State Penitentiary.
Frank Welton was also charged with Second Degree Murder, and in November 1919 a trial featuring Carrie Hofland as a witness resulted in a hung jury. A second trial was held in April 1920 in which he was quickly convicted and sentenced to fifteen years in the Missouri State Penitentiary. Later in the year, the case against Frank Welton was heard by the Missouri Supreme Court. The high court ruled that Frank Welton was wrongly convicted by a jury based on their condemnation of his moral behavior. The court ruled his conviction was based on circumstantial evidence not strong enough to convict him of murder, and he was set free in December 1920.
In May 1922, Carrie Hofland was paroled by the Missouri Board of Pardons at Jefferson City, having served only three years of the ten year sentence. She returned to her old home in O'Neil, Nebraska.
Pearl Welton is buried in the Mountain View City Cemetery. It is hard to see how justice was served in this case. Neither Frank Welton's or Carrie Hofland's testimony held up under cross examination and the true story of what happened in the murder of Pearl Welton on January 17, 1919, will probably never be known.