Photo credit: Lou Wehmer

Highway Patrol Observes 90th Birthday in Howell County - Part 3

In our previous two articles, I recounted several occasions where criminal suspects exchanged gunfire with the Massie-Graham duo and lost. Another incident involving the two Willow Springs troopers occurred in June 1935. A trio of bandits charged with robbing a nightclub in Poplar Bluff and the shooting of an employee sped westward, eventually arriving in the Willow Springs area. They had been followed by the Sheriff of Carter County from Van Buren. The pursuit was joined by Patrolman Ben Graham and ended a few miles later at a familiar spot, the railroad underpass at Burnham, the site of a previous Patrol shootout. There suspect Lee Allen attempted to ambush the officers and was cut down by a hail of bullets in a field nearby. The remaining two suspects, a man and a woman, fled into the brush, and officers put a bloodhound on their trail. 
Here a bit of local color comes into play. I interviewed the late Joyce Burns many years ago, a close friend of Sergeant Nathan Massie. Burns was sweeping the floor of his furniture store and funeral parlor when he saw his trooper friend pull up in front of the store and get out of the car carrying something over his shoulder. The front door was kicked open, and a body was thrown onto the floor in the doorway. Massie turned to leave, and Burns yelled, "Hey Nate, what's this about?" Massie answered, "Don't have time to talk to you, gotta go get another one."
Luckily for the other two suspects, Bill Stiles and Marguerite Miller, they eluded the dragnet overnight but were arrested at the bus stop in Pomona the following day. The bloodhound accompanied them. When interviewed by the West Plains Journal, the woman said “that the dog had kept her from freezing during the night."
It turned out the trio's vehicle was stolen, and the suspects were implicated in a string of armed robberies in Kansas and Oklahoma. Graham had narrowly escaped being killed by Allen when he fired a shotgun at him at close range. A return shot by a Shannon County deputy sheriff was believed to have caused the suspect's death, though he suffered multiple gunshot wounds.
The level of criminality in Graham and Massie's assigned area caused the Missouri State Highway Patrol to send an additional officer to Willow Springs from the thirty-five troopers graduating in August 1935. According to the West Plains Daily Quill, that officer was to be stationed at West Plains. Due to a lack of funding for new automobiles, Trooper Theodore (Ted) R. Taylor was sent to Willow Springs, where he rode along with Sergeant Massie or Trooper Graham until he received his car.
Here another bit of local color came my way. I had known Ted Taylor Senior all my life growing up in Willow Springs. Long after his retirement, Ted often spent his mornings eating breakfast and sipping coffee at Hillbilly Junction. I had come off a midnight shift hungry and stopped and joined him for breakfast. I asked about his years working with Trooper Massie, and Ted shared several stories, including the time he spent riding along waiting for his car. One morning, Ted and Massie were patrolling Highway 60 east of the south junction at Willow Springs and noticed a suspicious vehicle. They waived the car down with a red spotlight, and as the car came to a stop ahead of them, two men stepped out of the vehicle just as Massie and Taylor also exited their vehicle. In that instant, the officers saw that both men were armed with Thompson automatic machine guns. Seeing they were seriously outgunned, Massie dove under the Ford Model A he was driving, and Ted ran to the back of the patrol car. The men unloaded their guns on the patrol car and sped off. There the story seemed it would end, so I asked Ted, "Did you chase them?" He gave me a puzzled look and said, "H--l no, do you think we were stupid?" 
The crime-fighting duo of Massie and Graham then became a trio. Sergeant Massie and Troopers Taylor and Graham gained nationwide notoriety in January 1937 for their investigative work solving the kidnapping and murder of a prominent physician in Willow Springs, Doctor J.C.B. Davis. 
On January 26, 1937, Dr. Davis left his office and was approached by a man identifying himself as "Mr. James," who stated his wife was ill and needed the doctor's help at their home near Willow Springs. Davis left with the strange man and did not return. The following day, Sergeant Nathan Massie was notified of his disappearance and, in turn, informed Troopers Graham and Taylor. 
A nationwide alert was put out for the doctor, and fifteen FBI agents were sent to Willow Springs to help investigate. 
A $5000 ransom note was received shortly after that. A former deputy sheriff and service station owner, Wade Baldridge, had a tip from a person who had seen the men in an automobile together the day of Dr. Davis' disappearance. Massie investigated this lead and located a suspect, Robert Kenyon. During a search of Kenyon's residence, officers obtained a paper tablet pad with an impression of the ransom note still visible. Kenyon was also in possession of a stolen car matching the vehicle's description in which Dr. Davis was kidnapped and a .25 caliber automatic pistol. 
A confession was obtained, and the suspect led officers to a brushy area just off the highway in Olden, north of West Plains, where Dr. Davis' bullet-riddled body was found. In an apparent effort to buy his life, Dr. Davis was shot writing a check, which was found still clutched in his hand. Shortly after his kidnapping, he had been killed, indicating the suspect had never planned to allow him to live. 
Massie's work, in particular, resulted in the arrest of Kenyon, who was convicted of the crime and was one of the first persons to be executed in the Missouri gas chamber on April 28, 1939. Previously executions in Missouri were accomplished by hanging.
Nathan Massie was invited but was not there to witness Kenyon's death. In addition to being the first trooper stationed in Howell County, Massie also became the first victimized by violence and seriously injured. On February 23, 1938, Massie responded to a home in Neelyville, Missouri, to question Frank Payne, a Butler County farmer who had shot a man during a card game. Massie and other officers tried to arrest Payne, who fled in a vehicle when approached. He refused to stop, and the officers shot out a tire. 
Massie approached the driver's side when the vehicle was stopped, and Payne jumped out with a gun in each hand and fired at him. One bullet struck Massie's right hand, causing him to drop his weapon, and another entered his left lung. The other officers on the scene then shot Payne, who died the next day in a hospital. At the age of 35, Massie was hospitalized for twenty-five months. He was plagued with medical problems for the remainder of his life.
The journey of Sergeant Massie in and out of the hospital near death over two years was followed closely in the press statewide. James K. Hutsell, author of a syndicated column called "Missouri Manuscript" in 1939, best memorialized Nathan Massie's struggle. He wrote, "It's not so hard to be a hero when your name is in the headlines. A fellow can stand having a few bullets dug out of him, can feel that he's equal to days of torture and nights that never end if he knows people know what he's going through. But what about those endless weeks after your name has vanished from the front pages and the public has forgotten?"
"A year after you were shot down in a gun battle with a vicious criminal, could you still grin when they told you that you were just about as near-death as you were a year ago? Well, State Highway Patrolman Nathan Massie was still grinning the other day when they carried him into Barnes Hospital in St. Louis for another operation."
"It will be one year ago next week since Trooper Massie was shot through the lung while attempting to arrest Frank Payne, fleeing from a roadhouse raid after shooting a Neelyville constable. Payne, shot an instant after he had fired on Massie, died with little suffering in an hour or two in a Poplar Bluff hospital."
"It had to be Highway Patrolman Massie who was to develop pneumonia and infection from those bullet holes, who was to linger week after week, through springs, summer, fall, winter, between death and a living torture even worse. It was Massie who was left unable to talk; Massie left with intestinal paralysis."
"But here's to you, Nathan Massie, your latest battle has made you a greater hero than ever. And though the public soon may forget again, your friends won't; and the Highway Patrol won't - won't ever. And, Massie, when you get a little stronger, the doctors are going to tell you that you're going to be better now...lots."
Upon his release from the hospital in 1940, Sergeant Massie returned to limited duty and remained in the Patrol until 1944, when he went to work as a military contractor supervising security at the Hanford, Washington Atomic Bomb Project. After the war, he returned to Missouri and, in 1950, ran for office and was elected Chief of Police at Poplar Bluff, Missouri. He was elected to a second term and died while in office in 1952.
In 1937, Trooper Ben Graham was transferred to Fredericktown in Madison County. He was promoted to Sergeant in 1943 and assigned to Kennett in Dunklin County. He resigned from the patrol in 1946.

Howell County News

110 W. Main St.,
Willow Springs, MO 65793

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