Shootout at the Burnham Railroad Underpass 1935

The turbulent 1930s in Howell County and the Ozarks were in step with the rest of the nation. There was a pronounced rise in criminality nationwide as the Great Depression ground on. The Prohibition social experiment fostered organized crime at the local and national level. The FBI was created to deal with crimes across state lines, and here in Missouri, the Highway Patrol hit the road in 1931. The first troopers assigned to Howell County spent at least half their time off the roadways investigating crime. The intersection of Highways 60 and 63 south of Willow Springs brought a variety of outlaws through the county. Southern Missouri was favored as a hideout by outlaws who took advantage of fairly good state roads and fast cars to commit their crimes and flee to the countryside beyond the jurisdiction of local authorities. 
 
This is a story of inter-agency cooperation by law enforcement to bring a small gang of criminals to justice. By 1935 most of the nationally known criminal gangs with ties to the Ozarks like Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker, and John Dillinger had been eradicated, but smaller groups of outlaws persisted. 
 
In the early morning of June 19, 1935, as the Metropolitan Nightclub in Poplar Bluff was preparing to close, thirty-seven-year-old Lee Allen of Dewey, Oklahoma, strode into the club with a twenty-gauge shotgun. He immediately shot the piano player in the leg and robbed the place of seventy-five dollars. Allen, an ex-con and career criminal who was already wanted for previous robberies was accompanied by two companions, William Stiles of Oglesby, and Marguerite Miller of Dewey, Oklahoma. Stiles also had served time in the Oklahoma Penitentiary. The trio robbed the nightclub of seventy-five dollars and fled west from Butler County to Carter County.
 
At Van Buren, Sheriff Clarence McKinney and his Deputy Sheriff met Highway Patrolman Ben F. Graham at four-thirty in the morning. Graham had been notified by phone at home by his headquarters in Sikeston. The three officers proceeded west believing the suspects were ahead of them. In fact, according to the Willow Springs News reporting the next day, "The bandit car was directly behind that of the sheriff, occupants of both cars being unaware of the other's identities." 
 
Here we find a gap in the Willow Springs News story. And, anyone who has ever driven old Highway 60 over the Fremont hills knows it is a big twisty gap - on a gravel road! The reversed chase continued to Willow Springs where the officers obviously stopped and their suspects quickly showed up behind them. Of course, the bandits failed to stop for the officers and the pursuit began. The News continues,
 
"Deputy Chilton got in the car with Graham and they gave chase. Chilton and Graham both fired several times at the fleeing coupe but failed to stop them. At the railroad underpass on this side (north) of Burnham, Allen got out of the car to take Graham and Chilton off the trail of the coupe. He carried a 20-gauge automatic shotgun, cut to the pistol grip. Graham stopped the car and told Allen to surrender but the bandit neither fired nor gave himself up, but fled. Graham attempted to shoot him but the chamber in his gun was empty and by the time he had loaded the gun and fired, Allen disappeared over the railroad." His gun was again empty, which plays into the story soon.
 
"Graham left Chilton to watch for Allen and returned to Willow Springs for ammunition and to send for bloodhounds. Chilton watched for a while but found that he, too, was out of ammunition. So he got a farmer to bring him to town."
 
"In the meantime, Sergeant Nathan Massie of this city (Willow Springs) received word that the cars had turned down the Burnham Road. He trailed the bandit car through Burnham to a spot several miles the other side of that place where they had hidden the coupe and ran into the timber. Leaving a guard at the car, he returned to Willow Springs to spread the alarm."
 
"In the meantime, D.S. Furnell of Mountain Grove arrived with his bloodhounds and he, Graham, and Chilton resumed the chase for Allen. Furnell used only one of his dogs and she immediately picked up the trail where Allen went over the railroad track. The dog went straight for Allen a mile or so away, Graham, Furnell, Chilton, and Sheriff McKinney following. Furnell, watching his dog, didn't notice Allen standing behind a tree until he was almost on him. Allen raised his gun as he stepped from the tree. Chilton saw him and fired. Allen yelled and dropped dead. Sergeant Massie arrived shortly after Allen was killed and he and Graham brought the body to Willow Springs where it was left in charge of T.R. Burns & Son, local undertakers."
 
Here I have personal knowledge. Several decades ago I interviewed Joyce Burns about this incident and he told me that he was sweeping the floor in the front of the furniture store (also undertaking parlor) when he saw a car pull in front of his doorway. Soon he recognized Trooper Massie with a man over his shoulder halt in the doorway and dump a body on the floor. Massie turned to go back to the car and Burns yelled, "Nate, what's this about?" Massie answered, "Don't have time to talk, gotta go get another one." With that, the troopers sped off. Burns, while I was visiting with him, went over to a drawer and pulled out what looked like a hunting knife with a nine-inch blade and handed it to me. He told me when he got the body on the undertaking table and began undressing him, the knife rolled out of his clothing. There was no sheath, so its purpose was to conceal and hurt someone. The Willow Springs News also wrote, "All that was found on Allen was a dime. The charge from Chilton's gun struck him in the chest and right arm. Shot entered him in thirty-three places."
 
"The chase then shifted to where the car was abandoned. An attempt to pick up a trail with the dogs failed because of the number of people who had been around the car. Some tracks were found but little progress could be made. By noon ten members of the state patrol, Sheriff Ed Threlkeld and his deputies from a large number of nearby counties, detectives from Springfield, and a large number of armed citizens were at the scene of the abandoned automobile. Small searching parties scoured the woods but failed to locate the fleeing couple."
 
Occurring at the time of summer solstice the vegetation would have been lush. You can walk past someone who has hidden an arm's length from you. Now imagine walking through the ticks and chigger-filled brush with one eye out for snakes and the other looking for a guy who wants to kill you.
 
In a rare look at the other side of a manhunt, the Daily American Republican in Poplar Bluff interviewed Margaret Miller who told them "several times during the hunt searchers passed within a few feet of their intended victims 'Once a couple of troopers passed within a few yards of us while we were hiding in a wheat field,' the woman said 'another time during the hunt, one fellow went on one side of me, and another one of the posse passed within fifteen feet of Stiles who was crouched behind a log.' Miss Miller said she dodged into a patch of buck brush sat down and covered her face with her hands. 'I knew that any second one of the men would see me and that I might not be able to surrender in time.' Asked why she and Stiles abandoned their automobile the woman said, 'We left it because it was leavin' time. A bullet passed by my head, like that,' she said, passing her hand in front of her eyes." 
 
She told the reporter how Lee Allen had left the vehicle in an attempt to ambush Trooper Graham and Sheriff McKinney, crouching away from his companions along the roadway and firing several shots at the officers. Graham had loaned his high-power rifle to another member of the search party who gave it back just in time for he and McKinney to confront Allen. The Poplar Bluff paper reported, "Allen, when found, half turned as if to shoot and the trooper raised his high-powered gun. He (Graham) aimed and pulled the trigger. The gun snapped. There was (again) no bullet in the chamber. Allen was slain by a deputy sheriff and rural mail carrier."
 
The Willow Springs News continued, "After an uneventful afternoon the couple was sighted quite a distance from the officers, who ran immediately for the spot, but the couple disappeared in the thickets, the dogs with them. Furnell's dogs are only a year old but have made quite a reputation for themselves. However, they have not been trained to be vicious, and when they caught up with the couple they immediately made friends and that was that. Furnell had not worked them on a leash because heretofore he had been unable to keep up with them. Officers surrounded the territory where the couple was last seen but darkness came on and the search was discontinued until morning."
 
It should be noted the manhunt here had none of the modern advantages law enforcement has today. No radios, other than an AM tube broadcast radio tuned to a station in Jefferson City that halted its regular programming to deliver a message like, "Sergeant Massie, call your office." Massie then had to find a telephone and call Sikeston long distance. Troop E headquarters was moved to Poplar Bluff in 1938.  No night vision equipment, no airplanes – just beating the brush. The dogs were their only advantage.
 
The News again picks up the story, "Officers continued to look for the couple this morning at the place where they were last seen. In the meantime, however, Guy Bush of Pomona noticed a man, a woman, and dog walking down the railroad tracks at Pomona. The couple went into Pomona where they got some food and a bus ticket to Jonesboro, Arkansas.  Paul Hiler, also of Pomona, commented on the couple, whom they believed to be the fugitives, and continued to watch them. They asked Walter Summers, a local highway maintainer about the couple and it was agreed that they were the fugitives. When accosted the couple made no attempt to escape. Bush, Hiler, and Summers brought them to Willow Springs. With them was one of the bloodhounds. The other was found on a road near the scene of the search activities.”
 
"Stiles was hesitant in talking to officers and little information was learned from him. The woman, however, talked freely. She exhibited considerable grief over the death of Allen whom she termed 'a swell guy.' The News questioned her regarding why Allen left the automobile at the underpass and waylaid the car carrying Trooper Graham and Chilton. 'He did it so the law would follow him and let me get away,' she commented. 'He was pretty good to you then, wasn't he, was the reporter's comment. He was a swell guy,' she answered and wept. She seemed resigned to her fate of facing several years in jail. In gathering some of her clothes to take with her she refused to take a heavy coat. 'Where I'm going they wear sweaters,' she explained."
 
The article went on to state that Miss Miller carried the money for the gang. They found one hundred eighty dollars in her purse and a marked dollar bill identified by the owner of the nightclub they robbed. As a side note, when the stolen money was returned to the nightclub owner he donated for the robber’s funeral expenses. Miller told them her boyfriend had a widowed mother and sister in Dewy, Oklahoma, who were expected to claim the body. The Hudson coupe they were driving was stolen in Kansas and the Missouri license plates were issued to a man in Ferguson, Missouri, near St. Louis. The car had a governor on it which cut its speed to fifty miles an hour. Had not Trooper Graham had trouble with his patrol car he could have easily overtaken them." Graham drove a Ford Model-A convertible with orders to leave the top down, except in inclement weather. The Colonel of the Highway Patrol ordered that policy in 1931 “so officers could be seen by the public.” 
 
The Willow springs paper added, "The killing of Allen and the search for the fugitive couple created considerable excitement in Willow Springs Wednesday and Thursday. (June 19-20, 1935) Crowds thronged the downtown street during both days. A number of local citizens participated in the search. Residents of the section where the couple was at large stood ready to report sight of the man and woman."
 
The News concludes, "The captives were turned over to Sheriff Massingham who took them to Poplar Bluff. Members of the state patrol in the manhunt were Captain A.D. Sheppard, Trooper John A. Tandy, and Sergeant R.R. Reed, all of Sikeston; Sergeant Nathan Massie and Trooper Ben. F. Graham, Willow Springs; Trooper P.R. Little of Cape Girardeau; Trooper O.A. Wallis of Poplar Bluff; Trooper Victor Dosing and Trooper Hubert Brooks of Springfield; and Sergeant Eugene Clark of the patrol bureau of identification at Jefferson City."
 
"Besides Sheriff Ed Threlkeld, Deputy Wade Baldridge, and several deputies from West Plains, the following officers of nearby counties were here: Sheriff L. W. Massingham of Poplar Bluff; Sheriff Claxton of Hartville, Sheriff Charles Akers of Eminence, Deputy Joe Chilton of Birch Tree, Sheriff C.D. McKinney of Van Buren. Each Sheriff was accompanied by deputies."
 
The names above weren't necessary for this article, but a self-indulgence on my part and a walk down memory lane. Some I never met but knew them by legend.  Some I did meet. I grew up around Captain John Tandy who served as commander of Troop G in Willow Springs when I was a kid. After retirement, he and his wife Helen ran a candy store next to the Willow Springs Schools, as I'm sure many readers will remember. They were kind people. On the occasion of the dedication of a new troop headquarters in April 1975, in Poplar Bluff, I had the pleasure of meeting former Captain O.A. Wallis. Tandy and Wallis were original 1931 members of the Patrol. Several others mentioned were original members, including Trooper Victor Dosing, who was ambushed on Pearl Harbor Day 1941 attempting to arrest a murder suspect at the Coffee Pot Café in Springfield. He was the third Missouri Highway Patrol officer killed in the line of duty. Dosing's third child was born after his death.
 
Finally, a few weeks before he was brutally ambushed and killed at his home in Van Buren in 2005, by a suspect whom he was investigating for murder, Sergeant Carl D. "Dewayne" Graham and I spoke of his hero, Sergeant Benjamin Franklin Graham. Both men served in charge of the zone in Van Buren. Dewayne was excited to have made contact with the widow of Ben Graham in Columbia and was anxious to see her. After his death, a file on Ben Graham was brought to me that Dewayne had intended to give me. He was the twenty-fourth Missouri trooper killed in the line of duty.
 
The trials of Stiles and Miller were separate but quick. She was sentenced to five years in prison and Stiles to fifteen.
 
I can't fathom the risk taken time and again so many years ago to protect us, and the men and women who today continue to run after the bad guys and toward the gunfire, instead of away like the rest of us.
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