Southern Missouri's Most Hated Man
Wed, 07/27/2022 - 4:32pm admin
Hate is a strong word, often misused. I can think of no one coming close to the title of most hated in the history of this region than William Monks just before, during, and after the Civil War. For decades mere mention of the name Monks could release a torrent of invective in print throughout Missouri, and on occasion, violence and death resulted. A quarter of a century after the war, newspaper explanation of who Monks was was unnecessary; his notoriety was known to all.
Billy Monks arrived in Howell County in 1858, settling in the South Fork community with his wife and daughter. Until the Civil War, his presence here was unremarkable. He farmed, became a local constable, and began reading law. He supported the Union side.
In the first months of summer 1861, being in the minority, avowed Unionists in South Central Missouri were persecuted for what they were saying - not for what they were doing. William Monks reminisced in his "History of Southern Missouri and Arkansas" that by early July of the first year of the war, "It was freely published throughout the country by the rebels that if any Union man attempted to open his mouth on that day (at a pro-Confederate rally around the 4th of July, 1861,) he would be shot as full of holes as a sifter bottom." The rally was held on the square in West Plains.
The threat was not idle, and Monks tested it by publicly advocating a pro-Union stance later that day. Mounting the rebel speaker's stand, he told the crowd, "they had been listening to Confederate speeches, but on the next Saturday, if they would meet him at Black's store, about ten miles west of West Plains, they could hear Union speeches and the Constitution of the United States would be read." Exiting the stage with several guns pointed at him, amidst "groans and hisses" Monks overheard someone in the crowd state, "we ought to shoot his black heart out now." A few days later, Monks was kidnapped from his home, and his family, in the coming weeks, was driven from the county, fleeing to Rolla. Then, along the way to Arkansas to be tried and hopefully hung, Monks was tied to a tree to be shot and later traded for a cow to another group. The men purchased him also intending to execute him.
Monks escaped his captors in August 1861, fled to Union lines at Springfield, and proceeded to even the score with those who had persecuted him. In 1863 William Monks traveled with a Missouri delegation and met President Lincoln in Washington, D.C., asking for more federal military support in guerrilla-infested Howell County.
He was a terror to anyone on the Confederate side and led patrols in Howell County and surrounding counties. By his admission, he and his troops killed over fifty men in the war's final months. He didn't stop at the war's end. In 1865 he was the first to move back to the deserted town of West Plains, where he was appointed and briefly served as Sheriff of Howell County. He served on the county court, or commission, as it is known now. He helped set taxation policies that rewarded Union soldiers for their service but put the full load of taxes that had not been collected for five years since the war started on former rebels. He began practice as an attorney in West Plains and sued the men who had kidnapped him and sued their widows in Circuit Court, taking their land.
In 1868 he invaded Arkansas in command of Missouri Militia, allegedly to suppress Ku Klux Klan activity. He was appointed by the radical Republican governor there as a Lieutenant Colonel in command of Arkansas militia and garnered the moniker Colonel Monks. However, the highest rank he achieved during the war was Captain; by this time, dozens of men wanted to kill him.
In 1870 when a group of former Confederates began meeting daily at a tavern across the street from his home to drink a toast to his death, Monks recruited a 25 or 30-member band to drive one of the ring leaders out of town. Doctor Robert Belden, a new arrival in West Plains, was intimidated soon to leave and never return. Reporting this incident, the Democratic Ironton newspaper wrote, "We are of those who are satisfied that if Monks could be found dead some morning, Howell County could well afford to pay for the coroner's inquest."
Even his former Union allies turned against Monks. In 1870 Judge Fyan of Gainsville, a former Union soldier, called Monks "a liar, a thief, a hell-hound, and every other name known to the catalog of crime and villainy."
After he served one term in the Missouri Legislature, Monks was challenged by former compatriot and fellow radical Republican Ben Alsup of Willow Springs for his seat in the House and soundly beaten. In response, Monks contested the election and sued Alsup and others for slander. In February 1874, the Rolla Herald reported, "The case of Monks vs. Alsup, et al., for $60,000 damage for defamation of character, was tried last week, on change of venue from Howell county. Monks sued for $60,000 as a slight equivalent for the damage he claimed to have been done his character. The jury couldn't see that Monks ever had any character to be damaged but awarded him the enormous amount of one cent as damages for any character he might have had, which they failed to discover. Monks certainly should be satisfied by this time as to his 'character.'"
The following month the Rolla Herald reported in April 1874, "On Wednesday, the 18th, the notorious Monks of Howell county, shot and wounded one Miller, a resident of West Plains, in that county. The Journal, published at West Plains, says: it appears that Monks and Miller had some words the day previous, and as the two men approached, Monks was standing on his porch and ordered them to go back the way they came. Miller appeared desirous of making some explanation to which Monks refused to listen. Mrs. Monks then appeared on the scene, and Monks retired into the house. Miller then directed his conversation to Mrs. M., and while he was talking to her, Monks appeared at the door with a shotgun loaded with buckshot and took deliberate aim at Miller and fired. Fortunately, the fence that intervened between Monks and Miller received the greater portion of the charge. But one shot took effect on Miller, striking him in the forehead over the left eye, inflicting a slight wound. After the shooting, Monks rushed out bareheaded and mounted a horse barebacked and struck for parts unknown, and at the present writing, he has not been heard from."
"The Journal states that the affair created considerable excitement, and Monks' conduct was entirely uncalled for. The sheriff and other county officers of Howell sent the following communication to the Governor:"
"We most respectfully beg leave to inform you that on Wednesday, the 18th inst. one William Monks, of this place, in open daylight shot a man by the name of James Miller, with a double-barreled shotgun, and immediately mounted a horse and road (sic) out of town. Miller was not killed. The buckshot took effect near his right temple and glanced without penetrating the skull. Monks fled the country and, ever since that time, has refused to surrender or submit to the civil authorities upon the pretended plea that his life would be in danger. He has some 300 men who are willing and ready to obey his call. Yesterday thirty armed men came riding into town, headed by John Nicholas, and swore that they were going to see Monks have justice and that the sheriff and other officials and prominent men of this town were a band of conspirators, sworn to take the life of William Monks, and that they (the Monks men) had them spotted, and intended to settle with them and kill the last one of them. The band of armed men, headed by John Nicholas, all went up to the sheriff's office and dared him to arrest any of them or even attempt to arrest them, and they would shoot him and clean out the town. They rode all over town, cursed and swore and said that they intended to get their men together and revisit the town again."
"Monks has been an eye sore to Howell and adjoining counties for a number of years, defying all law and doing pretty much as he pleased. We hope the governor will take the matter in hand and hereafter put a quietus to this disturber of South Missouri."
We are not halfway through my pile of newspaper articles at hand lambasting Monks, who was always defiant. After a particularly harsh piece demeaning and accusing him of thievery in Oregon County, Monks responded in print, "Silence ceases to be a virtue when such allegations are publicly heralded forth by the offscourings of horse thieves, cut-throats, and Ku-Klux. Now, I say that the author (of the newspaper article) is a calumniator, a thief, a bastard, a coward, and a liar of the deepest dye. And I am not afraid of the record of the past and will, if desired, begin at Alpha and go through to Omega and show the world who the thieves are. If you are for a showing of records, come out like men and show your colors. -Wm. Monks."
In 1878, Monks allowed Minister Adam Wright to found the first Christian Church in West Plains, using a room in his motel, "The West Plains House." Monks who was not religious watched the proceedings for a while, eventually joined the church, and was baptized in a nearby pond. The Rolla Herald reported the news in May 1878 with the following article, "The West Plains Journal says that the notorious South Missouri scalawag, Colonel Monks, has been baptized into the church. We'll bet two to one he only did that to spite the devil."
Despite popular opinion, William Monks in 1880 was a changed man. He became an ordained minister in the Christian Church, though he was still disliked enough that he could not pastor a congregation and spoke only in places he knew he would be safe. Another profound change came in 1888 when Monks announced he was leaving the Republican Party and becoming a Democrat. In response, the editor of the Rolla Herald wrote, "The Democratic Party is a strong one if it can pull through with Colonel Bill attached to it."
Monks' parting shot came in 1907 when he published a book detailing his side of the events mentioned. "A History of Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas" blasted his former enemies, significantly reduced in number by that time. Still, the hatred remained. Years ago, one of the elderly ladies in our local historical society told me that her mother was the librarian in West Plains when Monks brought a copy of his book there. She refused to put it on the shelf and used it as a doorstop for the remainder of her tenure.