Two Murders Over a Dog Fight
Wed, 06/24/2020 - 11:35am admin
One hundred twenty years ago this month, Howell County was abuzz with news of a murder - over a dog fight. The story initially garnered little attention in local newspapers. Though the incident occurred on June 2, 1900, it was three weeks before the West Plains Journal-Gazette got around to informing its readers of details of the killing. Under the headline, "Interesting Murder Case," the Journal on June 29 wrote:
"One of the most interesting murder trials ever held in Howell County will be that of the case against John Robbins for the killing of Leonard Henderson, which will be called for trial July 9, at West Plains. Honorable T.J. Delaney has been retained by the family of the dead man to prosecute the accused. He was in Howell County last Monday looking up evidence in the case."
Henderson and Robbins knew each other well. There was no evidence the incident stemmed from an earlier conflict. The two men lived about three miles from each other, Henderson on the west side of what is today Highway 60 and Robbins on the east side, west of the Trask community. Both men were held in high regard in the community and were prosperous farmers. Historian Henry Smith wrote of the two combatants, "They were both very splendid citizens."
The Journal-Gazette continued with details: "The killing occurred on June 2 and resulted from a dog fight. Robbins, the accused, is related by marriage to Leonard Henderson, the victim. The former's daughter married a brother of the latter. Robbins owned a dog, and a short time before the killing, his dog got in a fight with another dog. The first named canine was being worsted in the fight, which caused Robbins to hold the other dog and allow his dog to get in his work. Henderson appeared on the scene, and at the time, protested against Robbins holding the dog. One word brought on another and caused much bad blood. That night as Henderson was passing Robbins' home, he was shot down by Robbins, who claims that he did so in self-defense. No person outside of Robbins' family was a witness to the deed. They claim that Henderson started after Robbins with a knife, and Robbins had to shoot or be cut. When other persons than members of the family arrive on the scene, they found an open knife in the hands of the dead man. Both families live near Mountain View, Howell County, and are well-to-do. The case has aroused much interest throughout the county."
The Journal Gazette didn't show much interest in the case, however. It carried no details of the trial, nor its outcome. A full year later, the paper printed a story about the attorneys who were hired by the Henderson family to pursue prosecution of Robbins, suing the Hendersons for not paying the bill. The article revealed that the outcome of the murder trial of John Robbins was a hung jury. Nine voted for conviction, and three for acquittal. A new trial was ordered.
Before that trial could be held, as often happened in the Ozarks, local justice, or injustice intervened. On August 14, 1900, a little over a month after the original event, John Robbins was dead. The St. Louis Post Dispatch picked up the story datelined August 15, Mountain View, now statewide news:
"This vicinity is greatly excited over the mysterious assassination early yesterday morning of John Robbins, a prosperous farmer who lives near Trask, six miles west of here. The killing, undoubtedly the result of a feud which began in June when Robbins, the dead man, shot and killed Leonard Henderson, another farmer, in a quarrel over a dog fight."
"Robbins was walking along the road with his ax on his shoulder about an eighth of a mile from his home and within 150 feet of a fence, when a rifle shot was heard, and he yelled, staggered and fell dead about 15 feet farther on. He was shot almost in the center of the breast about an inch from the heart. An alarm was given, and neighbors soon gathered at the scene of the crime, but no trace of the murderer was found."
"The murder of Robbins is believed to be the outcome of feud in which John Robbins shot and killed Leonard Henderson, a neighborhood farmer, as the result of a quarrel over a dog fight. At his preliminary trial, he was admitted to bail, and about four weeks ago was tried for murder at West Plains, the jury failing to agree on a verdict. Since the killing of Henderson, Robbins has always gone armed, as threats had been made against his life."
The St. Louis Republic newspaper, dated August 15, 1900, provided additional details not found in any of our local papers. They wrote that since the initial killing of Leonard Henderson, "The Robbins' residence, one of the finest farmhouses in this vicinity, was burned to the ground, but Robbins was away from home at the time. Since the burning, he had been staying with his son a short distance from his old home. He was on the way to the barn to feed his stock when the fatal shot was fired, and he gave up his life, not twenty yards from where he killed Henderson. The assassin was concealed in the corner of the fence, where Robbins had left off cutting sprouts the evening before and evidently expected his victim to return there to work. He had broken bushes and sprouts and placed them between the rails of the fence to screen himself, and, as Robbins approached to within fifty years of him, fired, the ball striking him in the left breast and passing through him, coming out about three inches to the left of the spinal column. He walked about twenty paces and fell."
"An empty Winchester cartridge shell was picked up in the corner of the fence where the murderer had lain. Robbins' family heard the shot and heard him shout, and his young son and his brother's daughter ran to him, but as they had to run nearly eighty rods, he was dead when they reached him. Coroner Scanlan of Willow Springs was sent for and impaneled a jury, which heard the evidence of the witnesses present and adjourned to meet on the 16th. Robbins will be buried tomorrow. Henderson, whom Robbins killed, has a father and three brothers living in the neighborhood. One of them is a son-in-law of Robbins. There have been no arrests."
The governor of Missouri offered a two hundred dollar reward for the arrest and conviction of "the unknown murderers of John Robbins of Hutton Valley, Howell County."
The reward was never collected. In 1901 Leonard Henderson's father and a brother were sued by the attorneys they hired to help the prosecutor in the murder case against John Robbins. Because Robbins was murdered before he could be brought to trial, they felt they did not need to pay the attorneys' fees. A small judgment was awarded to the attorneys. Leonard Henderson's father, Wiley Henderson, was a well known Baptist minister, pioneer, and at one time served as pastor at Mount Pisgah Baptist Church in Hutton Valley. He outlived five of his sons, including Leonard, whose farm adjoined his. He is buried in the Hutton Valley Cemetery near Leonard. John Robbins, whose family was here before the Civil War, is buried in the Walker Chapel Cemetery in Mountain View. So much tragedy, all because of a dog fight.
My thanks to Jack Lyons of Willow Springs for making me aware of this story.