Recently I was telling some friends about my genealogy work and the blog I am writing about interesting people and events uncovered in the process, and they inquired as to whether I had found any villains or murderers in my family tree. I replied that, with the exception of my Garr cousins, who avenged the murder of their sister (see The Beauty and the Brigadier General ), most of my people seemed to be on the receiving end of the gun barrel. Here is the story of one:
John William Rouse, my fifth cousin twice removed, was also known as “Billy” or “Little Will.” He was born in 1849 in Missouri to Jacob Rouse and Polly Rouse, who were first cousins from Boone County, Kentucky, whose families moved to Ralls County, Missouri, in the 1830s. Billy’s father died in 1854 and his mother in 1855, and Billy and his brother and sister (aged 6, 4 and 2) went to live with their maternal grandfather, Lovel Rouse. Lovel was a successful farmer whose property in 1860 was worth in the neighborhood of $300,000 in today’s dollars. He was on the first board of trustees of the Monroe City Methodist Episcopal Church South in 1866, and a History of Monroe and Shelby Counties, Missouri, refers to him as “a great and good man.” Billy married Celia Moody in 1870. By 1880 they had four children; Celia died before 1883 and his children went to live with relatives.
Billy’s grandfather, Lovel Rouse, died in April of 1882. That October, Billy started working on the farm of J. H. Sullivan. On February 25, 1883, not quite one year after Lovel Rouse’s death, Billy borrowed a pony from his employer and rode into Monroe City to attend Sunday School at his grandfather’s Methodist church. When it was over, around 11:00, he mounted his horse and rode out to his grandfather’s farm for a brief visit with family there, then went to visit his brother, who lived about three miles away. It was as Billy headed back to the Sullivan farm that someone shot and killed him. He was 34 years old.
The first man to come upon the body of the man lying near the road was in a hurry and thought it was a drunk passed out from his Saturday night revelries, so he ignored it. Soon afterwards, two more men passed along the same road and noticed the body. They called out to him and, receiving no answer, dismounted and discovered the man was dead. The two men left Billy where he lay and rode into town for help. A number of men and boys jumped on their horses and rode to the place, accompanied by Squire Griffith. They found Billy Rouse face down in a fence corner; his hat, which was riddled with shot, was a few feet away, and the pony was still standing in the road about fifty yards from the body.
Squire Griffith, acting as coroner, then and there impaneled a jury who viewed the body and determined that death resulted from a gunshot wound. Billy’s body was brought to town and laid out in Wilson’s undertaking establishment, while the inquest was adjourned until Monday. The coroner’s examination found “four shot-holes penetrating the brain . . . eleven holes in his body and one through his right arm.”
But why would a person described by The Palmyra Spectator as “a harmless, inoffensive man” be so coldly gunned down? It was recalled by the Methodists that at Sunday School that morning Billy had opened his pocket-book when the collection plate came around and that he had $2 or $3 left in it afterwards. However, when his body was found on the road, both the purse and the money were gone. There was snow on the ground that day, and footprints were observed near the body. There was also a small piece of newspaper lying nearby, which was ascertained to have been used as wadding in the gun.
By the end of the week, suspicion had settled on one Ford Poage, a young man whose father owned a mill in the vicinity of the Sullivan farm. Poage was arrested after he “displayed a show of funds” he had not previously had and after a double-barreled shotgun with an empty barrel was found in his father’s mill. In the other barrel was a piece of the newspaper used as wadding, similar to the scrap found at the murder scene.
The local newspapers that month were certain the right man was in custody: “We learn that no doubt exists of Poage’s guilt,” wrote The Marion County Herald. “Ford Poage, a youth of some eighteen or twenty years, who has learned the ways of the fast ones about town, has been put under arrest, is now in prison, and will hang, most probably, for the commission of the coldest blooded highway robbery and assassination ever committed in that neighborhood,” wrote The Palmyra Spectator.
Poage went to trial in December of 1883 on the charge of murdering John William Rouse. After a nine-day trial, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. In a clear instance of waffling, The Palmyra Spectator then reported, “The verdict occasioned no surprise, except that some thought it probable that the jury might not be able to agree. A conviction was sought upon circumstantial evidence alone — the first case of the kind ever tried in this county.”
Whatever happened to Mr. Poage? Four months later he was jailed for stealing a revolver from a traveling salesman. He got married and had nine children and opened a blacksmith shop. In 1905 he was indicted for maintaining “a joint in the rear of his blacksmith shop” in Florida, Missouri, birthplace of Mark Twain, from which he sold whiskey and beer without a license. Poage didn’t have the money to pay the fine, so he “was sent to jail to lay it out,” despite entreaties from neighbors on behalf of his wife, who was in the family way again and in dire circumstances. At some point, the Poage family left Missouri; Ford Poage died in Kansas in 1917, at the age of 53.