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Getting Away with Murder (Most of the Time): A Sesquicentennial Analysis of Civil War Era Homicide Cases in Boone County, Missouri

65 Pages Posted: 31 Aug 2011 Last revised: 29 Jan 2012

Frank O. O. Bowman III

University of Missouri School of Law

Date Written: August 30, 2011


In the quarter century centered on the Civil War, 1850-1875, fifty-three homicide cases came before the courts of Boone County, Missouri, of which Columbia, home of the University of Missouri, is the county seat. To remarkable degree, the story of these killings, told in this article, is a chronicle of the place and period.

The article’s method might be described as “murder as social history.” Its narrative thread is an effort to explain the remarkable fact that only twelve of the fifty-three defendants charged with murder were ever convicted of any form of criminal homicide. The explanation requires an introduction to Missouri history, economy, and geography, a reconstruction of the law enforcement and court systems of a state that had only recently been on the edge of the American frontier, an exploration of the law and politics of slavery in the period beginning with the Kansas-Missouri border war, an understanding of the operation of martial law during the guerilla conflict that plagued Missouri throughout the Civil War, and a primer on Reconstruction-era Missouri politics.

But the guts of the article are the murder cases themselves – the killers and victims, witnesses and jurors, judges and lawyers whose stories emerge from the original case files and yellowed newspaper accounts. The cases involving slaves and freedmen, as well as those directly related to the War, are especially poignant. This narrative recreates an era long gone, but stimulates reflection not merely on Missouri legal history, but on the legal and social development of modern America.

Keywords: legal history, civil war, American civil war, border war, slavery, slaves, murder, criminal law, sheriffs, constables, justice of the peace, provost marshal, court martial, bushwhacker, lynching

JEL Classification: K14, K10, K41, K42, N41, Z10

Suggested Citation

Bowman III, Frank O. mname, Getting Away with Murder (Most of the Time): A Sesquicentennial Analysis of Civil War Era Homicide Cases in Boone County, Missouri (August 30, 2011). University of Missouri School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2011-20. Available at SSRN: or

Frank O. Bowman III (Contact Author)

University of Missouri School of Law ( email )

Missouri Avenue & Conley Avenue
Columbia, MO 65211
United States
573-882-2749 (Phone)

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