Charged with Riot and Burglary

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – Out of Place

William Jefferson Williams

Was he out of place, this great-great-grandfather of mine? Did he accidentally get caught up in the affray¹ with Jesse Owens, Lansford B. Shockley, Jonathan Stubblefield, Nathaniel Stubblefield, Frederick Crider, James Owens, and John Griffith that took place on the 8th and 9th of November 1855?

No doubt, William Jefferson [Jeff] Williams was a bit of a troublemaker. It’s possible his stint with the military during the Florida Wars made him a little rough around the edges.² He was well-known by the authorities in Osage County, Missouri. You can read about one of his encounters with the law here.

Whatever his intent, he and the others were charged with riot and burglary sometime after November 19th when Helmut Gens and Charles Kuhagen went to the authorities and claimed the group of men assaulted them with sticks, clubs, knives, guns, axes, and iron wedges.

There is always a backstory to any event. The Owens family took a great deal of time clearing trees from a piece of land near them or possibly adjacent to the land on which they lived. The courthouse in Linn, Missouri, was about ten miles from where my great-great-grandfather and the others lived. Traveling to the courthouse and back would have taken all day and may have required an overnight stay. Perhaps the Owens were negligent by not traveling to the courthouse to claim the land before they began to clear it. Whatever the reason, their neighbor Frederick Runge traveled to the courthouse and claimed the land. You can imagine the outrage and the resentment this act caused.³

The affray began on November 8, 1855, when a group of men and women arrived at the home of James Owens in order to help move rails. Instead of moving the rails, the group began drinking. When Fred Crider pulled out his fiddle, people began to dance. No doubt alcohol and resentment led to the encounter with Jesse Owens and Lansford Shockley assaulting Helmut Gens and Charles Kuhagen. After all, Gens, Kuhagen, and Runge were brothers-in-law. They were all the targets of the ire. Here is an excerpt of testimony from Frederick Runge taken from the hundreds of pages of trial documents:

“Old man Owens said Charley you let me have it. Jesse Owens then struck me on the face with his hand and knocked me down. After getting up Shockley caught me by the leg and pulled me down again. There were more persons there, whom I did not know. I then jumped up and ran off. Jesse Owens pursued me. Old man Stubblefield got on his horse and rode down to my house. He invited me to come out and he would talk friendly. I told him I had nothing to talk to him about. He told me if I would not give up that land I could not live here. The next day which was Friday morning, I saddled my horse and rode up to my brother-in-law’s house. When I arrived at old man Owen’s house Jesse Owens, John Stubblefield, and Jeff Williams were coming out of the stable. John Stubblefield hollered out to me “Oh Charley.” My brother and my wife also went to my brother-in-law’s [Hellmut Gens] house with me. I jumped off my horse and ran into the house. John Stubblefield and Jesse Owens followed me to the house. Each had a rifle. Jesse Owens said to me to come out or he would kill me. I did not go out. They rapped on the door and then left and went down to the stable where my brother-in-law [Frederick Runge] was.”

Runge testified: “They forced me to sign the note and then Jesse Owens took it and placed it in his pocketbook. Old man Owens told me if I could pay him one hundred dollars I would be a good neighbor.”

The long and short of it is Frederick Runge traveled to the courthouse in Linn, Missouri, and claimed land cleared by the Owens. Runge, Gens, and Kuhagen were accosted on November 8th and 9th by their neighbors and associates. The men involved tried to force Runge to sign a note that he would pay James Owens $100 for the land. Even though he was guilty of claiming land he had not cleared, Runge refused to be intimidated by his neighbors. Gens and Kuhagen went to the authorities and brought charges against their neighbors.

And what of my great-grandfather Jeff Williams? He testified that, on the first day, he was sick at the Owen’s house. He heard noises and thought dogs were fighting until someone came in and told him about the fight. Runge saw him coming out of Owen’s stable. The next day, someone testified when the altercation started, Jeff was sitting on a pile of straw at the home of Helmut Gens. However, none of the testimony of others involved corroborated that he took part in the assault of Gens, Kuhagen, and Runge. I have no clue why he was charged with burglary. Fortunately, he was found not guilty on both counts with some of his neighbors. The Owens, Lansford, and Stubblefield’s were not as fortunate.

According to the Macmillan Dictionary,⁴ the definition of out of place is “someone who feels out of place or is out of place, they feel uncomfortable in a particular situation or place, or feel they do not belong there.” I like to think that Jeff Williams didn’t feel comfortable in this situation. He knew what was going down and was in a place where he shouldn’t be; that he was out of place. Otherwise, I believe this rowdy, litigious, rough-around-the-edges great-great-grandpa of mine would have been in the thick of the worst of it.


¹Affray. A fray, brawl, a fight in a public place that disturbs the peace. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/affray

²TNGenWeb.Org, Tennessee TNGenWeb.Org Project (http://www.tngenweb.org/ : accessed 2 Oct 2014), Record for William Williams, Citing Cherokee Volume begins in 1836, p114, Tennessee State Archives.

³Information for the trial and testimony came from the Osage County Circuit Court Loose Files, number 490, located in the files of Osage County Historical Society in Linn, Osage County, Missouri

⁴Macmillion Dictionary – https://www.macmillandictionary.com/us/dictionary/american/out-of-place

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