By Dean Backes
As the train slowed to a crawl, dozens of masked men approached thirsting for blood with guns blazing.
Not unlike a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood western, Cass County Judge Jehiel Stevenson, prominent attorney J. R. Cline and Harrisonville City Councilman Thomas Dutro were all hunted down and shot dead aboard or near the train they had been riding on, heading to Kansas City on April 24, 1872.
The scene, now known as the Gunn City Massacre, played out 150 years ago this week.
The reason for the attack also sounds like the plot of a western epic – a bond swindle that took place in early March of that year. For a brief moment in history, Frank and Jesse James had to take a backseat to the rough mob from Cass County. But before we get into the gory details of the bloody massacre, let us set the stage a little.
According to a newspaper account dated March 5, 1872, in 1857 Cass County voted for $100,000 in bonds to be issued at $500 each with 10-percent interest in aid of the Missouri Pacific Railroad. Only three bonds were issued before the war, bonds No. 1, 2 and 3 for a total of $1,500.
Then the Civil War erupted across the plains and the remainder of the bonds sat tucked away in the county treasurer’s office in Harrisonville.
During the war, the bonds were discovered by Federal Col. Andrew Nugent who lived in Austin, Cass County, but served under Kansas leader Doc Jennison. Nugent took the bonds to Leavenworth, Kansas, and they were eventually sent to the railroad under the assumption they actually belonged to the railroad.
After the war, Cass County disputed the legality of the bonds and repudiated them. The railroad, however, returned the bonds with 14 years of accrued interest and held claim against Cass County for $229,000, even though the construction of the railroad completely ceased during the war.
The railroad’s claim was upheld by the court and several prominent citizens, including Stevenson, Cline and Dutro suggested the county issue the bonds in the amount of $229,000 at eight-percent interest payable in 15 to19 years. Of course, the proposition was strongly opposed by the county’s citizens without a vote.
Cline was the legal representation for the St Louis and Santa Fe railroads and J.D. Hines was the county attorney. Stevenson, Judge R.W. Forsythe and Judge J.C. Copeland acted for the court. By Stevenson’s order, the bonds were funded and became as good as cash.
Without a vote by the county’s citizens, the bloody bonds – as they were eventually called – were then prepared and approved by the court in the dark of night.
Once the proper signatures were added Stevenson, Cline, Dutro and the others took possession of the bonds, placed them in a suitcase and took them to St. Louis.
During the next few weeks, Cass County Sheriff A.C. Bryant and the local police forces worked tirelessly to round up all of the culprits involved and to collect the bonds.
In the meantime, tempers across Cass County were reaching fevered pitches and friends of Stevenson, Cline and Dutro strongly urged the trio to consider leaving town. The three wanted men agreed and boarded the train for Kansas City at the Katy Depot in Harrisonville just before all hell broke loose.
According to a book titled, “The History of Cass County,” armed men rode into Gunn City one at a time, in pairs and in groups of three or more throughout the day on April 24.
By 4 p.m., there were thought to be about 30 to 40 men in town.
Suddenly, as though it was prearranged, weapons were brought into view and Gunn City was placed under martial law.
Pickets were established and residents and visitors that were tending to business were forced into Zook’s store, and the doors were locked.
The armed men, who now numbered between 50 and 60, made their way to the blacksmith’s shop and closed the doors behind them.
Later, as the train was coming to a stop at Gunn City, the armed men opened the doors to the blacksmith shop and approached the train.
A newspaper account from April 25, 1872, described the scene:
“The train passed out of Harrisonville peacefully and undisturbed and had reached a place called Guntown, about 10 miles from Holden and 12 miles from Harrisonville, when the engineer discovered obstruction piled upon the track. There were rails, logs and rocks piled up in a sort of breastwork. Before the engineer could shut the throttle lever and throw back his reverse lever and whistle ‘down brakes’ a murderous volley of bullets and shot was poured in and around the locomotive.
“The cab was fairly riddled, but fortunately no one was seriously injured. The train came to a stand not far from the barricade, where 70 or 80 armed men, each wearing a mask, rushed toward the locomotive and with loud oaths and threatening gestures in which the cold muzzles of pistols played a prominent part, compelled the engineer and fireman to hold up their hands and step back into the tank of the locomotive where they were placed under close guard while the tragedy was enacted.
“The crowd by this time had increased to about 200, many of whom were unmasked and were recognized as residents of Harrisonville and the vicinity. They at once commenced a terrible and reckless fusillade into and around the captured train. Loud cries were made for Cline:
“’Where’s Cline? Send out Cline. We want Cline, the son of a b—-. Bring him out. We won’t hurt him. Oh, no, of course not.’”
“Amid this discordant noise Mr. Cline stepped to the door of the baggage car and then down from the platform into the midst of the yelling, shrieking mass around the train. Coolly and calmly he faced his murderers, the young man single and alone. ‘What would you have gentlemen,’ Cline said? ‘Here, I surrender myself to you. Take me, I am unarmed, and am willing to be tried before any tribunal if I have done any man wrong.’
“He threw up his arms while he spoke to show that he was defenseless. While in that position, he fell riddled by 40 bullets, a quivering mangled mass of mortality, and there, where he lay upon the bloody ground, the fiendish throng stood and, in wanton sport, emptied into his remains the undischarged chambers of their revolvers.
“Not yet satiated with blood, or, like a pack of wild beasts hungering after the first sickly scent of blood that has defiled the air, these savages rushed into the train, breaking in the doors, smashing the windows, threatening to burn the train, they pounced into the cars among the terrified passengers.
“’Where’s the bond robbers? Turn out the bond thieves,’ they shrieked as they rushed into the cars.
“When they found Judge Stevenson, they shot him down in the car and dragged him by the hair and collar out into the grass surrounding the ghastly scene. Dutro was found in the mail car and shot and wounded severely. He was also dragged off of the train where he eventually bled to death.”
Accounts then say the shoppers were turned loose from Zook’s store and the mob of masked and armed men left as quietly as they rode in.
Nearly four dozen men were indicted for the massacre and tried before a jury of their peers. However, every one of them was acquitted.
Judges Forsythe and Copeland, who dissented to the scam, avoided the same fate as Stevenson, Cline and Dutroe by simply resigning their positions with the court. R. B. Higgins, meanwhile, wrote a note to his wife following his capture and ended his own life with a bullet to the head. Stevenson and Cline displayed no sign of shame and were considered to be obnoxious about their deed.
According to “The History of Cass County,” all of the bonds were regained by due process, and on May 7, 1878, they were all burned with the exception of No. 1, which was given to the city of Harrisonville and No. 229, which was given to Gunn City, to be framed and preserved.
The No. 1 bond hung in the Cass County Clerks’ office until it disappeared a few years ago. It’s current location is unknown.