Book Review: Murder in Missouri
Coon hunter by passion, farm thief by profession, Ken McElroy spent two decades terrorizing a patch of farming communities in northern Missouri during the 1960s and 1970s. He stole pigs, cattle, and dogs. He raped and impregnated teenage girls, shot several people, burned down his in-laws’ home and chased them out of town. He fed speed to his hounds, threatened police officers and citizenry alike, violently abused all of his wives, and effectively intimidated many from testifying against him.
A canonical volume of literary true crime — it won the Edgar for Best Fact Crime in 1989 — In Broad Daylight lingered on my to-read list for years. Without knowing many hard facts or history, I was tantalized by the mythic dimensions of the story: Bad man hurts town and repeatedly circumvents law. Townspeople rally together and shoot him dead at midday. Nobody cooperates with subsequent criminal investigations. Ever.
I can remember as a kid watching the climactic execution scene from the 1991 made-for-TV movie of the same name with Brian Dennehy — the local men circling the villain’s truck on the town street, a rifle barrel pointed at the back of his head. The images stuck with me because they gratify a romantic, deeply American ethos: The people are strong and self-reliant, and they rebuff the government that failed them all along.
I finally picked the book up this year. At this cultural moment, it was impossible to read Daylight and not think about another killing that took place in the middle of the day in Missouri with many witnesses.
The deaths of Ken McElroy in Skidmore, Missouri, and Michael Brown in Ferguson couldn’t be more disparate, except for the binding commonality that both brought national attention to formerly unremarkable communities with longstanding policing problems.
Skidmore is and was an essentially all-white rural farming town. Ferguson is a predominantly black suburb. Ferguson’s mostly-white police force has long trampled the civil rights of poor black residents and used the community as an ATM for city government via ticketing. Law enforcement’s presence in and around Skidmore was thinly spread, sometimes minimally trained and equipped — the Board of Aldermen once agreed to buy ammunition but no gun for its newly-elected town marshal. McElroy died in 1981, before the Reagan administration’s ramping up of police militarization was really underway. In 2015, the toothlessness of local police in the face of Ken McElroy reads like an artifact from a foreign country. In one instance, McElroy leveled a shotgun at a rookie highway patrolman during a roadside stop. The officer didn’t have a chance to draw his weapon, so he let McElroy go. No charges were brought. The contrast between this incident — one amidst McElroy’s long career of violent mischief — and the killing of the unarmed Michael Brown last summer is staggering.
Michael Brown was a teenager and McElroy a seasoned criminal, but the most salient difference is race. Brown and McElroy’s lives and circumstances were so dissimilar; in most ways their deaths defy comparison. However, the parts of MacLean’s book that touch on how justice was meted historically resonate in present times. McElroy went through life with a white man’s assurance that the system would work in his favor: He hired a savvy lawyer, produced favorable witnesses, and used violent threats to silence others.
And while it took the local populace many years to get fed up with McElroy, they were not historically so averse to violence. In 1930, a white teenage girl from the area was stabbed to death and a black man, with a prior assault conviction involving another white girl, was immediately the chief suspect. A lengthy police interrogation elicited a confession. On the way to his arraignment, he was snatched by a mob and chained to the roof of the schoolhouse where the girl’s body was found. The mob burned the building down.
It’s hard to say how Michael Brown’s death will look to us in the future, or whether or not it will spur meaningful change. With the benefit of time and through the lens of pop culture, McElroy’s death can seem like a touchstone for vigilantism, but that’s not even remotely the case that MacLean makes in Daylight.
The accounting of McElroy’s offenses is exhaustive to the point of tedium. If justice had been swiftly enacted, the book would have been over before the one-third mark. McElroy reportedly committed the bulk of his rapes in his younger years. He shot a teenage girl in the chin before he turned 25.
When he died at 47, McElroy was not quite the formidable figure of his earlier self, ravaged by hard living, smoking, and alcoholism. In addition, a talented young prosecutor was finally able to land an assault conviction after McElroy shot an old man in the neck. In the weeks leading up to his death, McElroy began making fatalistic statements, suspecting the town had it in for him and implying he might take some of them down with him if they came after him. The end wasn’t so much a “win” for vigilantes as it was a failure of the justice system: McElroy wasn’t immediately imprisoned after his conviction. Due to some oddities of Missouri law, he was not incarcerated during a 25-day period wherein his lawyer could file a motion for a new trial.
Thus, the situation in Skidmore became even more volatile, with people reasonably worried that the conviction would serve as accelerant to McElroy’s fire. He’d routinely intimidated his victim and his victim’s family prior to the trial, lurking outside their homes at odd hours with his gun. According to MacLean, a group of Skidmore men met and formed a plan to watch McElroy for safety’s sake, but it was just three who decided to end things on July 10, 1981, outside the bar.
The townspeople protected the executioner(s) — the number is officially undetermined — in the aftermath; many were happy McElroy was gone, but there wasn’t universal embrace of the vigilante label the media spotlight bestowed upon them. There was anxiety, shame, and silence. Most people in Skidmore worked hard to make their living off the land, and the fragile systems that were meant to protect them and their livelihoods had failed. There’s nothing joyous about the absence of the rule of law.
The population of Skidmore has dwindled to 276, down from around 450 when Ken McElroy lived there. At a time where the United States has completed its shift from a rural to an urban society, when only two percent of us still engage in farming, it’s understandable that we’ve retained the cultural romanticism of Wild West justice and forgotten the brutish reality of how it plays out.