“We are all here, murdered with an ax night of Aug 2, 1877, at their home south by southwest from here. Their bodies lay beneath this tomb. Their virtues live above it.” So reads the inscription on the tombstone of the Spencer family in the Bethlehem Cemetery near Luray in Clark County, Missouri. All five were buried in a common grave adjacent to that of previously deceased Maranda James Spencer, (Lewis’ wife and the mother of their four murdered children), and that of a son, Isaac, who died in infancy.
It is believed that it was just before daylight on that August day, two people approached the Spencer homestead. Taking the axe from the wood pile, they first went to the log barn, where Lewis Spencer and his 10 year old son, Willis, were sleeping. The newspaper article covering this gruesome crime reads, “where they commenced their bloody work upon them, dealing heavy blows upon the head of each”. At some point, a pitchfork was also used to pierce the skull of young Willis Spencer. Both were still breathing when they were found, but died about 2 hours later.
This horrendous crime continued as the murders continued to the log home, where they broke into the house through the kitchen window and forced open the door to the first floor bedroom. There, they struck and killed 18 year old Jane Spencer in her sleep. Charles Spencer, 7 year old, apparently awakened at some point, as he was found laying across the body of his older sister. The killers then proceeded to the upstairs bedroom where 20 year old Alice was sleeping, and killed her as she slept.
All members of the Spencer family were killed with from 1 to 3 blows to the head with the axe – reports indicate that their faces were terribly mangled. The axe was found under the back part of the house, near the window that was used to enter and exit the home.
The first to become suspect was Willis James, the brother-in-law of Lewis Spencer, and the first person to arrive at the farm and discover the bodies. Mr. James testified at the coroner’s inquest that he frequently helped Mr. Spencer with his farm-work and had arrived at the home early that morning for that purpose. During the inquest, a few drops of blood were found on Mr. James’ clothing which, upon questioning, he indicated were from a nosebleed he had experienced. The clothing was sent to an expert for testing and it was determined that the blood was not that of any of the Spencer family. The case against Mr. James was dismissed.
Mr. Spencer served as treasurer for the Folker Township and was known to keep large amounts of money. It is said that he had $1200 in his possession at the time of the murders, and this money was never found. It was the motive of robbery that prompted the arrest of Bill Young, a neighbor of the Spencer family. Mr. Young was tried by a jury in the Clark County Circuit Court in Kahoka, Missouri, on October 25, 1879, but was acquitted. There is some speculation that the Ohio attorney hired by Young bribed some of the jurors to secure the acquittal of his client.
Four days after the acquittal of Bill Young, a vigilante mob of approximately 300 men – half of which were from neighboring Lee County, Iowa, and Hancock County, Illinois – stormed the Young home and after substantial gunfire was exchanged, removed Bill Young to his barn, where they hanged him from the rafters. When the doctors arrived at the farm, Mr. Young had been shot five times and hanged. They documented that his heart was still beating but they were unable to revive him.
Yet another rumor that has circulated about the Spencer murders is that Bill Young’s wife had died and his housekeeper thought that she was going to be his next wife. Instead of marrying her, however, Bill went back to his native Ohio and brought a new wife home. The housekeeper, seeking revenge, conspired with others to murder the Spencers and to frame Mr. Young for the crime. This explanation would indicate that Mr. Young married before the murders when, in fact, public records and newspaper articles indicate that William Jackson Young married Lydia A. Bray on October 26, 1879, and that he “celebrated his acquittal by getting married”.
The mystery still exists – did Willis James murder his sister’s family and go free – did Bill Young die at the hands of the vigilante mob even though he was innocent – or did someone else murder the Spencer family?