The Turner-Howard Feud of Harlan County, Kentucky comes to Lebanon, Missouri.
Listen to the podcast of this article at The Outlaw Wils Howard
How I never heard the story of the last known legal hanging in Laclede County is beyond me. I stumbled across this bit of Laclede County history while researching Laclede County-related articles on newspapers.com. After stumbling on the story, I did a bit more research and found multiple modern articles, podcasts, and other such accounts of this story. It’s fascinating stuff. Though this will be a long article, there is so much more to the story than I can describe here. I have put together the information I found on newspapers.com to tell the story of Wils Howard. The TLDR? An infamous outlaw known for participating in a bloody family feud in Kentucky was tried for murder in Laclede County and executed by hanging in Lebanon in 1894.
Wilson “Wils” Howard was born around 1862 in Harlan County, Kentucky. He was born into the Howard family that was involved in a feud. He would grow to be an infamous outlaw, known across the country. The story begins with the Turner family.
The Turner family of Harlan County fought first with the Middletons, but after many members of the Midleton family died, the cause was taken up by the Gilbert family. The Gilberts eventually bowed out of the feud after losing several members of the family to the fighting. After the Gilberts left the feud, the Turner family ran Harlan County without opposition. At this point, the Howards weren’t involved in any fighting. The patriarch of the Howard clan, Willis Howard, kept a saloon in Harlan. Bob Turner, of the feuding Turner clan, was a moonshiner in the mountains. The two men vied for local business and another feud broke out when Bob Turner drew his gun on Willis Howard. Howard drew and got off the first shot, killing Bob Turner. Willis Howard was tried and acquitted for the slaying. Thus the Howard-Turner Feud began.
Wilson Howard first entered the feud at the age of 19. One day, several Howards walked into town and were allegedly ambushed by the Turners. The Turners are said to have shot at the traveling Howards by firing from the windows of buildings along the street. The shootout ended when Will Turner left his cover and walked into the middle of the street, a pistol in each hand. A shot rang out and Will Turner fell dead. The Turners accused Wilson Howard of killing Will Turner, and he was indicted.
There’s a long and tangled tale involving Wils Howard beyond his first battle. How much is true is hard to decipher. He made bail, tried to skip town, was told a Turner had insulted his mother and threatened to kill her, he returned to Harlan County where he opened fire on the Turner home, and then skipped town again. At some point, a shootout occurred at the Harlan County Courthouse. Wils traveled to Missouri, but eventually returned to face his charges in Kentucky and supposedly plead for peace.
The militia had been called in to help keep order in town. Wils is supposed to have tried to turn himself into the militia, but some serious miscommunication occurred and Wils, feeling slighted, stumbled upon George Turner in the woods and after a shootout, killed Turner. Later, a days-long standoff with 30+ men at the courthouse made headline news across the country. For his part in the feud, Howard is said to have killed at least a dozen men.
Oddly, it is not the family feud that eventually sealed the fate of Howard. It was a murder in Maries County, Missouri that sent Wils Howard to the gallows.
Now, this is one wild story. The accounts differ, but the basic facts seem to be that Will Jennings, Wils Howard’s uncle, had gotten himself involved in a robbery case. A man named John Rector in Maries County had some money stolen and he was sure a man named Thomas McMichael had taken it. McMichael was a deaf-mute who, was staying a boarding house near Vienna, run by a couple who were also both deaf and mute. Will Jennings decided to insert himself into this case and made an agreement with Rector to split the money with him if he could retrieve it. Jennings went to the boarding house and arrested McMichael, recovering the money. McMichael went to the authorities with the story. Because of the unlawful way the money was recovered, a grand jury indicted Jennings for robbery on McMichael’s testimony. Jennings made bail and went to Springfield.
Sometime later, on April 27, 1889, a man came to the boarding house, presented himself as an officer of the law, and said he was arresting McMichael and taking him to Dixon to be jailed. The next day, McMichael was found dead on the side of the road, having been shot through the head and the heart.
For a while, authorities were unsure of who committed the murder. As McMichael was to testify against him, Will Jennings was eventually a suspect. It was then learned that Will Jennings lived with Wils Howard in Springfield and while Jennings had been seen there the day of the murder, Howard had not been seen since two days before the murder.
Officers were dispatched to Kentucky to find Howard and return him to Missouri for trial. Howard was known to have been in Harlan County in October and early November of 1889 during his infamous standoff at the courthouse. Authorities did not find Howard. He left Harlan County after the standoff and hadn’t been heard from. Wils was eventually found in January of 1891 in California, serving time under an assumed name in San Quentin for highway robbery. He had been arrested in June of 1890 for robbing a stagecoach and gave the name Charles Brown. Wils was returned to Missouri where he faced murder charges.
Howard was first brought to Maries County, but concerns about his safety had him transferred to St. Louis to be held. Howard’s attorneys successfully petitioned for a change of venue, and the trial was set to be held in Laclede County. Howard was transferred to the jail in Lebanon. An escape occurred, but Howard did not participate. It seems that after other Lebanon prisoners escaped, Howard was again held at St. Louis.
Howard’s first trial lasted four days and concluded on June 14, 1892. The jury was hung, with 10 voting for acquittal and 2 for guilt. A second trial was ordered. In February of 1893, Howard was convicted and sentenced to death. Howard’s mother pled with the Governor of Missouri to grant him clemency. The Governor did grant a few weeks’ stay, but Howard was eventually executed.
On Friday, January 19, 1894. At 9:17 am, Howard was hung in the yard of the Laclede County jail. It took him thirteen and a half minutes to strangle to death. He was about 30 years old. His body was interred at the Lebanon Cemetery.
Howard protested his innocence to the end. He even wrote a letter to his brother and his uncle in his last days, saying “it’s hard to die for a crime we did not commit…” He asked his family to not take revenge after his death and he promised to write letters accepting responsibility for a crime his uncle was jailed for. He ended the letter, ” Farewell forever. Wilson R. Howard”.
For some further reading, here are a few of the articles I used to write this article.