CHAPMAN-JOHNSON SHOOTING

William Christopher Chapman, son of William Christopher Chapman, Sr. and Elizabeth (Tapscott) Chapman, was born near Cave City, Barren County, Kentucky on Jul 23, 1832. He married Emily Jane Samples, daughter of Lorenzo Dow Samples and Elizabeth (Stallsworth) Samples in Barren County sometime between 1854 and 1855. Emily was born in Barren County on Sep 18, 1835.

The mid 1850s saw a virtual mass exodus from states along the Ohio River into the rapidly developing areas west of the Mississippi. The folks of Barren County, Kentucky obviously got caught up in the rush because census records give the impression that the entire population left Kentucky and settled around the the Harrison-Mercer County line in Missouri and along the adjoining counties of Iowa. Among this group was several members of the Chapman family, including William and Emily, and several families who were either related by blood or marriage or soon would be. Most cemeteries in the area contain stones bearing the names Chapman, Samples, Tapscott, Crawley, Johnson, and Stallsworth. All these and more have their roots in Barren County soil. It appears that William and Emily made their way to eastern Harrison County soon after their marriage because the first of their six children, William Thomas Chapman, was born near Cainsville between 1856 and 1857.

Another factor which led to the sudden move from Barren County, Kentucky to Missouri was the outbreak of a cholera epidemic. A traveling circus came to Glasgow, Kentucky in 1854 carrying the deadly disease. The water source became contaminated, and almost half the population of Barren County died during the following months. The deaths included many members of the above mentioned families. Fearing for their lives, a large number of them made the decision to leave Kentucky and flee to the northern states of Missouri and Iowa over the course of the next several years.

Oxley Johnson also hailed from Barren County, Kentucky. He was born there on Aug 26, 1833, the son of Oxley Johnson, Sr. and Catherine "Catey" (Rogers) Johnson. Oxley's wife was Martha Ann (Stallsworth) Johnson. Martha was born in Barren County on Apr 14, 1840, the daughter of Henry Harrison Stallsworth and Amanda (Staples) Stallsworth. Oxley and Martha were married in Barren County on March 18, 1858. Based on the date of their marriage, it appears that Oxley and Martha, along with other members of their respective families, did not leave Kentucky until a few years after members of the Chapman family.

In addition to having been born in Barren County, William Chapman and Oxley Johnson actually had quite a bit in common. They were about the same age, belonged to the same Odd Fellows lodge, their property adjoined one another north of Cainsville and both served with 23rd Missouri Infantry during the Civil War. In fact, their service records indicate they were even the same height and build. There was also a family connection. Their wives were first cousins through the Stallsworth family. Emily (Samples) Chapman's mother, Elizabeth (Stallsworth) Samples was the younger sister of Martha (Stallsworth) Johnson's father, Henry Harrison Stallsworth.

Whether through determination or his head-start to Harrison County, William Chapman seems to have become a little more prominent than his neighbor, Oxley Johnson. William was elected County Judge in 1866 and was reelected in 1869. At that time, the County Judge was not a legal position, but had similar duties as today's County Commissioner. He also did survey work for the county, farmed a good-sized farm and was at one time the manager of the County Poor Farm. William had made his mark on Harrison County.

Unfortunately, the beginning of the troubles between William Chapman and Oxley Johnson are now unknown. The possibilities are endless, and documentation is scarce and not very informative. It is not uncommon, even today, for owners of adjoining property to have disputes any more than it is rare for family members to have falling outs. Regardless of the origin, the trouble came to a climax on January 10, 1876.

When researching historical events, it is best to start with documentary evidence before delving into rumors, speculation and family folklore. Copies of newspapers for Harrison County of the period no longer exist, but a copy of the story was printed in the Jefferson City Daily Tribune of January 18th. The headline gives the initial opinion:

A JUDGE MURDERED

A fatal shooting affray occurred on the banks of Grand River about four miles above Cainsville, in Harrison County, on last Monday, resulting in the death of Judge W. C. Chapman at the hands of his brother-in-law, Oxley Johnson. It appears that the tragedy was occasioned by a misunderstanding relative to a debt which Johnson was owing Chapman, and the latter wrote to Johnson requesting a meeting at the place where the event occurred. Johnson repaired to the place, armed with a shot gun, and shortly after they met words were heard between them, soon followed by the report of a gun and the voice of Mr Chapman calling for assistance. A man living in the vicinity hurried to the spot in time to see Mr Chapman breathe his last - the contents of the gun, which had been loaded with buckshot, having entered the bowels. Johnson was subsequently arrested.

Mr. Chapman was a well-known and highly respected citizen of the county. He served six years as County Judge and held many other offices of trust. Mr Johnson also is well known over the county and has always borne the name of a good and exemplary citizen.

As is often the case with newspapers of that time, the information must be looked upon with a certain amount of suspicion. They were not brothers-in-law as the article states, and the article is written from second-hand and probably hearsay information.

The incident was also recorded more than ten years later in Goodspeed's History of Harrison County, published in 1888. Goodspeed chose a more dramatic approach, titling the article:

Fatal Termination of a Family Feud

About the year 1877, the citizens of the northeastern part of the county were thrown into considerable excitement by the shooting of William C. Chapman by Oxley Johnson. The fatal deed was but the termination of a family trouble that had existed between the men for a number of years. Johnson was arrested for the crime but the jury failed to convict him.

Not much information, and Goodspeed didn't even bother to get the date right, but it does present another possibility as to what brought on the event. There might have been "bad blood" between the two for some time.

Some descendents of the two men have a third, more dramatic explanation for the confrontation. A story has been passed down through the Chapman family that William Chapman was having an affair with Oxley's wife, Martha, and that Oxley was well aware of the relationship. The story goes that Oxley Johnson challenged William Chapman to a duel, but knew well that he could not beat William in a fair fight. The two men were to start back-to-back and walk off ten paces, but Oxley turned after only four steps and fired a full shotgun load into William's head, killing him instantly. The story even contains a bit of humor. When asked which of the two men she hoped would win, Martha reportedly said, "I'll take the one left standing."

The last is a great story, filled with all the elements of a successful soap opera, but is probably far from accurate. Portions of Harrison County, including the Cainsville area, were still pretty rough in the 1870s, but dueling was not only "out of style", it was outlawed. If a "dalliance" had been the case and the cause of the confrontation, it would have been more logical and probable for Oxley simply to have walked up and shot William. Courts and juries of the time looked upon such action as justified under those circumstances. The story also contradicts the newspaper report that someone heard William Chapman cry out for help. A shotgun blast to the head at four paces would have eliminated that possibility.

One killing. Three stories. No solid evidence. We go back to the facts. Unfortunately, once again we are confronted with a lack of documentation. Newspapers of the time, which often reported such court cases in great detail, do not exist. Court records are fragmented and far from complete. Most Court Recorders of the time did not record the witness statements "word for word". They made notes of the "highlights". Most of these were discarded after the trial.

After two delays, the murder trial of Oxley Johnson came to court in Harrison County on March 28, 1877. It didn't last long. There were no witnesses to the shooting and Oxley produced several witnesses to vouch for his standing in the community. The entire trial lasted but a few hours, and on the morning of March 29th the jury came back with a verdict of "Not Guilty". Emily Jane Chapman had filed a wrongful death suit against Oxley Johnson. That suit was dropped.

Oxley Johnson remained in Harrison County for three more years before he and his family moved to Neodesha, Kansas where he died on September 27, 1919 at the age of 86. His obituary stated he was "a well known and honored citizen." It also states "He enjoyed life and took great pleasure in doing kind things for others. The brotherhood of man was not an abstract theory with him." Chances are pretty good that the writer was unaware of the Harrison County incident that had occurred more than 40 years earlier.

William Chapman is buried in Fairview Cemetery just north of Cainsville and almost within site of where he was killed. His tombstone indicates that at least some members of the family were not so willing to "forgive and forget". It states: "W. C. Chapman Age 44y, 5m, 17d Husband of E. J. Chapman Killed by O. Johnson on January 10, 1876".

 

Research by Neil Allen Bristow and Phil Stewart. Story by Phil Stewart. Additional information and corrections made by Rick D. Harms. For more complete notes on the Johnson-Chapman incident and information on their respective families, visit 'Oxley Johnson and His Family' by Neil Allen Bristow.

 

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Copyright 2014 by Barbra Chambers