Book Review: The Mack Marsden Murder Mystery, by Joe Johnston

The Mack Marsden Murder Mystery: Vigilantism or Justice? by Joe Johnston, Missouri History Museum Press, St. Louis, 2011, $24.95

At Frisco Hill, Mo., in August 1883, shotguns fired at short range propelled Matthew Harrison Marsden backward out of the wagon he was riding and seriously wounded Allen Hensley, the man accompanying him. Nobody in Jefferson County was overly shocked by the killing—Mack Marsden, as he was more widely known, was long suspected of being a hog thief and worse, although no charges against him had ever stuck in court. At a time when Jesse James had been dead for a year, Marsden’s demise may have signaled the end of a lawless era. That depended, however, on the answers to some perplexing, long-persisting questions. First and foremost, who done it…and why? Was this an act of vigilante justice or just murder?

Joe Johnston—writer, artist, songwriter, inventor of the McDonald’s Happy Meal and native Missourian—has spent years sifting through the documents for clues and now presents his findings in The Mack Marsden Murder Mystery. In it he claims to have identified Marsden’s killers and, as a result, has been able to put the pieces of the puzzle together to reconstruct the entire sequence of events. “Maybe the best teller of the story was Mack’s granddaughter, Lelia Marsden Jacobs,” the author declares. “Her version, including her notes, once seemed almost incoherent. But now we know that’s how incredible this story is. The way she told it is almost exactly the way it happened.” The story, Johnston insists, reveals intriguing parallels to that of the more notorious Jesse James.

—Jon Guttman


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