Rising waters and growing debts sparked a shooting.
The first appointed town marshal of Blende City, Lane Britton, hadn’t worked out, so town officials tried again in May 1883, hiring Amos “Doug” Norton, an impertinent, unyielding 22-year-old newlywed. Blende City, in Missouri’s Jasper County, was a rich zinc- and lead-mining community with a rowdy element in need of taming. Norton seemed cocky enough for the job and, what’s more, he accepted the monthly salary of $25, about half the average miner’s monthly earnings. Norton decided to supplement his marshal’s income, though, striking up a mining partnership with 27-year-old Hugh Cowan. Pooling their capital, they hired a cadre of gougers to work their lease. Whatever their dreams of wealth and prosperity, however, soon soured when fate dealt the pair a bad hand.
That same year Blende City experienced economic calamity brought on by nature, which went on a rain-soaked rampage and caused Center Creek to overflow and flood out many of the richest diggings. A good number of miners left while mines stood idle, resulting in severe revenue losses for the town. When the mines reopened, there was a manpower shortage, and the available workers demanded premium wages. By late 1884 anyone who could trundle a wheelbarrow expected $1.50 a day, ore cleaners and jig men $1.75 to $2. Added to this, landowners charged royalties of 15 to 20 percent on ore sales. To pay for each hired hand, a profitable mine needed to process 3 tons of low-grade ore or 11⁄2 tons of rich ore daily.
Norton and Cowan’s lease brought in little income in winter and worsened with the return of another soggy spring in 1884. McQuiston Brothers Co. owned the land, and frail old J.W. McQuiston left supervision of his holdings to relatives and tenants. The two partners frequently quarreled about which of them should pay the miners and the company’s royalties. It didn’t help that Marshal Norton and Deputy W.G. Bailey were bonded and tried at the county court in Carthage on May 26 for the false arrest of two brothers named Allen on a charge of horse stealing earlier in the year.The animosity between the mining partners only grew worse that summer and fall. On the night of November 25, 1884, the strain became too much and turned deadly.
The Joplin Daily Herald provided details during its account of the trial in January 1885 (none of the coverage from Blende City’s newspaper, the Lehigh Miner, is known to exist). Witness T.C. Weaver testified that Norton and Cowan argued that fateful day.Weaver couldn’t hear much of their discussion, until Norton raised his voice and said, “I paid you your royalty—that is all you have to do with it!” The partners spoke a bit more before Cowan walked away from Norton, who continued his rant. Norton yelled,“You are a thief and a coward, and I can whip you!” Others recalled him taunting Cowan, calling him a “son of a bitch” and a “bastard.” Testimony revealed Norton also didn’t like the fact that Will Johnson, a former deputy marshal and a pal of Cowan’s, had stuck his nose into their business. One of the prosecutor’s witnesses, 14-year-old Ed Tuller, testified hearing Johnson tell Cowan while standing in front of the bakery only hours before the shooting, “I will support you as long as there is a button on my coat.” Johnson denied making that statement when he took the stand in his own defense.
After the first argument with Norton, Cowan entered Foreman and Smith’s saloon and restaurant around 9 p.m. and was seen talking to Johnson. Hugh’s brother, Ward“Kid” Cowan, testified that Cowan and Johnson discussed the dispute with Norton and the miners clamoring to be paid.Witnesses claimed that Hugh said,“This is too hard to take.” Kid Cowan said he tried to encourage his brother and Johnson to go home, as earlier he had seen Norton drinking and watched him loading his pistol in the hardware store. Johnson replied, “Oh, I guess not.” Kid Cowan said Norton later showed up in the restaurant and asked the whereabouts of Cowan, Johnson and a partner, SamWatson. “Hugh was in the saloon at the time, playing pool,” Kid testified. “Norton then left, and Hugh went out and walked up the street.”
Norton entered Mefford’s Saloon, on DeGraff Street, around 10 p.m., ordered a drink and stood at the end of the bar . Cowan entered, followed by Johnson. Bar patrons heard Cowan in a loud voice repeat two or three times, “I am the best damn’d man in the house!” to which Norton challenged, “Who are you cracking at, Hugh?” In response, Cowan said something like, “You, or anybody.” Cowan denied it at the trial, claiming he had actually said, “Not you, nor anybody in particular.”
Norton accused Cowan of deliberately tracking him down. Cowan replied, “If I had been looking for you, I could have found you.” He then countered, “You have been looking for me.”Witness Oscar DeGraff recalled hearing Cowan ask Norton, “Are you wearing strings?” Both Cowan and Johnson testified that Norton drew back his coat to reveal his doubleaction bulldog. Cowan then reached into his frock coat for his pistol.
“Boys, this will not do,” said Johnson, who had walked up on Norton’s right, almost between him and Cowan. “What have you to do about this?” Norton asked. “Nothing,” Johnson replied, putting his left hand on Norton’s arm. Johnson testified he tried to talk Norton into calming down, but Norton drew back. Eyewitness Mike Owen testified he heard Norton then cry, “What are you going down after?” Shots followed, and Mefford yelled at his customers, “Lay down!”
None of the prosecution witnesses were certain who fired first, but Johnson said Norton did, and that he had accidentally bumped Norton’s arm, causing the marshal’s shot at Cowan to go wild. Johnson said he also had his finger on the trigger of his own .44-caliber Bulldog, which went off as he raised it. His first shot struck the floor at a 45-degree angle. Norton then turned and fired a round in his direction. Johnson said he fired next, hitting the marshal, and Cowan fired the fifth shot, which also hit home. By then Norton had reeled backward and stumbled behind an ice chest to fire his last shot at Cowan. Within five seconds the gunmen had exchanged six shots, and the fight was over.
Smoke filled the room, and it was unclear at first who had hit whom. One of Norton’s shots had wounded witness F. Davidson, who was standing somewhere behind Cowan and Johnson. Neither Cowan nor Johnson had been hit. Officials took both men into custody after the fight. Norton had sustained bullet wounds to his right lung and trachea. His neck was badly swollen by the time Dr. Isherwood arrived. He died at 11:20 the next morning.
The trial proved so sensational there wasn’t enough room to accommodate the crowds from neighboring camps and towns. Court officials moved the trial to Joplin, eight miles southeast of Blende City.The commodious Joplin Opera House hosted the trial’s final summation. The Joplin Daily Herald quipped that the proceedings drew a larger attendance than at any time in the theater’s history. Just after midnight on January 25, 1885, the jury acquitted Cowan and Johnson of all charges.
That April voters elected witness Oscar DeGraff mayor pro tem following the midterm resignation of Blende City’s first mayor, J.F. Strickland. Familiar with Hugh Cowan and convinced of his innocence, DeGraff appointed him marshal to replace the man he had killed. And to top it off, Cowan hired DeGraff Bros. & Co. to wash and concentrate his ore— stockpiled on his and Norton’s old lease and filed anew under Cowan, Bliss & Jones. Cowan’s former landlord, J.W. McQuiston, contracted pneumonia in April and died. Marshal Cowan spent most of May helping his new partners at Bailey Bros. & Co. shore up a cave-in that had occurred earlier that spring.
On August 10, 1885, as Mashal Cowan walked two prostitutes to jail, W.H. Warren, a hack driver between Blende City and the railroad depot at Carl Junction, rode up and interfered in their arrest. In the ensuing argument Warren reportedly accused Cowan of cheating on wife Ester. The marshal lost his temper, pulled his revolver and fired. The shot grazed Warren’s shoulder and left powder burns on his face and neck. Cowan was arrested on an attempted murder charge.
While in the Carthage County Jail, awaiting a grand jury to convene in September, Cowan participated in a holding cell riot and was stabbed by inmate John Lee. Cowan survived, but in October a judge sentenced him to five years in the penitentiary. After serving his time, Cowan made amends with his wife and moved with her to Carl Junction, where he worked as a fry cook.
In 1886 Blende City appointed its last recorded marshal, C.L. Carlyle, a hardscrabble miner who preferred fists to firearms and was a leading member of Holiness Church. That spring a tunnel caved in beneath Center Creek and for the next seven hours the water flooded out the mines and dried up the creek downstream. In 1891–92, crews dug out a new creek channel, but Blende City dried up anyway during the money panic of 1893–94, with most of its citizens moving to Carl Junction. A couple of mining syndicates resumed open-pit mining in the area in 1902, but by then Blende City was a certified ghost town. In 1998 Carl Junction annexed most of the old town site.
Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.