The deadly encounter occurred at the city marshal’s house.
When a city marshal gets in a shootout with a deputy U.S. marshal and both end up stone cold dead, that’s big news in that city and for miles around. The newspapers naturally took notice when James H. Morgan, city marshal of Butler, Missouri, and Deputy U.S. Marshal John P. Willis mortally wounded each other in a Butler shootout on the evening of December 3, 1889. The daily newspapers in Kansas City, 65 miles north, saw it one way, taking the side of the federal lawman. They came out with sensational stories of the incident, claiming Morgan was a “tough customer” with a “desperate reputation” who fired three shots before Willis could get off one while the deputy U.S. marshal was trying to arrest him on a legitimate charge of selling liquor without a license. The local papers—the Butler Daily Democrat and the weekly Bates County Record—cried foul, the Record going so far as to suggest the city marshal had been “shot down like a dog.” The local press, as it turned out, was much closer to the truth than the city papers.
The 51-year-old Morgan had been city marshal of Butler for 10 years and was considered the best lawman the city ever had. The 37-year-old Willis, also a longtime area resident, had served as a deputy U.S. marshal for a few years. He, too, was said to be an efficient officer with many good traits, except that he was considered a hard drinker. There was reputed to be bad blood between the two lawmen, dating from an incident in 1882 in which Morgan, during the legal performance of his duties, had killed John Stanley, a Willis acquaintance. A jury had found Morgan blameless, but Willis reportedly held a grudge.
During the afternoon of December 2, 1889, Willis appeared on the streets of Butler intoxicated and trying to pick fights. A constable tried in vain to escort Willis back to his office. Instead the lawman accosted a prominent citizen named John W. Hannah and started, according to the Bates County Record, “abusing both him and his family in the most shameful manner, using the most obscene and insulting language.”
Hannah finally struck Willis on the head with his cane, knocking him down. Willis continued his boisterous talk after regaining his feet but said nothing more against the Hannahs. He noticed Morgan approaching and they chatted until Willis realized the city marshal meant to arrest him. Despite Willis’ remonstrating, Morgan dragged off the federal officer to the city jail. Willis remained in the calaboose for 2 ½ hours, until a $200 bond earned his release.
The next day, December 3, Willis still smarted from his arrest. He and local attorney Simeon P. Francisco took the early train to Kansas City and went to the office of U.S. District Attorney George A. Neal. There Willis swore out a complaint, charging that Morgan and Hannah had assaulted him while he was performing his official duty, namely preparing to serve a warrant on a murder suspect whom he believed was passing through Butler.
Neal referred the case to U.S. Commissioner William V. Childs, who swore out warrants against Morgan and Hannah, and Willis promptly started back to Butler with the paperwork. At the train depot in Kansas City he met business acquaintance Samuel S. Price, whom he deputized to help serve the warrants. The two men then continued on to the Butler depot, arriving about 9:30 p.m. An hour or so later they were rapping at the front door of Morgan’s house.
“Who’s there?” Morgan asked from inside. Getting no response, he opened the door and saw the men on either side of the doorway, each holding a revolver.
“What do you want?” he asked, according to the account in the Record.
“We’ve come to arrest you,” Willis informed him.
“Where’s your warrant?” the city marshal asked.
“It makes no difference about the warrant,” replied Willis.
Willis had the warrant on him but chose not to produce it. Instead, he produced a revolver, as did Morgan. The two lawmen fired at about the same time, and each one’s bullet struck the other in the abdomen. Price helped the wounded Willis drag the wounded Morgan into the front yard. At that point the two lawmen began wrestling each other for control of the weapons, while Price, who also was armed, backed away. When the latter saw Willis on top of Morgan, Price called out to his lawman friend, “Shoot him again!”
Willis fired three more shots at the prostrate Morgan, but the city marshal kept struggling. Mrs. Morgan rushed to the door and shrieked,“Murder!”Then she begged Willis to spare her husband’s life.
“See here, you hush!” Price said, as he pointed his gun in her direction.
Mrs. Morgan said nothing more, but she ran next door for help as Willis kept beating her now defenseless husband with his revolver. In short order Mrs. Morgan returned with help, and other neighbors, alerted by the gunshots, also arrived on the scene. Some of the men carried the wounded and battered Morgan into his house, while others led Willis away. Willis made it only about 300 feet before he collapsed and had to be carried the rest of the way to his own house. Both men lingered through the night and into the next day, and both gave statements on their deathbeds.
Morgan claimed Willis had come to his house with the express purpose of trying to kill him, and his wife and neighbors corroborated his story. They saw Willis striking Morgan with his revolver as he straddled the city marshal’s prostrate form, overheard Price urging Willis,“Shoot him again!” and saw and heard the gunfire when Willis followed through on his acquaintance’s suggestion. Willis, however, disclaimed any design to do Morgan bodily harm in obtaining the warrant and going to his house late at night to serve it. After he was arrested as an accomplice and placed in jail the day after the incident, Price, too, gave a statement, emphasizing that he took no part in the shooting, and that he only accompanied Willis at the latter’s request.
Doctors at first thought Willis’ wound might not prove fatal, but he died on December 4 at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, a couple of hours after Morgan breathed his last. A coroner’s jury convened the same day and concluded Willis had been shot once and Morgan twice. An inspection of the lawmen’s weapons revealed that Morgan’s revolver had been fired only once and Willis’ four times. Both men were buried the next day, the 5th. Almost the whole town turned out for Morgan’s burial in the early afternoon, while Willis’ interment in the late afternoon drew a much smaller crowd.
Like the combatants themselves, the people involved in issuing the warrants tried to shift blame once they learned the result of Willis’ attempt to serve the writ on Morgan. Childs, the commissioner who issued the warrants, said he did so on the advice of District Attorney Neal. Neal said he opposed issuing the warrants until he could investigate the case but relented at the urging of Francisco, the attorney who accompanied Willis and seemed to be acting as Willis’ legal adviser. Francisco, though, said he knew of the bad blood between Willis and Morgan and advised against issuing of the warrant to Willis. Childs added that he only issued the warrants with the understanding they would be handed over to Elijah Gates, U.S. marshal for the Western District of Missouri, and that Gates would, in turn, give them to Deputy U.S. Marshal Dennis Malloy to serve rather than Willis serving them himself, considering the latter’s personal involvement in the case. Gates said he asked Willis (exactly when they saw each other is uncertain) who had the warrants, and Willis assured him he had handed them over to Malloy (which was not true). After the shooting Willis said he had, in fact, asked Malloy to accompany him to Butler but that Malloy took sick. Malloy, though, said the reason he didn’t come to Butler was that he preferred to work alone, and Willis refused to let him serve the warrants by himself. Whatever the truth, Willis did have the warrants in his pockets when he went to Morgan’s house (they were found on the deputy U.S. marshal after he died).
After sifting through all the charges and countercharges, a special grand jury concluded on December 12 that John Willis had committed first-degree murder, and that Samuel Price should be charged as an accessory. Appearing at the Bates County Courthouse on the 13th, Price pled not guilty. He was remanded to jail to await trial, but the court eventually dropped the murder charge against him. The Kansas City newspapers never retracted the falsehoods in their accounts of the double shooting. The Lamar South-West Missourian, though, said it should not have been possible for a deputy U.S. marshal who’d been on a “howling drunk” for several days to obtain official papers “to gratify personal malice,” but it appears that is what Willis did—at no small cost to himself.
Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.