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‘Old Man’ Cy Killian and sons were cut from the same cloth.

A long-running feud between William Norton and Jake Killian ended at Empire City (now part of Galena), Kansas, on March 28, 1878, when the former gunned down the latter. The shooting also ended what the Joplin (Missouri) Daily Herald called “the remarkable history of a remarkable family.” In the annals of southwest Missouri, the Killians, wrote the Herald, had authored “a chapter of crimes and historical events” stretching back before the Civil War. Yes, the Killians had done their share of killing and being killed.

The notorious clan first came to public notice in the 1850s lead-mining town of Granby, Mo. Patriarch Cy Killian, 45, reportedly spent most of his time in the mining camp gin mills and earned a reputation as a dangerous and quarrelsome man. The mines considered Cy too old to hire, but he found employment for his three oldest sons—Benjamin, in his early 20s; Martin, about 19; and Jacob, about 17. But the sons, like their father, proved to have “quarrelsome dispositions,” and their employers soon discharged them.

On August 10, 1858, “Old Man” Killian and drinking buddy William Collins argued outside a grocery store until Collins picked up a handy whiffletree and beat Cy to death. The law never did anything about it, and neither did the Old Man’s boys, as Collins soon left Granby and was not heard from again.

The boys could find their own trouble, in any case. Not long after his father’s murder, Martin “Mart” Killian left Granby for parts unknown.When he returned, he was missing one of his arms, which he claimed had been shot off while he was crossing the western Plains. The disability didn’t keep him from joining the Union Army. At the height of the Civil War, Mart temporarily left his unit and went into Lamar, Mo., where he reportedly ravished a saloonkeeper’s wife. After Killian caught up with his unit at Carthage, authorities arrested him—not for rape but for robbing a man named Scruggs. Found guilty by a drumhead court-martial, the panel sentenced Killian to 30 days in jail. In the meantime, his unit left Carthage. Soon after, a party of bushwhackers rode down from Lamar, seized Killian from his cell, dragged him to nearby Spring River and hanged him from a tree.

Jake Killian also joined the Army, but he too lacked the discipline to avoid trouble. Toward the end of the war, he and fellow soldier William Norton got into a quarrel over a card game. When Killian disputed the outcome of a hand Norton had apparently won, both men jumped up and drew revolvers. In the struggle that followed, Killian got Norton in a bear hug, pinning down his arms, but Norton turned his revolver around and fired over his right shoulder. The ball struck Killian in the face, destroying the sight in one eye. The war ended before Jake could exact revenge.

Back in Granby on the evening of August 21, 1869, Killian dropped by Bill Lake’s traveling Hippo-Olympiad and Mammoth Circus. After the main show, when ushers began collecting tickets for the minstrel show to follow, Killian refused to pay or leave. Lake told his men to put Killian out, and they did so after wresting away his revolver. Bystanders overheard Jake threaten to kill Lake as soon as he could get another gun.

Killian returned minutes later, saying he was not a quarrelsome man, and stood in line to pay for the minstrel show. Lake soon appeared, engaging in conversation with a deputy marshal and a man named Thompson. Killian slipped up behind them, extended a revolver over Thompson’s shoulder and shot Lake in the chest. As the gunman fled, he tripped over a guy rope and fell, accidentally discharging his revolver, then jumped to his feet to make his escape. Meanwhile, Lake staggered a few yards and collapsed.Taken to his nearby hotel room, the showman died on arrival.

Lake’s widow, Agnes (who later married Wild Bill Hickok), offered a reward of $1,000 for Killian’s capture. The man who eventually brought him in reportedly struck a bargain with the fugitive, promising him a share of the reward money. At Killian’s first trial, the jury failed to reach a verdict. In February 1874, after two changes of venue, a jury finally convicted Jake, sentencing him to four years in the penitentiary.

While the courts were settling Jake Killian’s case, eldest brother Ben found his own trouble under the big top. On the evening of August 15, 1873, Ben and a sidekick named Hale got liquored up and went to Hamilton, Blanchard & Co.’s Indian Show, which was playing on the same grounds where his younger brother had earlier killed Lake. The pair quarreled with a black man named Charley Thomas, and when both sides fired their revolvers, bystander Mathias Schmidt was killed in the crossfire. The law took the seriously wounded Thomas into custody, while Killian and Hale swaggered about town, “blustering and flourishing their pistols.” Only after the pals left town did townsmen organize a posse. Hale got away, but the posse returned Ben to Newton County.

Even though a doctor had recovered a large-caliber ball from Schmidt’s body, and Ben Killian was reportedly the only shooter with a large-chambered pistol, and even though Thomas had had his back to spectator Schmidt, a jury tried Thomas for firing the fatal shot. Found guilty, he was sent to prison for 20 years. Ben Killian was ultimately acquitted.

Perhaps predictably, a fourth Killian brother also got into hot water. On August 25, 1875, 18-year-old Thomas Killian teamed up with two other young men and killed John Anderson, the Granby resident who had served as foreman of the grand jury that had indicted Ben. When authorities arrested Tom in Arkansas two months later, he claimed his partners had done the shooting. Ignoring the plea, a court tried, convicted and sentenced Killian to 99 years.

In early 1877, jailers released Jake Killian, citing his failing health after three years in prison. Jake returned to Newton County, but soon began stalking nemesis William Norton in Jasper County. Norton was not a man to be trifled with. After blinding Killian in one eye during the Civil War, Norton had killed one or two other men in self-defense.

When lead was discovered on Short Creek in southeast Kansas in the spring of 1877, Norton moved to Empire City, where he opened a grocery store and worked in the mines. On March 26, 1878, Killian showed up, saying he intended to kill Norton. About 3 p.m. on March 28, Norton left his diggings and retrieved a revolver and double-barrel shotgun. He had just stepped back into the street when Killian appeared. Norton fired both barrels into the chest of the unarmed Killian. Norton then pointed his revolver at his fallen foe. “Damn you, are you dead yet?!” he exclaimed, as he fired a shot into the back of Killian’s head.

Townspeople supported Norton, especially after a man who testified on Norton’s behalf at the coroner’s inquest was found dead at the bottom of a mineshaft 10 days later, reportedly killed by Killian’s friends. At his trial in early May, the jury deliberated barely 30 minutes before returning a verdict of not guilty, thus bringing to a close the saga of Jake Killian and his remarkable family— “remarkable,” that is, when it came to killing and being killed.


Read more in Larry Wood’s Ozarks Gunfights and Other Notorious Incidents (2010).

Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.