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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Then and Now

Thursday, October 7, 2004

The long-ago murder in 'Ghost Hollow'

"Murder will out," runs an old saying. And it will "out" not just once, it seems, but over and over, forever. Hardly another six months can go by without interest stirring afresh in some Vernon County murder case from long, long ago.

This past summer, Harold E. Shull, of Hermitage, Mo., wrote to the Vernon County Historical Society, "Both my grandparents at one time owned property bordering on "Ghost Hollow," a low area between two hills with a small creek on Vernon County Road HH about a mile west of the Vernon-Cedar county line, in the Virgil City area.

"I had always heard the name was because of the unexplained 'lights' that were seen from time to time (similar to the ones south of Joplin); however, at a recent reunion of Virgil City resdents an oldtimer told the story of the murder and how that was the story behind the name."
(The well-known "Ghost Light" or "Spook Light" is an unexplained phenomenon seen on a certain road near the Oklahoma state line, south of Joplin. A light appears in the sky, traveling from the west, which seems to vanish just as it passes over spectators' heads. Oldtimers guffaw when "experts" try to explain it as, e.g., refraction from a nearby airport beacon: "That light was there decades before there were airplanes or airports!")
The explanation of the "Ghost Hollow" light is obvious to all romantics: It's the restless spirit of Sarah Nottingham!
"In the summer of 1851," according to the History of Vernon County, "there occurred on Clear Creek a most atrocious murder, which created intense excitement and interest at the time, and was a topic of conversation among the people for years."
Kentucky-born Dr. Samuel Nottingham was well educated, naturally intelligent, a graduate in medicine from the Cincinnati Medical College. In Indiana he married a Miss Collins, who having borne him several children "died at last under somewhat suspicious circumstances, at the hands of her husband, as many thought." On coming to Vernon County the doctor married again, this time to Mrs. Sarah Duncan, the young widow of Robert Duncan, and the daughter of Nathan Jarrell, "an early settler in the northern part of Dover Township."
"Physicians were scarce at that day, and Dr. Nottingham had an extensive practice. He was a church member, a man of no open vices, and was generally esteemed. But at heart he was a man of violent temper."

"One evening Mrs. Nottingham was engaged in milking when the doctor rode up from a professional visit. He began bantering his wife in apparent good nature, and she responded in kind. Presently she said, 'If you don't go away and let me alone I will milk on you,' and pretty soon she threw a few streams of warm milk in his face and on his clothes.

"Although this was done in mere sport, the doctor flew into a violent passion, ran up to his wife, kicked her, upset the milk, pulled her about by the arms, and finally gave her a blow on the head with his fist." Mrs. Nottingham burst into tears, vowed to leave her husband, and actually started off toward her father's home, a few miles away. The doctor called for to her to stop, and when she refused he "caught up a fist-sized stone and threw it at her with all his might. The missile struck the poor lady in the temple, crushing her skull and killing her almost instantly. It is believed the murderer added a few more blows to finish the work.

"The scene was in the timber near Mulberry Creek, about a mile and a half west or northwest of Virgil City."

Nottingham dragged and carried the body to a shelving bank forming a sort of cave, temporarily concealed it, and went home. He told his children she'd gone to her father's.

Next day he rode over to Mr. Jarrell' s and inquired, as if he expected to find her there.

That night, or the next, he dug a grave and attempted to carry the body away and bury it. "But Mrs. Nottingham in life was a stout, well-formed woman and somewhat over-sized," and while he'd handled the body with ease on the night of the murder, now (probably on account of rigor mortis) he found he couldn't move it. Somewhat gruesomely, with a large pocket knife he cut the body in two and carried each part separately to the grave, "a shallow, incomplete affair," and inadequately covered it with only a few inches of earth.

For some days Mrs. Nottingham's disappearance was a mystery. The truth was suspected only by her father, Mr. Jarrell, who perhaps knew or suspected something of the doctor's violent temper that underlay his "generally esteemed" character. While he was searching the timber "his attention was attracted to a brace of buzzards wheeling about in the air."
Nottingham was at once arrested and examined before Esq. Samuel Dunnegan, a justice of the peace, at Dunnegan Grove. He was committed to jail at Clinton, "there being at that time no suitable jail in Bates County, of which this county then formed a part."

Promptly indicted, the doctor was tried at Papinsville, then the county seat. He was "ably defended" by the afterwards famous Waldo P. Johnson of Osceola, "but more ably prosecuted by John M. Bryant, the circuit attorney." Nottingham was "speedily" found guilty of "murder in the first degree."

There was some talk of a lynching, but it never materialized, and Nottingham was lawfully hanged at Papinsville in the fall of 1852. While awaiting execution he wrote out a long, full confession, "of which copies were printed and sold throughout the country."
"A large crowd was present at the execution. A public hanging always brings out a large concourse of people, and at that date in this sparsely settled country, sensations were so rare that this incident was regarded as an epoch. People came from as far south as Carthage, and from Osceola and all the region around, to 'see the fun'."

It's to be hoped someone will observe the coming Halloween by venturing out to "Ghost Hollow" and looking for that mysterious light that, to true believers, surely is the spirit of Sarah Nottingham, murdered and gruesomely dismembered 153 years ago.