The Hanging of Jack McDowell

One story I had every intention of including in the Heritage Tours, but somehow overlooked, was the hanging of Jack McDowell.  We made up for that at the Greenwood Cemetery Tour Sunday.  It was a lovely day and there was a great turn out to what we hope will be an annual event.  There were even a few spectators who expressed a desire to participate next year.

Let me get back to McDowell.  There is not much known about the man and what little information we have is conflicting.  Even his name is uncertain.  Some sources say it is John others say Jack.  I would say John was probably his given name and Jack is what he was called.  We do not know when he was born, as most men of the bush don’t seem to keep accurate family records.  We know that he served under Quantrill and carried on a rough and roguish life.  He had claimed to have killed a number of men and seemed unrepentant for doing so.  Historians disagree as to whether or not McDowell participated in the raid on Lawrence in 1863.  Some seem certain he did, others believe he was in southwestern Missouri at the time of the raid.

What we do know is he stole a team of horses and a buggy from W.K.Pollard who ran a livery here in town.  When Pollard was made aware that his goods were not to return he got a warrant from Governor Crawford and went to Nebraska City to arrest McDowell.  He was brought back to Council Grove and kept under guard.   According to Ken McClintock McDowell was kept at the Commercial Hotel located where the Post Office is now.

Quick off hand note: Jack McDowell was not held in the Early Day Calaboose now in Durland Park as the sign in front of it states.   Jack McDowell was hung before that jail was built; and no, that jail did not serve the ‘city’ since 1849.  There was no ‘city’ here in 1849, only Seth Hays and his log house to trade with the Indians and a man named Kennedy also a trader and probably the Choteau brothers were here by that time to trade with the Indians.  Lala Brigham in her History of Council Grove states that the calaboose we know today was built in 1871.  Ken McClintock has found a Town Council record from 1870 that shows the jail was built in said year.  We’ll take time elsewhere to talk more of the old jail.

While in confinement a sheriff’s deputy by the name of Cunningham came through here from Shawnee County.  He seemed to have a bit of sympathy for McDowell’s predicament and attempted to slip him a pistol with which he could force his escape.  Cunningham was caught in the act and nearly hung himself but for a certain secret order which saved him.

On February 3rd, 1867 just after midnight a gang of disguised men took McDowell from his relatively safe confinement by force and placed a rope around his neck.  They promptly marched to the Main Street bridge spanning the Neosho and without wasting time in parley propelled McDowell into eternity.  The body was left hanging there all night and in the morning the townsfolk stared at the ghastly sight but no one seemed surprised by it.  It was of common opinion that if McDowell had not been hung here justice would have caught up with him elsewhere before too long.

No one was ever arrested for the hanging and I highly doubt that much effort was made to find the men responsible.  It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the coroner’s report said no more than “death by strangulation.”  Jack McDowell lies in Greenwood Cemetery in an unmarked grave.  I’m sure it was the intentions of those who left it unmarked that he should be forgotten forever.  However, try what they might, they couldn’t burry the legend with the body.

Addenda 12-16-2011;

Ken McClintock had seen the coroner’s report for Jack McDowell.  The secretary at the court house snatched it from him saying that is was confidential information and he couldn’t see it.  The judge told the secretary that it was okay because it was such an old case.  McClintock said the report said McDowell was ‘hung by unknown persons’.

1-3-2012; Blanche Osborne a descendant of Mary Metzger who lived in the Hebrank house and brewery and drew water for the Indians in 1868, also saw the hanging (or rather the aftermath) of Jack McDowell.  Blanche related that Mary said the town people left him hanging most of the day and cut out his heart and then buried him in Greenwood.  I believe the cutting out of the heart is a bit of storytelling flourish added to entertain the children as I have found no other source that mentions it.

Andrew Hughes Strieby wrote a history of a few incidents in Council Grove.  The hanging of McDowell was one of the subjects he wrote about.  He mentioned Kansas’ Diamond Jubilee coming up so I assume the writing is from 1936.  Strieby was born in 1881, long after the events he relates, however the Strieby family had been in Council Grove very early on.  It is possible that what A.H. was relating was what his ancestors and the locals had related to him.  He gives a number of details which I have not found anywhere else which leads me to believe he may have even had access to official records, newspaper accounts or at least a firsthand account from someone who helped hang McDowell.  His details are not farfetched or contradictory to any other accounts, so I am willing to accept it as an accurate history.  One piece of information we get from Strieby that I would like to point out is he says McDowell was kept under guard at a log cabin near the river, not at the Commercial Hotel as stated above in the original article.

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