Gotta Shoot a Man to Start a Graveyard

PIONEER LIFE
IN THE
NORTH-WEST.
_____

A MURDER MOST FOUL.

The following sketch is from the pen of “Brick” Pomeroy, and was originally published in the La Crosse Democrat. It is so interesting, and so aptly illustrates life in the early times that I take the liberty of using it here: —

“It has been humorously claimed for the average frontier town, as a point in favor of its climatic conditions, that it was necessary to shoot a man for the purpose of starting a grave-yard. While this may be true of La Crosse, a ramble among the tomb-stones and monuments of Oak Grove Cemetery will discover the fact that it was unnecessary to resort to such an extreme measure as an inaugural, its identity was more clearly established by being the burial place of a murdered man.

“In the spring of 1852, a man named David Darst, came to La Crosse from Illinois, bringing with him in his employ, William Watts. Mr. Darst was a man of means, and his object in leaving civilization for the hardships of the frontier is unknown. However, he located on a piece of land in Mormon Cooley, and engaged in farming.

“On the 5th of June, 1852, six or seven weeks after his settlement in the Cooley, his body was found in the bushes by a man by the name of Merryman, stripped of every rag of clothing and tied to a pole which the murderer had used to carry the body from the shanty in which they lived. Merryman was attracted to the spot by the barking of his little dog. He came into town and reported what he had found, and a number of citizens volunteered to go to the Cooley to investigate the matter and try and arrest the murderer, if he could be found. Several parties were arrested but all proved their innocence to the crowd and were released. — On returning to town the man Watts was found with Darst’s clothes on his back — even to his shirt and underwear. He had all his household goods, money, two yoke of cattle and everything the man had. — He was arrested and, there being no jail, he was given over to the keeping of a Mr. McShodden, who kept him in his cellar, chained to a post. He evidently belonged to a gang of outlaws, as evidenced from letters received at the post-office for him both before and after his arrest.

“One evening he escaped. The whole plantation turned out to hunt him; boats scoured the river bank in all directions; men on horseback and armed searched the prairie. But they could find no trace of him. Parties of boys were also looking for him. About midnight he was found by the noise of a file he was using to get rid of his chains, by a party of these small boys and taken into custody. He afterward was furnished by his friends with a file and some iron-colored-paste. This he used in his “prison” and escaped a second time, and was not found for a long time. He was discovered as a hostler at the Ridge Tavern by a man who had been sent for the mail. The mail-carrier, without appearing to notice him at the time, on his arrival home reported him to the Sheriff, who immediately went out and secured him. A one-story stone jail had been erected by subscription after his first escape. He was incarcerated in this and made his exit through the roof of this institution. A new and stronger roof was put on the building, and a large quantity of stone put loose over the ceiling in such a manner that if he tried again it would fall on him and crush him.

“Watts confessed his crime. He said that Darst was lighting the fire on the morning of the murder, he struck him on the head with an axe. He had no other reason for the deed than that of securing the money and property of the victim. — At the funeral of Darst, which occurred the Sunday following the discovery of his body, the services were held in a small building on State street, with the murdered man in his coffin and the murderer in chains standing at the head. It was understood very generally, that as the funeral procession left for the cemetery, Watts was to be lynched. The Rev. S.C. Sherwin conducted the services, and, although more than one rope was in the hands of the party, such was his influence over the populace that he prevailed upon them to let law and order take their course.

“A few years afterward a party of gentlemen were attracted to the spot where Merryman’s dog had discovered to him the body of Darst by the same animal, and there they found the body of Merryman himself in the icy embrace of death.”

Indiana Progress (Indiana, Pennsylvania) Sep 8, 1881

This version from The History of LaCrosse, Wisconsin gives more details:

THE MURDER OF DAVID DARST.

A great many fights and fracases occurred about this time, but on June 3, 1852, one of the most deliberately-planned and cold-blooded murders ever chronicled was committed in Mormon Cooley, which greatly excited the entire community, and came near ending in the lynching of the accused. David Darst, it seems, had at a comparatively early day removed from Galena, 111., and settled on a claim out in Mormon Cooley. He built him a log hut, and, with two yoke of oxen, was soon in a prosperous condition for a settler of the times. In the spring of the year in which the murder was committed, there came up the river from Galena a young man named William Watts, who had known Darst previous to his removal hither, and seeking him out, proposed making a visit to his friend of former days. After remaining here a short time, accepting the hospitality of his whilom friend, Watts deliberately murdered Darst, and, stripping the body of clothing and valuables, hid it in a plum thicket that occupied a ravine near the house. The murderer dressed himself in the garb of the dead victim of his devilish covetousness, and yoking up the oxen, came into the village for the purpose of disposing of the plunder.

The same day that Watts came out of the cooley, Mr. Merriman, an old bachelor, who had a cabin not far distant, was riding up the ravine on horseback, accompanied by a dog, his daily companion, the keen scent of which detected the dead and decaying remains of the murdered host of Watts. The dog ran into the thicket and thence back to his master, manifesting the utmost concern, and betraying an anxiety that indicated something out of the usual channel. Mr. Merriman finally dismounted, and following the dog into the thicket, was nearly paralyzed and stricken dumb by the horrible sight which met his gaze. There lay his neighbor, stiff and stark and dead, his skull crushed and his throat cut, in the last stages of decomposition, and exuding an odor which was stifling. He at once gave the alarm, and hurrying to the village, startled the inhabitants with the story of what he had seen.

While this condition of affairs was rendering the village a scene of pronounced commotion. Watts was engaged in drinking and carousing, and when he had reached a condition of helpless intoxication, he solved the mystery which had surrounded the crime, and was arrested, narrowly escaping lynching.

An inquest was held over the remains of Darst, his murderer being obliged to confront the remains, and when moved to stand at the head of the coffin. During the funeral there were a number in attendance who had ropes concealed about their persons, and but for an eloquent appeal made by Elder Sherwin to let the law take its course, and not disgrace the village by mob violence, the prisoner would have been executed.

At that time the court house was finished, but no jail had yet been provided, and the stone basempnt on Pearl street, between Second and Third streets, was leased from Col. Childs for the confinement of Watts, who was guarded by a man named McSpadden, hired for that purpose. The prisoner was heavily ironed and safely kept for awhile, but the expense was very considerable, and a jail was built for the safe keeping of the prisoner and others who had been arrested for trifling offenses. In its construction the ceiling was made of joists spiked together, and the attic filled with pounded rock, to the end that a prisoner, if he attempted to bore through the ceiling would be deluged with stones. It was not long, however, before the prisoner dug out through the foundation walls, and when his escape was announced the public turned out to effect his re-capture. About midnight on the second day of the pursuit a party of boys engaged in the search heard the noise of some one filing in the prairie grass near Deacon Smith’s. The alarm was given, and Watts was re-taken and re-conveyed to jail, where he was heavily ironed. Notwithstanding this, and the further assurance endeavored to be secured by the Sheriff visiting him at all hours of the day and night, the prisoner eluded the vigilance, attempted and escaped once more.

Search was again undertaken, but with poor success, for awhile at least. He could not be found anywhere, and the officers and citizens were about giving up the search, when a stagedriver, who twice a week made trips to Hazens, out on the ridge, discovered that Watts was disguised and acting as a hostler at that place. Upon his return he detailed the whereabouts of the fugitive, who was arrested and brought back, and, obtaining a change of venue to Bad Axe County, was tried, convicted and sentenced to Waupun for life.

The account of Sheriff Elder differs materially from the above ; and that no factor or phrase of the horrible crime may be wanting, the statement of that gentleman is submitted substantially as follows:

In the spring of 1852, Watts and Darst came in from Peoria, 111., to Mormon Cooley. where the latter purchased a claim, on which former assisted him to build a cabin. Before its completion, according to an account of the crime furnished by Watts, he asked Darst for some money, which enraged the latter, who retorted that he (Watts) owed him $80; that he had kept him poor, and would not rest until he had ruined him. In the excitement of the moment, Darst made an assault upon his subordinate, who tried to escape, but, being headed off at the door and window, neither of which had been closed in, whereupon Watts seized an unfinished ax-helve, and swinging it around in a threatening manner, struck Darst a fatal blow under the ear. Being “then tempted of the devil,” as he protested, he rifled the murdered man of his money and carried the body part way up the bluffs, near to a point where the two had obtained stone to build a chimney. Upon returning to the house, he yoked up the oxen, and visiting the residence of the Kimball brothers, the three went fishing at the Chipmunk Creek. While driving the oxen, Watts met Mr. Merriman, the nearest neighbor of his victim, who enquired after Darst, with whom he had an engagement to join their teams in some work they had decided it was necessary should be done. »

Watts replied, “he has gone away for a few days, and says you are a d—d scoundrel, and wants nothing to do with you.”

This uncivil and uncalled-for speech on the part of Watts excited Merriman’s suspicions, who sought assistance and discovered the body of Darst. An alarm was given, and Sheriff Eldred arrested Watts and the two Kimballs, all three of them very much intoxicated. That night he locked himself, with the three accused, in Chase & Stevens’ office, and in the morning the Kimballs were horrified upon being informed of what was alleged against them. They at once proposed to “churn out the brains of that critter,” alluding to Watts, but were dissuaded from such an act by the Sheriff, and permitted to visit their families on parole, whence they returned in a few hours to stand trial.

Watts was confronted with the dead body of his victim, but gave no sign of guilt, and a cry was raised to lynch him. This, however, was not done, owing to cooler counsels, and the prisoner was turned over to a Mr. McSpadden, residing on Front street near the present ferry, who kept him in a room in his house, the outer door of which was made fast by rolling a pipe of liquor against it.

The prisoner escaped soon after, and was not recaptured until the following February, notwithstanding the offer of $200 reward for his apprehension, when he was retaken by Messrs. Kellogg and Wasson, and immured in the jail which had been constructed in the meanwhile, where he was manacled, shackled and chained to the wall for safe keeping until his trial, which took place in Crawford County, and resulted in his conviction.

The jail to which allusion is here made was a small one-story stone structure, extending four feet beneath the surface of the ground and abutting upon the rear wall of the court house, into which entrance was afterward made. It was not safe, and in after years was succeeded by the present compact and secure building. The account preceding was obtained from Mr. Eldred, who made the arrest of Watts in the first instance.

When the war broke out, Watts received a pardon, conditioned upon his enlisting in the service, which he did, and all subsequent trace of him was lost.

Mr. Darst lies buried in Oakwood Cemetery, where a plain tombstone relates that “David Darst was murdered by William Watts June 3, 1852.”

A most singular occurrence attended the end of Mr. Merriman. Just two years from the time in which his little dog was the means of enabling him to discover the dead body of Darst, he went wandering up the same ravine, and fell dead in the identical thicket whence he assisted in removing the murdered remains of his friend. The old man was missed by his neighbors, who instituted a thorough search for him, and, while passing through the little cooley back of the missing man’s hut, they encountered his dog. The animal again acted strangely, and scampered off to the thicket as he had done when Darst was missing, then returning and repeating this several times. The searchers finally followed the dog, and were led to the corpse of his master. It was thought that he met foul play, but an examination led to a verdict by a coroner’s jury that he had fallen down dead from an attack of heart disease, almost in the form hollowed out by the body of Darst two years before.

Thus ends the particulars of one of the pioneer murders committed in La Crosse after it became a county—certainly, one of the most cold-blooded and brutal the criminal annals anywhere record, and one whence escape from the usual penalties was comparatively easy. But the frontier settlements even then were too sparsely settled to admit of the expense of a cumbersome system of jurisprudence employed in older settled communities, and the first settlers were always a law unto themselves. But as time passed and the majesty of the law was established,the practice of holding one’s self responsible for his conduct became obsolete, and the redress of grievances was reserved to the courts, those agencies of civilization, and, so equitably have the scales of justice been adjusted, and so irresistibly right have questions arising thereunder been adjudicated, that if it is beyond the wisdom of man to avoid erring in all the affairs of this life, the practice of repetition in evils that have been decreed as such should have been abrogated years ago.

Title: History of La Crosse County, Wisconsin
Author: Consul Willshire Butterfield
Publisher: Western Historical Co., 1881
Pgs 395-400

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