(First appeared in MxWorld, Volume 25,
Number 1, pages 9-13, August 2010)
(A mock-up created by the authors.)
Imagine if you will, a farm in rural Minnesota, near the town of Lakeville—about
5 miles west of Farmington, and 25 miles south of Minneapolis. Its 3 A.M., still
quite dark, 3 July 1891. All's quiet in the farmhouse. Farmer John Johnson, his
wife and their teen-aged son are all three long asleep, as befits a farming family,
if a bit restless from the residual heat of the previous day. Out in the barn, however,
things are not so quiet. Two shadowy figures on horseback are quietly leading the
Johnsons' brace of fine bay horses away, when one of the horses startles and whinnies
in alarm. Farmer John awakens and jumps out of bed heading for the barn—grabbing
a lantern on his way. Lighting the bulls-eye on the run, he surprises the slower
of the two figures, the infamous horse thief Eli Mullinax, who thereupon fires upon
John, killing him instantly. Young Johnson, who is right behind his dad, delayed
only to grab and load his shotgun, sees John fall and fires upon Eli, wounding him
and knocking him off his horse. In the meantime, Eli's equally nefarious partner,
Peter Brizendine, has circled back and upon seeing Eli's plight shoots and kills
young Johnson, and wounds Mrs. Johnson who has, in the interim, come to the aid
of her family. Mullinax, not seriously wounded, remounts and the two desperadoes
ride off into the dark with their ill-gotten gains.
What a tale! This is the kind of horror story every genealogist dreads (and secretly
thrills) to discover in his or her family history!
Or is it? Lets start at the beginning shall we? Sometime in the recent past, Mark
Mullinax (US229) had forwarded to Marie Spearman, our redoubtable president, a short
article gleaned from the Chicago Tribune for her consideration, the article appearing
"Brutal Murder by Horse Thieves
A Minnesota Farmer and His Son Shot down by Desperadoes From Chicago Daily Tribune
4 July 1891 Page 1 Farmington, Minn., July 3: Lakeville, five miles from this place,
was the scene of a terrible tragedy this morning. Eli Mullinax, a noted desperado
and horse thief, whose home is in Princeton, Mo., shot and instantly killed John
Johnson, a worthy citizen of this county. Mullinax was then wounded by a son of
Johnson, but not seriously. Peter Brizendine, a companion of Mullinax, then shot
and instantly killed young Johnson and wounded Mrs. Johnson, who rushed to the assistance
of her husband and son. Mullinax and Brizendine are noted horse-thieves and at the
time of the tragedy, at 3 o’clock this morning, were making away with a pair of
bay horses belonging to Johnson. They escaped but will be lynched if captured."
This article, understandably, peaked Marie's interest to the extent that in early
May of this year she passed it on to Betty Brown for possible inclusion in a future
issue of MxWorld. Betty responded that Eli sounded like a "rough character" and
wondered where he might fit in the Mx pantheon. At this point Marie decided to see
what she could dig up on Eli, Peter & the Johnson's. Finding little or nothing she
wrote back to Betty:
"I tried a quick ancestry.com...search to try to identify Eli in the 1880 census
but can’t tell if I've found him yet...Don’t find an Eli or Elias in my US member
directory that seems to fit. I'll bet if I asked Wayne to track him down, he’d find
him!" (Uh oh, that's like offering honey to a bear.)
Knowing that Wayne was an easy touch, Marie thereupon wrote him saying
"I was NOT going to ask but it seems Betty is interested, SO if it ever sparks your
interest wanna look for a horse thieven murderer? I did not spend much time in Ancestry.com
but did look for his accomplice as it’s not a common name but hard to say if I found
Peter Brizendine or not. I did not find any other articles on Footnote.com just
the same Chicago Tribune article was also in the San Francisco Chronicle in July
of 1891. But there are other news archives that may have an article if either ever
did die by the lynch rope or by jury sentencing."
The Chronicle article she found appeared as follows:
The Record-Union. (Sacramento, Calif.) 1891-1903, July 04, 1891
Wayne was understandably interested and proceeded to search for any information
on an Eli Mullinax from Princeton, Missouri; as well as on Peter Brizendine and
the John Johnson family of Lakeville, Minnesota. This search took two forms. First
was a standard genealogical search--looking for family background information on
the principals. Second was a standard criminal investigation looking for motive,
means and opportunity.
The search for Eli hit pay dirt immediately. That for Peter Brizendine was also
reasonably successful. However, the more Wayne looked into these men, the less convinced
he became that they were the kind of men characterized in the newspaper articles.
Everything he found indicated that Eli and Peter were honorable men. Eli in particular--there
were two, father and son--was a prominent merchant (primarily of dry goods) and
a pillar of his community, celebrated for his philanthropy and generosity(1). Peter
Brizendine, though less celebrated (and younger) was a traveling salesman, selling
dry goods for various business establishments located in Memphis, Tennessee, and
Louisville, Kentucky(2). At the same time, the research into the Johnson family
was a complete bust! Being Minnesota, there were scads of John Johnsons to be found
but no records of any having been murdered nor were there any leading Lakeville
lights by the name during that timeframe.
These factors, combined with the facts that...
- Wayne found no newspaper follow-ups to the story--this was big news, the countryside
was up in arms--where was the coverage?
- He found no criminal record, wanted posters, extradition papers, etc. Yet the local
authorities knew where Eli lived and he was supposedly a "noted desperado and horse
- He found no indication that either man was in the vicinity at the time of the incident.
(Though Peter could have included Lakeville in his sales route, as a traveling salesman
(vice a peddler) his primary means of transportation would have been by train and
his customers would have been business establishments not individual farms or homes.)
- He found no indication of an affiliation between the accused--although it’s quite
possible that Peter sold goods to Eli.
- He found no indication that either of the accused traded in horseflesh--although
Eli did own horses.
...were starting to make the whole thing smell--something wasn't right!
In a subsequent e-mail to Marie and Betty, Wayne stated:
"I've picked up this gauntlet several times but have never come to a resolution
that suits me. My best estimate is that Peter and Eli were itinerant merchants,
who by most accounts seemed like normal fellows--although Peter did shoot two alleged
bandits in AL ca 1880. Also, Mercer Co., MO is on the MO/IA border, and based on
the 1870 & 1880 censuses, it does appear that Eli & his family (incl. his first
wife Sarah) were living in IA ca 1865-66. I can't help but wonder whether they were
There the matter rested for a while, until in a unrelated e-mail exchange, Wayne
mentioned this project, and his concerns, to Marilyn, who immediately responded
with interest noting that there were a number of Eli Mullinaxes in her family.
Wayne forwarded her the article and what he'd found to date, to which she responded:
"This Eli IS a relative of mine -- no doubt. That Princeton, MO Mx family is a VERY
NICE, high-achieving group, too. He must have been the black sheep, who didn't become
a doctor, run a business, or do something else constructive. I'll take out the book
and see how he fits in. One of my gg-grandfather's nephews moved to that part of
Missouri very early -- 1830s? I don't think that quite all the Mx families there
are direct descendants, though. There was a little "infill" by one or two others
that came up from TN. Thanks for finding a very dark sheep."
Then in three following e-mails entitled "You have the wrong Eli -- in a major way!"
in which it was obvious she was having trouble believing the story, Marilyn wrote:
"Eli Mullinax who died in 1912 was an eminently respected merchant, very prosperous,
left a lot of successful descendants, etc. etc. etc. In 1891 he was home minding
the store, by this time a director of a bank, too. He was on the town council, the
school board, ran several large farms -- AND he's too old to be running around shooting
up other people just so he could steal their horses. We don't know that Eli the
bad guy had been BORN in Princeton, MO -- only that he lived there. I suspect he's
a relative from TN that "successful Eli" was trying to help -- but it didn't work.
He can't be the son of "successful Eli" because THAT Eli wasn't born until after
1880, was a merchant in Delphos, Kansas and had his own son Eli H. who was an MD
in Colorado. Bad Eli cannot be a grandson of successful Eli because the grandchildren
are all considerably younger and would not have been old enough to steal horses
in 1891. I suspect that the only time we'll find this guy on a census with a legitimate
name is either as a kid or when he was in jail! No "notorious horse thief" is going
to give "The Man" his right name when a census taker comes knocking. He'll probably
duck and cover and not even be listed...How old would a couple of horse thieves
be? My guess -- 16-35...I know another place to look for Bad Eli........Will let
you know if anything turns up. ";
"Something that concerns me is WHY is the Sacramento CA newspaper interested in
reporting a shoot-em-up/horsethief case in Lakeville, Minnesota? Something just
isn't quite right with this, is it? I wonder if this little article could be a "plant"
by someone who'd had bad business dealings with "successful Eli" and with Peter
Brizendine? If these two desperadoes and horse thieves got away, how could anyone
be absolutely SURE who they were and that one of them, indeed, had a home in Princeton,
Missouri? This could be constituted as a threat to kill Eli of Princeton, Mo., could
it not? Eli, b. 1829 in TN. worked for a few years as a teacher, saved his money,
moved to Princeton, MO and opened a general merchandise store. Relatives, Mary and
William West, were already there. His life is well documented by descendants.";
"Another thought: In this part of Minnesota, at the time of that news article, the
name "John Johnson" was just about the most common name there was! Look at the long
list of John Johnsons in Dakota Co., MN for the 1880-census. Isn't it odd that,
in the article, the son has no name and the heroic wife has no name. There are no
obvious death records for John Johnson at the right time. hmmmmmm. But there is
a very specific reference to where the horse thief lives!"
By this time we were both convinced that the whole thing was a fraud, in Marilyn's
words "an epic work of fiction!" We continued to discuss the issue for some time,
engaging in abductive reasoning; postulating any number of possible scenarios that
would explain the newspaper accounts. The possibilities included:
- a practical joke that got out of hand;
- revenge by a wholesaler or manufacturer who'd supplied goods to Eli and Peter but
never been paid;
- a rival businessman who was trying to blacken their names;
- a former boss who had an axe to grind; or
- a case of mistaken identity.
While all this was happening, Wayne and Marilyn were doing extensive research into
the accused and their families; the particulars of peddlers and of the traveling
salesmen of late 19th Century America in general; the ca 1891 business climate in
Princeton, Missouri; the kind of tobacco grown in Kentucky, Minnesota and Wisconsin;
and the clothing and tobacco merchants of Tennessee and Kentucky.
Wayne also sent queries to any and all genealogical societies, historical societies,
libraries and newspapers in the Lakeville, Farmington, Eureka Township and Dakota
County areas, asking for any additional information about the incident. To cover
his bets, he also contacted similar organizations in and around Princeton, Missouri
and Delphos Kansas (where Eli Jr. had established a similar reputation to that of
his father.) After receiving a number of negative responses, Rebecca Snyder, research
librarian for the Dakota County Historical Society, came to the rescue with the
following article, published in the Lakeville column of the Dakota County Tribune
of 9 July 1891:
“A Silly Canard The Pioneer Press Bites at a Pin Hook – Baited with a Silly Tale
Sent in by Some “Smart Aleck” “The Fourth of July, 1891, dawned, in fact, the Fourth
of July usually does dawn, and there was nothing particularly surprising in the
fact that it dawned this year but it was very late in the day before it dawned upon
the editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press that he had been badly imposed upon by
some “Smart Aleck,” who had sent that paper a lurid tale of murder and robbery,
which was located near Lakeville. Early in the day the operator at this place handed
us a telegram from the Minneapolis Tribune, saying: “Send us everything new about
the Lakeville shooting and the pursuit of the thieves.”
“This was a bad starter for the Lakeville celebration, and we proceeded to that
village with thoughts of burglaries and bloody murder uppermost in our mind. We
were booked for a Fourth of July speech there, but immediately began preparing for
a funeral oration, instead, thinking we might find several of the prominent citizens
of that village in the morgue, with the remainder of the population in pursuit of
the perpetrators of the crime.
“Arrived there we found no signs of an affray and no one knew anything about it.
All the distinguished citizens of the village were in their usual health, and if
anyone had gone in pursuit of any thieves they were not missed, for there were plenty
of people left.
“Later in the day, when a copy of the Pioneer Press was received, it was found to
contain and (sic) alleged telegram from this place, stating that two noted desperadoes,
who had kept the surrounding country in a terror since last March, had stolen a
span of horses from John Johnson, near Lakeville, and in the melee Mr. Johnson had
been instantly killed and his son was also killed and his wife wounded, and the
whole country was up in arms after the desperadoes. The whole story was fishy all
the way through, but the last paragraph was enough to give it away. It explained
that Eli Mullinax, one of the thieves, was the same man who tried to fool Adam Forepaugh
with a wooly horse, by tying sheep pelts on the animal. The whole thing was a foolish
invention, and did not possess even the merit of wit, and the inventor ought to
be given some pelts not taken from sheep The editor of the Pioneer Press should
go out in the back yard and kick himself until he is able to see a hole though a
ladder after 4 o’clock.”
Well, here was our answer--the whole thing was a hoax! And despite the almost indeciperable
period allusions (we have no clue as to what was meant by "kick himself until he
is able to see a hole though a ladder after 4 o’clock"), the reference to Adam Forepaugh(3)
would have eventually tipped us off that the story was spurious.
There were a number of assumptions and mistakes made here, as well as some deliberate
misdirection, by a number of people, to wit:
- The perpetrator of the hoax, of whom nothing more need be said.
- The editor who originally released the story didn't bother to check his facts--he
apparently didn't even know who it was who'd tipped him off!
- The news services and major newspapers of the day, that ran the story without checking
its veracity and edited out those parts, which might have made it, suspect in the
minds of its readers.
- Those same editors, who never backtracked to find out whether there was a follow-on
or, if they did, failed to issue a retraction.
- We the heirs to this ‘historical’ account, who initially assumed that since it was
published in major newspapers of the day, it was likely to be true.
Of such errors is history remade. If Mark hadn't passed the article to Marie; if
Marie and Betty hadn't thought it worthy of research and publication; if Wayne and
Marilyn hadn't checked it for veracity, and if Rebecca hadn't taken the time to
check her archives, then this story might have remained as a black mark on the names
of good men.
If there's a moral to this whole story its CHECK YOUR SOURCES! Just because
something is printed in a newspaper, posted on the Web, published in a book, or
Grampa said it was so, doesn't make it so. As genealogists (and therefore as historians),
its incumbent upon each and every one of us to verify, validate and qualify what
Thanks to Mark, Marie and Betty for sending this our way, and a very special thanks
to Rebecca Snyder for providing the answer.
1. An indication of Eli's sterling character can be found in a retrospective published
in the Princeton (MO) Telegraph of 27 June 1923, which states: "The firm of Cook
& Norcross, Undertakers, was launched in Princeton in 1870...The funeral cortage
<sic>, particularly in Princeton, was seldom more than two vehicles, the one
hauling the body and the other the family, who also served in most instances as
pall bearers. From this time he first came to Princeton until they died, there were
two men who always sent a team each to every funeral and that was Eli Mullinax,
a merchant and farmer, and Rush Bowsher, a liveryman. No charge was made for their
teams nor their personal assistance."
2. Brizendine appears to have been a commercial traveler out of TN and KY, selling
various commodities including clothing and tobacco. He did report shooting two bandits
in Alabama, ca 1880, while on a sales trip for a clothing house in Memphis.
3. Immediately upon seeing this reference we each knew that the story was bogus.
Initially, we thought the name might be a play on words, i.e., Adam Forepaugh=Adam
Forepa=Adam Forefather; but a little research revealed that there was an infamous
showman by the name, a rival to P.T. Barnum, who had died a year before these articles