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An Mx Whodunit! (or is it?)
written by US332 Wayne Straight & US033 Marilyn Mullinix Blanck

(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 as follows:

"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 thief"!
  • 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 wrongly accused."

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."; and
"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 we publish.

Thanks to Mark, Marie and Betty for sending this our way, and a very special thanks to Rebecca Snyder for providing the answer.

End Notes:

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 came out.