Friday, October 30, 2009

The Ridings Family Murders, 1880, Monroe County, Mississippi

by Terry Thornton

The Ridings family murders were discussed briefly on this site on September 29, 2009, in the article A Hill Country Story Told In Stone: The Ridings Family (click to read).

Since that date, I've received a number of emails and comments from several individuals. The Monroe County Discussion Group, of which I am a member, recommended I contact the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson for 1880 newspaper accounts of the murders as no local copies of the news reports could be found. MDAH sent three articles from the Okolona, Mississippi, The Chickasaw Messenger. I've transcribed all three articles and they are posted below.

Monroe County historian Mary Anna Riggan sent the first confirmation of these murders summarized from an oral history study she had completed in the summer of 2009. A reader sent a link to a 1998 article posted online by Amory resident J. Brown at Brown's riveting account told from the perspective of family lore helps to complete the story. Further, Nettleton historian Brandon Presley, a few days ago went to the area where the 128 year-old murders occurred, and, after a few interviews with locals at Bigby Fork, provided additional details of the event using an oral history approach. And Lamar County Alabama historian Barbara Carruth sent a clipping of a news account of the 1880 event from The Picyanue.

All of these accounts, however, serve to complete the information from the three articles below transcribed from The Chickasaw Messenger. The longer piece, the Messenger's republication of the Aberdeen Examiner's account of the situation at Bigby Fork, provides the most detail of this horrible tragedy.

The Chickasaw Messenger

Okolona, Mississippi

Thursday, December 23, 1880

We learn that a family named Riding, who lived in the fork of the Tombigbee river, about four miles from Johnson's mill, was brutally murdered, and the house then set fire, and burned down, containing their bodies. The perpetrators of the hellish deed have not been discovered, as far as we learn, though we have not been able to obtain full particulars of the tragedy.

Later. We learn that a tramp who was prowling about the neighborhood of the Ridings, was suspected and followed. He was caught near Tupelo, and Mr. Riding's watch found in his possession. It was thought Judge Lynch would try him.

The Chickasaw Messenger

Okolona, Mississippi

[Date not clear; may be December 23, 1880, from another page]

We are reliably informed that the scoundrel McKenna, one of the murderers of the Ridings family, was summarily dealt with by his infuriated captors. He was carried back near the scene of his latest crime, where after producing at least a portion of the property taken from the house of Mr. Ridings, and making a full confession, was hanged. The rope broke before the villain was thoroughly strangled. With a view therefore of saving the trouble of swinging him again, and at the same time give him a taste of the horrid death he meted out to his unfortunate victims, rails were piled upon his writhing body as it lay on the ground, lightwood splinters adjusted as kindling, and the torch applied. Gilmore, the accomplice of McKenna in the murder, has not yet been apprehended.

The Chickasaw Messenger

Okolona, Mississippi

January 6, 1881

From the Aberdeen Examiner


Aberdeen, Miss., Dec. 31st, 1880

Editors Examiner: On Friday night last in Bigby Fork in this county, a most brutal tragedy was performed by one Alvin McKanna, alias Miller, and his accomplice, one John Gilmore, alias John Howard. The man, Alvin McKanna, had been in the neighborhood of the place several days, perhaps over a week, professing to be a laboring man, and had on one occasion hired to a Mr. Lee for a day or two, and in the meantime had called at several houses to spend the night, at some of which he was permitted to do so. Among other places that he had called for lodging was the house of William Brown Ridings, about one week before the tragedy occurred, and was denied.

On last Friday evening, Dec. 17th, this man again called at Mr. Ridings and asked for quarters for the night, and was permitted to stay. Mr. Ridings was a young man whose family consisted of himself, young wife and little infant. About eleven or twelve o'clock at night, Mr. Ridings father, Mr. David Ridings, who lives some three or four hundred yards from his son, discovered his son's house on fire and went to the place, but finding it too far gone to be saved, and seeing no signs of any one in the house, returned home to inform his wife that the family, as he supposed, had gone off on a visit and was safe; after which he returned to the burning house. At that time the building was so far consumed as to discover the charred remains of his son, his wife and child among the ruins. He gave the alarm and next morning the neighbors in large numbers collected at the place and on consultation with the father, it was ascertained that the young man had been to Eureka that day to sell some cotton, and that, together with other money, he had brought home a few dollars in silver; and that he also had a silver watch, neither of which, or any trace of them could be discovered, although the steel clasp of his pocketbook was found among the ashes. This excited suspicion of foul play and search was immediately instituted for other evidence. Very soon, foot prints were discovered near the place, going into the woods, which were adjudged by those who had known McKanna, to be his tracks. Inquiry was then made as to McKanna's whereabouts when it was ascertained that he had not been seen since the day before in the morning, and at that time was in the woods alone, some mile or mile and a half from the place where the burning had occurred. Very soon a number of resolute young men started out in different directions in search of the supposed murderer. A party overtook and found him Saturday on the William B. Hogan place, in this county, some twelve miles from the scene of the murder, with a new axe, which he said he sent a negro to Cotton Gin to buy for him. He was carried back, and on his way confessed to having been a party to the murder and arson, and took his captors to the place where he had concealed the money, and watch and boots, and other apparel of Mr. Ridings, and everything which he confessed to having gotten was there found and recovered, he giving an account of the whole tragedy about as follows:

He said that he had an accomplice named John Gilmore, alias John Howard; that Gilmore kept himself in the back grounds and was seldom, if ever seen about the scenes of their contemplated operations, but that his, McKanna's, business was to go about the country under the guise of one seeking work, but really hunting victims. Sometimes he would remain in a neighborhood for several days working and visiting about at different houses and making inquiry of the colored and unsuspecting whites as to who had most money, and when he selected the party to be victimized, would report to his partner and a night would be fixed for the accomplishment of the deed. McKanna was to go to the house of a victim to spend the night, and when the family got asleep, if he was in the room with them (as was the case in this instance) he was to apply chloroform to make them sleep soundly, and then give a signal for his accomplice, Gilmore, and they would then rifle the house and rob or commit such other crimes as their cupidity or lusts might suggest.

He says that in this instance he selected Mr. Ridings as his first victim in the neighborhood, and notified Gilmore and placed him in position in the neighborhood of the house so that he could signal him when he should be prepared for him; that after Mr. Ridings and family had gone to sleep, he arose and applied chloroform, and after they were heavily under its influence he went out of the door and whistled, and Gilmore came to him with an axe, with which he struck Mr. Ridings on the head killing him; that he, Gilmore, violated Mrs. Ridings and tore a ring off her finger; then killed her with the axe; then took down a can of kerosene oil which was found on the mantle, and poured it on the parties and bedding and floor of the house, and with a match set fire to the building; that as they left the scene they heard the screams of the little burning infant, whom they had even denied the mercy they had extended to the father and mother, of killing it with the pole of the axe before saturating its little garments and bathing its skin with kerosene oil and setting it on fire.

McKanna gives this account of himself (and it is part corroborated by a memorandum in a little book found upon his person;) that he is 32 years of ages; was born, reared and educated, as was his accomplice, in the State of Ohio --- "God's county;" that he killed a man named Armstrong, near Terre Haute, Indiana, for his money, and was tried and sent to the Southern prison, as he called it, at Jefferson, Indiana, for ninety nine years; that Gilmore was an inmate of the same prison, but that his (Gilmore's) term had nearly expired; that Gilmore advised McKanna to feign insanity and thus get himself transferred to the Insane Asylum from which he could more easily escape. This he did, and in course of time succeeded in having himself transferred, and from the Asylum he made his escape, probably the latter part of the last or the first of this year; that he and Gilmore then united their fortunes in the enterprise of larceny, burglary, robbery and murder. He states that in Edgar county, Illinois, of which Paris is the county site, they went to a house where at the time there were eight inmates, all of whom were ladies except one, and killed four of them who were below stairs, and robbed the house, getting $4,000 then set the house on fire and burned to death those who were up stairs. They next went to Kentucky, where they robbed five houses, killed no one, and got very little money. Then took the train and went to Nashville; went above Nashville about twenty miles, where they found a man and some young ladies, chloroformed them; stole a trunk and got but little money. They then came down towards Alabama, passing through Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, where they robbed a man named Simmons, of a few dollars; crossing the Tennessee River at Chickasaw, they went to a store on Bear Creek, belonging to a man named Williams, which they robbed of about twenty dollars and some goods. They were pursued and made their way down to Bigby Fork, in this county, where they have been making their headquarters until the performance of the tragedy of which the account is given above.

McKanna states that the keeper of the Jefferson prison of Indiana has offered a reward of $400 for his capture, and that there are rewards of $2,000 each for him and Gilmore, offered in Illinois, where they killed and burned the eight persons in the house and got the $4,000. He says they were attracted to the South at this time of the year because they supposed planters were selling their cotton and handling large sums of money at their homes.

This may be taken as a warning to our people not to keep their money about their houses, and by all means not to allow these birds of prey, who are constantly swooping down from Northern sinks of crime, in the form of able bodied tramps, asking food and lodging in our houses, for the purpose of prying into our condition that they may murder and rob us. It is a burning shame on the police regulations of the State, that such creatures are not taken up whenever found, and required to give an account of themselves, or placed in work houses until they have earn means enough to transport them back to their homes. The result of our miserable police in that regard, has cost the county of Monroe a most worthy and estimable family, and may cost us many more. There is scarcely a day passes that we do not find one of these fiends in the form of able bodied mendicants, knocking at our doors and asking for a meal of victuals; and if denied, leave our premises with bitter imprecations, hissing like hot lead through their teeth upon the heads of ourselves or family, for daring to turn them away without feeding them. Our laws are ample to protect us against this class of persons, and if those in authority fail to execute them, are morally PARTICEPS CRIMINIS in the outrages perpetrated on individuals and society in consequence of their failure to give protection. CITIZEN.

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