These days, Donald Fohn lives peacefully in the area where one of his ancestors was once sentenced to hang. Don's great great grandfather, you see, was the Outlaw Preacher Billy Martin.
The exploits of Jesse James and his gang are well seated in the history books and folklore of Missouri, but the state has a long history of outlaws and ne’er-do-wells, including here in what we now call the Lake of the Ozarks region. While you don’t hear as much about these other shady characters, their tales can be just as colorful as Jesse James. And sometimes the most sleepy of places can have a wild past.
The little hamlet of Eldridge lies between Camdenton and Lebanon in northern Laclede County, west of modern day Highway 5. These days, Donald Fohn lives peacefully in the area where one of his ancestors was once sentenced to hang.
Don’s great great grandfather, you see, was the Outlaw Preacher Billy Martin.
While not as famous as Jesse and Frank James, Billy Martin has made some history books focused on our state and regional past.
The details of Billy’s story though, well, that may depend on who you’re talking to.
According to Don, William Franklin Martin was born outside of Eldridge, about 15 miles from modern-day Camdenton, during the Civil War. Part Native American, he was called half-breed. His adventures on the wrong side of the law began in 1878 at the age of 18.
Working on a farm northwest of Lebanon, Billy shot a man by the name of Charles Prewitt, and killed him, and wounded his brother, Jesse Prewitt, in self defense, according to family lore and history books. Charles and Jesse had threatened Billy with a pitchfork during a fight, the story goes.
Billy was arrested and charged with murder. In February 1879, he was acquitted by a jury of peers.
But Billy’s life really heated up the following summer.
Billy got into more trouble in June 1879, this time accused of killing his uncle George Mizer.
According to official histories, Billy had quarreled with his uncle over George’s wife Anna (also called Ann). Billy was about 19 at this time and George and Anna were both in their mid-20s. According to later testimony in the case, George and Anna had marital problems due to several infidelities on Anna’s part.
After Billy reportedly boasted he could do anything he wanted with Anna and spreading rumors about her, George supposedly confronted his nephew on June 4, 1879, threatening that he knew enough to hang Billy, implying there was perhaps more to the story in the death of Charles Prewitt.
According to witnesses at the time, Billy denied talking about Anna, but both men had to be restrained during the argument. Hard feelings continued though with Billy allegedly making threats against George.
On June 9, 1879, George was shot while plowing a field near his house. George’s brother Tom was there when the shot rang out from a nearby thicket. George was killed dead, and Billy was charged after weeks of inquiry by a coroner’s jury. The murder charge was based largely on Billy’s threats.
Arrested in July, Billy was formally indicted during the August term of the circuit court.
Now, all that being said, descendent Donald Fohn says they alleged it was Billy due to he was part Indian, carried a pistol and their lack of evidence to convict anyone else - even though Anna was known to have romantic affairs prior to the murder.
Billy’s trial began on Feb. 7, 1880 in Laclede County Circuit Court. Official histories confirm a parade of witnesses. According to Donald Fohn, 112 witnesses swore in Billy’s defense.
The history confirms Billy’s younger siblings attempted to establish an alibi for him, swearing Billy was home all afternoon on the day of the murder.
They failed to convince the jurors though, and on Feb. 13, they found Billy guilty. On Aug. 7, a motion for a new trial was denied, and on Sept. 24, Billy was sentenced to hang.
Appealing the case to the Missouri Supreme Court based on introduction of Billy’s involvement in the Prewitt case, the execution was stayed with a decision pending by Jan. 1, 1881.
But Billy had been busy, despite his limited circumstances.
During the summer as he awaited his fate in the Laclede County Jail, Billy came to know the teenage niece of the sheriff who sometimes fed the prisoners. After discovering the romance, Sheriff Jacob Wilson sent Margaret “Maggie” Wilson away to stay with friends in Lebanon, but it was too late, love was in the air.
The young couple stayed in contact, and Maggie returned to her uncle’s house in September.
With the sheriff not seeking reelection and their time appeared to be coming to an end with an uncertain future for Billy under the Missouri Supreme Court, the couple planned to break Billy out of jail and run away together, according to official histories.
And they did just that.
While bringing lunch to the prisoners, says Billy and Maggie’s great great grandson Donald Fohn, Maggie snuck the cell keys and helped Billy escape. They fled on a mule, traveling as two young men. Maggie had cut off her beautiful long hair and dressed like a man.
According to the official histories, they made their escape on two horses and headed southeast, marrying in December in Martins Station, Va. Working for a blacksmith under the name Cross, Billy and Maggie left that area after getting the wind up from a visit to the blacksmith by two detectives. They had apparently mistaken Billy for another fugitive, but assuming they were after him for the Missouri case, Billy struck the men and escaped.
The couple fled to Piney Flats, Tenn. where Billy took the name Frank Ratcliffe and worked on a farm. Communication home via letters to a relative landed Billy back in trouble though as the new sheriff was able to track him down in Tennessee.
Billy was taken into custody on Aug. 30, 1881 by Sheriff Goodall.
Traveling by train, shackled beside his wife, Billy and Maggie gave interviews to St. Louis newspapers on Sept. 2 during a stopover there. They declared their love for each other. Billy also denied killing George Mizer, claiming he thought Anna’s younger brother had done it.
Taking the Frisco train southwest to Lebanon, Billy jumped out a train window that night while the sheriff slept. The train had slowed to climb a hill near Dixon. Finding someone to help him get the shackles off, Billy made his way to his father’s house.
A pregnant Maggie continued on the train to Lebanon and was held in the county jail for helping Billy escape and stealing her uncle’s rife and money.
But Billy’s luck was about to change. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled in October 1881 that the prosecution should not have brought up Prewitt case, and so Billy was granted a new trial. He surrendered himself on Nov. 11. On Nov. 17, two years and a day after helping Billy escape, Maggie gave birth to twin girls, Minnie and Winnie. Winnie would later become Donald Fohn’s great grandmother.
In January 1882, a change of venue moved the trial to Dallas County. In a Buffalo courtroom that April, Billy was found not guilty of the murder of George Mizer.
It wasn’t quite over yet though. According to Donald Fohn, Billy had stolen horses for he and Maggie to escape, and he would be convicted of stealing for that in August 1885.
Billy was sent to the now infamous penitentiary in Jefferson City for four years. He did his time though and was released in August 1888. He returned to Eldridge and Maggie, living a peaceful life and eventually becoming a preacher.
According to Donald Fohn, they moved with their five children to Oklahoma in 1910 and later followed their oldest son out west, where Billy is buried.
Winnie married Richard Waterman of Eldridge and Maggie moved back to Missouri eventually to live with them after Billy’s death. Maggie lived to be 96, and shared many stories with her family through the years, according to Donald.
Once one of her granddaughters asked grandma Maggie about writing their history, grandma said, "Don't dig too deep as you will only turn up two things, horse thieves and liars."
She is buried in the Huff cemetery in Eldridge where many of the families of the early residents still live, including Donald Fohn, who graduated from the one room school house that used to be there and who is close to many of his relatives there in the village. Because Winnie was part Indian she was considered a mulato and headstones were not placed on their graves. The family has since corrected this error with a headstone in her honor.
According to Donald, it is on record, much later, that a man by the name of Allison confessed to the murder of George Mizer and Billy really had been innocent.
Source: Donald Fohn and “Desperado Billy Martin Grew Desperate Indeed When Sentenced to the Gallows” by Larry Wood, Wild West magazine and The Rolla Daily News. Larry Wood is a free-lance writer specializing in the history of Missouri and the Ozarks. Wood’s articles on Billy Martin were condensed from his book ‘Murder and Mayhem in Missouri’.