Recently I stumbled upon an article about an odd double murder that happened nearly a 100 years ago which left me fascinated and delving deeper for more information. The murders took place in Ripley County, Missouri during prohibition.
Ripley County was an area with a reputation for lawlessness. Homemade corn liquor poured from stills long before the law forbidding alcohol in the country. A lack of roads inhibited the law enforcement authorities from cracking down on unsavory types in a region where many of the locals traveled by the many waterways that snaked through the area.
The region was mostly poor; a majority of the population was illiterate. Many of the people in the area had immigrated to the area during the lumber boom after 1880, most of them from Tennessee. Small family farms and timber operations were the main industries of the area.
In 1920 the Bennett family lived on the South Branch of the Buffalo Creek in Pine Township in Ripley County. The family is headed by 62 year old widow Celia Louisa “Lucy” Bennett. Also living with her at the time was her 34 year old son, J.W. Bennett, and 17 year old Gertie Bennett, a granddaughter whose mother was deceased. Lucy claimed to be a farmer and reported that she owned her land. Living next door to Lucy in 1920 were her daughter Fanny, with her husband Willie Weatherspoon, and their children. The family had resided on the same land for over 10 years. My Great Grandmother, Lillie Mae Weatherspoon, was one of Willie and Fanny’s children.
A gruesome discovery rocked the region in June 1926 when the bodies of Ernest and Frank Van Patton were discovered. The old men had been dead, exposed to the elements and animals, about a week prior to discovery. The men were misers and local rumors indicated they had a hidden wealth of money which was never recovered. Local authorities were unable to solve the strange demise of the Van Patton brothers for a year.
A break came in the case when 17 year old Cecil Atchinson walked into the local police station and told Joe Cochran a strange tale which implicated his uncle J.W. Bennett and another man, George Williamson, in the murder of the Van Patton brothers by poison in an attempt to rob the men. Cecil also confessed that he confessed the tale to his grandmother, Lucy Bennett, and the tale shocked her so bad she died. He claimed that on her death bed she ordered him to turn his uncle in. J.W. was also implicated in a murder attempt on George Williamson by placing dynamite in his stove causing an explosion which injured the intended victim.
J.W Bennett was convicted of the double murder of the Van Patton brothers and the attempted murder of George Williamson. He was sentenced to life in Missouri State Prison in November 1927. J.W. was the only one to receive a murder conviction and he quickly appealed his case.
In May 1928 the Missouri Supreme Court amended the conviction against J.W. Bennett and ordered that he had to be given a new trial. The Supreme Court found issue with both the confessions signed by illiterate men and by the lack of physical evidence in the case. The condition of the bodies when discovered had made a cause of death impossible to determine. J.W. was released and never retried for the crime as far as I have been able to determine.
Joe Cochran the man who cracked the Van Patton case went on to have a very successful career. He made headlines in several big cases involving recovery of stolen Army equipment, the recovery of a stolen mill, stopping a crazed man armed with a gun, and breaking up a counterfeit coin ring. He also survived at least one assassin attempt. In 1933 he was elected Vice President of the newly formed Midwest Peace Officers Association which was created as a multi-state agency to fight the rampant crime in the region. After the mid 1930’s he appears to have left law enforcement.
By 1952 Joe Cochran owned a tavern operating in Doniphan. He was gunned down during broad daylight on Main Street by a man named Ace Robinson. Another man was also injured in the shooting. Ace Robinson was instantly arrested and claimed he killed Cochran in self defense after years of extortion attempts by Cochran. Ace Robinson claimed Joe Cochran had recently began to make threats against his life and that he shot him when he thought he was going to shoot him. Joe Cochran was buried in the Doniphan Oak Ridge Cemetery.
Ace Robinson was found innocent of murder in 1953. It was decided that he shot Joe Cochran in self-defense. Ace died in 1956 of natural causes. He is buried in the same cemetery as Joe Cochran.
What a strange series of events. More to come on this one…