In a Logging Hamlet, the Ozarks’ Own Version of Hester Prynne

Dec 20, 2018

A woman’s alleged horseback ride through a small Ozarks boomtown in 1913 caught the attention of newspapers throughout the Midwest.

The Atchison Daily Globe in Kansas was one of the many newspapers to publish the shocking story of a bizarre night gone wrong in Old Horton, Missouri. The small community was in a part of the Mark Twain National Forest in Howell County near Cabool.

Here’s part of the newspaper’s account:

A special dispatch from Old Horton, Mo., gives the details of the feud between factions of the Collins clan which lately broke out anew: It has developed here that a woman on horseback, devoid of clothing or even the fig leaf which Eve’s modesty required her to don, riding through the streets of this almost deserted village one night several weeks ago, was the cause of the recent outbreak of night riders who gave Mrs. Paralee Collins a severe whipping, and burned four houses, including the home of “Blind Jane” Keith or Mrs.  James Keith.

As the story goes, the woman, Paralee Collins, was a victim of vigilante justice. Night riders would carry out their own punishments when they felt that the law wasn’t doing enough.

Lou Wehmer is a southern Missouri historian who shared the story a few months ago in his history series with the Howell County News.  He says Paralee Collins was married twice—each time to cousins from the Collins clan—but neither marriage worked out.  Her romantic relationships appear to have had something to do with the violence that followed.

“I think that people settle a lot of their grievances themselves,” Wehmer said. “This was classified as a feud and there were some other incidents between factions in the family for years after this.”

Brooks Blevins is a professor at Missouri State University specializing in the history of the Ozarks.

“Vigilante justice in the Ozarks and in rural America in general took on a variety of forms going all the way back into the 1700s,” Blevins said. “One of those forms was as a sort of unofficial moral police.”

Paralee denied she ever made the ride through town—a mystery that remains to this day.  But that didn’t stop the night riders from following through with what they thought was due punishment.

Again, here’s the article from the Atchison Daily Globe.

Mrs. Paralee Collins, who was beaten by the night riders, is willing to show the marks made by her assailants. The hickory switches and sticks have made her shoulders and arms black, while marks, where the sticks cut into her back, criss-cross her body. She is in constant fear for her safety, for the time in which she must leave the state or pay the death penalty, according to the riders, will be ended Thursday.

Blevins also said these skirmishes popped up a lot around the turn of the 20th century when small towns were popping up as the lumber industry swept through.

“There’s a lot going on and specifically in the Ozarks there's a lot going on in that period.  As the article reflects you’ve got this kind of rapid modernization in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” Blevins said.

Many of these communities had a difficult time enforcing the law. Not only were law enforcement agencies few in number, but some civilians simply wouldn’t bother to follow the law.

Authorities tried to apprehend the people who attacked Paralee Collins. That, too, was chronicled by newspapers like the Atchison Daily Globe.

Although it is possible the Newell county grand jury will act when it convenes in March and that indictments will be returned for those implicated in the raid on this town...the authorities are almost helpless. In the first place it is impossible to arrest the members of either clan, for although they consider it legitimate to be shot or to shoot from ambush, they will not stand for the law. The topography of the country favors the mountaineers also.

Years after the incident, rumors about the attack morphed into a different story, in which Paralee was identified as a black woman and the attack was a race-based lynching in which the victim died. 

But Wehmer and other historians today say the earliest, most reliable evidence shows that she and the rest of the Collins clan were Caucasian, not black, and that race played no role in the attack. 

Paralee Collins reportedly carried a revolver at all times and kept a horse saddled night and day in the event that she needed to leave suddenly.

Despite the fear Collins felt, she continued to live just two miles away from Old Horton with her third husband and her child, and she lived to an old age.  

According to at least one newspaper report, the feud over the mysterious horseback ride left the once booming town of 2,000 people almost deserted.