The Death of John Mell Howell
of Missouri

This account of the death of John Mell Howell appeared in the Hannibal Daily Messenger, July 6, 1861 and in the Hannibal Weekly Messenger, July 11, 1861. In these accounts the assailant is identified as Sowars whereas in other accounts he is identified as Soward. Soward is correct. Quincy is Quincy, Adams Co., Illinois which is about 17 miles SSE of Canton, Lewis County, Missouri on the east side of the Mississippi River. The Black Hawk and the Die Vernon were steam packets engaged in regular commerce on this part of the river. Captain John Mell Howell was the commander of the home guard company based in Canton and was my paternal great, great grandfather.

Jack Howell
June 29, 2001

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Saturday, July, 6, 1861

Difficulty at Canton

The Captain of the Home Guards Shot

"A man named Sowars, a hotelkeeper at Canton, shot Capt. Howell, of the Home Guards of that place, late Thursday evening, the 4th inst., killing him instantly. The affray originated from an old grudge. The Home Guards surrounded the Hotel to keep the prisoner from escaping, and fearing that the secessionists from the country would attempt a rescue and overcome them, sent an expressman to Quincy, who arrived there at 1 o'clock yesterday morning after reinforcement.

"Col. Palmer with 400 men embarked on the Black Hawk and left at 8 o'clock yesterday morning for Canton. The Hawk returned without the troops at 4 o'clock last evening, exhibiting a secession flag, which had been captured, but we did not learn the result of the expedition, as the Die Vernon backed out just as she came in. The Die, however, reported everything quiet at Canton when she passed."

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The following is an excerpt from an article that appears in the Hannibal Weekly Messenger of July 18, 1861. Camp Wood was the location of the headquarters of the Union troops responsible for northeast Missouri.

Prisoners at Quincy

Ex Senator Green

"Soward, the murderer of Capt. Howell at Canton on the evening of July 4th, and his son, were brought to Quincy Tuesday evening and taken to Camp Wood for safe keeping."

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The following account appears in the Hannibal Daily Messenger of Sunday, July 7, 1861, and is an excerpt from a long multi-installment article describing a Fourth of July excursion on the steamer Hannibal City to Keokuk, Iowa from Hannibal, Missouri. It describes the incident at Canton on the return trip and was written by the editor of the paper. Price is General Sterling Price CSA, former governor of Missouri and Lyon is General Nathaniel Lyon USA, military governor of Missouri.

"At about 21/2 o'clock we commenced our descent, which we continued without any incident, until arriving at Canton, where we were saluted with a number of rounds in rapid succession from a couple of anvils. The Home Guards in uniform greeted us by waving two beautiful American flags. About the time the boat touched the wharf, a dark skin, dark-haired individual, apparently a little under the effects of liquor rushed down and commenced yelling "hurrah for Jeff Davis."

"He was joined in his hurrahs by one or two of his comrades, a little drunker than himself, and a few small boys. The next thing of the dark long-haired disciple of King Jeff, he was having a hand to hand encounter ala Heenan and Sayers, with a member of the Home Guard, which resulted like Price's engagement with Lyon at Boonville, in his getting pretty effectually cleaned out.

"The civil authorities appeared to have taken the belligerents in hand, and were marching them up the street. We have since learned that the unfortunate and lamentable difficulty there the same evening between Sowars and Capt. Howell, resulting in the latter's death was no wise connected with this difficulty."

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The account that follows is a typed transcription of a handwritten transcription taken from the History of Lewis, Clark, Knox and Scotland Counties, Missouri, pages 76-78. The first four paragraphs read like a newspaper account perhaps the Northeast Reporter or the LaGrange National American. Copies of these papers from this timeframe no longer exist. The fifth paragraph reads like an obituary also perhaps from the same source. The remainder sounds like oral history or a later newspaper account. Joseph William Howell was eight and Amanda Belle Howell was two at the time of their father's death. His wife, Susan Jane Ewing Howell had died in 1860.

Death of John Mell Howell

July 4, 1861

The fourth of July 1861, was observed at Canton by a large number of citizens of the county. Secessionists and Unionists turned out, but the two factions did not unite, there being really two assemblages. The Home Guards of Canton and LaGrange were present with their arms and in uniform and both Union and Secession flags were displayed in profusion. It was feared that there would be a collision of some sort, and to avoid this, the leading Unionists thought best to have the Home Guards marched to the river and their arms taken from them and deposited in a warehouse.

While the Home Guards were on the levee a packet came down crowded with passengers. There was an interchange of salutations between the people and the passengers, a waving of handkerchiefs, etc., when some young Secessionists on shore called for "Three cheers for Jeff Davis!"   Perhaps twenty voices responded. Then three cheers for the Union were given by 200 persons. Some confusion resulted, and a few young men attempted to take away the flag from the ensign of the German Home Guard Co. of LaGrange. Captain John Howell, of the Canton Home Guard and others came to the rescue, and there was a scuffle, during which Capt. Howell knocked down a young man named Chas. Soward, the son of Richard Soward, the proprietor of the Soward House. Maj. B.B. King and others interfered, and soon the crowd dispersed, and quiet was restored between the senior Soward and Howell. There had been considerable ill feeling for some time, and Soward was greatly enraged upon hearing of the assault upon his son.

An hour or two later Capt. Howell came up on the north side of Lewis St. from the river, and when he reached the middle of fourth, a hundred feet Northeast of the Soward House, Richard Soward came from the Hotel, a double-barreled shotgun in his hands, and called out, "John, draw your revolver and defend yourself." Howell threw back his coat as if about to draw a weapon, when Soward fired. Howell fell and died in a few minutes. A heavy charge of buckshot entered his body, tearing his vitals to pieces. Soward remarked in a loud tone, "There damn you, you are done drawing your pistol." and walked back to his hotel. Chas. Soward came to the door with another gun, but did not offer to fire. The gun used by Soward belongs to sportsman from Quincy, guests of the house, and was loaded by him with buckshot when he heard that Howell had struck his son Charles.

The greatest excitement ensued. Soward was a Secessionist and Howell a Unionist, and the Home Guards uttered fierce cries of denunciation and vengeance. A rush was made for their guns, but Maj. 'Barney' King locked the doors of the building where they were stored, and he and others appealed to the guards to become quiet and do nothing violent, reminding them that their mission was to preserve the peace and to break it. Soward was arrested and guarded in his hotel by the Home Guards, prevented from escaping, and protected from the fury of certain rabid Unionists.

Captain John Howell was a Kentuckian, and had been a soldier in the Mexican War. He was a carpenter by occupation but was fairly well informed and something of a politician. He was somewhat rough in his general deportment, easily aroused and high-tempered, but brave to a fault, and being an ardent Union man, had been authorized by Gen. Lyon to recruit a company of volunteers for the Federal service. At the time of his death he was a widower and about thirty-six years of age. He was the father of one son and one daughter both being small children.

Soward was about fifty-five years old, a reputable citizen but with plenty of friends and enemies. Soward was never tried. Taken to St. Louis by the Federal troops, a Writ of Habeas Corpus restored him to the civil authorities. An effort to have him indicted by the Federal Grand Jury failed, and he was sent back to Lewis County, and delivered to Sheriff Burnett, by some means, he made his way to the Federal forces then operating in this section, and for some time was in the custody of Col. David Moore.

Eventually he left the county and located in California. An indictment against him for murder in the first degree was found in this county, but the papers were stolen in the burglary of the courthouse, in March 1865.

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Submitted by Jack Howell [13Feb02]


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