August 15, 1900, Logan County, West Virginia: not far from the scene of the longstanding feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, 41-year-old John Dempsey, a Mormon, left his rural home to summon a doctor for his wife, Mary, and their week-old daughter Mahulda. As he approached the ford crossing Pigeon Creek, separating his property from that of his neighbor, 41-year-old Thomas Clark, a Campbellite preacher, John was met by the blast of a double-barreled shotgun. His mule bolted back toward the barn, and Dempsey fell to the ground, dying moments later. Clark ran into the nearby woods and hid himself.
The murder of John Dempsey is sometimes listed with the Cane Creek Massacre, the murder of Elder Joseph Standing, the suspicious death of Elder Alma P. Richards, and a few other incidents as martyrdoms suffered in the Southern States Mission for the gospel’s sake, but so far as I have been able to find, no one has really looked into the story beyond pointing to this letter that was sent to the Deseret News of September 22, 1900:
Mormon Murdered in Cold Blood
John Dempsey, of Eugene, West Virginia, Deliberately Shot to Death by Thomas Clark,
a Campbellite Preacher, Who Took to the Woods and Escaped.
The “News” this morning received the following letter from Elder Joseph Hubbard, written from Charleston, West Virginia, under date of the 17th inst:
“A member of the Church has been shot down and murdered in cold blood. The victim is John Dempsey of Eugene, West Virginia. His slayer was Thomas Clark, a Campbellite preacher, who was his nearest neighbor.
“Dempsey was known as a peaceable citizen, and was widely respected. He was in every way trying to live the life of a true follower of Christ, and was in the strict discharge of duty when he met his fate. The school house had been ordered closed by the school board, and Dempsey was the man chosen to close it. The decision did not meet with the approval of Clark and being filled with intense hatred towards the Mormons and towards Dempsey, in particular, he watched his chance from a hiding place by the roadside, and as Dempsey passed he poured the contents of a double-barreled shotgun into his body.
“Having accomplished the murderous deed, for which he had made premeditated preparations, Clark ran to his home, knelt down and prayed and then fled to the woods, where he has been in hiding ever since. The Dempsey family has the sympathy of the community, and efforts are being made to bring the murderer to justice.
“Campbell’s dislike for everything Mormon has been most intense, and recently he was known to remark that if Mormon Elders were treated as they should be, they would be ridden on rails out of the country. But it seems that he had in heart a still worse feeling – one that caused him to dip his hands in human blood. He is one of the ministers who has been persecuting the Mormon Elders, and saying all manner of evil against them falsely. It is to be hoped that this alleged minister of the gospel of Christ will be run down and caught, and that law and order will be permitted to take their proper course.
“Mr. Dempsey leaves a grief-stricken wife and five children, one of them being a babe but a week old at the time the murder was committed. He was on the way to get the doctor for his wife at the time he was shot, and only stopped at the school house for a moment to close the door.”
But was it a case of a Mormon suffering death as persecution for his unpopular religion?
No. Sometimes a murder is “only” a murder.
The Dempseys were among the earliest white settlers of their corner of West Virginia, arriving there in 1799. LDS missionaries passed through the area at an early date; a few of the Dempseys’ neighbors gathered with the Church in Nauvoo. I have not yet discovered when the Dempseys joined the Church – probably sometime in the 1880s – but because there was no branch organized in the area, there are no branch records. John and Mary Dempsey were baptized, as were John’s brother Hyrum and Hyrum’s wife Celia. Whether other siblings or more extended family members were baptized has not yet been learned. Hyrum and Celia emigrated to Manassa, Colorado, a settlement established for members from the Southern States wishing to gather to Zion; Hyrum’s son William Harrison, born at Manassa in 1895, was the champion boxer better known as Jack Dempsey.
But John Dempsey remained at home in Logan County (in the area which became Mingo County in 1895). He and Mary had five children: William Harrison (born 1890), Edward (1891), Fred (1893), Julia M. (1895), and Mahulda (1900). Dempsey was a farmer with a moderate amount of land; he also served in various civic positions during the 1890s, including as a member of the school board in 1900.
The Dempseys’ nearest neighbors were the family of Thomas and Jane Clark and their seven children. The two houses were about 140 yards apart, with the Clark house lying nearer to the public road. In order for the Dempseys to reach that road, they needed to walk or ride down a path to the ford crossing Pigeon Creek; the path then crossed a short piece of the Clark property around a fenced lot and down to the highway.
The Dempseys and the Clarks had much in common as neighbors: the men were only two months apart in age, their land holdings were similar, their children were close in age, they were both committed to religion, and both engaged in local affairs. But they did not get along – at all – and their troubles escalated throughout the 1890s. Their religious differences became an easy source of conflict, and the fact that the Dempseys crossed a few feet of Clark property was an irritant. The flash point came, though, in 1900, when a Clark relative (possibly a daughter) who sought appointment to teach in the nearby school was denied a contract by the school board. Clark blamed Dempsey for that, and he may have been right, because when the school board ordered the school to be barred to that teacher, it was Dempsey who drilled holes through the schoolhouse wall so that he could loop a chain around the door and padlock it against the Clark relative. This was no simple closing of an open door as claimed by the Hubbard letter.
If his schoolteacher relative was trespassing, Clark evidently decided, then so were the Dempseys. He would no longer permit them to use the path across his property.
On the morning of August 15, 1900, Clark embedded posts in the ground on his side of the ford at Pigeon Creek. He was just in the process of nailing boards across those posts to erect a wall against Dempsey trespass when Dempsey left his house to go for the doctor. He found his path blocked. According to trial testimony, the two men argued:
“I see, Tom, you are nailing me in.”
“No. I am nailing you out.”
Calling to another neighbor, Moses Parsley, Dempsey asked if he could cross the Parsley land instead, and Parsley said it would be all right; Dempsey would have to talk to his wife, though, who owned the land, to gain a permanent right of way. Having thwarted Clark’s attempt to seriously inconvenience him, Dempsey couldn’t resist taunting Clark:
“You are the meanest man I ever saw. You will go around and preach and pray, and ask the good Lord to have mercy on you. They kick better men out of hell every day than you are. Yes; they kick better men out of hell than you are.”
“That is all right,” Clark said. “You have got enough to do to attend to your Mormonism.”
Dempsey: “I will put you out of the way.”
Clark: “What do you mean by that?”
Dempsey: “I will tell you.”
“As soon as I go to the house and get my ax,” Dempsey said, apparently intending to chop down the new fence.
Both men headed for their houses. Clark returned first with his shotgun, which he leaned against a post as he continued work on his fence. Dempsey returned on his mule, carrying a double-bitted ax. As Dempsey rode up, Clark told him, “Don’t you come upon me or my possessions, or I will shoot.” Dempsey continued to approach, carrying his ax; Clark picked up his shotgun and killed Dempsey, then ran into the woods. (Hubbard’s claim that Clark ran home and prayed before fleeing to the woods would seem to be fantasy; Hubbard could have had no knowledge of what Clark did in his home, even had he stopped there briefly.)
The murder and Clark’s subsequent flight were mentioned in several national newspapers. Significantly, perhaps, these accounts make no mention of Dempsey’s Mormonism, a colorful detail that you might expect the editors to report had they been aware of it, or had the murder been directly inspired by religious friction. Instead, they played up the fact that murder had been committed by a preacher. The New York Times reported:
Clergyman Kills a Man.
Williamson, West Va., Aug. 17. – The Rev. Thomas Clark to-day shot and killed john Dempsey, on Island Creek, this county. Dempsey and Clark had been enemies for months because, it is said, the latter, who was a School Trustee, refused to appoint a daughter of the clergyman to a position as teacher. To-day Dempsey and the minister came to blows. Dempsey threw a hatchet at Clark and the latter shot Dempsey twice with a shotgun, killing him almost instantly. Clark will surrender.
A similar article in the Alexandria (D.C.) Gazette reads:
Killed by a Minister.
A dispatch from Williamson, W. Va., says Mr. John Dempsey, a prosperous farmer of the southern part of that county, was shot and killed yesterday morning by Rev. Thomas Clark, a minister well known in that region. Clark and Dempsey lived on adjoining farms and trouble between their families had existed for months. Yesterday Dempsey was repairing a fence near the minister’s home, when they quarreled. Clark went into the house and came out with a shotgun and Dempsey hurled a hatchet at him. Clark emptied both of the barrels of his gun at Dempsey, producing mortal wounds. Clark will surrender.
Clark did surrender, and was tried and convicted of murder in January 1901, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He appealed his conviction. Both his trial and the appeal centered around Clark’s claim that he had a right to protect his property against trespass. The fact of Dempsey’s Mormonism appears tangentially in the trials, as both Clark and Dempsey spoke disparagingly of each other’s religion in the presence of witnesses to the murder, but it was a minor detail, one of several background contributions to the animosity between the two men. Clark may very well have sneered at Mormonism on other occasions, as Hubbard reports, but contrary to Hubbard’s report, Dempsey’s murder was provoked by other and more proximate frictions.
Murder is terrible, it should go without saying. In this case, it left a 28-year-old widow to support five children, including a newborn who never knew her father. But this death would not seem to meet anyone’s criteria for religious martyrdom, and Dempsey’s case should probably be omitted from the catalog of persecutions that we are so wont to compile from time to time.