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John Dempsey: “They Kick Better Men Out of Hell Every Day”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 11, 2010

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.

—oOo—

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.

—oOo—

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.”

Clark: “When?”

“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.



25 Comments »

  1. Campbell’s dislike for everything Mormon has been most intense

    Is this really how the original read? I’ll await your response before engaging in Freudian analysis.

    Comment by Last Lemming — February 11, 2010 @ 8:27 am

  2. This raises some interesting (for lawyers, anyway) issues about the right to self defense, but I don’t remember enough of the law to comment, except that I wonder if the defense didn’t raise the issue of Dempsey’s use of deadly force before Clark fired the fatal shots.

    Two other good things from the story: I’m glad to add this to my small store of knowledge about Jack Dempsey, the Manassa Mauler.

    And, John Dempsey’s almost last words–your post’s title are well worth remembering. I’ll have to look for an opportunity to use them.

    Comment by Mark B. — February 11, 2010 @ 9:44 am

  3. That’s why they’re the title, Mark B.; I want to remember ‘em long enough to use ‘em.

    The appeal was based on defense’s objections to the trial court’s refusal to give certain instructions to the jury. As far as I could understand, the defense raised self defense issues, but the court refused to instruct the jury that mere trespass (as opposed to threatening to break into a house) justified deadly force. There was also a question of whether Dempsey brought the ax to attack Clark or to chop his way through the barrier, and defense objected to however the trial court worded the relevant instruction. So yeah, self defense issues were raised. (I should have said, I think, that the two witnesses to the murder only reported the religious part of the exchange included here. Clark himself was the only source of the I’ll-get-my-ax-and-put-you-out-of-the-way language. I don’t know if the witnesses disputed his account, but it’s definitely self-serving even if true.)

    The defense also apparently tried to bring in details of all prior disputes between the two, but the appeals court didn’t address them. It sure would have been useful from my point of view had they done so.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 11, 2010 @ 9:58 am

  4. Your comment was caught in the filter, Last Lemming, sorry for the delay in posting.

    Yes, that is exactly how the line reads in the original (at least the Deseret News publication; I don’t have access to the actual letter Hubbard mailed to them.) And until you asked, I hadn’t even noticed that the name was wrong.

    Analyze away, Freud.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 11, 2010 @ 10:11 am

  5. Fascinating.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 11, 2010 @ 10:18 am

  6. I don’t have anything to add to the discussion except a moment of silent awe at your historical detective skills. This is amazing, Ardis.

    Comment by Researcher — February 11, 2010 @ 10:35 am

  7. :) Even Patrick Mason, a recent Notre Dame Ph.D. whose excellent dissertation entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Mob” is certain to be the work on violence against religious minorities in the South, wasn’t able to solve this one (p. 145-456). (Forgive me – boasting is so unattractive, I know, but this one feels like such a coup, and your praise means a lot.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 11, 2010 @ 10:54 am

  8. Bravo!

    Comment by Edje Jeter — February 11, 2010 @ 11:21 am

  9. For Mark B.

    Jack Dempsey fought Tommy Gibbons at Shelby. Mt, a few miles south of my home. It was quite a disaster for the town. More here
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Dempsey_vs._Tommy_Gibbons

    I recall a story about Pres. Spencer W Kimball visiting Jack Dempsey at his New York restaurant.

    Ardis, your article makes a good point about being certain of the whole story before climbing up on the soap box to challenge apparent injustices. We see too often stories in the media that get us riled up, especially when the Church is seemingly under attack. The Church statement about such issues is very wise:
    http://www.newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/the-publicity-dilemma

    Comment by Glenn Smith — February 11, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

  10. Yowza. Does this make me amazing by association?

    Comment by Moniker Challenged — February 11, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

  11. [makes invisible chalk mark in the air]
    Another one for Ardis. Awesome.

    We frequently accept the version of the story told to us if it supports our view of history. But whether it is the murder of a church member, details of handcart companies, or the baseball career of a popular church leader, the truth is more powerful than fiction.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — February 11, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

  12. I’m waiting for the Freudian analysis of why we, as a church, are so wont to compile lists of our persecutions….

    Comment by Clark — February 11, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

  13. I’ve found in my research that the newspaper reports of events during the 19th century were more often than not copied and reprinted from other newspapers, without much critical analysis. Factual omissions and outright speculation thus ended up being forwarded as facts and the absolute truth. There is a great NY Times article about the 1873 Arizona Mission branding it a failure and a blow to Brigham Young’s “infallibility” that was printed before most of the colonists had even returned home to Utah.

    Who was it, Samuel Hirshorn, and his bio of Brigham Young that relied primarily on contemporary newspaper accounts that was so outrageously bad?

    Mulder to Scully, “the truth is out there”. Fantastic work, Ardis. You deserve your own “Lqw & Order” series on TV. It could be subtitled “Factual Historian Squad”!

    Comment by kevinf — February 11, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

  14. If you’re not ready to be a one-woman show you could join the PBS history detectives! I’d TiVo that! Except I don’t have a TiVo. Okay, I’d watch it when it’s on or maybe record it to vhs ;-)

    Comment by Moniker Challenged — February 11, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

  15. heh, heh! You all know, I hope, that I would have been just as satisfied to have had the story turn out to be a faithful Mormon laying down his life for the gospel. I didn’t set out to debunk anything. But yesterday as I was going through the 1959 Church News, I ran across another “list of martyrs” and decided it was time to find out enough about Dempsey to be able to tell his story right (and to find out if there was a connection to the boxer) — I assumed what the elder had reported was more or less accurate, and I merely expected to find more detail to write a better version than I had yet seen.

    But that’s the way it goes when you start digging into the past. You have to go where the evidence takes you and not try to steer the story in a preferred direction. I don’t bother to tell you-all about trails that turn cold or stories that fizzle when a great conversion proves exceedingly temporary, but this one, even though it went in an unexpected direction, still seemed worth recording.

    (It’s Stanley P. Hirshon, kevinf, who wrote that outrageously bad biography. Ick.)

    I’m guessing that Last Lemming may have been referring to that line mistaking Clark’s name as Campbell. It’s ironic, at the very least, that Hubbard’s or the DesNews’s slip almost seems to transfer the guilt from Clark individually to the Campbellites as a whole — ironic because at that point Hubbard is complaining about Clark’s irrational bigotry.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 11, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

  16. I shouldn’t quibble about typos, but did Patrick Mason really spend over 300 pages (p. 145-456) on this incident? : )

    How long was that dissertation? There have been shorter dissertations than that cast down to hell every day.

    Comment by Mark B. — February 11, 2010 @ 11:48 pm

  17. But maybe the murder can be called a martyrdom — the new hate crimes bill in the U. S. makes “hate crime” a federal offense, and a “hate crime” is defined as a crime where the criminal had unkind thoughts in his or her head about the victim. If the preacher could be guilty of a hate crime, then the victim can be called a martyr.

    Comment by ji — February 12, 2010 @ 12:12 am

  18. I’m guessing that Last Lemming may have been referring to that line mistaking Clark’s name as Campbell. It’s ironic, at the very least, that Hubbard’s or the DesNews’s slip almost seems to transfer the guilt from Clark individually to the Campbellites as a whole — ironic because at that point Hubbard is complaining about Clark’s irrational bigotry.

    Precisely.

    Sorry I didn’t get back to this. I had some snowshovelling to do, then couldn’t access the site last night.

    Comment by Last Lemming — February 12, 2010 @ 7:19 am

  19. Mark,
    I like Mason’s dissertation. I think it reads well despite being so long. Of course his subject is near and dear to my heart, so I am a little biased. His paper contained several examples of violence against minority religions.

    Ardis,
    I’d be very interested in seeing the list of who were considered martyrs in 1959. For example, I’d love to know whether that list of martyrs includes someone like Joel Love, whose death is lost because of its proximity in time and location to the more well known Cane Creek Massacre.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — February 12, 2010 @ 7:46 am

  20. Excellent work, Ardis. The case makes for fascinating reading.

    Comment by Justin — February 12, 2010 @ 8:00 am

  21. Mark B., he used rilly rilly big type and rilly rilly wide margins. (Aargh!) (Just so no one misunderstands: Mark is making fun of my typo, and I’m making fun of Mark. Neither of us is making any disparaging comment about Patrick Mason’s dissertation — it is an excellent work, and as I said earlier, is destined, I’m sure, to be the definitive work on violence against religious minorities in the South.)

    Bruce, the particular article that sparked the search for the Dempsey story this week is “Eight Men Met Death at Hands of Persecutors,” Deseret News, Church Section, week ending 5 September 1959, 19, and lists four unnamed missionaries beaten in Tennessee in September 1888; names the four Mormon killed in the Cane Creek Massacre; and ends:

    “Three other violent deaths of Church members in the south possibly should be mentioned int he list of martyrs, for their attackers probably were motivated in part, at least, by anti-Mormon prejudice. The three men were Alma P. Richards, a missionary; George P. Canova, president of the Sanderson Branch of the Florida Conference, and John Dempsey, a member of the Church in Eugene, W. Va. … Elder Dempsey also was the victim of an ambush, but in his case, the identity of his attacker was established. His neighbor, Thomas Clark, was very bitter in his opposition to the Church. ‘If Mormon elders were treated as they should be,’ Clark had said, ‘they would be ridden on rails out of the country.’ An apparently minor provocation was all the excuse he needed to take the life of his Mormon neighbor.” (Obviously this is based solely on the letter written to the Deseret News.)

    So you can see it is a superficial article.

    Thank you all for your comments. It’s so much fun to have a group like you to share these stories with — if it weren’t for Keepa and you ninnies I wouldn’t even be chasing down most of these stories in the first place. You’re directly responsible for the solution to several history mysteries and the writing of whatever essays have any lasting value.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 12, 2010 @ 8:24 am

  22. I knew about the 1888 beatings. And you have posted here about Richards and Dempsey. I hadn’t heard of George P. Canova. Sounds like I have some homework. So it may be superficial, but I have learned something already.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — February 12, 2010 @ 9:16 am

  23. Just popping by to magnify the praise…

    Comment by Mina — February 12, 2010 @ 9:21 am

  24. This John Demspey is my great great grandfather. I did an article very similar on him in our “Mingo County genealogy” newsletter. A copy of an old tintype photo accompanied the article. Our family still owns the land where this happened. I never knew he was a Mormon until I read the court appeal of Thomas Clark.

    Comment by t blankenship — November 25, 2010 @ 7:41 pm

  25. Thomas Clark was my husband’s great grandfather, through his son John Smith Clark, who was 9 at the time of the incident. John Smith and his older brother Henry ended up in Springfield, OH. No one in my husband’s family would ever talk about the Clarks. I have been stuck for a long time without any information about the family beyond John Smith Clark. You can imagine my husband’s surprise and shock to find this story. Ardis, you have done a tremendous job to hunt this story down. I would love to have your references so we can also read the trial notes and court appeal and learn about this ancestor. Thomas Clark did not stay in prison. He is listed in the 1910 Census with Jane, John S, and other children, living in Wheeling, WV. Apparently, he either won his appeal, or his sentence was much reduced, or he was given parole fairly early. Thanks for posting.

    Comment by Kendall Clark — February 11, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

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