Butler County Saw More Than its Share of Tragedy

Sheriff, J. Phillip Kearbey 

    Butler County, established in 1849, was originally the southern part of Wayne County. It is named after William O. Butler of Kentucky, a soldier in the War of 1812 who later served as a congressman and was a vice presidential nominee.
Although the majority of pioneers had settled in the area of 10 Mile Creek in western Butler County, the county needed a more centrally located county seat. Commissioners also felt economic progress was impossible without transportation, so they chose an uninhabited bluff on the Black River for their seat of government and named it for the beautiful poplar trees that grew profusely on that bluff.
    They made a good decision. With a plentiful supply of hardwoods nearby, logging and related industries turned Poplar Bluff into a boom town.
Missouri Governor, Austin Augustus King, appointed Newton (Newt) Wallace the first sheriff of Butler County. He called to order one of the early Butler County court sessions from a tree stump that had been created by clearing along that bluff. Later, Butler County held court in homes and various buildings until they built their first one room court house in the early 1850s with an appropriation of $200.
In 1867, the court authorized funds from the sale of 10,000 acres of swampland to build the second courthouse. After that facility was completed, the court ordered Sheriff James F. Tubb to "sell for cash the old courthouse." Four months later, the sheriff reported receiving $56 for the building, $3 of which he kept for his fee.
    Butler County has had its share of disaster when it comes to courthouses. The new brick court house eventually burned and its replacement was damaged beyond repair in the great tornado of 1927, which leveled most of the town and killed 85 Poplar Bluff residents.
    A lot of action took place inside the courthouse as well. The first meeting of the Butler County Grand Jury resulted in several indictments — one for forgery, three for failing to work the road and three for selling liquor without a license. One of the nine indictments was for a member of the grand jury issuing the indictments.
    Butler County didn't build a jail until 1857 when John Lacks was serving as sheriff. Until then, prisoners were kept in city jails around the county. Not much is known about that early jail except that it was a small log building built on the public square at a cost of $500. Then in 1870, the court ordered the jail be torn down and rebuilt one block east of the square. During the rebuilding process, prisoners were housed in Washington County's Jail.
Even though no major battles were fought in Butler County and fewer than 100 men enlisted to serve on either side, the Civil War took its toll. Roaming bands of guerrilla fighters destroyed property and robbed, maimed and murdered residents — so much so that at the close of the war, the county was in economic, social and political ruin. Many residents had fled the area. Most who remained had lost everything.
About the only things of value kept safe during the war were the county records. At the start of the war, a judge had the foresight to bury every important paper in a casket. For the next several years, sheriffs had their hands full, helping rebuild the county — and the county's government.
    The first and last legal executions in Butler County were carried out by Sheriff James R. Hogg. The first took place on February 6, 1903. Steve Clark, a professional gambler and pimp, was hanged after being found guilty of murdering his wife, a prostitute. According to a newspaper account, Clark supported his wife's profession until she fell in love with one of her customers. The last hanging took place on March 25, 1906 when a Negro man was executed after he was found guilty for assaulting a white woman. Justice was not blind in those days.
    In 1919, Sheriff Charles Robinson was the first to use the newly built "modern" jail designed to hold 25 prisoners. Its mechanical lever system was used until 1997 when the jail and sheriff's office was moved to a new justice center located across the street from the present courthouse, which was built 10 years later. This increased capacity to 150 beds. An underground tunnel connecting the new justice center to the courthouse allows prisoners to be moved in a more secure fashion.
    Prohibition, which ran from 1920 to 1933, brought about a whole new set of challenges to sheriffs, who spent a good amount of time battling moonshine bootleggers. History records numerous raids on illegal alcohol operations, as well as hotels that promoted prostitution and gambling.
    Only one Butler County Sheriff, Sheriff J. Phillip Kearbey, has been killed in the line of duty. On May 14, 1917, he and his deputies were investigating a report that an escaped two-time murderer from Ohio had made his way to Poplar Bluff, when he came across two male subjects lying near a fence row. When asked to show his hands, one of the men raised a gun he had hidden under a jacket and fired, striking the sheriff in his abdomen. Sheriff Kearbey, 38, returned fire, killing the man, but ended up dying a few days later. In 2010, the 95th anniversary of his death was observed by renaming the street that runs in front of the Butler County Justice Center "Phillip Kearbey Boulevard." A permanent memorial marker was also placed in front of the justice center to remind all who pass by of his heroic service
    A total of 36 men have held the title of "sheriff" throughout Butler County's history. Today, like others before him, Sheriff Mark Dobbs strives to keep the peace, uphold the law firmly and fairly and to protect the citizens of Butler County. H

Sources: "Early History of Butler County" by George R. Loughead; "Butler County: A Pictorial History" by John R. Stanard; "The History of Butler County Industry: 1870-1930" by Mary Evelyn Collins; "History of Southeast Missouri," Goodspeed Publishing Co.; "Complete History of Butler County Missiouri" by Robert H. Forister; and www.rootsweb.ancestry.com. 


200 Phillip Kearbey Blvd., Poplar Bluff, Missouri 63901
Phone: (573) 785-8444 | (573) 785-8445 | (573) 785-8446
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