The morning of May 11, 1894, 6-year-old Nellie Meeks knocked on the door of Mrs. John Carter in Linn County, Missouri. Mrs. Carter was shocked by the little girl’s appearance; her clothes were torn, her face was covered with dirt and blood and she had a deep gash in her forehead. Her speech was barely coherent as she told Mrs. Carter that her parents and younger sisters had been murdered the night before. She had managed to escape because the killers thought she was dead. When her story was verified it became one of the most sensational crimes in Missouri history.
Date: May 10, 1894
Location: Linn County, Missouri,
Victim: Gus Meeks, Delora Meeks, Hattie Meeks and Mary Meeks
Cause of Death: Shooting, Beating
Accused: George and William Taylor
Mrs. Carter did not have a man in the house so she sent her 9-year-old son Jimmy to investigate. Jimmy could not find the bodies so Nellie led him back to a haystack, under which was a shallow grave containing the bodies of Nellie’s father, Gus Meeks, her mother, Delora, her 4-year-old sister Hattie, and her 18-month-old sister Mary. Mrs. Meeks had been pregnant and miscarried at the time of her death. The fetus was also in the grave. Though some later accounts say the Meeks were murdered with an axe, the adults and Hattie had been shot to death; Mary and Nellie were beaten with a rock.
When they returned home, Mrs. Carter sent Jimmy out to notify the neighbors of the murder. On the way he ran into George Taylor harrowing his corn field and told him about the bodies under the haystack. Taylor took Jimmy to his house and told him to wait outside while he hitched his horses and they would go and take a look. Jimmy waited but George Taylor never returned. What Jimmy did not know at the time was that George Taylor and his brother William would be the prime suspects in the murder.
While Nellie was being examined by a doctor she explained what happened:
“When we were going up the hill, the man without whiskers said his feet were cold and got out and walked along the side of the wagon and shot Papa, and Papa jumped out and started to run, then Mama screamed and started to jump when they shot Mama and sister. Then they hit me in the head, and I went to sleep."
When she was thrown out of the wagon she regained consciousness and heard the men trying to set the haystack on fire.
"When the man put me in the straw the one with the whiskers kicked me on the back and said, 'they are all dead now, the damn villain sons of bitches.’ They covered me up and I could not breathe good. I heard them say it would not burn as it would not catch"
The George and William Taylor were among the most wealthy and prominent citizens in northeastern Missouri. William was a graduate of the Missouri University School of Law, had served in the Missouri General Assembly and also worked for the People’s Exchange Bank in Browning, Missouri. But by the early 1890s it became clear that the Taylors had not acquired their wealth through honest labor. They were charged with forgery and larceny for writing false bank drafts. They were also indicted for arson and cattle rustling.
Gus Meeks, a tenant farmer on land owned by the Taylors, was implicated in one of their cattle rustling cases. Meeks was indicted, pled guilty and was sent to the penitentiary. About a month before the murder, Meeks was pardoned by the governor in exchange for promising to testify against the Taylor brothers.
Gus and Delora Meeks
The Taylors were anxious to get rid of Meeks and offered him $1000 if he would leave the area. But when they came to pick him up, the night of May 10, 1894, Mrs. Meeks would not allow him to leave alone. Fearing for her husband’s life, she insisted that the whole family leave with the Taylors. She did not believe the Taylors capable of murdering them all.
Nellie Meeks told her story at the coroner’s inquest and indictments were issued for William P. Taylor and George E. Taylor for the murder of the Meeks family.
In June 1894, the Taylors were arrested in Batesville, Arkansas and taken back to Missouri. Though they offered a bond of $50,000 each, bail was refused.
Trial: March 18, 1895, July 1895
The case was tried in Carollton, MO. As the prisoners were being transported there, the train had to be diverted to St. Joe because the sheriff got word of a lynch mob—250 heavily armed men, faces covered with handkerchiefs—waiting for them in Brookfield.
At the trial a number of witnesses testified to hearing the Taylors threaten Gus Meeks, and Meeks’s mother, who lived with the family, told of her fears that the Taylors would murder her son. Others testified to hearing gunshots and seeing the Taylors’ wagon that night. Though the evidence was circumstantial, there was little doubt as to the defendants’ guilt. However, after two days of deliberation the jury reported that they were hopelessly deadlocked at 7 to 5 for conviction. One juror and an alternate later reported that they had been offered $750 to vote for acquittal.
The second trial began in July 1895. This time the prosecution decided to charge the Taylor brothers with just one count of first degree murder. While it was clear that the murder of Gus Meeks was premeditated, it would be more difficult to prove premeditation in the murders of Mrs. Meeks and the children.
During the trials, Nellie Meeks was the ward of Prosecuting Attorney Pierce and his wife. Though she did not testify in either trial, Nellie did attend the trials and during the proceedings would occasionally climb onto Prosecutor Pierce’s lap.
The case was given to the jury on August 2, 1895. This time they reached a verdict of guilty in an hour and a half.
Verdict: Hung jury, Guilty of first degree murder
The Taylors appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court but the verdict was upheld. George and William Taylor were sentenced to hang on April 30, 1896.
On April 11, 1896, the Taylor brothers broke out of the Carollton jail. They knocked a bar out of their cell, went to the roof of the jail and used a 50 foot hose to climb down. William was quickly captured and taken to Kansas City for safe keeping until the hanging. George Taylor was never captured.
William Taylor's Hanging
William Taylor was hanged at 11:00 AM on Thursday, April 30, 1896 before a crowd of hundreds. He left behind this written statement:
"To the public: I have only this additional statement to make. I ought not to suffer as I am compelled to do. Prejudice and perjury convicted me. By this conviction, my wife is left a lonely widow, my babies are made orphans in a cruel world, my brothers mourn and friends weep. You hasten my gray-haired mother and father to the grave. The mobs and that element have haunted me to the grave. I had hoped to live at least till the good people realize the injustice done me, but it cannot be so. I feel prepared to meet my God and now wing my way to the great unknown, where I believe everyone is properly judged. I hope my friends will meet me all in heaven. I believe I am going there. Goodbye all." W.P. Taylor
The Meeks family members are buried in a single grave in the Bute Cemetery five miles SE of Owasco. There are separate markers for Hattie and Mamie.
Between the two trials, according the Quincy Daily Herald, little Nellie Meeks appeared for a week, telling her story at the Eden museum in St. Joe. She was well received, drawing large crowds.
Nellie was raised by her maternal grandmother. She married Albert Spray and in 1910 died due to complications in the birth of her daughter Hattie. All her life she had a deep scar—a “dint” it was called—in her forehead.
Murder of the Meeks family, or, Crimes of the Taylor brothers the full and authentic story of the midnight massacre, by Bill and George Taylor, of the Meeks family, father, mother and three little children ... the gruesome story of little Nellie Meeks, s. Kansas City, Mo.: Ryan Walker, 1896
Greed, jealousy, revenge, obsession – the motives of America’s gas-lit murders are universal and timeless. Yet their stories are tightly bound to a particular place and time; uniquely American, uniquely 19th Century.