Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Lawrenceburg Shanty-boat Mystery.

When John Keys and Eva Dickenson were married in Cincinnati on August 21, 1890, they told their relatives that they planned to honeymoon on the Atlantic coast, but John had another plan. He purchased an Ohio River shanty-boat and planned a slow trip downriver to St. Louis. It would not be their last deception; in fact, what transpired on that fateful journey would remain forever shrouded in mystery.

When the boat left Cincinnati, it was carrying four passengers. A friend of John’s whom he allegedly introduced to Eva as Billie Moore would be the cook on the trip. At the last minute, John also agreed to take his friend Bert Rusk, who had taken $115 from his mother and was afraid she was searching for him. John told Rusk to pose as his brother so it would not look so suspicious, one woman traveling with three men. John was 19 years old, Eva 17, the other two men were in their early twenties.

The boat left Cincinnati and traveled west on the Ohio River then docked near a group of shanty-boats in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. They remained there for several days then all four passengers disappeared, leaving behind the shanty-boat and all their furnishings. 

Shanty-boats on the Ohio River would dock gunwale to gunwale and what went on in one boat would soon be known by all. Several witnesses had seen three men and a woman take a skiff from Keys' boat to the Kentucky shore of the river. Shortly after, one man returned alone. The witnesses heard three gunshots and a scream then heard the man who returned, say, “Oh dear, my brother has shot his wife!” 

When a body was found floating where Big Bone Creek fed into the Ohio River, it was assumed to be one of the four who had abandoned their shanty-boat. It was the corpse of a man, stark naked with a gunshot wound to the chest and a slit throat.

The body was hastily buried in an unmarked grave but later was exhumed for identification. It was first believed that the dead man was Burt Rusk, but when his sister and his uncle saw the corpse, they said it was not Rusk but Billy Fee. Fee, it turned out, often used the alias Moore—the dead man had been the cook of the shanty-boat. 

Warrants were issued for the arrest of John and Eva Keys and Bert Rusk. In Cincinnati, the police located Eva Keys who claimed she did not know the whereabouts of Rusk or her husband. She told them of her “wedding tour” on the shanty-boat and confirmed that Billy Moore had been their cook, but she had never known anyone to call him Fee. She said the shots heard on the river were fired by her, practicing with a small rifle her husband owned; the shouting heard was her husband trying to scare her by jokingly pretending to be shot. She said that Moore had left them on Monday, and they suspected him of robbing them. Rusk had left them on Wednesday, bound for Cincinnati.

The warrant for Eva’s arrest had been requested by Billy’s brother Richard Fee who told a different story. He claimed that Eva had been the wife of his brother Billy. They both disappeared, and the next he heard of Eva she had married John Keys. 

John Keys was arraigned in Lawrenceburg, Indiana and although several witnesses heard the gunshots on the fatal night, none could tell which side of the river they came from except Thomas South who said they came from the Kentucky side. The defense offered no evidence but moved for a dismissal for want of jurisdiction and Mayor O’Brien, who presided over the hearing, promptly dismissed the charges. 

Officers from Petersburg, Kentucky asked Lawrenceburg to hold him until requisition could be secured from the governor, but the request was refused. Keys' attorney said he would give himself up whenever the proper papers were presented. 

Eva Keys was out on bail, in October John Keys was arrested again and Bert Rusk surrendered voluntarily. All three were charged jointly for the murder. Rusk’s attorney accused the Cincinnati Police of unscrupulous tactics to get him to confess, offering him whiskey to loosen his tongue and falsely telling him that the Keys had accused him of the murder. Rusk contended that he had nothing to confess. John Keys and Bert Rusk agreed to go voluntarily to Kentucky; Eva Keys was released on her own recognizance and was not expected to be extradited. 

In January 1891, Burt Rusk went to authorities in Petersburg, Kentucky and, under oath, confessed to his role in the murder of Billy Fee. He said that on the night of the murder, all four had taken the skiff across the river to the Kentucky side, and John Keys sat with a 38-caliber revolver loaded and cocked in his hand. As soon as they got out of the skiff, Keys sent him back to the shanty-boat to get a trot-line for fishing. When he got to the shanty-boat, he heard three shots, heard Eva scream, and heard Fee exclaim, “Oh, Johnnie, for God’s sake, don’t kill me.” 

That was when he said to Mrs. Corns, on a nearby shanty-boat, “My brother has killed his wife.”

Rusk rowed back across the river and saw Fee’s clothing saturated with blood. He asked Keys what happened, and Keys said:

“I have killed the s—of a b—, D—n him, he knew too much about me, and I have put him out of the way. He is not the first man I have killed, and if you ever say a word about him, I’ll kill you.”

Keys told him that he and Fee had “done up” a man in Newport, Kentucky and was afraid that Fee might give him away. He also said that Fee had courted his wife for two years before they were married and there was some bad blood over that. 

When Rusk and the Keys returned to the shanty-boat, the met Thomas South who asked about the shooting. That was when Keys first told the story of Eva firing the rifle, and he trying to fool her into thinking he was shot. The next day the Keys took a train to St. Louis and Rusk went to Cincinnati. Following Keys' orders, he sent a telegram to John Keys, in care of a third party in Lawrenceburg, to throw suspicion off of them, saying that Billy Fee had gone from Cincinnati to Richmond, Indiana. 

In April 1891, John Keys was tried alone for the murder of William Fee. In his testimony, Keys told a different story of the night of the murder. He said that when they reached Lawrenceburg, Rusk claimed his was missing $40 and accused Fee of taking it. Fee denied it, and they continued to quarrel; twice Keys had to break up fistfights. Monday evening, they took the skiff to Kentucky and Rusk accompanied Fee to buy provisions to cook a meal. When they returned, they began fighting again. Suddenly three shots were fired, he heard two or three “Oh! Ohs!” then all was still. Eva began to scream, and Rusk came running, saying, “Stop that yelling or I’ll slap your mouth.”

John and Eva began to row away in the skiff, and Rusk called for them to wait. Rusk got in the boat while holding the hand of the naked corpse floating in the water. They rowed out to the middle of the river, Rusk still holding the hand, then when Rusk let him go and the body sank out of sight. Keys denied that Rusk or anyone else had rowed back to the boat alone.

The state had failed to secure any testimony beyond Bert Rusk’s, and there was little evidence beyond Rusk’s story and Keys' story.  The jury returned a verdict of not guilty and John Keys was released.

The following August, Eva Keys filed suit for divorce citing cruelty and failure to provide. At that time, she said under oath that her husband and another man had murdered Billy Fee.


“Clasped Hands,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, April 21, 1891.
“Confessed,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, January 16, 1891.
“John Keys Acquitted of Murder,” The Courier-Journal, April 22, 1891.
“Keys O. K. in Indiana,” Cincinnati Post, October 3, 1890.
“News Article,” Cincinnati Post, September 1, 1890.
“News Article,” Cincinnati Post, October 4, 1890.
“Rusk Surrendered,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, October 7, 1890.
“Solving a Mystery,” St. Louis Republic, September 8, 1890.
“Their Wedding Journey Such Says Mrs,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, September 3, 1890.
“Under Oath,” Cincinnati Post, August 18, 1891.
“Unscrupulous Tactics ,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, October 11, 1890.


NorthsideRasta says:
August 14, 2019 at 7:12 AM

Strange form of justice rendered.To get to St.Louis from the Ohio River sail to the junction of the Mississippi & Ohio Rivers, go upstream/upriver on the MS, St.Louis is on the west bank of the Mississippi in Missouri.

Robert Wilhelm says:
August 14, 2019 at 9:27 AM

His stated goal was to go to St. Louis by boat, whether or not he actually intended to do it is an open question.

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