January 19, 1889
Near Brookfield, Missouri
Minnie Hall (29) and her 4 children are killed in their home before the house is set on fire
Neighbors noticed the Hall house on fire in “one big round of flame” and ran to assist the family. The only family members rescuers could see through the flames were Minnie and her 5-year-old daughter Nettie. A 10-foot (3-meter) pole and a clothesline was used to try to pull her from the fire, though the floor fell from beneath her. A 16-foot (4.9-meter) rod with a crook was used to successfully pull Nettie’s body from the burning building; the remaining bodies were recovered the following day. While the remaining bodies were burned beyond recognition, they were the approximate sizes of the Halls and were presumed to have been Minnie, Willie (9), May (7), and Roy (3) Hall.
As Nettie’s body was rescued before the fire could completely destroy it, her post mortem revealed more information regarding her death. She had been shot and killed with a “revolving pistol” and beaten with a heavy instrument which crushed, fractured, and broke her skull.
Freshly-fallen snow in the area showed a set of footprints which circled behind the house to a hay pile, and pieces of hay or straw were found along the tracks as they came back to the house. It was speculated the attacker had used the hay to ignite the building. The tracks then led to the railroad yards, into the main street, and to Babb’s hotel where Joseph A. Howell (24) had recently rented a room. For some time before the fire, Howell had boarded with his widowed first cousin, Minnie Hall, but had recently left after an argument between the pair. He was soon arrested in connection to her murder and the murders of her children.
While in jail, Howell reportedly admitted to three separate inmates that he had committed the crimes. Each of the inmates gave a similar account of Howell’s confession, in which he claimed Minnie had asked her cousin to perform an abortion on her. Howell threw the fetus into the cellar, at which point Minnie begged him to kill her when the pain of the operation proved too great to bear. Howell complied by striking Minnie in the head with an axe, poured kerosene over the bedding and floors, and set her house on fire with the children still inside. A fetus between 6 and 7 months gestation was found buried in the cellar’s dirt floor, unmarred by flame, which gave credibility to the inmates’ accounts.
During trial, a witness was called forth who testified Howell had admitted he had fathered the child Minnie was carrying. A few weeks before the murders, Henry Smith had overheard Minnie and Howell arguing. “I heard Mrs. Hall say: ‘there was never anybody else but Ansel [her late husband] ever meddled with me, except you,’” Smith testified. Smith and Howell continued on their way after Howell left Minnie’s house, at which point he admitted the parentage of the child and asked if Smith knew of a doctor who could provide medicines to induce a miscarriage. “I said it is a criminal offense for a doctor to get rid of a child,” Smith said. When asked by the prosecution how Howell replied, Smith responded, “He said he did not care a damn, that the young one had to be got rid of.”
The prosecution suggested Howell had attempted to abort the child himself and Minnie had died as a result of the botched operation. Howell panicked and attacked the children in the home with an axe before setting fire to the home to destroy any evidence.
Howell provided an alibi, claiming on the date of the murders he had been in the company of a woman “who has always been regarded as eminently respectable, but in whose breast he had excited a passion, the fruits of which he was that night reaping in the absence of the husband,” as the Weekly Gazette [Aug. 10, 1893] reported. Because she was a woman of good standing, Howell claimed, he could not reveal her identity and thus could not have his alibi verified.
After a third trial, Howell was convicted of Nettie’s murder and sentenced to hang. Before the August 4, 1893 execution was carried out, Howell wrote a final letter in which he professed his innocence: “Any statement or statements alleged to have been made by me at any time since my arrest … is absolutely unqualified by me, and maliciously false.”
Minnie Hall. Find a Grave. Accessed: January 19, 2021. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/147186061/minnie-c.-hall
Wood, Larry. “Murder of the Hall Family and Hanging of Joseph Howell.” Missouri and Ozarks History. February 3, 2018. Accessed: January 19, 2021. http://ozarks-history.blogspot.com/2018/02/murder-of-hall-family-and-hanging-of.html
Hearn, Daniel Allen. Legal Executions in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2016
“In Doubt.” The Weekly Gazette [St. Joseph, Missouri]. August 10, 1893
“Howell Hanged.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. August 4, 1893
“For Murdering Five.” The Waterloo Courier. May 6, 1891
14 S.W. 4 (Mo. 1890). 100 Mo. 628. The State v. Howell, Appellant. Supreme Court of Missouri. May 19, 1890. Archived: https://app.vlex.com/#vid/619187630
“Guilty Of An Awful Crime.” The Kansas City Times. July 28, 1889