Sunday, July 30, 2023

Missouri Killer was Never Caught

Death of a Miser

By Robert A. Waters

Jack Pyle lived a small life in a small community. He never rated an article in the local newspapers—until neighbors found him shot to death in his hoarded-up cabin. Even then, media of the day found it hard to peg him into a neat little basket. There wasn’t even a picture of him in the stories about his slaying. But I think what drew me to him was his fiddle. The one he made.

In 1908, Jack Pyle, 56, lived in Holt County, Missouri. A widower, his only living relatives were a brother and a daughter who resided in Kansas. Pyle rented a “shack” and five acres from Emmit Haer, about three miles outside the village of Craig. The Corning Mirror reported that he “raised chickens and pigs and worked by day for nearby neighbors.” Living within yards of the Missouri River, Pyle often sold fish to augment his income.

The Mirror stated that “on Saturday morning, August 23, at 11:30 o’clock, Jack Pyle was found dead on his kitchen floor in the Lake Shore district. On Monday and Tues. the 17th and 18th he had been helping Jim Allan make hay. He took supper at Mr. Allan’s Tuesday evening. This was the last seen of him.” Allan had paid Pyle $60.00 for his services.

Pyle, described variously as a “recluse,” a “miser,” or a “hermit,” lived in a small, cluttered cabin. For years, rumors circulated in town that he had a stash of gold coins secreted in his home. He was said to be irritable at times, and somewhat “daffy.” But he was a good worker, so neighbors put up with his quirky habits.

The St. Joseph Press reported the obvious. “Robbery is believed to have been the motive for the killing,” the headline read. On Tuesday, after working with Allan, Pyle visited Haer. He spoke to his landlord about wanting to purchase a small farm. Pyle showed Haer his earnings and said he planned to use the cash as a down-payment.

He hadn’t been seen since leaving the Haer farm and, after a week, neighbors went to Pyle’s home to check on him.

Investigators told reporters the victim had been sitting in a chair eating supper when someone fired a shotgun through the window, hitting him in the temple. The killer then entered the residence, stole Pyle’s small wad of cash, and placed a “rust-colored and cobweb-choked shotgun” across his body. If this was intended to make Pyle’s death look like a suicide, it failed. Dust and spider-webs blocked the inside of the barrel and the coroner, who was in charge of the case, proved the gun had not been fired in months.

Pyle’s cabin sat alone in a remote area of Haer’s property, making the victim an easy target for robbers. The place had been ransacked, and news reports speculated the killer may have been searching for the fabled gold. Whether the alleged stash was found, or even existed, is still a mystery.

As investigators searched for his killer, the community laid Pyle to rest in Mt. Hope Cemetery in Corning. Suspicion fell on a farmhand who worked for Emmit Haer. The worker was known to have a shotgun and disappeared the day of the murder.

He was never found.

Five months after his interment, The Leader reported “an exhumation and examination of the body was made a few days ago by Doctors J. M. Davis and Edgar Miller of this place…Only the skull was exhumed and examined, all the necessities of the inquiry being answered by it.” 

Unfortunately, there were actually few answers, the main one being that the shooter had stood outside Pyle’s window. (Of course, that had already been determined by investigators.) “The load [from the shotgun shell] ranged downward at a rather sharp pitch,” editors wrote, “tearing an oblique hole in the floor of the skull and into the pharynx. Of the forty or fifty shot taken from the wound a large proportion were in the pharynx, the remainder in the skull.”

After the exhumation, the case died. 

Pyle probably never saw the shooter. The murderer did seem to have some cunning about him. Placing Pyle’s own shotgun on his body didn’t convince investigators that Pyle had committed suicide, but it showed a bit of creativity in the killer’s makeup.

Speaking of creativity, Jack Pyle seemed to have an artistic streak. Among his possessions, authorities found a hand-made violin. The box and the arm of the violin had been made of driftwood found along the banks of the river. Pyle had cut it into shape, then scraped and polished the wood to perfection. Finally, he added keys and strings to it. A local musician played the violin and told reporters it was worth at least $100 (an equivalent of $3,100 in today’s world). Homemade violins are often found, the musician stated, but few meet the quality of Pyle’s.

When I read about the violin, I wondered if the lonely laborer enjoyed attending local hoedowns. Did he take pleasure in hearing musicians play the fiddle while people danced and enjoyed themselves? Did he flirt with local women at these dances? Was he a musician himself? I'd like to know more about Jack Pyle's life.

It's been 115 years since the "hermit" died.

If any of my readers have additional information, shoot me a message.

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