In the wee hours of the morning of April 17, 1934, two detectives for the Rock Island Railroad, J.W. Whitted and Edwin C. Shane, were killed when they interrupted five black men in the process of robbing a freight car in Bland, a small town in the southwest part of Gasconade County, Missouri. This is the story . . .
In the wee hours of the morning of April 17, 1934, two detectives for the Rock Island Railroad, J.W. Whitted and Edwin C. Shane, were killed when they interrupted five black men in the process of robbing a freight car in Bland, a small town in the southwest part of Gasconade County, Missouri. Shane's body was found near the depot in Bland about 7:00 a.m., just a few hours after the crime, and Whitted's body was found near the same time at Eldon, Missouri, seventy miles to the west, still lying on top of a railroad car. Both had been shot to death. Later the same morning, three black men were arrested at Redbird, a few miles south of Bland, and one was arrested at Belle, a few miles west of Bland in northern Maries County. All four reportedly admitted their participation in the robbery, but they all claimed that a fifth black man, whom they knew only as Shorty, had planned the crime and had done the killing when the detectives caught them in the act of robbing the car and ordered them outside. The four accomplices were ultimately found guilty of burglary and sent to the penitentiary for terms ranging from seven to ten years. On May 14, the man known as Shorty, later identified as William Roland, was arrested in St. Louis. A "professional train robber" and an ex-convict who had served ten years in prison for killing two Mexicans, the 44-year-old Roland confessed to killing the two railroad detectives and was taken to the Gasconade County seat of Hermann and placed in jail. He was tried just a week later (with two of his accomplices testifying against him), found guilty of murder, and sentenced to hang on June 29. The case, however, was appealed to the state supreme court, thus postponing the execution. The high court finally ruled in March of 1935 that the verdict would stand, and the hanging was rescheduled for April 12, 1935. On the appointed day, Roland reportedly ate a hearty breakfast and then was led calmly to the gallows inside the jail at Hermann. Asked if he had anything to say, he replied in a clear voice that he did not, and the trap was sprung by the county sheriff. A reporter for the Bland Courier remarked that among the 100 spectators who witnessed the affair, "Only four women saw the Negro die. Four men, who had lost courage, left the jail before the trap was sprung." The newspaperman also found it an interesting coincidence that there were 13 steps leading to the scaffold, there were 13 wraps in the rope, the Friday of the execution lacked but one day being the 13th day of the month, and it took the condemned man 13 minutes to die. After the hanging, the public was invited inside the jail, and another 100 or so people went inside to gaze at the corpse. Bits of the hangman's rope were handed out, according to the local reporter, "as souvenirs of the execution of one of the most hardened criminals of all time who had committed a dastardly crime right here in the heart of our little city."
Larry Wood is a freelance writer specializing in the history of Missouri and the Ozarks. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or like his author Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/AuthorLarryWood/.