Missouri News

New book focuses on colorful stories from Pike County's past

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Apr. 24, 2016 12:01 am Updated: Apr. 24, 2016 12:44 am
LOUISIANA, Mo. -- Brent Engel knows a good story when he sees one.

While working as a newspaper reporter or a TV assignment editor in West-Central Illinois and Northeast Missouri, it was his job to hunt for stories that appealed to all ages of readers, viewers and listeners.

Engel is now employed as public relations officer for the North East Community Action Corp., headquartered in Bowling Green. But his affection for writing and storytelling continues.

Engel recently compiled more than two dozen of his favorite true stories from Pike County, Mo., in a 100-page softcover booklet, "One More Thing."

The stories touch upon topics ranging from murder to mayhem, sports to cinema.

The stories have one underlying theme: They all offer a glimpse, in some way, of Pike County's colorful history and some of the characters who made that history come to life.

"I think history is so vitally important that we all need to be reminded about it once in a while," Engel said. "Most of these stories are about events and people that likely have been forgotten, so I wanted to tell their tales."

Engel said he became inspired to start writing the Pike County stories after he moved to Louisiana and drove down Third Street. He spotted a sign pointing the way to John Brooks Henderson Riverview Park.

"I wondered, ‘Who was John Brooks Henderson? Why haven't I heard of this guy before?'"

So he started doing some research and discovered Brooks was an attorney who lived in Louisiana for a time and went on to serve in the U.S. Senate from 1862 to 1869.

"I started digging deeper," Engel said. He learned that Henderson co-authored the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, which is an amazing story in itself.

But Engel saved his favorite story about Henderson for the booklet. It involved Henderson's visit to the White House on April 14, 1965 -- the day President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

According to Engel, Henderson had developed a close relationship with Lincoln and stopped at the White House to seek Lincoln's pardon of George S.E. Vaughn, a Confederate spy from Canton, Mo. Vaughn had been convicted twice and was scheduled to be executed in two days.

Lincoln, who was dressed to go to Ford's Theater, scribbled a note on a piece of paper pardoning Vaughn. Engel said some people contend that was Lincoln's last official act before he headed off to the theater for his date with destiny.

Several stories in the booklet recount grisly murders that took place in Pike County. Engel's favorite of these involved a music teacher who was knifed to death in 1870 inside the former Watson Seminary outside Ashley.

"You basically had a talented teacher, a spurned lover, a gruesome killing, a jail escape, and multiple trials," Engel said. "Eventually the murderer was pardoned, and there was a mysterious ending because we don't know exactly what happened to the spurned lover. I liked digging into that."

Engel also wrote a revealing story about Valentine Tapley, a Spencerburg farmer who grew his beard to 121/2 feet in length, making it one of the longest beards in world history.

Another favorite tale focuses on the 1915 wedding of Genevieve Clark, the socialite daughter of Champ Clark, the nationally known speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who died in 1921.

"She was almost as popular as he was," Engel said. "She was very high spirited and very interested in a lot of different things -- a lot like her father."

Engel also writes about some other accomplished individuals with ties to Pike County, including former NBA basketball coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, who is from Bowling Green; Claude Benton Gillingwater, an actor born in Louisiana who went on to become a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; jazz innovator Eddie South, a classically trained violinist who stirred things up when he brought the violin to this music genre; early film stars Virginia Kirtley and acting duo Cam and Gloria Hardin; May Birkhead, who chronicled the sinking of the Titanic and the recovery of survivors; and Navy Rear Admiral William Reynolds Purnell, a Pike County native who served on a military committee with authority over the development of the atomic bomb.

Engel said the value in writing about history is that it helps preserve pieces of the past for the future. This was illustrated in a story he wrote about a group of Clarksville veterans who offered their recollections about World War II. One of the men Engel interviewed died two weeks ago.

"That's why history is so important," he said. "We're losing the first-person accounts of these stories unless we write them down."

Engel, a native of Augusta, Ill., worked as a reporter for The Quincy Herald-Whig from 1985 to 1991 and the Hannibal Courier-Post from 2007 to 2010. He also was KHQA TV's assignment editor from 1992 to 1997. He has had two different stints working as NECAC's public relations officer.

Engel said his next writing project will involve a collection of stories from the Augusta area.

"One of the stories from Augusta is going to be a murder case that involved a woman who had lust in her heart, revenge on her mind and dynamite in her hand," Engel said. "How's that for a promo?"

Copies of Brent Engel's Pike County booklet, "One More Thing," sell for $20 and can be ordered by calling ?573-754-2022.

Things to Do

Sign up for Email Alerts