A Strange Tale in Ripley County, Missouri

Recently I stumbled upon an article about an odd double murder that happened nearly a 100 years ago which left me fascinated and delving deeper for more information.  The murders took place in Ripley County, Missouri during prohibition.

Ripley County was an area with a reputation for lawlessness.  Homemade corn liquor poured from stills long before the law forbidding alcohol in the country.  A lack of roads inhibited the law enforcement authorities from cracking down on unsavory types in a region where many of the locals traveled by the many waterways that snaked through the area.

The region was mostly poor; a majority of the population was illiterate.  Many of the people in the area had immigrated to the area during the lumber boom after 1880, most of them from Tennessee.  Small family farms and timber operations were the main industries of the area.

Lillie Mae Weatherspoon

In 1920 the Bennett family lived on the South Branch of the Buffalo Creek in Pine Township in Ripley County.  The family is headed by 62 year old widow Celia Louisa “Lucy” Bennett.  Also living with her at the time was her 34 year old son, J.W. Bennett, and 17 year old Gertie Bennett, a granddaughter whose mother was deceased.  Lucy claimed to be a farmer and reported that she owned her land.  Living next door to Lucy in 1920 were her daughter Fanny, with her husband Willie Weatherspoon, and their children.  The family had resided on the same land for over 10 years.   My Great Grandmother, Lillie Mae Weatherspoon, was one of Willie and Fanny’s children.

A gruesome discovery rocked the region in June 1926 when the bodies of Ernest and Frank Van Patton were discovered.  The old men had been dead, exposed to the elements and animals, about a week prior to discovery.  The men were misers and local rumors indicated they had a hidden wealth of money which was never recovered.  Local authorities were unable to solve the strange demise of the Van Patton brothers for a year.

The Springfield Leader Springfield, MO June 20, 1926 pg 1

A break came in the case when 17 year old Cecil Atchinson walked into the local police station and told Joe Cochran a strange tale which implicated his uncle J.W. Bennett and another man, George Williamson, in the murder of the Van Patton brothers by poison in an attempt to rob the men.  Cecil also confessed that he confessed the tale to his grandmother, Lucy Bennett, and the tale shocked her so bad she died.  He claimed that on her death bed she ordered him to turn his uncle in.  J.W. was also implicated in a murder attempt on George Williamson by placing dynamite in his stove causing an explosion which injured the intended victim.

Simpson’s Leader-Times Kittanning, Pennsylvania May 16, 1927 pg 12

J.W Bennett was convicted of the double murder of the Van Patton brothers and the attempted murder of George Williamson.  He was sentenced to life in Missouri State Prison in November 1927.  J.W. was the only one to receive a murder conviction and he quickly appealed his case.

In May 1928 the Missouri Supreme Court amended the conviction against J.W. Bennett and ordered that he had to be given a new trial.  The Supreme Court found issue with both the confessions signed by illiterate men and by the lack of physical evidence in the case.  The condition of the bodies when discovered had made a cause of death impossible to determine.  J.W. was released and never retried for the crime as far as I have been able to determine.

The Sedalia Democrat Sedalia, MO May 25, 1928 pg 8

Joe Cochran the man who cracked the Van Patton case went on to have a very successful career.  He made headlines in several big cases involving recovery of stolen Army equipment, the recovery of a stolen mill, stopping a crazed man armed with a gun, and breaking up a counterfeit coin ring.  He also survived at least one assassin attempt.  In 1933 he was elected Vice President of the newly formed Midwest Peace Officers Association which was created as a multi-state agency to fight the rampant crime in the region.  After the mid 1930’s he appears to have left law enforcement.

By 1952 Joe Cochran owned a tavern operating in Doniphan.  He was gunned down during broad daylight on Main Street by a man named Ace Robinson.  Another man was also injured in the shooting.  Ace Robinson was instantly arrested and claimed he killed Cochran in self defense after years of extortion attempts by Cochran.  Ace Robinson claimed Joe Cochran had recently began to make threats against his life and that he shot him when he thought he was going to shoot him.  Joe Cochran was buried in the Doniphan Oak Ridge Cemetery.

St Louis Post-Dispatch St Louis, MO June 20, 1952

Ace Robinson was found innocent of murder in 1953.  It was decided that he shot Joe Cochran in self-defense.  Ace died in 1956 of natural causes.  He is buried in the same cemetery as Joe Cochran.

Macon Chronicle-Herald Macon, MO Apr 29, 1953 pg 1


What a strange series of events.  More to come on this one…

Cover Photo:

Sterling, Illinois
Mon, Jun 21, 1926 – Page 1

Published by

Carrie Brown

Carrie Brown is a genetic genealogist, hobby blogger, and long-time history enthusiast with a passion for genealogical research. Currently she is working on her degree in business from Western Governors University. Carrie is a member of the International Society of Genetic Genealogy and volunteers her time as a research volunteer for SearchAngels.org

9 thoughts on “A Strange Tale in Ripley County, Missouri”

  1. The Ace Robinson mentioned in this story is my great great grandfather. My grandma has passed down the story of the shooting of Joe Cochran to us. I would love to get any more details you have on this story!


    1. I look forward to sharing any info I have found and to hear any info you would like to share with me about this chapter in your family history. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and share your connection.


  2. This has not much to do with the stories told above but i went to svhool only for one year in doniphan mo and i was liveing with some relatives at this time and comeing from california ibfound i found it chilling that theyre was a billboard in the town that still was obviously standing with the words of (Nigger dont let the sun go down on your back)It wasnt some old historical thing it was exactly stateing the truth and believe me theyre were no colored ppl liveing in doniphan or seen in the schools there and they had a nasty hanging tree they were proud of . I wonder now if that still is there because my sister was there in1992 while i was in the army at fort leonardwood i spoke with her and she said she saw it as well does anyone know if the sign still exsists and only white ppl still live there im assumeing it is the same cuz the ppl there are just so hateful of outsiders so if your family isnt known real well and residing there and well liked outsiders arent always liked especially if your from california i hated it there and truthfully my relatives that lived or still live there were really ignorant and stupid when it came to being accepting of other ppl that dont fall under theyre opinion of white /caucasion / i wanted to write a report about it in high school but my cousin told me not to do it It wasnt something i needed to voice my opinion on because the teachers at the school were all kinda had no prob with ku klux klan and many had family that were members or affiliated with them one way or another. Its just a dinky small area in the state of Mo that is a small nothing to me especially when i lived there i felt it was a backwoods shithole a community of hate & evil and some residents thinking they were better than me or they believed bullshit other family of mine said about me and so they just became judgemental snooty and favored only those who were worthy of her acceptance or they were just well known in a town thats small and has not much going for it.but a bunch of red necks oki farmers in it! And one family being revered or heldin high regard for owning most of the small business es in town at least it was that way in 1987 from what i was told but maybe its not sonething id say is totally true because of the person that said this wasnt a credible person or family member of mine ! But thats just my own personal opinion still to this day of them.


  3. Ace Robinson was my Uncle my fathers father and Ace were brothers! I heard that story of our family many times Growing up! To answer that persons question Doniphan is still all white! I left in 1985 ! But I keep in touch! With family and friends!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have never seen the sign that was mentioned in the previous posts. Doniphan has blacks, Mexican’s and others a living here. There have been blacks going to school here for several years.


  4. I grew up in Doniphan and it was a wonderful place to grow up and raise a family. I have never known of such a tree. It always had a family feel and I still live within 20 miles of there. It isn’t as nice now as it as in the years of the 60s and 70s but I really enjoyed growing up there.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I just got back from a trip to Doniphan, MO. I’m looking into some dark history that occurred on a property that my boyfriends family owns. As far as the question about a white only town goes, from what I’ve seen, the town is starting to change in the direction of diversity. My boyfriend and his family are of mixed Asian decent, and have owned that property since the 1980’s I believe.


    1. Emma, are you going to write a story about the property’s history? I love to read anything about Doniphan, Mo., good or bad happenings.


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