Newburg’s Coldest Case: The Mystery of J.W. Scanlan

Newburg’s Coldest Case: The Mystery of J.W. Scanlan

1200 400 Laura (Abernathy) Huffman

John W. Scanlan was born in Pennsylvania in May, 1854 to Irish immigrants. On December 19, 1911, while conducting business in Phelps County, Missouri he disappeared. His body was never recovered.


Springfield Republican headline December 24, 1911

Civic Minded Business & Family Man

J.W. Scanlan, as the Rolla Herald often referred to him, had certainly made an impact on Newburg, the Ozarks community that he and his family settled in. “Newburgers” may have considered him a founding Father of the new burg that grew up alongside the Frisco Railroad at the bottom of the precipitous “Dixon Hill”. The railroad located their division roundhouse there. In November, 1882 fifty-eight property holders petitioned the Court to incorporate Newburg and the Court agreed. J.W. Scanlan was appointed to the Board of Trustees. Scanlan also served as the village’s first Mayor.

Scanlan was a partner in Scanlan & Kearney Livery and by November, 1892 he had purchased his partner’s interest and was the sole proprietor of his livery. In 1896 the Rolla Herald reported that he purchased ten new wagons from Springfield Wagon Company. His intentions were to put several of them into his gravel fleet and to resale the remaining. The paper added “if Newburg had a few more hustlers such as J.W. Scanlan she would long be on the boom”. Later that year he was appointed postmaster. He closed out 1896 by purchasing Perry Hawkins’ stock in the Kitchell & Co. Mercantile firm. All new stock was brought into the store and it was renamed Kitchell & Scanlan.

Early in 1901 the editor of The Missouri Sharpshooter visited Newburg and “was chaperoned by that Prince of good fellows”, as they described Scanlan. The next month he went north to visit his family in Pennsylvania. His mother died during his stay.

Tragedy struck again September 18, 1902 when Scanlan’s wife, Mary, died of typhoid fever. His three children; Camilla (11), Roberta (9), Frank (7) were now motherless. For Roberta’s tenth birthday the following July, Scanlan hosted a celebration at Cave Spring Creek Club House on his farm.

September, 1907 found him as the president of Newburg State Bank. The following April he and B.H. Rucker served as pallbearers for their friend, Dr. Henry S. Mattingly. The following summer he had a bounty wheat crop, 2,200 bushels, which he sold for 1.22 a bushel.

In the Spring of 1910 Scanlan purchased an ice, lumber, lath, and cement business in Newburg. A few short weeks later his daughter Camilla became the first woman notary public to be commissioned in Phelps County. Always civic minded, in August 1911, he appealed to Newburg citizens to invest in a good telephone system, an electric light plant, and a “fine water system”. He suggested making use of the springs north of town.

Four months later he fell off the face of the earth.

Breaking News

Christmas Eve, 1911 the Springfield Republican newspaper headline screamed ” BANKER SCANLAN MISSING AT NEWBURG; FOUL PLAY FEARED”. Newspapers across Missouri summed up events as they knew them- Scanlan and Lockmiller had went to Scanlan’s Gasconade farm. Only Lockmiller had returned. Searchers had found his overcoat, dress coat, hat, and muffler. Murder was suspected and Lockmiller’s story was strange. Lockmiller stated that they had become drunk and lost their way. He detailed that the pair had stopped for lunch near the vacant Brim place. They had taken whiskey with them and the team had got turned around in the darkness and heavy rain. Scanlan had forgotten his outerwear at the lunch spot and complaining of the cold insisted on getting out of the buggy. Lockmiller continued towards Newburg. The buggy had overturned near the Little Piney, close to Scanlan’s barn and he had returned to town on foot.


Missouri Star and Times headline December 25, 1911

Scanlan’s brother-in-law, James Walsh, assistant Chief of Police in Springfield joined the search. Walsh surmised that Scanlan had a large amount of cash with him, maybe even more than usual due to the approaching holiday. B.H. Rucker, Scanlan’s real estate manager, organized searchers. Footprints were found at the abandoned house and the tracks returned to the road for about a mile before trailing off into the woods. Bloodhounds were brought in to trail the missing man but could not pick up his scent due to the hundreds of searchers that had trampled through the area. Christmas was abandoned and searchers, including legendary riverman Perry Andres, made plans to dynamite and drag the Little Piney and Gasconade Rivers. A net was cast across the Gasconade at Gaines Ford to catch the banker’s body if it was drifting downstream. Camilla and Roberta told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that they believed their father had been killed. Locals gossiped that he had been murdered and his body hidden.

Drama Unfolds

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported December 28, 1911 that “a pair of tan khaki overalls slashed and bloodstained, to which a few gray hairs adhered, was found today by Sheriff Wilson near the spot where John W. Scanlan, missing president of the Newburg State Bank, is supposed to have been murdered”. The article continued “The garment, which is regarded as an important clew in the mystery, will cause a Newburg young man to be closely questioned. It is known that Scanlan had accused this young man of knowing about the disappearance of hogs from Scanlan’s Gasconade River farm. He is said to have worn overalls of that description”.


Missouri Star and Times page 2 headline December 25, 1911

Phelps County Sheriff Wilson had arrested Lockmiller and locked him up in an effort to get his prisoner to talk. Lockmiller did speak to the St. Louis Post Dispatch. He repeated the story that he had told before and added “I have no idea what became of him. He was my best friend—better to me than my father. If I knew where he was I would be the happiest man alive”. Prosecuting Attorney Arthur questioned Lockmiller about the overalls. It was Arthur’s theory that Lockmiller knew the wearer of the overalls and of the circumstances of how they had became slashed and then thrown away.

Prosecuting Attorney Arthur, at Sheriff Wilson’s request, also questioned Hiram Gadde and his son Robert and Charles Grisham. Both owned or worked farms that adjoined Scanlan’s and had seen him the day of his disappearance. All three stated that both Lockmiller and Scanlan were intoxicated.


St. Louis Post-Dispatch headline December 25, 1911

Several Newburg businessmen closed up their shops and joined the search, which now included the caves. Scanlan’s son, Frank, joined every searching party and citizens worried about his health. Phelps County Prosecuting Attorney Arthur filed a complaint and affidavit against Lockmiller and he was charged with the murder of John W. Scanlan. Family and friends offered a $500 reward for information leading to Scanlan’s whereabouts. Posses continued searching and dug up parts of the Brim farm looking for a corpse. Lockmiller maintained his innocence and continued his claim to ignorance on account of drink to the night’s events.

The Third Degree

New Years Day stirred excitement in hopes that the body had been found. A report came in from Moody, Missouri, in southern Howell County that a body had been discovered in Fulton County, Arkansas that was Scanlan’s. Labeled a suicide, the body was hanging from a tree and the throat had been slashed from ear to ear. James Walsh traveled to Arkansas and ruled out his brother-in-law as the victim after seeing photos of the deceased before he was buried. Walsh advised the authorities that their body more resembled a murder than a suicide before he departed north for Springfield.


Springfield Republican headline December 28, 1911

Phelps County officials released John Lockmiller January 2nd, according to the Springfield Republican. “Officers were unable to gain the slightest clue that would assist in the search and Lockmiller persistently denied having any knowledge of foul play in connection with the banker’s disappearance”. The article continued that Lockmiller, addicted to intoxicants, was a capable man who had worked for Scanlan for years. He was in charge of handling the sand that Scanlan supplied to the Frisco railroad and averaged $150 monthly in commission from sand sales. Scanlan’s family gave the opinion that Lockmiller had been “threatened with death if he disclosed the identity of any party or parties who had a part in the doing away with his employer”.

January 11th, 1912 the Newburg correspondent to the Rolla Herald reported that the townspeople were rejoicing over the success of the electric light plant. He also added that the people continued to hope for new developments that would lead to Scanlan. He added “Surely an all-wise father will unravel the mystery in His own good time”.


Rolla Herald headline December 28, 1911

The following day The St. Louis Star and Times reported that Sheriff Wilson had taken John Miller, John Lockmiller’s stepson, and Charles Thomas to St. Louis to be questioned by Chief of Detectives Allender. Wilson had arrested them on a charge of being implicated in “some hog stealing which Banker Scanlan had been prosecuting”. “The Sheriff believed the two lads might know some reason for the banker’s disappearance and was attempting to work out a theory that the gang of hog stealers had made away with the Newburg capitalist”. Chief Allender interrogated them and reported that he was “convinced they know nothing of the hog stealing or the missing banker”.


On Valentine’s Day The Walnut Grove Tribune reported that H.A. Root, the well known butcher, had been elected president of Newburg State Bank to succeed Scanlan. B.H. Rucker was appointed to the bank board to round out the directors. In April the bank offered a $1,000 reward for Scanlan’s body.


That May, George G. Prewitt’s barn, on the farm adjoining the location from which Scanlan had gone missing, burned. The fire was believed to be “of incendiary origin” and it was hoped that “clearing up the mystery of the fire may give some clew to the disappearance of the banker.”

Seven years later B.H. Rucker was the executor of Scanlan’s estate.

Rumors swirled around Newburg that before his disappearance Scanlan had disappeared once before by hiding out in an abandoned home near the outskirts of town to recover from a drinking binge.

February, 1912, John Lockmiller’s step-son, John Miller, and two other men were sentenced to two years imprisonment in the Missouri State Penitentiary after pleading guilty to stealing a hog from Scanlan. Miller was discharged January 8, 1913. Eighteen years later he was killed after being struck by an east bound Frisco train while sitting on the tracks at McAdoo, two miles east of Newburg.

Information for this article was gleaned from newspaper archives, Missouri State Penitentiary Database, Missouri Death Certificates Database, and “Hello from Newburg”.

Newburg is located in Phelps County, Missouri and is home to Newburg Children’s Museum of Natural History, which is housed in the town’s oldest home. 

Laura (Abernathy) Huffman

Content creator for Traveler, Historian, Explorer, Discoverer, Storyteller, Blogger, Wanderer, Ozarkian, Ingress Resistance Agent, Master Naturalist, Caver, Persimmon Picker

All stories by:Laura (Abernathy) Huffman

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Laura (Abernathy) Huffman

Content creator for Traveler, Historian, Explorer, Discoverer, Storyteller, Blogger, Wanderer, Ozarkian, Ingress Resistance Agent, Master Naturalist, Caver, Persimmon Picker

All stories by:Laura (Abernathy) Huffman