1840: Jacob Thomas to William Freret

This letter was written by Jacob Thomas (1818-18xx), the Post Master of Linn county, Iowa Territory in 1840, wherein he appeals to the Mayor of New Orleans (and simultaneously the Post Master of New Orleans) to aid in the apprehension of a murderer. The mayor’s name is not stated in the letter but it was William Freret (1804-1864) who held the office from May 1840 to April 1842.

The victim was Horatio McCardle (1790-1840), the son of Collins McCardle (1765-1836). Both Horatio and Collins McCardle were enumerated in Des Moines county, Iowa Territory in the 1836 State Census. Horatio first made his appearance in Lee county in 1837 when he was granted a license to keep a tavern in West Point for one year. The license gave him “permission to sell spiritous liquors and wines by small measure during that time, and no longer.”  Following that endeavor, Horatio appears to have entered into an agreement to purchase a farm — over time — on Sugar Creek in Lee county from the alleged murderer, John J. Jones, described as “a very ugly man with a bad countenance.” It seems a dispute arose between the two once McCardle had taken possession, made his first payment, and then learned that Jones did not have clear title to the property, whereupon he refused to pay more until the title issue was resolved. This did not sit well with Jones who used every bit of his six-foot four-inch frame to intimidate McCardle into paying him before shooting him at near point bank range, killing him instantly. Jones immediately fled the territory, traveling down the Mississippi river to New Orleans.

From Thomas’ letter we learn that the murder took place on 30 October 1840 while most of the nation was in a frenzy chanting “Tippecanoe & Tyler too!” and other such campaign slogans. Perhaps the distraction of the presidential campaign helped Jones make good his escape. By April of the following year, Jones had not yet been apprehended but this did not prevent the Territory of Iowa from moving forward with a Grand Jury investigation into the murder culminating in the District Prosecutor’s conclusion that Jones “has committed the crime of murder…with malicious aforethought…by shooting him [McCardle] with a rifle gun.”

Years passed, the McCardle family sold out in Lee county and moved away, and neither Jones nor his family were located in the deep south where Jones was suspected of avoiding justice. Fifteen years later, however, the following article — or one like it — appeared in virtually all the major newspapers in the United States under the general heading, “One of General Jackson’s Soldiers Condemned for Murder.”

thomas1 1840 letter re murder_20171108_0001

The original newspaper clipping inserted into Jacob Thomas’ letter announcing the murder and a description of the fugitive.

It read: “An interesting trial took place in Burlington, Iowa, in November last [1854]. The accused was a man named John J. Jones, seventy-three years of age. He had been a soldier under General Jackson, and was with the old hero in several of his campaigns against the Indians. Jones was charged with murdering Horatio W. McCardle, a neighbor, some 15 years ago. He made his escape and was not heard of until a short time before his arrest. Capital punishment having been abolished in Iowa, the prisoner was sentenced to hard labor in the penitentiary during the remainder of his life. Jones, through his attorney, when asked if he had anything to say why sentence should not be pronounced, submitted the following statement, ‘May it please the Honorable Court, I am an old man, fast tottering to the grave. The frosts of seventy-three winters though they had not whitened my brow, have wrinkled my face and chilled my heart with many sorrows. Mine has been a checkererd life. And now, when about to be separated from my fellows, I may give a truthful version of the past. I had a family and a home — a rude home, it is true — and a plain and humble family, but they were my all. The deceased robbed me of the one and invaded the sanctity of the other. Two small sons, a lovely daughter, and a wife — a cherished wife. On returning to that home the day of the fatal deed, I learned the certainty of the maddening truth and hastened to the field, my rifle still in hand, I know not why I went. I had no fixed design [to kill McCardle]. He met me with a club — I shot him. And though I claim not to have acted in defense, I do assert that there was mutual combat. You know the rest. I fled — my family followed. But for the fifteen years I have lived at Lockland [Hamilton county, Ohio], I made no secret of the deed I had done. Those days are past and that loved one is gone — borne down with trouble, she sank into an early grave. That lovely daughter is now a helpless cripple, wearing a haggard face. Of those two boys who should have been the prop of my old age, the one is gone to join his injured mother, as witnesses against the dead destroyer of their peace. The other, and my heart sinks within me when I say — it lives — but not to me with an ear deaf to my calamity. He comes not near, but I forgive. To this honorable court, the jury, and to the attorneys and officers thereof, and to the people of this community, I return my humble thanks for their impartial hearing. I have never been a criminal of choice, but rather the creature of circumstances, beneath the weight of which far better men than me have sunk. I may have been too jealous of mine honor, but never have but once proved faithless to my trust. When my country’s rights were invaded, I answered them, and so I did mine honor. With General Jackson in all his Creek campaigns, I battled for my country and its laws…’ ” [See full text below]

In an attempt to establish John J. Jones’ service record, the only item found that might corroborate Jones’ claim of participating in the Creek Wars was a land warrant application for service in 1836 with Capt. R. Baker’s Georgia Volunteers. The warrant number was 55-80-48364 — but it was rejected.

Curiously, there appears to be at least one final notice of Jones. In the 1860 US Census, “J. J. Jones” a 77 year-old [born 1783 in Virginia] is enumerated in Lockland, Hamilton county, Ohio, with (presumably) his 35 year-old daughter [born 1825 in Nova Scotia]. In the “occupation” field of the record, the census taker appears to have written, “Felin Labor.”


[Note: This letter is from the private collection of Richard Weiner and appears here by express consent.]

Addressed to Mr. Mayor of the City of New Orleans, New Orleans, La.

West Point, Lee County, Iowa Territory
December 20th 1840

Dear Sir,

If an apology were necessary for writing to an entire stranger, the deep interest I feel in the subject upon which I shall address you is the only apology I can offer. By the enclosed slip you will perceive that one John J. Jones murdered Horatio McCardle — a citizen of this town. This murder was one of the most aggravated kind. I was perfectly well acquainted with both the men and drew the writings between them about the sale and purchase of the land in dispute.

Jones made his escape but has been taken since at Cairo and while the men were disputing who should bring him back and get the reward, Jones made his escape again. By a letter received here [in] yesterday’s mail addressed to his son-in-law which was examined in the Post Office, it appears he was making his way to Texas but will wait in New Orleans until his family comes. He requests his wife to write to him directed to William Sumers, New Orleans. Who will write to him (Jones) from thence but the presumption is that Jones will stay in New Orleans all winter or till his family come to him as he has not money to take him farther.

The description given of him in the slip is correct and in addition to that, he has lost several fore teeth out of the upper jaw. The color of his coat is blue mixed but nearly all blue. In his conversation he is very loud.

The murder was committed on the 30th October 1840. The reward offered is but one hundred dollars. I will give that sum to any person who will arrest and commit him and inform me that I can have him brought [here] or I will pay the expense of bring him to the person who will deliver him to the sheriff of the county.

In addition, I have written to the Post Master of New Orleans upon this subject and have solicited him to assist in [apprehending] Jones. The family will doubtless write to him directed to Wm. Sumers by which name he will go as he has changed his name several times since he left here. He won’t, of course, go by his right name. For your information, I will give part of the letter received from him.

Copy of the letter saved

“You had better come to New Orleans and I will leave some person to come round with you to where I shall stop. And if you don’t find the person when you get there (N Orleans), send to the Post Office and there you will find a letter which will tell you where I am. This letter will probably be directed to Mrs. Jones” but as he called himself Harty Don B. Brown in a previous letter, he may direct the letter to Mrs. Brown. By getting that letter — if there is such a letter in the office — you may ascertain where he is.  “Come on as soon as possible. Nothing more. Direct your letter to New Orleans to Wm. Sumers.” (without signature) ¹

I appeal to your honor to assist in apprehending the murderer by adopting such measures as shall appear to you to be best. Should anything of importance occur, you will confer a favor by writing to me.

I subscribe myself your humble servant, — Jacob Thomas

Hon. Mayor, City [of] New Orleans

¹ My hunch is that Jones never went to New Orleans, hopping instead on a steamer bound up the Ohio river to Cincinnati. Once there, he probably penned the letter to his wife and, with a toothless grin, asked some unwitting accomplice to carry it to New Orleans and drop it in the post office there, hoping to forever throw bounty hunters off his tracks.



The story of John J. Jones’ Trial and Sentencing for Murder in 2d Column (1855)

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