Barnes vs. Clay: A scandal before its time
Mexico residents didn't realize then but they were ahead of their time. If it happened today, social media outlets would go into overload trying to learn the details while the national news media talking heads would discuss every angle, every possibility, and every piece of evidence as it became known. It has all the drama and intrigue, the tragedy and heartbreak, the name-calling and courtroom dramatics so familiar with today's shocking events.
'It' is the Thursday July 10, 1902 gunfight on Promenade between two prominent Mexico residents that resulted in the death of one combatant, and sparked what several current residents refer to as "the scandal of the century" which in turn led to "Mexico's trial of the century." The resulting scandal divided the town then and still fascinates Mexico residents today.
"Why would people in Mexico today consider this event still important, or even relevant?" asks Mexico resident Jim Dye. "This is our history and we need to remember our history and learn from it."
Mary Littrell, Mexico resident, echoes the sentiment. "We want to honor our past. Some of our history is triumphant, but some of it is tragic. This is one of those tragedies."
During Elmwood Cemetery's third annual 'Voices of the Past' Historical Walking Tour on Oct. 13, Robin Lightfoot and Gary Littrell portrayed Clarence Barnes and Rhodes Clay respectively in a dramatization of the incident. This was the second time the duo has dealt with the incident within the last three years.
The backstory reads like a movie script. Barnes and Clay were in their 20s, from influential families, and both were successful practicing attorneys. Clay was Audrain County's representative to the Missouri General Assembly. They were rivals in everything: business, politics, and, according to some (but never substantiated), for the affections of z young woman. The relationship was a second-generation rivalry in that their fathers were rivals as well.
There were previous altercations between the two, including a fistfight in June of that same year over a lawsuit and its subsequent related news articles. Both were arrested but not charged. Up until the July 10 incident, no firearms were involved.
Some say it began as a harmless quarrel over a business deal that escalated from harsh words to drawn and brandished weapons where one accidentally discharged, setting off the gunfight. Others say it was premeditated in retaliation for earlier incidents.
There are few agreed upon details concerning the incident. On the evening of the day, at around 5 p.m., the two met at the Mexico Post Office. Both walked in the same general direction toward Promenade. No record exists of any conversation while walking, but witnesses recall hearing two shots fired as they reached Promenade. However, as it was close after the July 4 celebrations, most ignored them thinking they were firecrackers.
As the rattle of gunfire continued, people turned to see the two facing each other with guns firing. Ten shots were fired in total. Barnes was struck twice in the arm; Clay was struck three times – in the arm, in the back, and the fatal wound to the right lung. Barnes would recover from his wounds. Clay would die from the wounds within the next hour.
The outpouring of grief for Clay's death was tremendous. Accolades and tributes came in from state dignitaries and other persons of renown. The heartbreak of the moment was even captured in the elegiac poem entitled "In Memory of Rhodes Clay, The Brilliant Young Representative of Audrain Co., who was slain July 10th, 1902" by Lily E.G. Hendrix and included in her book "Gleanings: A Book of Poems."
In the aftermath, Barnes claimed that he fired only in self-defense since Clay had been the aggressor due to being drunk. Clay's family countered that statement by accusing Barnes of plotting the entire episode.
The resulting preliminary trial under Squire L. N. Bass resulted in Barnes being bound over for trial and placed under a $10,000 bond. The trial itself began Oct. 19, 1907, fifteen months after the incident, due to three changes in the presiding judge, and a change in venue to Troy in Lincoln County.
The trial lasted for five full days. Six different lawyers represented Barnes and seven lawyers, including prosecutors from Audrain and Lincoln Counties, represented Clay. As Barnes was pleading self-defense, the jury was instructed to render the verdict of either murder or acquittal, no other judgments were to be considered.
Barnes was accompanied to the courtroom each day by his new wife, the former Ruth Lakenan. Her presence, and the marriage itself, was condemned by Green Clay, the brother of Rhodes Clay, as a sham to create a "spectacular sympathetic array in the courtroom." Spectators, stories tell, came not to witness the actual proceedings, but rather to see what the new Mrs. Barnes wore in court as she was considered a refined and impeccably dressed woman.
The jury deliberated for 48 minutes before returning an acquittal verdict with a statement that "they could not bring back life to the dead man and saw no use of punishing the living."
As expected, the Clay family was outraged, alleging bribery, witness tampering, jury manipulation, perjury, and trying to suppress the press. However, the case was never returned to trial. The reasons why are not known but provide material for further speculation.
"Mexico was trying to show that it was cultivated, civilized" Lightfoot said. "They wouldn't have wanted news of the incident to spread."
Littrell echoed "The city fathers didn't want Mexico to get a 'wild west town' reputation."