Ben Ullman once woke up on a Tuesday morning, the day before the 4th of July. It was a year since the end of the Civil War, and his apartment smelled like a commode on the brink. Though Ben rolled his eyes at the scent, it was among the least surprising smells in St. Jo in 1866. The entire city smelled like refuse. At 41, the irritations Ben suffered due to years of liquor and swinging a meat cleaver would have mixed poorly with 19th century swarms of flies and mosquitos. Swatting the air and profanity was first order of business. From his stinking, hot, bedbug infested apartment above Fourth Street between Charles and Sylvanie, Ben awoke to the sounds of steamships steaming, silver bullets blinging, house maids singing, drunkards still sleeping, fast trains leaving (south bound). The river carried thousands of steamships annually and anyone nearby would have seen the wharves packed with ships, loading and unloading. Trains left St. Jo on July 3rd at 7am, 8:15, 1 o’clock and 1:45pm. Billiard balls sat packed and polished in their pockets. A newspaper advertised Joseph Furst’s newly opened bath house on Second Street near the levee. A caravan of wagons carrying a circus was parked somewhere along a street. Bags of oysters from the lakes near New Orleans were loaded from the dock and delivered to bars and restaurants across the city. It was business as usual in the aftermath of a brutal war between neighbors. Scorching hot, this particular Tuesday in July would cause Ben and the bustling city to stay “slightly pickled” on “sherry coolers and brandy smashes” to stave off the irritations of a breezeless heat.
The Hannibal and St. Joseph railroad carried arrivals into the Union Station from the old cities and the new. From Philadelphia and New York, from Atchison, Omaha, and Weston came those traveling for business and for pleasure. With many people still ideologically committed, if not fully engaged, to a civil war, those arriving on July 3rd would see the first celebration of Independence Day during official peacetime in 5 years. A report from the following day’s Morning Herald read, “The market was very largely attended … produce was to be had in abundance.” About the weather it was printed, “Yesterday was exceedingly warm and sultry, not a breath of air stirring during the whole day.” Though the hotels were filled, they sat momentarily vacated as their guests sprawled the streets. Mingling with the pick pockets and monied men, among gamblers and investors, together in the cosmopolitan river valley, they munched fruit and swilled iced drinks to stay cool. By 6 o’clock, Market Square was teeming with city-goers. As Jesse James sat at his family farm 50 miles south, nursing a gunshot to the lung, Mollie Bevis and Mollie Ray, dressed in tinsel and lace and high on opium and saloon gin, rode the omnibus to Market Square. As Andrew Johnson sat replacing Abraham Lincoln (gone on a bullet train out of his mind), James Clark was en route toward a chance at luck, arriving from Independence, Missouri sometime in the mid-afternoon–sweaty, drunk, and carrying a Navy revolver.
The Atlantic Hotel faced the sunset on Eighth Street between Messanie and Locust. It stood colossal and majestic before James Clark. Though we can’t know his thoughts, he probably appreciated the beauty of the building’s majesty as he entered the hotel saloon with the “For Sale” sign in the window. The Morning Herald had published the sale of the saloon in the paper that day, but James wouldn’t have thought twice about it. He was in town to collect on a debt, and was poking around to learn the whereabouts of Ben Ullman. Some folks knew Ben as a butcher, and if the city directory was anywhere in reach at a popular hotel up the block from a busy port, James was sure to find Ben’s address.
If James took a train from Independence, he might have hailed a carriage to take him from the Atlantic Hotel to Market Square. If he rode his horse, he could have passed by Jules Robidoux’s house on Edmond, near Fourth. In a carriage, he may have turned left toward the river, passing the Pacific House on the north east corner of Third and Francis, being dropped off somewhere on the north side of Market Square. If the two Mollies weren’t inside, they were very likely in the crowd that gathered just outside the Charter Oak Saloon, a little after 6 o’clock. A report in the Morning Herald the following day would tell of a terrible homicide. Ben Ullman was laughing with friends when James found him. After greetings were exchanged, he invited the party into the saloon for a round of drinks. Somewhere in the few minutes of chatting by the bar, James asked Ben to return his $25 from a bet they’d made on a horse race a couple months ago. Thinking James Clark was speaking “in jest,” he turned to leave. As he was walking away, James shot him from behind, through the neck, the revolver ball “lodging in his jaw.” Ben, overwhelmed by anger, “wheeled about, blood spitting in every direction,” seized and threw the assailant to the ground and stamped James’ face, “crushing in the whole side of his head.” The 4th of July issue of the Morning Herald explained further, “His head seemed literally crushed to jelly, and death must have been almost instantaneous.” Ben, rushed to his residence at 311 South Fourth, was immediately tended to by a physician. Though an attempt was made to dress his wound, James Clark’s smashed head was too troublesome a condition to fix. A hole was dug that night and filled with his body in a pine box. His tender, jelly head was laid to rest in the long sleep. The two Mollies, notoriously whores, were arrested and charged $10 each for “accidentally exposing their charms to the rustic boys in town on business for their mamas.” It was reported that several dogs throughout the city, stricken by a case of hydrophobia, were shot and killed at different times throughout the day on the 4th. A complaint came into the Morning Herald on July 8th of two dead dogs still rotting in the summer heat, near where the circus had been, threatening to stink up the neighborhood. By 8:30 that night, up above Fourth Street, a sunset painted Ben’s room an ancient orange–as the lightning bugs were glowing, as passenger train luggage was stowing, as the black snake hills were rolling, as the grass around James Clark’s grave was softly blowing.
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