A Juniata Murder Trial

A murder trial in the sleepy little town of Juniata?  You’re probably asking “How did that happen?”   Well, Juniata was the county seat of Adams County from 1871 to 1878.  In 1872 a small frame courthouse, 16 by 20 feet, was built on Juniata Avenue.  In that small building, the trials of the county and district court were held.

On September 17, 1875, at Kearney Junction (original name of Kearney), Milton Collins was murdered by Jordan P. Smith a Texas cowboy. Smith and several other cowboys in charge of a herd of horses, rode to the Kearney Junction saloon on the 16th where they spent the day and night drinking.  The herd of horses was left to shift for themselves, and in the night the horses helped themselves to  Collins’ cornfield south of Kearney Junction.  The next morning Collins corralled the horses and intended to collect damages before releasing them.

Milton Collins, age 24, was born in Johnson County, Iowa.  The family was well-known pioneers in Buffalo County, his father, Rev. Asbury Collins having been the Buffalo County probate judge.  Collins had a young wife and an infant son.

When Collins told Smith he wanted $20 for the damage to his corn crop, Smith, who was still drunk, drew his gun and ordered Collins to open the corral gate.  As Collins dismounted his horse, Smith shot him fatally.  The murder was witnessed by Collins’ wife and his father as well as neighbors named Scholes.  Judge Collins carried his son into the house, but he immediately expired.

Smith and the other cowboys drove the horses south across the Platte River bridge and west along the river, dispersing into the sandhills.  Judge Collins rode into Kearney and rounded up a well-armed posse who began pursuit.  Another posse started east led by Deputy U.S. Marshall D. B. Ball from Dawson County who had been telegraphed.  The cowboys were eventually surrounded and eleven of them were captured.  But Smith and one other man escaped.  Kearney Junction had previously suffered so much destruction at the hands of drunken cowboys that a number of the posse determined to lynch the captives.  But cooler heads prevailed.  The following day, Smith and one companion were captured on an island in the Platte near Plum Creek.

Smith was bound over to Buffalo County District Court and because of lynching threats, he was sent to the jail at Fremont for safekeeping.  The district court at Kearney Junction convened on December 13, 1875, with Judge Samuel Maxwell presiding.  Smith’s attorney’s request for a change of venue was denied.  On December 17th the jury returned a verdict of “guilty of murder in the first degree.” Judge Maxwell sentenced Smith to be “hanged by the neck until you are dead on April 7, 1876”.    The defense attorneys filed an appeal which was heard by the Nebraska Supreme Court in January 1876.  The verdict was reversed on technicalities concerning the lack of a change of venue, jury selection, and jury instructions.

In the meantime, the other cowboys who were arrested were either not charged or were found not guilty.

A second trial was held in May 1876 at Lowell, the county seat of Kearney County from 1872 to 1878, before Judge G. W. Post.  During a break in the trial, Attorney Jim Laird, who was defending another case, learned that an organized mob from Kearney Junction was intent on lynching Smith.  Attorney E. F. Gray and Laird rushed to the courtroom, got a prop for the lone guard to put against the door, and then positioned themselves in the narrow stairway. As the mob started up the stairs, the attorneys cocked their pocket pistols sending them into retreat. Judge Post then organize a posse to guard the prisoner and the mob dispersed.

The jury returned a verdict of guilty of second-degree murder and Smith was sentenced to 30 years in prison.  Because of threats to lynch Smith, he was transferred to the Lancaster County jail.  The Lowell court verdict was also appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court and reversed on the grounds of the qualifications of jurors, examination of witnesses, and instructions to the jury.

By now you are probably wondering how a cowboy afforded several lawyers and two supreme court trials.  Well, according to newspaper accounts, Jordan P. Smith had a wealthy foster mother, Mrs. Patterson, in Texas who along with Smith’s twin brother attended the trials.  According to newspaper accounts, Smith was born in Missouri in March 1853 and the family moved to near San Antonio, Texas about 1855.

Smith’s third trial was held in February 1877 in the little courthouse at Juniata.  District Judge William Gaslin, known as the terror of criminals, presided.  Attorney, B. F. Smith of Juniata was one of three who assisted District Attorney Dillworth. Three attorneys, including James Laird, a prominent Juniata lawyer acted for the defense.  The jurors were J. W. Striker, John Gates, G. Laher, L. Webb, M. Perkins, J. Adams, D. Bigelow, E. M. Allen, W. Hodgson, R. S. Langly, A. Caldwell, and R. H. Nolan.

The trial attracted a lot of local attention, and the courthouse was packed every day.  One wonders how many spectators could squeeze into the 16 by 20 room filled with lawyers and jurors.  The Juniata Herald published a daily “Extra” during the trial.  Unfortunately, no copies of the Herald prior to November 1877 are extant.

James Laird was well-known by members of the jury and he was an excellent speaker.  The jury found Smith guilty of manslaughter with a recommendation for mercy.  But Judge Gaslin sentenced Smith to the maximum, ten years in solitary confinement.  However, the state prison warden did not obey the solitary part of the sentence.

After the third trial, the editor of the Fairbury Gazette commented “Jordan P. Smith on his third trial for murder, which took place at Juniata recently, was sentenced to a term of ten years in the penitentiary. On his first trial, he was sentenced to be hung; the next time to thirty years imprisonment.  In this ratio, one more trial should set him free.”

In March 1884 Smith was released from the penitentiary, after having his sentence reduced for good behavior.  I have not found what became of him after his release.

Milton Collins is buried in the Kearney Cemetery.  His wife Anna-Belle Cook remarried to Brantson Jones Miles in Henry County, Iowa, on September 16, 1879.  She is buried with her second husband in Wilhelm’s Portland Memorial Mausoleum in Portland, Oregon.  Roy Asbury Collins, Milton’s son, became a prominent physician in Portland, and ironically, was shot and killed by his jealous wife in July 1909.  He is buried in the Kearney Cemetery with his father and grandparents.

James Laird’s reputation was enhanced by the trial and he went on to be involved in other high-profile trials.  When Nebraska was awarded three Congressional districts after the 1880 census, Laird was elected the first representative from the Second District and was in his fourth term when he died in August 1889.  Laird, a bachelor, is buried in Parkview Cemetery in Hastings.

The little frame courthouse on Juniata Avenue was torn down after the records were moved to Hastings.   Unfortunately, no photo of the building is known to exist.

Juniata Courthouse marker is located at 901 Juniata Avenue. The marker was installed for the Juniata Centennial in 1971.