John Meshack Phipps: Reformed Outlaw

Several 19th century Iowa county histories refer to battles with the outlaw gang associated with the Phipps, Long, and Reeves family with North Carolina and Virginia roots. The best known account of the gang’s activity, however, is Edward Bonney’s The Banditti of the Prairies. Frank Hickenlooper’s book An Illustrated History of Monroe County, Iowa (Albia, Iowa: Self-published, 1896) is one of those Iowa county histories which treats at length of the gang as though its presence was a major factor in 19th century life in Iowa.

The matter forms the basis for much of Chapter 11, titled “Judge Lynch and Criminal Matters.” The chapter refers to a number of outlaw activities, but the primary focus of the chapter has to do with the “banditti” gang in which the Long and Phipps families appear to have played a central role.

The author recounted a later “reign of terror” during which Monroe County and surrounding areas was “overrun by a gang of horse-thieves.” That gang was led by Garrett Thompson, who was lynched in 1866. Because this gang was described as “an organized band of outlaws, whose operations extended over Illinois, southern Iowa, and Missouri,” that gang may have been a derivative of the earlier Long/Phipps “banditti” gang.

The Monroe County history eventually notes (p. 179) that other outlaw gang activities predated the events associated with Garrett Thompson. The earlier activities centered around the Phipps/Long gang, which was more or less headquartered in Owen County, Indiana. The gang’s primary chronicler, Edward Bonney, refers at length to John Meshack Phipps and his father Jesse (who Bonney doesn’t name) in Owen County.

Later, Phipps and Long family members migrated west (probably having been forced out), and ended up in Northern Missouri and Southern Iowa, especially near the state line. Jesse settled in Putnam County, Iowa, and John moved around southern Iowa and northwestern Missouri for a time before settling in Iowa.

According to the Monroe County, Iowa history (p. 179, with added notes in brackets),

“Some years prior to the episodes narrated in this chapter, Monroe and other southern border counties [i.e. bordering Missouri] were overrun by a band of horse-thieves whose organization was more extensive than that of subsequent date. A chain of operations extended from Indiana to Nebraska, and a complete record of their lawlessness is given in a little volume found in nearly every pioneer library, entitled ‘Bandits of the Prairie.’ [actually The Banditti of the Prairies]

“A detective named Bonny [actually Bonney] finally came in their midst in the disguise of a counterfeiter. [This occurred in Owen County, Indiana when he came to the house of John Meshack Phipps.] He gained their confidence, learned their secrets, and, like a sleuth-hound, tracked them one by one to their hiding-places and arrested them. But few of the band escaped the gallows. Monroe County was scarcely organized at the time, and none of the gang were lynched on Monroe County soil. The Hodge brothers [who Bonney discusses] were hung in Van Buren County.

“Shack Phipps [i.e. John Meshack Phipps, who Bonney calls “Shack Phips”] was another member of the gang, and was a relative of the Long men. Phipps reformed, and settled on a farm in the western part of Iowa. There is at least one other member of this notorious gang residing at present in Monroe County. He was a boy at the time, but was accused of being an accomplice. Whatever may have been his relation to those bandits at one time, he has since lived down the stigma by a most exemplary life. He has since then held responsible offices of public trust, and ever since the writer first knew him, many years ago, he has been held in universal esteem.”

The clear reference to John Meshack Phipps as having been a member of the gang but having reformed and living on a farm in Iowa is remarkable in that this was implied a time or two in the papers without it being directly stated. One newspaper account mentions a “Methodist conversion” of John, which may account for his reformed behavior.

The other member who “was a boy at the time” was likely to have been Hiram Long. A picture of Bonney with the young Hiram Long appears on page 105 of the 1856 edition. This is opposite a page in which Bonney discusses Hiram Long in connection with John Meshack Phipps. The claim has been made that when “Widow Long,” John’s mother in law (also pictured in the book on p. 92) moved to Monroe County, Iowa with Hiram. Hiram Long was named in a grand larceny case back in Owen County, Iowa in 1849, along with Aaron B. Long,  William H. Fox (who Bonney discusses), and “Meshach” Phipps (John Meshack Phipps).

The reference to Hiram being “a boy at the time,” if Hiram was indeed intended, was probably due to his highly youthful looking facial features. Hiram Long was born in 1822 in Ashe County, North Carolina. That means that he would have been about 22 or 23 at the time that Bonney met him. Bonney describes him in these terms (1856 edition, pp. 102-103):

a small, well formed, and remarkably good looking young man of twenty-two or three years of age. His complexion was fair as that of a woman; his forehead prominent and high, while his full clear dark hazel eyes, and dark auburn hair made up one of the finest countenances I have ever seen.

As to his having served the county in “responsible offices of public trust,” Hiram Long was a Monroe County clerk according to another Monroe County, Iowa history. Hiram Long died in 1899 in Iowa, and is buried in Eslinger Cemetery in Urbana, Monroe County, Iowa. John Meshack Phipps died in 1916 at the age of 104, and is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Shenandoah, Page County, Iowa. His tombstone photo appears in Find A Grave.

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3 thoughts on “John Meshack Phipps: Reformed Outlaw

  1. I am a descendant of John M. Phipps (identical twin brother of Eli Phipps) through his son Mathew Marion Phipps. Mathew’s two sons, Byron and Olony were cattle ranchers in Oklahoma.

    • Eli S. Phipps (identical twin brother of John Meshack Phipps) is my GGGG grandpa. Very color full men!!! One the greatest western movie directors of all time John Ford could have made a GREAT movie (or movies) of those two. Be nice to see who he would have selected for actors and actress’s. If you have any one you think would fit the parts i would LOVE hearing from you!!! Who knows we just may have a movie in the works!!! We need some good TRUE to life western movies. I’m sick of all the new ACTION movies that came and gone.

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