“Phelps Alias Phips” and Outlaw Hideouts

In connection with the last two posts, the following might pertain as well: A certain individual referred to as “one Phelps, alias Phips” was among 18 persons who were convicted of various crimes at the Court of Sessions in New York City on 24 August 1805. As reported in the Newport Mercury of Newport, Rhode Island, he was sentenced to four years and was said to have been previously convicted in both Philadelphia and Boston.

While this individual’s crimes are not specified, Phips is the only one of the 18 who was singled out. The article did say that “several” of those who were convicted were members of some sort of outlaw gang of “itinerant pick pockets” which operated on a widespread basis throughout “most” major American towns.

Bonney and the outlaw gang

Did this gang connect to the widespread gang which detective Edward Bonney “ferreted out” in the 1840s after posing as a friend of associates of John Meshack Phips in Owen County, Indiana? Even after Bonney’s efforts, which he detailed in his book The Banditti of the Prairies, it’s obvious that Bonney only identified a tiny part of the gang and its activities.

We know that Bonney didn’t come to know everything, because of the later find of the underground stable for stolen horses near St. Joseph, Missouri, not far from where John Meshack Phips was living for a time. We can also assume that Bonney was only scratching the surface, because of Phipps counterfeiting activity which surfaced later in Lawrence County, Indiana.

We can also assume that more was up than Bonney discovered, simply because of the nature of the crimes and criminals involved. Bonney found that the gang was, apparently, taking in huge amounts of money, yet where was that money going? The gang members’ lifestyles didn’t seem to exactly exude a sense of wealth.

The gang was apparently traveling up and down throughout the Upper Mississippi Valley stealing horses, counterfeiting, etc., yet the only homes associated with the gang, as described by Bonney, sound like little more than miserable hovels.

At John Meshack Phips’s place in Owen County, Indiana, they were eating meat which was nearly rotten, on chipped dishes in a tiny cabin deep in the woods. When close relatives of his merchant brother Mathew Phips robbed a competitor’s store, expensive goods were found hidden in the vicinity, including inside of hollow trees. Again, where was the money going? Do we know even half of what was going on?

While onboard a river boat, the War Eagle, bound for St. Louis. a man named Granville Young engaged Bonney in conversation. Young introduced himself to Edward Bonney, saying that he had been “sick last winter in Loomis’ tavern at Nauvoo,” and that he had occasionally seen Bonney. What is termed Loomis’ tavern was probably what is known from historical sources as Loomis Hotel.

Bonney recalled that he had heard that this man, Young, was a member of the gang. Bonney was eager at this point to pose as a member of the gang in order to infiltrate, in order to gain information leading to convictions.

Posing as Mormons in Nauvoo

We’ve discussed Nauvoo before. Bonney claimed that it was very difficult for law enforcement authorities to enter Nauvoo, the early Mormon settlement in Illinois, from outside the community. According to Bonney,

In case of an arrest at Nauvoo the accused were immediately released by the City authorities, and the cry of “Persecution against the Saints” raised, effectually drowning the pleas for justice, of the injured, and the officer forced to return and tell the tale of defeat. This done, the fugitive found a safe shelter under the wide spread wings of the Mormon leaders and laughed at pursuit.

We can assume that this is why members of the Phips or Phipps family appear to have posed as Mormons and to have bought town lots there.

This appears to have been yet another example of the extreme level of cunning and subterfuge exercised by the gang. They evidently were no more Mormon than the man in the moon, yet John Meshack Phipps or Phips and his twin brother Eli Shadrack Phipps or Phips appear to have both owned lots in Nauvoo.

The Phipps name also appears in Mormon records from Nauvoo in the same period, including the name of Jesse Phipps. Jesse Phips, presumably the same one, was the father of the twins Eli Shadrack and John Meshack Phips. In fact, Jesse, according to records, was baptized in the Mormon temple at Nauvoo on 6 August 1843.

Mary Phipps, probably John Meshack Phips’s wife, was baptized in 1841. William Phipps, probably the one who was Jesse’s brother, was also baptized in 1841. William was the father of Troy Phipps, who was also in the outlaw gang.

All of these individuals were presumably not related, as far as is known, to the Mary Ann (“Polly”) Phipps who is supposed to have married James Lane. Their son William West Lane migrated to Nauvoo and was made a Mormon bishop in Iowa after the ouster from Nauvoo.

Bonney infiltrates the outlaw gang

To return to Bonney’s conversation onboard the river boat, again the two began a conversation when Young recognized Bonney, having seen him at Nauvoo. After the two beat around the bush for some time, Bonney hinted to the man, named Young, that he was interested in what he called someone of the “right stripe” to engage in a little “speculation.” Young’s guard was still up, but eventually Bonney gained his confidence.

Young told Bonney he was out of money (what did he spend it on?), to the point that he couldn’t afford his boat fare. “But I shall raise some at Nauvoo,” he declared. Young added, “I have lots of friends in that place.” Perhaps he was referring to the Phipps or Phips family, who appear to have been masquerading as Mormons.

Young went on to discuss Aaron Long, relative of John Meshack Phipps’s wife Mary (“Polly”) Long, as well as a gang member named Fox, who they tended to called “the Judge.” As was noted in earlier posts, the gang appears to have infiltrated local government in Owen County, Indiana, and perhaps to some extent in other places as well.

We can assume that even where this wasn’t the case, Owen County residents would have been fearful to testify against the gang in court. Otherwise, they could likely expect a gun in the back or a knife at the throat.

Young mentioned that Aaron Long had said that he should stay at the home of his father (referred to as “old Long”), located about six miles from Galena, Illinois, “until the Judge and John Long come back.”

“Old Long” would have been Owen Long, who appears in Owen County, Indiana records at least once as “Oen Long.” As mentioned in an earlier post, he was the father of both John Long and Aaron Long. The 1860 census shows a later Owen Long, perhaps his son, who was living in Galena with a number of other unrelated individuals.

Both John and Aaron were hanged in 1845 for the murder of Col. George Davenport, for whom Davenport, Iowa is named. That was a direct result of Bonney’s efforts. Hanged with them was Granville Young, the person Bonney was speaking with.

Owen had a brother named Jesse Long, who, until they divorced, was married to “Old Mother Long,” John Meshack Phipps’s mother in law. She was generally called Widow Long, because she was a so-called “grass widow.” The term was commonly used at the time to refer to a divorced woman.

Young went on to tell Bonney that he and another gang member had stayed several days with “an old Mormon.” Young even claimed that the other gang member preached some “pretty fair sermons” while there, suggesting that they must have posed as Mormons.

Young and the other member, according to Bonney, then swindled the “old Mormon” out of a substantial amount of gold by giving the man a counterfeit hundred dollar bill for it. They told the man that Brigham Young “wanted to get specie, to purchase materials for the Holy Temple.”

This would, of course, be referring to the Mormon temple at Nauvoo. This is further indication of the gang’s involvement in counterfeiting. Young also intimated that the gang knew how to keep themselves from being discovered: “No danger of that. They are old hands at the business; know how to take care of themselves, and have plenty of friends.”

The nature of the gang

Young was sufficiently candid to mention to Bonney a number of specific individuals who were a part of the gang. This was because Bonney made it appear that he had a “speculation” he wanted help with, and because he would be traveling across a wide territory. The names Young suggested that Bonney contact included the following:

  • — Packard, on the Sharridon River near the Missouri-Iowa line
  • Thomas Reynolds, in St. Louis, who had a livery stable near 3rd and Plume Streets in St. Louis (“Plume” was more likely Plum)
  • — Raymond, between St. Louis and St. Charles
  • John Birch, 9 miles southwest of Marshall, Clark County, Illinois
  • John Stow, in Vandalia, Illinois
  • Hiram Long, cousin of John and Aaron Long, in Owen County, Indiana
  • Shack Phips (John Meshack Phipps), in Owen County, Indiana
  • John Singleton, in Owen County, Indiana
  • Jack Burton, in Spice Valley, Indiana (note that this was in Lawrence County)
  • E.B. Logan, in Memphis, Tennessee

Young assured Bonney that any and all of these men were of “the right stripe.” Note the presence of a Burton – Jack Burton – and in Lawrence County, Indiana. Various Phips or Phipps individuals from Ashe County, North Carolina, along with members of various associated families, migrated to Clay, Owen, and Lawrence Counties in Indiana by the 1830s, with some Burtons also moving from Ashe County, North Carolina to Lawrence County, Indiana.

Of course, Jack was a common nickname for John. One candidate for this Jack Burton would have been the John Burton who was a son of John Pleasants Burton (the middle name has not been proven) and his wife Susannah Stamper. The elder John was born 8 July 1758 in Virginia, according to Goodspeed’s 1884 history of Lawrence County, Indiana.

He received a state land grant for 300 acres in Ashe County, North Carolina on 30 November 1805. This was on Peach Bottom Mountain, in the vicinity of the Tolivers we’ve discussed in very recent posts. John Sr., according to Goodspeed, came to Lawrence County, Indiana in 1826, and was a son of Richard Burton.

We’ve discussed the connection to this family in various earlier posts. Richard Burton would appear to have been related to the second wife of George Reeves, father in law of Samuel Phipps or Phips of Ashe County. We’ve also discussed the Goochland County, Virginia Fipps orphans who were bound out to a Burton, along with various other Burton connections.

Note that horse thievery was a very big part of the lengthy recent post regarding Richard “Philips” or “Phillips” of Louisa County, Virginia, who looks as though he could possibly have been a “Phipps” or “Phips,” and his apparent associates in the Watauga settlement west of North Carolina. Horse thievery is also a very big part of Bonney’s account, which focuses on members of the Phips family and on some of their relatives among the Long and Burton families.

Bonney refers to the man named Fox, mentioned earlier, as having been arrested for horse stealing. (Gang members were frequently arrested, and just as often freed from jail.) Bonney notes at one point,

On our arrival we learned that Fox had been arrested on suspicion of horse stealing. Shack Phips [John Meshack Phipps, son of Jesse Phipps and grandson of Samuel Phipps of Ashe County, North Carolina] was also under arrest on a similar charge. Four horses had been taken from them, and detained as stolen. The owner of one of the horses had appeared and proved his property. Fox was examined before a magistrate, and held to bail in the sum of $800, in default of which he was committed to jail. Shack Phips was also held to bail in the sum of $400. His father [this would be Jesse Phips or Phipps of Owen County, Indiana] entering bail for the amount, Shack was released . . . .

Bonney frequently refers to activity in and around Bowling Green. This was the little town in Clay County, Indiana, adjacent to Owen County, where John Meshack Phips’s brother Mathew owned a store. That was where Mathew’s close relatives robbed a competitor’s store.

Then, under extremely suspicious circumstances, to say the least, Mathew was declared “dead” a few days later, supposedly having been killed when he made a business trip to New Orleans. No actual evidence appears to have ever been offered.

One family story is that someone who supposedly accompanied him to New Orleans returned without him, but refused to say much of anything about what had happened. This appears to have been the “evidence” that Mathew had been killed.

Bonney visits the home of John Meshack Phipps

After speaking with other gang members, Bonney continues to note, “I learned from these gentlemen that Shack Phips, who was arrested with Fox, lived in Owen County, but a few miles distant in a sparsely settled country.” Note Bonney’s next statement, which is very important:

Nearly all the settlers were connected in different ways with the banditti. Phips had married a daughter of widow Long, sister-in-law of old Owen Long, and mother of Aaron and Hiram; all whose names I had taken from Granville Young or old Birch. Phips lived in the house with old widow Long and her boys, and Fox had been arrested there.

Bonney then decided to visit this location, posing as a member of the outlaw gang. “I left Bowling Green,” he noted, “for the Den of Thieves in Owen County.” Neighbors directed him to the house of old Mother Long and John Meshack Phips:

You go on until you get to a small bridge crossing a ravine. Then turn into the woods at your right. You will find a by-path which, if you can follow[,] will lead you in sight of the house.

He described the dense forest, “thick with tangled under-brush, and nearly impenetrable.” He finally located the cabin inside of a “dense thicket.” Bonney described the cabin as

a miserable log cabin, about fourteen feet square, with an open porch, or stoop; the whole covered with rough clapboards, laid on loose, and confined with small logs placed at equal distances apart on the roof.

Again, as was asked earlier: If the outlaw gang was taking in all this money, where did it all go?

He described “old Mother Long” as “a meagre specimen of humanity, poorly clad, and besmeared with dirt.” He described Mary (“Polly”) (Long) Phips, wife of John Meshack Phips, as “a female of about twenty years of age of rather delicate features, but whose whole appearance was very little, if any, superior to that of the old mother of the house.”

He described the interior:

The furniture consisted of crippled chairs, half a dozen three-legged stools, two miserable beds; the beadsteads [sic; bedsteads] of which were made of rough poles, with the bark still on; an old rickety cupboard – a table made of a slab of timber, roughly hewn; a couple of iron kettles, half a dozen broken plates, as many knives and forks without handles, and a few tin cups.

Again, where did all the money go? Bonney was naturally the object of suspicion on the part of Widow Long. “Does Phips owe you anything?” she asked. “Are you acquainted with Phips?” Finally, after no little effort on the part of Bonney to convince her that he was of “the right stripe,” Widow Long asked “Do you want to see Shack right bad?”

When the reply came, she answered, “Well, I reckon I can holler him up.” After climbing up a gate post and hollering “yo ho a!” as loud as she could, Phips shouted back and soon appeared. Even then, he was extremely on his guard. Phips at first seemed extremely irked that he had been summoned, and was clearly on his guard. He made every effort to present himself as an honest citizen who had been defamed.

By that point, however, Bonney was armed with enough informational ammo to convince even John Meshack Phips that he was of “the right stripe.” He convinced Phips that they needed to spring Fox from jail and to retrieve the stolen horses. “How can we do it?” Phips asked.

When Bonney mentioned that they needed a few men to help, Phips suggested that “There are plenty of people in this neighborhood who will swear to anything.” When Bonney said that they needed people who were not known to the authorities, Phips answered, “True, it would not do to take any of my friends around here, but I can get lots of them down in Spice Valley.”

Even Bonney didn’t know where that was. Phips explained that it was 80 miles away. This was a location in Lawrence County, where his Phips and Burton relatives were living. Phips also explained that Hiram Long was hiding in the woods, since the authorities at Bowling Green were on the lookout for him.

By this time, Widow Long and John Meshack Phips’s wife were becoming downright sociable. Widow Long was amused by Bonney’s walking cane, which housed a hidden deadly dagger. When she found out that this was the case, she let out what Bonney called “a series of oaths, which, for variety and blasphemy, exceeded anything I had ever heard before from the lips of [a] woman.”

He added, “I do not think there was a more filthy family, or a more filthy residence, in the north-western Territory, than that of Shack Phips . . . ” Bonney quoted from Shack Phips’s wife:

I say, Shack! [expletive] you! If you don’t get more salt to put on this venison it will all rot. I have cut it all in strips, and laid it up on those poles, but it doesn’t do one bit of good. I vow it smells as bad as it did a week ago. I can’t hardly cook it any more; it has got so soft and slippery.

She then said to him,

Shack! [expletive] you! you have forgotten to go to your father’s to get some meal. We have not a smitch of corn meal or dodger in the house.

He asked her whether she didn’t have enough to “raise a supper.” When she replied in the negative, she suggested “Now hurry, Shack! go and fetch some meal.”

This would suggest that it must have been a quick walk to the home of Jesse Phips or Phipps, John’s father, who was born about 1786 to 1788 in Ashe County, North Carolina. When he asked what to carry the food in, she suggested that he used “the slip from the pillow on mother’s bed.”

After supper, three men entered the house, who John Meshack Phips introduced as his cousins. Bonney gathered from their conversation that they were also members of the outlaw gang. Bonney slept in the house all night. The next morning he heard a whistle in the forest. This, Phips explained, was “Hiram Long whistling for his grub.”

By the time that John and Aaron Long were executed and Bonney’s book was published, various family members had fled from Owen County, Indiana, some to Iowa. John Meshack Phips moved to Iowa, then came into the area of Independence, Missouri. In 1878 he is supposed to have traded farms with a Mormon named J.J. Kastor, resulting in Phips moving to Fremont County, Iowa. He also lived in Nebraska for a time.

A Mormon publication, The True Latter-Day Saints’ Herald, published in Plano, Illinois, noted in its Vol. 8, No. 1 edition (apparently 1865) that J.J. Kastor had subscribed to the periodical.

When he was an old man in Shenandoah, Iowa, he was hounded by reporters who wanted to know why he was so reticent to speak about his earlier life. The Phips or Phipps family was, of course, closely related to the Reeves family. A Reeves outlaw gang in Iowa became a major issue, to the point that the resultant battle to rid Iowa of them is noted in history books as the “Reeves War.”

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