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OPINION: They Would Settle For Smattering Of Justice

March 11, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

There is something incredibly evil that lives in the heart of some. That evil, that wickedness, smolders like the hot ashes of a fire waiting to erupt. Whether awakened by mere happenstance or by more of premeditation, those smoldering embers can sometimes strengthen into a raging fire; and that scorching fire can become murder.

A mere 35 miles, as the crow flies, separates the Southwest Missouri Ozark towns of Joplin and Pineville but, in 1892, making that trip was more than just a hop, skip and a jump. However, no distance is too great when one wants to visit his sweetheart and so it was for young William Simmons.

Mary Lula Noel, or just plain Lula, as she was called by everyone, was a beautiful young girl and she was in love. She was in love with Simmons, a resident of Joplin. There were times when the longing to be with Lula became too great to bear and Simmons sometimes boarded a train that rolled on the thirty-five miles of steel rails, taking him to Pineville, and to Lula.

It seemed as though most everyone in the sparsely populated area of McDonald County was somehow related to one another, an aunt or maybe a second or third cousin. That was especially true if your last name was Noel. The Noel name was well known in the county and, in fact, the city of Noel itself was named after one of Lula's ancestors.

Lula's sister married a gentleman by the name of Sydney Holly and the couple raised their family in a small house near the Elk River. In December of 1892, Lula was staying with her sister on the Holly farm. The reason for her stay with her sister and her family isn't quite known but, back then, it was common for relatives to stay overnight with each other. Simmons had traveled from Joplin to visit Lula and was also staying with the Holly family.

On the second Saturday, the 10th of that December, the Holly's left early in the morning. The family was going to visit relatives, the family of W.H. Noel, living near Pineville. Like many excursions, the trip would be on foot and would involve crossing the river. There was a special place, a low fording place on the river, where the family would cross from one side to the other.

Lula and William were asked to join the family but the two declined the offer. The two would spend some time alone, and William also excused himself stating that he was going to catch a train later that day and return to his home in Joplin. Lula told her sister that she would see William off and later join her at their parent's house.

The level of water in the Elk River was always of concern. If the water rose too quickly, it would render the fording spot impassable and one might find that they were isolated on one side of the river for quite some time. Lula's sister was concerned that Lula might not be able to ford the river later in the day as the water had been rising. Lula tried to calm her concerns and told her that, if needed, she would stay with another nearby relative.

The water in the unpredictable river did in fact rise that day to a level preventing crossing even at the usual place. Lula's sister was not overly concerned when Lula didn't join her later that day. After all, nobody, not even on horseback, could cross those rising waters. Surely Lula was alright.

Several days passed and when the sun came up the following Tuesday, still no word from Lula had been received. It was then that the Holly family and Lula's other relatives feared something had happened. Maybe Lula did try to cross that river. What if the swiftly flowing waters had pulled her under and she had drowned?

Family and folks living near the Holly farm were contacted, but nobody recollected seeing the missing sister. Lula's father and Sydney traveled to Joplin to ask Simmons if he knew where Lula might be.

"Will, your girl's gone." William seemed more anxious about the question itself than with Lula's disappearance. The seemingly nervous Simmons' voice cracked as he replied, "Is that so? You don't suppose the fool girl jumped in the river and drowned herself do you?"

Simmons made no other remarks, asked no questions, and didn't offer to assist in the search for Lula -- quite odd and suspicious, Holly and Noel thought.

Seven days passed and, on Saturday the 17th of the month, a search party was organized. The river and its banks would be the target of the search. Lula's sister wanted to know what had become of Lula, but she also was afraid of the answer. It was nearing 2 p.m. that afternoon when the question regarding Lula's whereabouts would be rudely answered.

The lifeless body of Lula Noel was found. The corpse was discovered just downstream from her father's house. A protruding willow branch prevented Lula's body from traveling further downstream. Members of the search party gently pulled Lula's limp body from the muddy Elk River's water.

An autopsy was conducted and the results were to some, but not all, surprising. Lula's lungs contained no river water. She had not drowned. Bruises about her face and neck were apparent and it was concluded that she had been strangled, strangled so savagely that her neck had been broken. Someone had apparently held a hand over her mouth to suppress any screams as the life was squeezed from her. Lula had been murdered.

The ensuing investigation by the sheriff's office came to one and only one conclusion. William Simmons had murdered his one-time girlfriend, Lula Noel. The motive was unknown but maybe an interview following Simmons' arrest would answer that question.

William Simmons was arrested at his home in Joplin. The timing of the arrest was advantageous as the alleged murderer was making preparations to leave Joplin and the state of Missouri, and leave permanently.

Simmons' attorney's feared that he wouldn't receive a fair trial in McDonald County so a change of venue was requested and granted. The murder trial of Simmons was held in Newton County. Seventy or more witnesses gave testimony but, when all was said and done, the evidence was no more than circumstantial at best. The jury could not come to a unanimous decision and Simmons was not convicted.

The people of McDonald County, Lula's friends and relatives, and just about everyone were in no way satisfied with the results. Some men were so enraged that the hair on the backs of their necks bristled. The word "lynching" was spoken openly and for all to hear. Prim and proper ladies cupped their hands over their mouths so blasphemous words would not ooze out, at least not ooze out in public.

The prosecuting attorney's office soon announced that a second trial would be held and it would be that office's contention that the death was not premeditated -- it was more impulsive in nature, therefore new charges should be considered. Simmons was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 10 years in the Missouri State Penitentiary.

Most of the folks living in McDonald County knew of Mary Lula Noel's tragic death, the arrest of William Simmons, and of the trials that were taking place in Neosho. They wanted revenge but they would settle for a smattering of justice.

Stan Fine is a retired police officer and Verizon Security Department investigator who, after retiring in 2006, moved from Tampa, Fla., to Noel. Stan's connection to Noel can be traced back to his grandparents who lived most of their lives there. Stan began writing after the passing of his wife Robin in 2013. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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