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OPINION: Prominent Southwest City doctor convicted of murder

January 13, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

Time is a funny thing. Although it moves at the same speed for all of us, there seem to be times when it feels like it's moving more quickly or maybe more slowly. The good times in our lives pass far too rapidly and the bad times drag on seemingly forever. For Southwest City, Missouri, Doctor Edward Croxdale, the past ten years seemed like an eternity for that long and arduous decade was spent in a Missouri penitentiary cell. He had been convicted of murder; the murder of nightwatchman W.H. Hatfield.

The small town of Southwest City, with a population of fewer than two thousand people, was in the far southwest corner of the state. If known for nothing else, it was home to the cornerstone which marked the intersection of the Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma state boundary lines.

It seemed that nothing of much importance ever happened there, at least nothing of significance to the folks living in other parts of McDonald County. The town's main street stores sold food, clothing and necessary goods and materials needed by the owners of the surrounding farms. There was a bank, and it was watched over on those hot summer nights by nightwatchman W.H. Hatfield.

When Sunday mornings came, Hatfield transformed into the pastor of a Southwest City church. By all accounts, he was quite amiable, well-liked and often found the time, and sometimes resources, to help fellow parishioners. The slow relaxed Ozark lifestyle was something the folks found to their liking, and that pace was reflected in the way Hatfield lived and performed his duties as the bank's protector.

Hatfield had a customary routine that he followed as the night passed and most of the folks in town knew of his very predictable habits. The watchman had a key to the local barbershop and around the midnight hour he, without exception, ate his meal while seated inside the shop. He also used this time to peruse the local Pineville Gazette Newspaper. Sometimes after eating, and if there was something in the paper that caught his fancy, he would sit on the curb outside the shop and continue to read the paper.

It was a dark and hot summer night in Southwest City that night of Aug. 10 in 1927. It was around 1:30 a.m. when Mr. and Mrs. E.L. Roberts of Beggs, Okla., were awakened. The couple was camping in Southwest City Park when the sound of a gunshot interrupted the quiet night and their sleep. The couple wondered about the noise but soon returned to their sleep.

Around 4 a.m. that morning, early riser and editor of the Southwest City Republic Newspaper, J.L. McNabney discovered the lifeless body of Hatfield. The nightwatchman's body was found lying partially in the gutter just outside the barbershop. Hatfield's revolver and flashlight were on the sidewalk, and a newspaper lay across his knees.

An autopsy performed under the supervision of McDonald County Coroner Lee Carnell revealed the cause of death. Hatfield had been shot, and the fatal shot, or shots, had been fired at close range from a shotgun. Fourteen pellets entered the deceased's left cheek and came to rest in the right jaw and base of the skull. What insidious scoundrel could have committed this heinous act?

It seemed to all that there was a veritable litany of potential suspects and a plethora of possible motives for the shooting of the recently murdered Mr. Hatfield. However, little more than three weeks passed when thoughts about the suspect's identity and the motive changed. It was then that someone tried to kill another of the bank's nightwatchmen, Jim Campbell.

Campbell was standing in front of the Nichols Brothers Store when, from across the street, someone took aim at the intended victim. The assailant's aim was slightly off, or maybe Campbell moved, in any case, the bullet missed him as it passed through his hat. The slug then traveled through a pane of glass and eventually came to rest in a sack of seed inside the Nichols Brothers Store.

Campbell, armed with his weapon of choice, a shotgun, returned fire but, in the heat of the moment, missed his mark. Determined to retaliate, Campbell fired several shots with his revolver as he chased the assailant through the alleys west of Main Street but the would-be assassin got away, and got away without revealing his identity.

Some wondered if Campbell had really been the target of the first shooting and maybe Hatfield's death had been a case of mistaken identity. If so, the motive for the assault and name of the assailant remained a mystery.

Several months passed with little or no progress in identifying the murderer of Hatfield; then two confessed bootleggers from the Noel (Missouri) area were arrested. Art Craig and Luther McDonald wanted to make a deal and they had something very valuable to offer in return for their freedom, the name of the man who killed W.H. Hatfield.

The men said that they were to deliver some illegal liquor to a man in Southwest City on the night of Aug. 10. It wasn't the first time they had dealings with the buyer and other transactions had come off flawlessly. However, that night something unexpected happened. That dark night, Hatfield confronted the men and asked what they were doing. It was then that the killer went into an office, returned with a shotgun, and killed Hatfield. That man was Doctor Edward G. Croxdale.

The good doctor was arrested and, when questioned, denied any involvement in Hatfield's murder but, lacking the presence of a credible alibi, Croxdale went on trial. The defense produced several witnesses, including the two bootleggers, all of whom contributed to the strong case argued by the state.

Another nightwatchman, Miles Plemons, testified that the doctor gave him a drink of liquor the day following the murder. Doctor Croxdale told Plemons that Craig and McDonald had delivered the liquor to him the previous night. Plemons also testified that, when talking about Hatfield and the murder, Croxdale said, "He got what was coming to him." Plemons also stated that Croxdale later said, "one man got his bill shot off and, if they don't watch out, some more of them will get theirs shot off."

A few character witnesses testified for the defense, but the defense's cross-examination of the state's witnesses, conducted by defense attorneys O.R. Puckett and J.A. Sturges, didn't seem to dilute the evidence presented by prosecuting attorney Pinnell and his assistants, attorneys Lon Kelley and James M. Tatum.

The case was given to the jury by Judge Henson sometime after 4 p.m. The instructions to the group of twelve were simple and to the point. Consider all the evidence presented and decide if Edward G. Croxdale was guilty of the murder of W.H. Hatfield. Three hours later the jury foreman announced that a decision had been reached. The jury filed back into the courtroom and the verdict was announced -- "guilty." The convicted murderer was sentenced to life in prison.

The folks in Southwest City got back to living their lives following the trial and, although some folks occasionally expressed their opinions about the killing and, yes, the trial, nothing much came of it. Then and over several years, some of the stories provided by witnesses, especially those of Craig and McDonald, changed.

It began to look as though not all of the testimonies given were based on fact and, as for the two bootleggers, well, they had been promised a deal, a deal that would set them both free in exchange for their testimonies. So, after ten long years, many of the people living in Southwest City signed a petition asking for the release of Doctor Croxdale. The petition was also endorsed by the man seeking Croxdale's conviction, Prosecuting Attorney Lon Kelley. After ten years of confinement and at the age of 66, Doctor Edward G. Croxdale was released from prison.

Not everyone in the small Ozark town was convinced that justice had been served but the planting of crops, stocking of store shelves and raising of families continued to be the priorities.

The Croxdale name did return to prominence as the Southwest City branch of the McDonald County Library is dedicated to Anne Croxdale, the wife of Edward Croxdale's grandson.

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.

Print Headline: Prominent Southwest City doctor convicted of murder

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