DEATH IN DUNKLIN COUNTY: THE ODELL GENTRY SHOOTING

As a genealogist, I always prefer to work from records rather than family stories.  But here are two seemingly unconnected records that don’t tell the whole story.

The first is the marriage record of my great-grandfather, James Edward Chipman, to Minnie Harmon.  The marriage took place 20 Feb 1939 in Hollywood, Missouri:

The second record is the death certificate of one Odell Gentry dated 21 Sep 1954. Printable copies of Missouri death certificates filed from 1910 to 1963 are available online at the Missouri Secretary of State’s website.  Here the cause of death is “Homicide by Gunshot Wound.”

What’s the connection?

Odell Gentry was the son of Minnie Harmon.  She’s listed as Minnie Lee Thomas on his death certificate.  And James Edward Chipman shot and killed Odell Gentry.

James Edward Chipman was then 74 years old.  Minnie Harmon was his third wife.  His second wife was Myrtle Williams, who he divorced.  The book on Myrtle was she was more souse than spouse.  His first wife was Allie May Oxley, and Allie, the mother of his five children, was the glue that held the family together.  Allie died from complications stemming from an automobile accident.  James Edward was never the same.

Allie’s mother, Mariah Caroline (Riddle) Oxley, was a successful businesswoman in Dunklin County, Missouri.  She was the family’s matriarch, as often found in the Southern tradition, the daughter of John Franklin Riddle and Joellan Beckwith.  About 1900, James Edward Chipman and his cousin Charles Monroe Chipman left Lauderdale County, Tennessee and settled in Dunklin County.  But Mariah and Allie, whose families had resided in the Missouri bootheel section for decades prior to the arrival of James Edward Chipman, were the family’s real support.

On 5 Nov 2010 I spoke with Tony Byrd, a member of the Dunklin County Genealogical Society, about obtaining a copy of the Coroner’s Inquest.  I was told if a person caused the death of another, but wasn’t charged with a crime, the records are permanently sealed.  He called again on 6 Nov 2010 and said he’d located an extensive newspaper account of the Odell Gentry inquest, and would mail it to me.

The following account is taken directly from the Dunklin Democrat published on 23 Sep 1954, two days after the shooting:

“A coroner’s jury at Senath yesterday [22 Sep 1954] cleared Ed Chipman, 74, in the slaying of his step-son, Odell Gentry, 38, at the family home a mile south of Senath.

“The jury after 15 minutes deliberation brought in a verdict that Chipman had shot Gentry in self defense.

“Chipman had told the inquest that he fired one shot from ‘a 22-caliber, single shot rifle at Gentry as the younger man advanced on him with a knife.’

“Chipman said that Gentry was intoxicated when he came to the Chipman home with Lester Pruett, 29.  Pruett, who is the grandson of Chipman’s wife, was wounded in the left arm by the bullet which killed Gentry.”

The account then states Lester Pruett was treated at Presnell hospital, but the bullet could not be immediately removed and was still in Pruett’s arm when he testified at the inquest.  Pruett gave an account of his and Gentry’s movements prior to the shooting. They arrived at the Chipman home between 3:00 and 4:00 PM Tuesday afternoon.  Pruett claimed Gentry was drunk and Pruett was trying to get him out of the house.

Let’s pick it up at James Edward Chipman’s testimony:

“Chipman Tells Story  Although he was not required to testify, Chipman decided to tell the inquest jury his story of the shooting.

“The elderly man, who is known around Senath as ‘Uncle Ed,’ said he was lying on a day bed in the living room of his home when Gentry and Pruett arrived.  He said both men appeared to have been drinking.

“Chipman said that when Gentry came into the living room he told Chipman to ‘get up and go to work.’  Chipman said that he answered, ‘Now, Odell, don’t bother me.  I’m a sick man.’

“Chipman said that Gentry started toward him but that Pruett grappled with Gentry, trying to get him out of the house.  Chipman told the inquest that he got up from the day bed and went to a bedroom where he got the rifle.

“He said that he then returned to the dining room which is connected to the living room by a wide door.  Chipman said he told his step-son, ‘Now, Odell, I’ve asked you to not come home when you’re drinking and mistreat us.’

“The elderly man said Gentry pulled a knife from his pocket and started advancing on him.

“‘I told him twice to put the knife down,’ Chipman related to the jurymen.  ‘He didn’t do it and I put up the .22 (rifle) and let him have it,’ Chipman said.

“Gentry fell immediately in the middle of the living room floor.

“Chipman said that he then went out to the kitchen door, reloaded the rifle and walked to the front yard where he sat down in a chair.  Later, when neighbors arrived at the house he gave the rifle to one of them.

“Mrs. Chipman [Odell’s mother] was in the house during part of the disturbance leading up to the shooting.  However, she was confined to the home Wednesday morning and did not testify at the inquest.”

The account continues with the testimony of Ed Aumon of the Howard funeral service, who was called to the Chipman home.  Aumon picked up Senath police officer Rushie Marlin en route, but had to return to Senath for a gun as Marlin was not then armed.

“When they [Aumon and Marlin] returned, Chipman gave up the loaded rifle to one of the men who arrived about the time they did, Aumon said.  He told the jury that Gentry was lying dead in the middle of the living room floor.

“Aumon testified that the bullet had entered Gentry’s chest about three inches below the left nipple.  It had come out the right side of the body.”

The shooting was ruled self defense and no charges were filed.  From the account, it was justifiable homicide.  Clearly, Odell Gentry intended to harm, if not kill, James Edward Chipman, who acted out of fear for his life.  Velma Southard, who was the informant on Gentry’s death certificate, was Gentry’s sister.

My father attended the inquest.  His account, which provides a little background to the above, was that Odell Gentry lived in a ramshackle house on James Edward’s property. Evidently Odell had been beating up the old man and stealing his money.  James Edward let it be known that if Odell did it one more time, he was going to shoot him.  And the next time Odell showed up and demanded money, James Edward shot him with a rifle.

It’s straight out of a William Faulkner novel.  (One of Allie May Oxley’s ancestors was a William Faulkner.  Faulkner’s daughter Annaretta married Allie’s grandfather James Oxley.  I’ve often wondered if the two William Faulkners were related.)

Minnie got a divorce.  James Edward went into rapid decline, and in November of the following year, was admitted to a hospital to be treated for TB.  There he died, on 31 Jan 1956, of “Arteriosclerotic Heart Disease.”

Maybe it was a broken heart.

______________________________________________

I’ve been researching family history since 1987, and I’ve seen most situations more than once.  There aren’t many “Eureka!” moments anymore.  But this was one of them.

It began when I decided to investigate the Odell Gentry shooting, in which my great-grandfather James Edward Chipman shot to death his step-son. Anytime someone is killed outside of a theatre of war, it’s disturbing.  Was the old man really justified?  What actually happened?

I made several phone calls to Kennett, the county seat of Dunklin County, Missouri, to track down the records of the Odell Gentry inquest.  One of those calls was to the public library in Kennett, which I knew to be a great resource for those researching Dunklin County families.  I gave my name and number to a librarian who said she’d pass it on to a member of the Dunklin County Genealogical Society.

Tony Byrd called.  He was familiar with the case.  He told me the inquest records would be permanently sealed.  And one thing he said threw me:  Odell Gentry had not come to the Chipman home alone.  There was an accomplice, who had suffered a non-life threatening wound.  So I reviewed my notes on the matter.

The next day Tony called, and said he’d located a comprehensive account of the Gentry shooting in the Dunklin Democrat, and would send it to me.  We talked for awhile, and agreed that the shooting had drained the life out of James Edward.  The shooting was quite a sensation, front page news and common knowledge in Dunklin County.  Tony’s connection to the Chipman family is that his wife was related to Myrtle Williams, James Edward Chipman’s second wife.

The headline in the Dunklin Democrat read:

“SENATH MAN CLEARED BY INQUEST JURY OF STEP-SON’S SLAYING Verdict of Self Defense Is Returned”

[Clicking on the photo will enlarge it.]


I want to thank Tony Byrd for taking the time to locate this material.  During my 23 years of research, it’s been my good fortune to encounter people who have helped me answer difficult questions, and Tony Byrd is one of those people.  My collection of family records would be a fraction of what it is without them.

~ by Jeffrey Thomas Chipman on May 14, 2016.