Monday, May 31, 2010

The Conder Family before and after the Massacre

[This paper was presented at the MHA conference on May 29, 2010. ]


On August 10th 1884, over a dozen disguised men armed with pistols and shotguns attacked the home of Jim and Malinda Conder where LDS Church services were about to begin. When the shooting was over five people were dead, one crippled, and the lives of the nine LDS families still living at Cane Creek were forever changed. But with the crippling of Mrs. Conder and the death of her two sons and it was the Conder family which suffered the most.

The Conder Family

Twenty nine years earlier, in 1855, the future Mrs. Conder was twenty-two year old Malinda Carroll living on Little Swan Creek in Lewis County. That year she married John R. Hutson and the two moved into a log home along the east fork of Cane Creek . Even before their first child was born, however, John died . Malinda was devastated, but she continued living on Cane Creek . When her son was born later that year , she named him John Riley Hutson, after his deceased father. Riley was six years old, when Malinda remarried. Her new husband, Jim Conder, treated her son as his own.

Their life was soon interrupted by the Civil War. Actually, the closest the war came to their home was small units foraging for food and supplies. But still, people from Cane Creek lost fathers, husbands and brothers in battles across the south. Jim Conder and his brothers fought at the Confederate defeat at Raymond, Mississippi in May 1863. One of Jim’s brothers was killed. Two others were captured. To avoid the same fate, Jim just went home .

Back at Cane Creek, Jim and Malinda resumed their lives. They had three children of their own ; Martin, Rachel, and Visey. They built up their farm to about 300 acres including an apple orchard near the house. A saw mill at nearby Ivy Mills provided periodic employment which they took when they could get it. In the evenings they gathered in the homes of friends and family for entertainment. Music was a big part of that. Young Martin Conder, for example, learned to play the violin . From time to time they would listen to traveling preachers. Campbellites, Baptists and Methodists were the most common, but the Mormons came too.

As early as 1878, LDS missionaries were holding public meetings in area schoolhouses and the homes of some prominent residents like Sheriff John Carroll. But it was at the home of Eli and Barby Talley that a branch of the LDS Church took root. Eli opened his home for the missionaries in late July 1879. By September, both he and his wife requested baptism. Dozens more, most of whom were relatives, would eventually follow.

Among them were Jim and Malinda Conder. Barby Talley was Malinda’s sister-in-law through her first husband. And Malinda’s brother was Sheriff John Carroll. But it was Jim who first committed to baptism . Malinda decided to wait. Although no clear explanation is given, one elder speculated it was because of the false rumors being spread about the LDS church.

The events that convinced others to join had no apparent effect on Malinda or her decision on whether to get baptized. On November 10th, 1879, Rachel Lancaster was miraculously healed. Shortly thereafter Rachel and her sister-in-law, Sarah Lancaster , joined the small branch, bringing membership up to eight. And the healing caused a stir among others living on Cane Creek. Within a couple of months, seven more people were baptized. Still, Malinda and her children were not among them.

Several families that joined the LDS church took the opportunity to gather to Zion. Rachel Lancaster, Burwell Blanton and his family, and the three DePriest brothers along with their families, went to Colorado as directed by Church leaders. But most of the members of the Cane Creek branch elected to stay in Tennessee. Jim showed no interest in moving west and no missionary recorded encouraging him to do so.

Over the next five years, Jim was actively involved in the branch. He and two others coordinated the building of a log meeting house. And missionaries frequently ate and slept at the Conder home. Many elders became close friends with the Conder family. So close that they were not above playing pranks on each other.

One March morning, Jim Conder returned from hunting squirrels to find a young man at his home. The man introduced himself as Willis Robison, a Baptist minister. He said he had heard there was going to be a Mormon service there that evening and he wished to attend. He said he had heard much spoken about the Mormon Elders, though most of it in disrespect. Actually, Reverend Robison was Elder Robison, a relatively new LDS missionary to Tennessee who had not yet visited Cane Creek. At the urging of his companion and with the consent of Jim’s family, he had agreed to pose as a Baptist preacher. But Jim was not so easily deceived. After only a few minutes, he interrupted Robison saying “You can’t fool me on them eyes. You’re an elder yourself.” Jim and Elder Robison became close friends after that.

In February 1884 Malinda had a change of heart. She and two of her children, Riley and Rachel were baptized. Even in Tennessee, February is not a warm month. The discomfort of an outdoor, midwinter baptism is mitigated only by true dedication. Malinda did not get baptized just to please her husband. Her conversion was genuine. This also marked the beginning of a string of baptisms at Cane Creek. In April and May of 1884, eighteen more were performed, including two more of Jim and Malinda’s children: Martin and Visey.

Originally, Martin had no interest in getting baptized. Martin genuinely liked the missionaries, but he was sometimes described as a hardened mountain boy. His rough demeanor concerned even his parents. So the service was planned for just four baptisms including Visey. But since the missionaries were going to leave Cane Creek to visit another branch right after the service, one missionary was impressed to seek out Martin before the service started in order to say good bye. He found Martin working in a bean field belonging to Tom Garrett . As the two were saying good-bye, the elder shared his testimony. Martin was so touched by his words, that he insisted on being baptized that very day.

Lead up to the Massacre

About five days before the massacre, two missionaries recently assigned to the area, made their way to the Cane Creek where they stayed at the Conder home. Two other missionaries joined them at Cane Creek the next day, staying at the Garrett home that first night. The four spent the week visiting members and preparing for Sunday’s service.

On Friday afternoon, while they met at the home of Eli and Barby Talley, A neighbor, Rube Mathis, came to visit the Conder family for an early afternoon meal. Unlike nearly everyone else living on Cane Creek, Rube wasn’t related to the Talley family. He was actually first cousins with the one vigilante who would be killed at the massacre, David Hinson. Because of that relationship, Rube had attended a meeting the previous day. Its purpose was to decide what to do about the Mormon problem. We have to guess what they decided. But since Rube was friends with the Conder family, he felt the need to warn them they were in danger.

It isn’t clear whether Jim and his sons understood the nature of the plans being made against them, but they dismissed the warning. They told Rube that they had been threatened before, but it never amounted to anything. This time, they insisted, would be no different. When Rube realized he could not get them to cancel the Sunday morning service, he left with the advice that they not do anything foolish to make things worse.

However, Rube must have made quite an impression on Malinda Conder. That night she had a dream about Sunday’s meeting. In her dream she saw that there would be violence and bloodshed. So, when she awoke Saturday morning, she urged her boys to load their guns in order to be ready for whatever happened. They did as she asked. Riley placed his muzzle loading double barrel shotgun in the loft, probably thinking he wouldn’t need it. Martin hung his single barrel gun on deer antlers over the back door, where it was more readily accessible.

The Massacre

On Sunday morning guests began arriving at the Conder home at least an hour before the scheduled meeting. Malinda’s niece, Betty Webb brought her husband Al and their two sons: Byron and Kess. They came partly out of curiosity, but mostly to support “Aunt Sues” as Malinda was known to her extended family. But the visitor Malinda seemed most excited about was her nine month old grandnephew Kess . She took Kess in her arms and from that point on her focus was on the baby. Thirteen year old Visey took over for her mother in the kitchen.

Malinda and her other daughter, Rachel, sat in the room which had been set up for the meeting. Betty Webb, Eliza Talley and others who have not been definitively identified were also in the room as well as three missionaries . Prior to the start of the meeting, they sang a collection of hymns . Outside, Martin and Riley showed a few guests around the orchard next to the house. Jim was positioned at the front gate. He welcomed latecomers as they arrived and kept an eye out for the trouble Rube Mathis had warned about.

Just as the singing inside stopped, a dozen or more men emerged from the forest and seized Jim. He had only enough time to call out for his sons to get their guns. Both boys ran for the house. Riley jumped the fence and made it there first. He went in the back door and up to the loft to get his gun. By the time Martin made it to the house, three or four of the vigilantes were already inside. One of them was going for Martin’s shotgun hanging over the back door. Martin reached for it as well and soon found himself wrestling for control of the gun. In the struggle the vigilante’s mask came off revealing him to be David Hinson. At this Hinson lost his temper. He drew a pistol, pointed it at Martin’s face and pulled the trigger. The gun snapped, but didn’t fire. Furious, David hit Martin on the head with the pistol knocking him to the ground. The gash on his head looked serious but at most rendered him briefly unconscious.

By the time Martin regained his senses, he could see two missionaries lying dead on the floor. David Hinson was still standing there holding Martin’s shot gun. So Martin did what any twenty-two year old boy pumped with adrenaline and testosterone would do. He got up and tried to grab his gun. This time, however, another man shot Martin, killing him instantly.

Moments later, Riley came down the stairs with his own shot gun just in time to see Hinson walking away from Martin’s body and out the door. Two of the vigilantes still in the house saw Riley with his gun and tried to grab him. Riley shook them off and moved to the door. He picked David Hinson out from the crowd and shot him above the waist .

Responding quickly one of the men outside fired on Riley fatally wounding him in the stomach. Other vigilantes fired into the house, one of them hitting Malinda who was still holding baby Kess. Part of the shot hit her in the upper thigh, breaking the bone.

After the Shooting

After the vigilantes left, Jim and several others ran to the house. Martin and the missionaries were dead. Riley still was conscious, so they helped him to a shed behind the house. Knowing he could not survive his wounds, Riley insisted that they do what they could to save his mother. Riley lived only a couple of hours after the shooting. Someone was sent by carriage to get a doctor. They returned with Dr. Plummer who tried to set Malinda’s broken bone . Even with this help it appeared for a while that she would not recover.

Immediately after the shooting, Jim told Tom Garrett that he knew who the disguised men were. But when the coroner arrived the next day, Jim testified that because of the masks he could not identify any of them except David Hinson who was, by then, dead. Fear of reprisal kept him silent. It was just a glimpse of the fear that came to drive behavior of the survivors of the Massacre for years afterwards.

In fact, the fear intensified into justifiable paranoia. A couple of days later, just before midnight, the Conder girls heard rocks being thrown at their door. Anxious that the vigilantes might have returned, they immediately put out their lamps. By the moonlight they could see a dirty, ill clad man crouching behind a tree stump. He claimed to be Elder Willis Robison and asked to be let in. The Conder family knew Elder Robison, but this man looked more like a farmhand. He said he came a long way to make sure everyone was all right and to see if he could help. He refused to be turned away now. Awakened by the disturbance, Jim came to the door. He immediately recognized his friend’s voice and let him in. Jim told Elder Robison all about the Massacre and assured him that there was nothing he could do for them. He also told him that the last two missionaries had made it safely to Shady Grove.

Elder Robison observed how Jim and Malinda were dealing with the tragedy in different ways. Malinda was understandably bitter, considering her injury and the loss of her two sons. Bedridden, she was smoking a corn cob pipe to ease the pain. In addition her survival was still in doubt. Jim, however, wasn’t angry. He seemed sad yet at peace. He was grateful that in the midst of all the violence that God had preserved those he had. But the longer Elder Robison stayed the more uneasy Jim became. He said he was concerned for Elder Robison’s safety and encouraged him to leave immediately. But more than that, he was afraid that guards placed by the vigilantes had seen Elder Robison arrive and would soon come to get him. That would, of course, put the rest of his family great in danger. So, at Jim’s urging, just an hour after his arrival, Elder Robison left the Conder family as he had found them.

Second hand reports claim that Jim immediately left Lewis County in fear of his life, leaving his family behind. Malinda was certainly too weak to move. But other evidence doesn’t support this claim. Eight days after the massacre Jim was seen outside his home chopping firewood when B.H. Roberts exhumed the bodies of the dead missionaries. Elder Roberts later wrote that eventually Jim took his whole family to Perry County. And leaving did seem wise. Two other murders were rumored to have been committed by the vigilantes, exacerbating the fear that the violence wasn’t going to stop.

But the fear didn’t last forever. Jim and Malinda eventually came back to Lewis County, although they could not bring themselves to live in their original home . In 1895, Visey married Will Haley , a resident of Trace Creek eight miles to the south of Cane Creek. Jim, Malinda, and Rachel moved into a house next door to Visey and her new husband. They lived there quietly for many years, perhaps hoping to avoid stirring up the previous animosity. But in 1900, Jim, Malinda, and a few other branch members still living in Lewis County signed an open letter attesting to the character of the missionaries who served at Cane Creek. The letter was reprinted in LDS Church publications. Such a public repudiation of the popular justification for the murders could have been dangerous but they suffered no repercussions for their statement. Some of the suspected vigilantes had died or moved away by 1900. While others were reported to be ashamed of the part they played in the violent affair.

In retrospect we can see the tide had turned, although at the time no one would have believed it. Few Latter-day Saints from outside Tennessee braved the unknown danger of Lewis County, Tennessee. Contact between the LDS Church and the members still living there was sporadic at best. Whether it was a missionary on his way to serve elsewhere or a missionary on her way home, the visits were short and private. Sometimes missionaries would visit to perform ordinances in catch up fashion like the baptisms for teenage children of member families. Several of Malinda’s nieces and nephews were baptized in this way.

Although they did not have regular services, the Conder family remained committed to the LDS Church. In 1910 they, along with seven others were listed on LDS Church rolls for Lewis County. With the exception of the Conders, however, none of the survivors of the massacre still living in the county were included on the list. It would, however be their last appearance in Church records. In 1911, Jim passed away , followed in 1916 by Malinda .

Completely devoted to caring for her parents in their old age, Rachel chose to not get married. In her old age she told one interviewer that she did not regret that decision. After her mother died, Rachel moved in with her sister. They entertained a handful of guests interested in talking to the survivors of the Massacre. The sisters recounted their experience and showed off relics of the past. Among them were Riley’s shot gun and Martin’s violin. One guest was even allowed to play the violin. Later the shotgun was donated to the Church History Library, but the location of the violin has passed from public record.

Although they received guests, the old fear was still present. In 1934, the LDS church placed a monument on the grave of Riley and Martin. Charles A. Callis, the newest member of The Twelve, dedicated the monument in the presence of a dozen guests. The Conder sisters did not attend the service, possibly out of fear that such an open association would stir up the old animosities.

In 1947, when missionaries were again permanently assigned to Lewis County , one of the first tasks of the new missionaries was to visit the homes of known members, including Rachel and Visey Conder. The sisters were polite to the elders, allowing them to take photographs. In one missionary’s opinion, however, the sisters didn’t want to have anything to do with them after that out of fear it could cause them trouble. The men who had killed their brothers, crippled their mother and driven them from their home were all dead and gone, but the effects of their violence were still being felt. Even after sixty-three years, the fear was still strong.

Eventually the last two members of the Conder family at the massacre passed away. Rachel died in 1955, still in Lewis County at the age of eighty-seven. She was buried at Trace Creek Cemetery, a few miles south of Cane Creek. Visey died a few years later in 1958 at the age of eighty-eight. Visey was survived by her husband Will, two daughters, four grandchildren, and several great grandchildren.



Amy said...


BruceCrow said...

Thank you.

Cindyu said...

Hi Bruce,

Vicie Jane Rebecca Condor was my great grandmother. Her granddaughter (Mary Anne Haley) lived with me from the time I was 9 months old until I was 16.

She and I and her sister, Malinda, talked extensively about what happened. I have several pictures of "Aunt Rach and Mother" as they were called. (Note* grandmothers were called "Mother", while your own mother would be called "Mammee" in their day).

Mammee and Aunt Lindy knew Aunt Rach and Mother well, since they lived right next door on Trace Creek. I spent many nights in that house. The large portrait of Aunt Rach and Mother was also in my closet for ages (use to scare me!).

I would love to chat some more to hand over some more first hand knowledge so-to-speak or oral history Mammee and Aunt Lindy gave to me.

Cindyu said...

note: I meant to say my grandmother was Vicie's daughter.

BruceCrow said...

Thanks for stopping by. I wish I could have chatted before I wrote the paper, but lets definately chat now. I'll email you directly.

Vince said...

Hi Bruce
I just stumbled on to this page. James Conder was my Great Grand Uncle. I grew up hearing stories about him and Aunt "Sues" and the massacre. Thank you for such a well done paper. I don't know if you are aware of this but David Hinson was well known to Jim and several of his brothers as they had all served together in Clack’s 3rd Tennessee Infantry company "C". The Company "C" baptism of fire came at the Battle of FT Donelson. The company acquitted itself well but it was in vain as the Fort was surrendered on the 16th of February, 1862. After the surrender the entire Company was sent to the infamous Camp Douglas,often called the "Andersonville of the north" located in Chicago, Illinois. After being exchanged at Vicksburg on 23rd of September, 1862. The Unit was reintegrated into the Confederate forces just in time for the Battle of Raymond, Mississippi in May 1863.
Something you might find amusing, while searching for information on the Conder boys service I came across a document online that listed what had happened to all of the members of Company "C". Under the listing for David Hinson was this quote "After the war, he returned to Lewis county as did his other comrades in arms. The luck that was with him all through the fierce struggle of the war ran out several years later in 1884 when, during a visit to his old 3rd Tennessee comrades, the Conder boys on Cane Creek, he was killed along with them during the Mormon Massacre. He was aged 40 years. (Contributed by his descendant, Charles Hinson, Vice President of the Maury County Historical Society)" It would appear from the shading of the facts in that statement that the shame runs deep even generations later!

BruceCrow said...

Thanks for the comment, Vince. Which of "Aunt Sues" siblings are you descended through?

I had read about their service together before. Charles Hinson implied they knew each other, and they probably did, though I have have no direct evidence of it prior to the shooting.

I've never spoke with Charles about the massacre, he passed away two years ago. But I have been told by those who knew him that he did not share his ancestor's feeling about Mormons.

I'd love to speak with you about the stories you grew up hearing of the massacre. You can contact me at bruce_crow at yahoo dot com