The Sorrowful Tale of Charley May

By Andy May

Note to readers, this post is not on climate change. It is an essay on the life of a distant and notorious relative of mine.

Charles Floyd May as a young man

Charles Floyd May was hanged April 17, 1903 at 9:43AM for shooting John Robert “Bob” Martin to death with a pistol on December 27, 1900. Charley, as his friends called him, was only 29 years old and had had a troubled past. He was born in Buchanan County Missouri, August 9, 1873. Oddly, Charley’s hanging was only nine days after my grandfather Ernest May, Charley’s cousin, was married to his first wife, Daisy, at the age of 25.

He died well, no tears and not a muscle twitched, his last words were:

“As I am about to meet the mystery of death I want to say to you my friends that I bear no ill will or malice toward any living man. Whatever sins I have committed I hope will be forgiven and that I may meet you all again in immortality. I forgive my enemies as I hope to be forgiven and now declare that the death of John Robert Martin was not intentional on my part and was never for a moment premeditated.”

How did Charley May reach his end? We will tell what we know. For those who are in the May family, Charley was the son of David May, who was the third child of Isaac May and the older brother of Zachariah May and George May. George played a prominent role in Charley’s turbulent life and Zachariah attended Charley’s hanging in support of him.

Location map. The locations of Charley May’s crimes are marked, as well as his hometown of Williamstown, Kansas.

His early days

When Charley was very small, his family moved to a farm near Williamstown, Kansas, which is just west of Kansas City. Williamstown was founded in 1865 on the banks of Stone House Creek. The creek was named for a stone house built by the U.S. government in 1825 for Chief White Plume (Nom-pa-wa-rah) of the Kaw Indian tribe. The chief signed a treaty in 1825 ceding millions of acres of Kaw land to the United States, he was also the great-great grandfather of Charles Curtis, the 31st Vice President of the United States (from 1929-1933) and a United States Senator. Curtis was the first person with significant Native American ancestry to reach such a high level in the U.S. government. His mother was a Kaw and Curtis, himself, was a member of the Kaw nation.

Williamstown is in the rolling prairie lands of eastern Kansas, spotted with oak trees and containing rich farm land. It also contains abundant limestone, well suited for building. In the early days of Williamstown, they were plagued by war between the Missouri-based pro-slavery Democratic party and the Kansas anti-slavery Republican party, this culminated in the Battle of Hickory Creek in 1856, where the anti-slavery party prevailed. The Civil War was also a time of great unrest and peril. In particular, bands of jayhawkers, who originally organized to drive the rebels (generally Missouri pro-slavery Democrats) from Kansas but became thieves and ruffians who preyed on the citizens. In the later part of the Civil War, the law-abiding citizens became outraged by the jayhawkers and organized to hunt them down and either kill them or drive them out of the county. No jayhawkers were captured, they were all killed or fled.

By the time Charles May’s family moved to the area, everything had settled down and the area had become very civilized. However, the violent past of the area was surely talked about. Given the feelings between the Missourians and the Kansans, one would think that this enmity played a role in Charley’s troubles, but no mention of this is made in the reports from the time.

Charley lived and worked on the Williamstown family farm until he was 17 years old. His lifelong dream had been to become a train engineer, so after he turned 17 he moved to Topeka, Kansas. In Topeka, he worked for the Santa Fe railroad and by the age of 19 he was a locomotive fireman. He worked for Santa Fe until 1894 when, during a strike, he moved to Kansas City where he remained until 1896.

In 1896, Charley took a leave of absence from his employer, and went to visit his Uncle George W. May on his 20-acre farm near Rushville, Missouri. It was on this trip that Charley’s troubles began.

The Sugar Lake Feud

The 36-year old George May and the 51-year old William Burdette owned adjoining farms near Rushville. They did not get along and often fought. They seemed to disagree on everything, for example, William Burdette would not allow George May to trap skunks on his property. The feud escalated after George fenced in his property. Burdette’s farm was not on the main road and they had to cross May’s land to get to it. For this reason, he used the courts to force May to allow a road through May’s property to the main road. George was compensated for the lost land, but was enraged, none-the-less. The enmity between William and George was soon extended to William’s son Bill and George’s nephew Charley, who did not meet until just before the killing of William Burdette on February 9, 1896.

George and Bill had physically fought in 1895, George won the fight, but Bill had him arrested and George was fined $17.50. The enmity between the two families increased yet again and was well known in the area. It was sometimes called the “Sugar Lake Feud.” George May’s rage at the Burdette’s grew and he was known to have threatened them many times in late 1895 and early 1896.

Newspaper reports from time suggest that most of the community sided with the Burdette’s. The Sedalia Democrat reported on February 14, 1896 that

“The feeling against the Mays is said to be strong in that locality [Buchanan County, Mo.]”

The St. Joseph Weekly Herald reports:

“The entire community in the south part of the county are very much worked up over this last unfortunate affair and the feeling runs high against the murderers of the Burdettes.”

George May was known as a “scrapper” or fighter and had been in trouble before. The younger Bill Burdette had also been in trouble with the law in Kansas. While living there he stole (or possibly “borrowed” without permission) a set of harness. For this he was ordered to stay in his home for a time. It was after his release that he made his way back to Rushville and to his father’s home. The 23-year old Charley May had reportedly briefly been in jail in Kansas in 1895, it is unclear why, but soon after his release in early 1896 he moved in with his Uncle George. This was about two weeks before the fight. Charley was new to the area and unknown to the locals.

The killing of William Burdette

Sunday morning, February 9, 1896, George May, his two little girls (ages 11 and 13) and Charley May dressed in their best clothes and walked about a mile to the Sugar Creek Church. William Burdette, his wife and five daughters (one married) and Claude Andrews also made their way to the church by wagon and horseback. After the church services, some of the congregants gathered around the church’s two stoves, as it was very cold that day.

Bill Burdette recalled that, while they were gathered around the stoves, George May pointed him out and told Charley May “There he is.” Bill also says that George pointed out his father, William Burdette, to Charley. But, none of the other dozen or so people gathered around the stoves remembers this.

After a short time warming themselves at the stove, the May family leaves the church and begins the walk home. They walk west for about 200 yards then turn south and enter a cornfield owned by a Mr. Elliot. The family moves through the cornfield for a short distance until Charley helps the girls through a hedge to a raised bank that lies between a ditch along the road and the hedge. Along the top of the bank, which is about five feet high, there is a path that Charley and the girls walk on. George, the girl’s father, stays in the cornfield.

There are many accounts of the following events and they differ in several details. No one can know exactly what happened that fateful day 122 years ago, but the following story seems most likely.

After the May family walked a short distance, Bill Burdette rides up alongside them on his horse. Charley sees him and immediately says:

“Wild Bill! Never fought and never will.”

Bill Burdette replies: “What is that to you, you Goddamn son of a bitch.”

Charley replies: “Christ Bill; I wouldn’t take that off my daddy.”

Charley then immediately takes off down the bank toward Bill and his horse. Bill then throws an apple at Charley. Once Charley reaches Bill he grabs his overcoat, which tears off in his hand and Charley falls to his knees. Bill jumps off his horse and onto Charley, the fight starts, and Charley turns Bill over, they roll to the bottom of the ditch and Charley gets on top of him.

At this time, William Burdette and his wife pull up to the altercation and William’s wife pleads with her husband to help her son or “Charley might kill him.” William grabs his whip and rushes to the fight and begins beating Charley over the head with the whip handle, just as Charley was beating Bill about the head with his fists.

After William strikes Charley with his whip handle most, but not all witnesses, say George May came over the hedge and picks up a club (a piece of fence rail) on the bank and William turns to him and says: “Don’t you come down here.” George steps down into the ditch at that point and says: “Don’t you hit him anymore.” William then turns and strikes George on the thumb with the whip handle as George tries to ward off the incoming blow with his arms and the rail. Then George strikes William on the head with the rail and William goes down.

Nearly everyone present says that George May struck William Burdette twice with the rail, but members of the Burdette family say the second blow was struck when William was on the ground and members of the May family say that William stood up after the first blow and reached for his pocket before George May struck him the second time. A disinterested observer, James Coleman, corroborates the May account that William Burdette stood up after the first blow, but did not see William reach for his pocket. Either way, the second blow was probably the fatal blow and William Burdette’s skull was broken open. According to Mrs. Burdette, she begged George May for mercy after the second blow was struck, Mrs. Ida Elliot, one of Mr. and Mrs. Burdette’s daughters, claims her mother begged for mercy before the second blow was struck. William clung to life, unconscious, until 11PM that night and then expired.

At this point, the May children say that George told Charley that was enough: “Come on Charley, that will do.” James Coleman confirms that Charley got off Bill at that point but did not hear the statement, as he was too far away. The May girls say that once Charley and Bill got up, Bill grabbed the whip and began beating Charley with it. At that point, it appears Charley stabbed Bill with a pocket knife. James Coleman confirms that a new scuffle started at that time but was too far away to see the stabbing. He did see Bill sink toward the bank after the scuffle and Charley and George move on down the road. At some point in the fight, it is clear Charley did stab Bill in the side. It’s unclear when this happened, and the witness accounts differ. We chose the version presented because it was witnessed at close range by the young May girls and corroborated by the only dispassionate observer, James Coleman. Some say it was early in the fight and some say it was later, at the end of the fight. Given how fiercely Bill fought, it seems much more likely that the stabbing happened at the end of the fight as the May girls say. In any case, the stab wound, initially thought to be serious, was shallow and Bill recovered.

In the first trial in 1896, Charles and George May were convicted of first-degree pre-meditated, deliberate murder and conspiracy to murder William Burdette. The threats that George May had made to harm William Burdette prior to Charles May’s arrival in Rushville were the evidence for this. However, the defense noted that Charles was not there so there was no conspiracy. The Supreme Court of Missouri held that no conspiracy to commit murder existed and that the killing of William Burdette was an act of passion without planning.

The court further ruled that there were two separate fights and convicting Charley and George for the same killing when Charley didn’t even know the second fight was happening was incorrect. The result of the Supreme Court ruling was that Charley May’s sentence was reduced to two years and George May’s sentence was reduced to 10 years. Charley and George May were sent to prison in the final days of 1897.

The killing of Bob Martin

Charley May was released from prison in 1900, or at the very end of 1899, and it didn’t take much time for him to get into serious trouble again. Upon leaving the prison, Charley made his way to the DeKalb, Missouri area and secured employment as a farm hand with Peter Jones. While employed by Jones, Charley May was selected to be the floor manager of a dance party at the Jones’ residence. He arranged for the music and called the square dance moves as part of the job. The party was held on December 27, 1900. About 50 people were in attendance.

Charley May and John Robert “Bob” Martin did not know one another prior to the dance. At about 11PM, Charles May was calling the square dance and Bob Martin and his dance partner, Bettie Simmons, should have participated in a certain figure and did not, but remained standing on the dance floor. Charley approached Bob and spoke to him. Miss Simmons did not hear exactly what was said but thought Bob Martin said something to the effect that Charley had not slighted him in any way, but that he had slighted himself by not dancing at the proper time. As Charley turned away, he was heard to say that if Bob Martin said he slighted him he was a “damned liar.”:

Bob Martin replied heatedly: “You are another.”

Charley then stopped the music and approached Bob and said: “[He] did not allow any damned man to call him a liar.”

Some of the dancers (the Jones brothers and Mr. Gantt) then seized Charley, while Babe Martin stepped in front of his brother and told his brother to be quiet and not cause any trouble. Bob Martin stood still but did make some offensive remarks toward Charley. At that time Mrs. Jones stepped into the room and said to Charley: “Let’s have no fuss here Charley. You know where you’re at.”

Charley replied “Well, all right.” He then turned as if to leave the room and said to Bob Martin: “I will see you in the morning.”

Bob Martin stepped from behind his brother Babe, approached Charley and said: “I’m from Missouri and you’ll have to show me.” Or according to other accounts and more likely “Turn him loose. Now is as good a time as any.” Charley then quickly drew his revolver from his hip pocket and fired at Bob Martin from under the arm of one of the Jones boys and struck him above the right eye. The bullet entered Martin’s brain and he lost consciousness instantly, dying the next morning.

Babe Martin then drew his pistol and began firing, as the Jones brothers fled. In all, six to eight shots were fired, all by Charley and Babe. Babe was not hit, but Charley was struck in the shoulder and right hand. A Mr. McGee was hit by a ricochet in the ear but only slightly wounded. In the confusion, Charley retreated to an adjoining room and made his way out of the house.

Charley hid in the brush and timber near DeKalb that night. He was spotted the next morning and attacked by a sheriff’s posse. The gun battle that followed lasted most of the day with more than twenty shots fired. Charley made his escape that evening and boarded a train to Rushville. Once in Rushville he made his way to the Jones home and ask Mr. Jones and his son to help him give himself up. This was because he was in great pain from his wounds. They accompanied him to St. Joseph where he turned himself in to the Sheriff and his wounds were dressed. He was charged with first-degree murder on March 5, 1901.

In the instructions to the jury, they were given the option of finding Charley guilty of pre-meditated, deliberate first-degree murder or murder in the second degree which, in Missouri at the time, was pre-meditated but not deliberate. The judge instructed the jury to choose second-degree if they had any doubt about Charley’s deliberation. However, they still found him guilty of first-degree murder. Judge Benjamin Casteel of the criminal court in Buchanan County, Missouri then pronounced Charley guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced him to hang in 1901.

In all, Charley May had three trials. In the first he was convicted of first-degree murder, but the conviction was reversed by the Supreme Court. The second trial resulted in a hung jury. He was convicted again in the third trial, which was also appealed to the Supreme Court of Missouri and affirmed by them February 3, 1903. The hanging was set for April 17, 1903.

Charley had many supporters and visitors, it seems that women especially supported him. Just before the hanging Missouri Governor Dockery was bombarded with hundreds of telegrams asking him to commute Charley’s sentence to life in prison. One of Charley’s supporters was his high school sweetheart, Emily Becker of Topeka Kansas, who worked tirelessly in his behalf. Sadie Flannagan, a woman who had never met Charley, visited him often in his cell. One week before his hanging he converted to Catholicism. His priest was Father Graham of St. Patrick’s Church. Charley made a full confession to the priest.

The hanging took place on April 17 at 9:43 AM. At the jail he was met by his uncle Zachariah May (the author’s great-grandfather) and his devoted sister Mrs. Minnie Mitchell. Charley May was accompanied to the gallows by his priest, Father Graham. The hanging was done well, and Charley’s neck was broken in two places, so it is thought he felt no pain.

The funeral was held at Buster cemetery the next day and attended by an estimated (and, possibly exaggerated) 6,000 people. It was said that as many as 200 of the women kissed his face as he lay dead in the casket, although this story is much in doubt. Reverend Estep gave a short address at the graveside warning all the young men in attendance not to do what Charley had done.

Discussion

Charley was a very troubled person and extraordinarily sensitive to perceived slights and insults. When he thought he was being insulted or slighted, he lashed out violently and without thought. In the end this is what did him in. He was strong, handsome, young and healthy, had many friends, a large and loving family and could have done very well. His only problem was a lack of self-control and an inability to brush off perceived insults and criticism. It is a shame he came to his end, but it was predictable given his behavior. The take-away from this story is to keep control of yourself and to teach your children to do the same.

Charles May Bibliography

Full documentation and copies of the articles used for this post can be downloaded here.

Cutler, William G. and A. T. Andreas, History of the State of Kansas, April 1999, link.

Southwestern Reporter, volume 43, page 637, State versus May, et al., Supreme Court of Missouri, December 22, 1897, link.

Sedalia Democrat, February 14, 1896.

Topeka Daily Capital, February 11, 1896.

Kansas City Daily Journal, 12 December 1896.

Kansas City Daily Journal, 24 November 1896.

St. Joseph Daily News, 12/28/1900

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 17 April 1903, page 3.

Sedalia Democrat, 30 December 1900

St. Joseph Gazette-Herald, February 26, 1902, link.

Southwestern Reporter, volume 71-72, page 918, State v. May, Supreme Court of Missouri, link.

Hearn, Daniel, Legal Executions in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri, page 157, McFarland & Company Publishers, 2016. Link.

Pine, Jeremy, May Genealogy, the ancestors of Dorothy, Nelson and Donald May, link.

Note to interested researchers, the digital newspapers cited in this post were found on newspapers.com.