The Yeater murders and Warren County’s “most shocking crime ever committed”

Editor’s note: while many of the most gruesome details of this story have been omitted or obscured, the following account may be disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.

National attention focuses on Warren County as grizzly murder has ties in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Missouri

Henry Yeater
Henry Yeater

Journalist Mildred Simon called it “The most shocking crime ever committed in Warren County.” The double murder of Mr. Henry W. and Mrs. Nettie Yeater, aged 70 and 60 respectively.

Mail carrier Otto Googenmoos was working his route August 30, 1903 until he discovered a note on Henry W. and Nettie Yeater’s mailbox. It read: “Mr. and Mrs. Yeater have been killed. Please report.”

Mr. Yeater was seventy years old. His wife, Nettie, was sixty, and who could have wanted them dead nearly seven miles north of quiet Warrenton sparked unbelievable possibilities. Googenmoos, potentially speculating about all those horrible possibilities, hollered and showed the note to close neighbors, who agreed someone needed to go into the home. A group of neighbors, including resident Marschal Morsey and Googenmoos, went to investigate. 

Entering the Yeater’s home, they immediately found the slain husband and wife in a bloody and ghastly crime scene. Based on the layout of the scene, they assumed Mrs. Yeater had been murdered first while Mr. Yeater, bedridden with inflammatory rheumatism in the autumn of his life, was killed immediately after. This assumption was backward.

The only person unaccounted for at the crime scene was the Yeater’s adopted son, William E. Church. When the neighbors reflected on the young man’s whereabouts, they hadn’t seen him since Sunday, when he was working rounds inquiring about buying cattle.

Nettie Yeater
Nettie Yeater

Mr. and Mrs. Yeater had no biological children and took in Church from the Ruberly House of Refuge when he was nine years old. His mother resided at the Moberly House with him, and it is unclear how the Yeater family came to adopt the young boy. Given the time and era, it is possible that Church’s mother simply handed him over in hopes of a better life. 

For a time, it seemed as though it worked out for the young boy. Mrs. Yeater loved him like she was her own son. But as Church aged he had run-ins with the law. Three years before the murder, Mrs. Yeater defended him when her sister accused William, then aged around 19, of stealing her gold watch. The State convicted him and sent him to a reformatory. Mrs. Yeater successfully petitioned the governor to release him early and took him back into their home.

William became the primary murder suspect immediately due to his disappearance and the handwriting on the note, which led everyone to believe he was a likely culprit. A bounty for $300 was issued for an arrest of anyone suspected of the killings. Everyone knew this to be for Church.

William Church threatens to return and kill everyone in town

William E. Church
William E. Church

William Church did not stay hidden for long. He fled the crime scene, abandoning his clothes in a cornfield, and boarded a train to St. Louis bound for Chicago and then to St. Paul, Minnesota. Once in Minnesota, he wrote a letter to the prosecutor in Warren County claiming no one could ever find him. Shortly afterward, he wrote another letter stating he would return to Warrenton “and murder everybody in town.”

These two letters were the first big break for the case in an era long before State Police or federal law enforcement investigators. Now, police and prosecutors in Warren County and St. Paul, Minnesota were looking for Church until a man matching his description joined the Navy in Cleveland, Ohio under the name William Buescher. William told Navy recruiters he had been traveling around the country. He was soon stationed and transferred to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, in Warren County, 14-year-old Wilhelmine “Minnie” Roewe Jaspering Moseley, received a series of letters. Rowe was William’s sweetheart crush since meeting at dances and picnics. After the murders, he sent her letters under the name “Lewis Laws”. Those letters led to his arrest after Law had apparently gotten her address after speaking with a buddy in the Navy. Roewe, with letters in hand, showed them to her brother-in-law, who immediately suspected the letters were from William Church. 

The postmarked letters were handed over to the Warren County Prosecutor, who contacted the police chief in Philadelphia. Philadelphia police joined with Warren County, St. Paul, and Cleveland officials in the search for Church under his false name.

J.E. Young, Mrs. Yeater’s brother-in-law, traveled to Philadelphia to help identify and reveal the man the Navy knew as Buescher. Upon arriving at the Philadelphia Naval base, he implored Navy officials to investigate the imposter in their ranks. While waiting for the chain of command to take statements, Mr. Young left to visit a nearby bar. On his way down the stairs he rubbed shoulders with Church. Philadelphia police and U.S. Navy officials quickly arrested him. He was held in a Philadelphia jail until extradition to a St. Louis prison.

At first, Church denied the heinous murder but later confessed, clarifying some of the details many had speculated about at the crime scene: 

“On August 31, 1903, I arrived home at night and drank some blackberry wine which was in the house. I then went upstairs after looking in the door to see that Mr. and Mrs. Yeater were in bed. Mr. Yeater called me into his room, and after a brief conversation, I went into my own room.

I stayed there for a short time and then I went to the cigar box and got my razor, where I always kept it. Then I went to the first floor first. Mr. Yeater was lying on his bed, and I cut his throat.

After satisfying myself that he was dead I went over (to)… Mrs. Yeater’s bed…

I then went into my room and collected a few of my clothes. I wrote a note for the mail carrier and placed it out on the box. I then started for Gore. I changed my clothes in a cornfield and threw them away because they were bloody.

At Gore I bought a ticket for St. Louis and from there went to Chicago. At Buffalo, where I stayed a week, I wrote a letter to J.E. Young of Warrenton and told him I would return and kill him in July unless he left there. I went to Cleveland, Ohio, where I enlisted in the Marine Corps on December 2. I left on December 31 for League Island, where I have been ever since till the day of my arrest. — Signed W.E. Church.”

Church’s arrival in St. Louis created a large stir. The Sheriff told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat that the local feeling against the young man was “intense.”

Upon his arrival in Warrenton, Sheriff J. G. Polster heard the reasoning behind William’s crime. Church told Polster,

“I had for several years contemplated getting the old people out of the way… but it was not until that night when I arrived at the house about 1 o’clock in the morning that I thought of doing it right away. The old couple had several times threatened to cut me out of their will. The idea of killing them was put into my head by another (naming one of the relatives of Mr. and Mrs. Yeater). He told me that when the old couple were dead, he would receive the greater portion of the estate and that he would give me $500 if they got them out of the way. I thought the matter over and decided that I would accept the offer.

Church pleads ‘not guilty’ to the murder of Mr. and Mrs. Yeater

Later in April 1904, a wild eight months after the killings, Church pleaded not guilty to the charge of murder in a Warren County Court.

During the trial, Church’s jailers believed the man to be mentally deficient since he was kicked in the head as a boy. Church’s attorney brought in a doctor to examine Church’s mental capabilities and found people who knew the man to testify that he was “weak-minded.”

This defense did not help Church and he was found guilty and sentenced to death. The fact that his younger brother Ernest had, after the murders, been arrested for theft did not help his case, either. These two brothers’ criminal intent caused nearly everyone to muse about what causes criminality. Their biological relationship caused the Macron Times to hypothesize about the inheritability of criminality. The article, titled “Ancestral Taint?”, left readers with an open-ended statement about the possibility of research into ancestral influence and crime. 

Church posed problems and questions about criminality in jail and in death

Even behind bars, William E. Church continued to cause trouble. He appeared in the news for attacking a fellow prisoner in the summer of 1905.

In December 1906, J.E. Young, the same man who went to Philadelphia to find him, went to Jefferson City to enter a preemptive protest against Missouri Governor Joseph W. Folk from granting Church clemency due to Church’s supposed mental instability. His execution was scheduled for January 10, 1907. Gov. Folk declined to intervene in the case.

Church’s defense lawyers applied for a writ of habeas corpus of the execution pending the appeal they launched at the U.S. Supreme Court. Their rationale was that Church did not receive a fair trial under the auspice of the jurors, who expressed negative ideas about him before the trial. As evidence, defense attorneys claimed Sheriff Polster himself had publicly said there was intense feelings against Church. The overseeing judge said he had no jurisdiction to grant a writ of habeas corpus. Church’s execution remained scheduled for 9 am on January 10, 1907 by lynching. 

Church proved almost as vexing in death as in life. Where his body would go after the execution raised questions. His biological mother, now in Kansas, could not or would not care for the body. Three years earlier in 1904, authorities connected to Church’s trial did not know where his mother or father were.

Some medical professionals deemed Church insane and wanted to perform an autopsy and examine his brain for clues leading back to his crimes. There were even questions about the legality of an autopsy. One doctor, Dr. A W. Graham, wanted Church to sign his body over to him so he could perform the procedure for medical science. 

Almost as much as it was unclear why Church and his brother harbored such criminal intent, so too it is unclear what actually happened with Church’s body after his execution on January 10, 1907.

Additional works cited and other sources

  •  Mrs. William P. Simon, “The Murder of Mr. and Mrs. Henry W. Yeater on August 30, 1903,” Warrenton Banner, November 4, 1965.
  •  “Confession of Church,” Warrenton Banner, April 1, 1904.
  •  “Murderer Church Arrives,” St. Louis Daily Globe Democrat, April 1, 1904.
  •  “Church Pleads Not Guilty,” Mexico Missouri Message, April 28, 1904.
  •  “Jailers Believe Church Mentally Deficient,” St. Louis Daily Globe Democrat, August 23, 1904. 
  •  “Ancestral Taint?,” Macron Times, April 13, 1905.
  •  “William E. Church,” Marthaville Record, August 18, 1905.
  •  “Wright City News,” Marthaville Record, December 6, 1906.
  •  “Gov. Folk Declined to Interfere..,” Marthaville Record, January 4, 1907.
  •  “Habeas Corpus may be Secured for Church, Convicted Slayer,” St. Louis Daily Globe Democrat, January 9, 1907.
  •  “Church is Told Last Hope is Gone,” St. Louis Daily Globe Democrat, January 10, 1907.
  •  “To Prove a Murderer Insane,” King City Chronicle. August 5, 1904.

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