Young Brothers Massacre of January 2, 1932
Around this time of year eight decades ago, “one of the most bizarre events in the history of crime occurred,” as quoted in Young Brothers Massacre, a 1988 book by Paul W. and Mary H. Barrett—one of over 15,000 artifacts in the Museum’s ever-growing collection. Though tragic, this enigmatic event would affect future policing in America, particularly how officers would prepare for and handle potential armed standoff situations involving fugitives and known criminals.
On January 2, 1932, a drab winter day in the midst of the Great Depression, ten ill-prepared law enforcement officers reported to the Young family farm near Brookline, a village in central Greene County, Missouri, to arrest two local brothers for auto theft.
Area law enforcers, like most members of the small community, were familiar with the Young family. In 1918, law enforcement became especially familiar with three of J.D. and Willie Florence Young’s sons—Paul, Harry and Jennings. The law enforcement officers then consisted of only a town marshal, a “night watch,” the sheriff, and his one deputy, with whom the Young brothers achieved a reputation as well-known thieves, each spending time in state and federal penitentiaries for burglary and theft throughout the 1920s.
Despite their run-ins with the law, local law enforcement had come to consider the brothers as “small-time criminals” until June 2, 1929, when Harry Young allegedly murdered Republic (MO) City Marshal and Night Watchman or “night watch” Mark Noe after he stopped Young and another ex-convict for drunk driving. Then Harry became a wanted fugitive and fled, evidently living in Texas under the alias Claude Walker, working for a dairy for a couple years, entwined in a sweeping auto theft business in which Paul and Jennings were also implicated. Law enforcement, however, did not organize any national search for Harry.
After remaining inconspicuous for some time, Harry, along with Jennings, paid a visit to the family farm, driving up from Texas in two stolen Ford coupes. The day after New Year’s Day, 1932, Greene County Sheriff Marcell Hendrix was tipped off that two of the Young brothers were back after a local man reported that two Young sisters had attempted to sell him what he believed to be a stolen car. After questioning the sisters, law enforcement gathered that they would find the Young brothers at the family farm.
Without any concrete planning or agreement on strategy, Sheriff Hendrix, nine fellow officers from various departments in Greene County and one civilian trekked to the Young farm to surprise and apprehend them. Evidently, none of the lawmen took the expedition very seriously, and while they knew about Harry’s violent record, none even considered a shootout feasible. In many ways the officers were woefully unprepared by today’s standards, carrying only two tear gas shells and pistols without much spare ammunition. Some law enforcement agencies in other parts of the country had made progress toward becoming more professional, but in such a rural county, what training the men had they’d come by through experience.
At the farm, the officers shouted for the Young brothers to surrender, to no avail. Finally Sheriff Hendrix led two others to the back of the house and kicked down the door. In minutes, six of the ten officers had been killed—Sheriff Hendrix; Greene County Deputies Ollie Crosswhite and Wiley Mashburn; and Chief of Detectives Tony Oliver, Patrolman Sidney Meadows and Officer Charley Houser, “paddy-wagon driver,” all of the Springfield (MO) Police Department. Lacking more ammunition, four other officers retreated safely, escaping the fate of their fallen colleagues. The survivors were Detectives Frank Pike, Owen Brown, Ben Bilyeu, and Virgil Johnson. The brothers escaped to Houston, Texas, where they were killed in another shootout with local law enforcement on January 5.
Although the Brookline law enforcement shootout involving the Young brothers made national news in 1932, most reports and statements from officials failed to address an obvious (from a modern lens) and important lesson: the need for scientific, intelligent training for law enforcement officers, including instruction in the capture and arrest of criminals. The need for “high-powered rifles for the protection of the city police force” was recommended by Springfield, Missouri, Mayor Thomas Gideon, the only mention of instituting new practices in light of the shootings.
The highest number of law officers killed in one incident at the time, the shooting at the Young farm became known as the Young Brothers Massacre. More than 50 years would pass before any other event would challenge its record. Today, it is exceeded by few other incidents, most notably the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the deadliest day in law enforcement history when 72 officers died. The 1932 massacre holds the record for the deadliest single law enforcement gunfight in the 20th century.
The names of the six officers killed are inscribed on panel 16, line 17 of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial's East wall.When the National Law Enforcement Museum opens in Washington, DC’s Judiciary Square, it will tell the rich history of American law enforcement—including the process of how law enforcement became increasingly professional throughout the 20th century as training improved—through high-tech, interactive exhibits, collections, research and education.