John Avy, the "Phantom of the Ozarks," was a "godfather" a century before his time. His criminal exploits in the 1830s – wholesale thievery, counterfeiting, murder-for-hire and the political corruption to make it all possible – marked the most lawless period in Missouri history, making Jesse James' gang a few decades later seem mild and inept by comparison. It took a vigilante group known as the "Slickers" to bring him down.
"The ruling spirit was a man far removed from his assumed character of a simple pioneer. He was so shrewd in concealing his identity and his connection with the outlaws … " J. W. Vincent
John Avy was a chameleon, adept at blending with his immediate surroundings. He wore different faces designed not only to deceive and confuse, but also to conceal his true identity and give him anonymity. They helped create the enigma that surrounded the man who was to become known as the "Phantom of the Ozarks."
The face Avy most often wore was that of a simple, decent, soft-spoken man. There appeared to be nothing sinister about him. He kept to himself and no one really knew, or cared, for that matter, what he did for a living or from where he came. He seemed just another settler who had drifted west in the late 1820s as the frontier, then Missouri, opened up. He preferred the obscurity of the backwoods near what is now the sprawling tourist center of the Lake of the Ozarks. A low profile was the way he wanted it and this posture served his purposes well for many years.
Behind another face, rarely seen by the public, was a calculating, perverse and violent man.
Avy was, in fact, a Mafia "Godfather" a century before his time. He and his trusted, loyal soldiers, a collection of murderers, robbers, thieves, swindlers, manipulators and extortionists, were the precursor of organized crime in Missouri, if not the country. As primitive as it might have been, the Avy mob was unlike the rag-tag outlaws of the time. It was as sophisticated, ruthless, disciplined and as cohesive as any contemporary crime family, perhaps lacking only in the opportunities that exist today. Jesse James' gang a few decades later would seem meek and inept by comparison.
Avy and his gang chose Ha Ha Tonka Spring, now a popular state park at the southern edge of the Lake of the Ozarks, with its many caves, deep gorges and heavy forests as their base of operations. It was remote and offered ideal concealment. The Osage Indians, who had considered the spring sacred ground and had used it for tribal meetings, had abandoned the spring only a few years earlier. A true den of thieves, it was a place few men from the outside visited.
It was a time of great instability and uncertainty in the region and Avy was quick to take advantage of it. Mere existence was difficult for the settlers and they worked hard scratching out livings from the land. Their few, treasured possessions had been earned with their sweat and blood and they would not surrender them peacefully.
There were criminal laws, but not much legally constituted authority to enforce them. Anarchy, with Avy and his men at the center, soon descended on the area. It would become the most lawless era in Missouri's history and would ensure Avy a place in the darker side of the state's history.
Avy's mob would soon enough make its ominous presence felt. Bodies began littering the countryside. Horses, cattle and valuable personal possessions were disappearing at an alarming rate. Several men who searched for their missing livestock were found slain. Residents of the area soon understood the message: mind your own business or suffer the worst of all consequences. Those few who had the courage to speak out about what was happening were coerced with threats of death. Most soon fell silent about what was happening around them.
The Shadow Government
"One of Avy's henchmen smugly boasted to a settler that he could steal a horse and have the settler sent to the penitentiary for the crime."
Still, Avy remained largely unnoticed in the background of the burgeoning frontier. As his crime cartel expanded over the ensuing decade, he became more audacious. He needed to know what his potential enemies were planning and, more importantly, to influence, if not control, them. To gain such an edge required an intelligence apparatus and Avy was up to the task. He became a master of espionage. It was a shadow government he set about creating to satisfy his and his criminal organization's lust for power, wealth and, no less importantly, self-preservation.
Several of Avy's agents were elected to public office. He targeted the judiciary and what little law enforcement there was. Bribery and outright intimidation were the common tools of corruption then as today and he did not hesitate employing them. Avy's success only emboldened the gang. One of his henchmen smugly boasted to a settler that he could steal a horse and have the settler sent to the penitentiary for the crime.
No criminal endeavor escaped Avy. He was first of all a visionary and an entrepreneur in his chosen field. Financial turmoil brought on by a severe economic depression prevailed in the fledgling nation in the 1830s. In Missouri, which had been granted statehood just 10 years earlier, fiscal policy became embroiled in bitter controversy over what form of money the official state financial institution, the Bank of the State of Missouri, should recognize.
The "hards" advocated gold and silver coins for their stability and the "softs" preferred paper money because of its convenience. There was as yet no uniformity of currency and there were as many kinds and denominations as there were issuers, governmental and private.
Such fiscal chaos invited Avy's mischief and he chose both sides of the debate. It was a win-win situation. He created the "Bank of Niangua," named after the river into which Ha Ha Tonka Spring drained. It was to become his most ambitious – and profitable – venture.
The Bank of Niangua was not the ordinary street corner bank. Nor was it open to the public. In fact, it almost was impossible to find, for it was located in the spring's caves. Printing presses and minting machinery were installed and large quantities of supplies were carted to the spring. Soon, worthless currency and coins were circulating over a wide area as far away as the East Coast. It wasn't long before it became the largest and most notorious counterfeiting operation in the nation. The Avy gang even counterfeited Mexican currency.
Bankers, the biggest victims of the ersatz money, demanded action. Thievery was one thing; swindling them and disrupting an already shaky economy was quite another. Even in such a remote and inaccessible area as the spring, the enterprise could not remain undetected for long. It was discovered by accident and promptly reported to the law.
The United States marshal from Jefferson City led a posse to the spring, where they arrested several of the gang members, who subsequently were sentenced to prison. But the raid did not deter Avy and the bank continued cranking out phony money.
Enter The Slickers
"The organization (Slickers) had for its aim only resistance to unlawful encroachments…" J. W. Vincent
By the early 1840s, the anarchy created by the Avy mob had aroused great public indignation and frustration. Lives, property and money no longer were safe from this criminal monolith and the citizenry was ill equipped to protect itself. In response, a group of citizens decided to take the law into their own hands.
They became the gangbusters of the times. The justice they meted out was unique, but effective. Miscreants were stripped of their clothing and whipped in public by hickory branches that had been toughened by heating. The corporal punishment was called "slicking" and the vigilantes who administered it became known as "Slickers." Of the 300 known vigilante groups identified throughout the country during this time, the "Slickers" became known as one of the largest and most effective.
The first shot had been fired in what history would record as the "Slicker War" with the spurious Bank of Niangua at the center. Avy responded quickly to the challenge. He had several well-placed spies in the Slickers who kept him informed of their activities and plans. However, they eventually were exposed and Avy's stream of information dried up. A calculating man, Avy sensed his clandestine empire was beginning to crumble. Whispers of discontent among his troops were disturbing. The anonymity with which he had cloaked himself for so many years was being penetrated, exposing the real man. Fingers of suspicion were pointing at him.
Avy reacted as any desperate, self-respecting mob boss would. He put out murder contracts on a popular law-and-order judge and several associates of the Slickers. Avy had raised the stakes, his ultimate act of defiance.
His hit men weren't that proficient. They mistakenly shot and killed an innocent young man who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Avy and his thugs now had exceeded the impropriety of even those times.
Public outrage swirled immediately like a sudden thunderstorm. The thirst for justice could be quenched in only one way. The murder of the young man had occurred near the home of a family known to be sympathetic to the "Anti-Slickers." One of the family's sons was arrested almost immediately.
That night, the Slickers, now an angry, uncontrollable lynching mob, clamorously descended on the jailhouse en masse, seeking summary judgment at the nearest tree. Their torches cast an ominous glow over the scene. The local blacksmith, a burly man, his sledgehammer clenched tightly in his hands, stood ready to smash throughout the jailhouse door. A self-appointed executioner hovered nearby, a noose dangling by his side. The mournful wails of the accused man could be heard above the commotion outside.
At the last moment, the murdered boy's grieving father intervened. He argued for due process, pleading with the mob to let a court of law determine the guilt or innocence of the suspect and mete out proper justice. After all, he insisted, it was his son who was killed and wasn't true justice what the "Slickers" were all about?
The mob backed down and left the young man in custody of the jailer, who also was the sheriff. He was not above suspicion, himself. It was believed he was one of Avy's agents. The next morning, both the suspect and the sheriff had disappeared, never to be seen again. It only could be speculated what had happened.
An Improbable Snitch
"Avy … turned traitor at the last in order to save his own worthless life …" J. W. Vincent
Avy's mob was in disarray. The Slickers had proven themselves a formidable adversary. For Avy, a realist who had perfected the finer art of treachery, there was only one escape from his dilemma. He became a snitch, not only on the Bank of Niangua, but on his men and the roles they had played in his criminal enterprise. He even set up two of his men, including a lieutenant, to be killed. He lured one of the victims from his home.
The Slickers rounded up Avy's underlings, many of whom were hiding in the caves of Ha Ha Tonka Spring. A few, dispirited over their leader's cowardice and disloyalty, fled the area.
The Slickers were the prosecutor, judge and jury for those who remained behind. But they were compassionate. Those against whom there was considerable evidence of wrongdoing were convinced to leave the region and never return. There was no doubt about the alternative. Others, who successfully argued they were victims of circumstances, were permitted to remain. It was an informal probation and the watchful eyes of the Slickers monitored their behavior.
The Slickers raided the caves of Ha Ha Tonka, but little evidence of the Bank of Niangua was found. Later, the presses, equipment and supplies were unearthed nearby.
History doesn't record what happened to Avy. Best speculation at the time was that, because of his confession, he was exiled to another part of the country.
One only can imagine the power and influence this criminally brilliant man could eventually have wielded not only in the infant underworld but in the larger community had he been left to his own devices, had he been less bold and more pragmatic in his approach to crime. But, like so many crime lords who succeeded him over the next century and a half, greed blinded good judgment, duplicity succumbed to revenge, and Avy fell victim of himself.
The era of lawlessness in the area had come to an end after more than a decade. But the reputation of the Slickers lingered and spread to nearby regions. Justice took on a new meaning – an excuse for mob rule – and due process became no process. Vigilantes perverted the law they were supposed to enforce and used vengeance in the name of justice to settle personal feuds.
Half a century later, Vincent justified the vigilantes:
"Thrown upon their own resources in the inhospitable wilderness, beyond the reach of the protecting arm of the law, confronted by an enemy more unscrupulous, cunning and insinuating than the red savage of the forest, they opposed force with force …"
"Of course, the immediate effect of the "Slicker" victory was a general purification of the moral atmosphere. Crude and primitive as had been the remedies employed, the cure was radical, and for a time complete."
"No more counterfeiting, no more horse stealing, no more insecurity and dread of unseen evil."
Information for this article was obtained from a speech made by Vincent in 1898 before the Nehemgar Club in Sedalia, Mo., and from an article by historian Curtis H. Synhorst based on his research for a doctorate degree at the University of Missouri – Columbia. These documents are in the archives of the Missouri Historical Society.