Although Ken McElroy was illiterate – he had dropped out of school at age thirteen, without mastering basic reading and writing – he was still quite cunning. He knew that his intimidating reputation was his greatest protection, so he carefully went about cultivating and enhancing that rep. As the author of a biography that chronicled McElroy’s life and death put it:
“He knew which people to pick on — the weak people — and he followed through on his threats just often enough to make people believe he was going to do what he said he was going to do. He had a legendary status, and it all got to be bigger than he was. Somebody would hear his name, and the legend grew bigger. When he got off on a trial, it grew even bigger. It went beyond just hammering people and being mean-spirited“.
Ken McElroy firmly established himself as Skidmore’s reigning thug and town bully. People were intimidated into putting up with his crimes and violent antics for so long, that his presence and depredations just became an accepted part of life in that part of Missouri. That changed in April, 1980.
It began with McElroy’s wife and erstwhile child bride, Trena, now grown up into a nasty piece of work in her own right. She told him that 70-year-old Bo Bowenkamp and his wife Lois, owners of the local grocery store, had accused the McElroys’ four-year-old daughter of shoplifting some penny candy. Accompanied by her husband, Trena McElroy returned to the store, and subjected the elderly owners to a profanity-filled-tirade, while her husband vowed vengeance for the affront to his family. Following through on that vow is what finally did him in.
Ken McElroy offered the elderly Lois Bowenkamp cash to fight his much younger and stronger wife, Trena. When she refused, he commenced a crime spree intended to turn the Bowenkamps’ life into a hell. His antics included parking his pickup truck outside the Bowenkamps’ home at all hours of the day and night, and firing off his gun into the air.
The Bowenkamps put on a brave face and tried to go about their normal lives. That lack of fear – or at least pretense of lack of fear: in reality, the Bowenkamps were terrified, even if they refused to show it – infuriated McElroy, and led him to steadily ramp things up even more. Finally, one July night in 1980, Bo Bowencamp was standing outside his store, when McElroy drove up, pulled out his shotgun, and shot him in the neck with a deer slug.
Bo Bowenkamp miraculously survived the shooting, and the senseless murder attempt on their beloved elderly grocer finally snapped Skidmore out of the terror spell cast by Ken McElroy. After years of intimidation and ceaseless crime, the locals had had enough. McElroy was tried and convicted of first-degree assault – his first felony conviction. However, he remained free on bail pending appeal.
The residents banded together and wrote to every authority figure they could think of. Letters went to state legislators, the state attorney general, and the governor, letting them know that Skidmore lived in fear of the psychopath in its midst, and asking the authorities to do something about it. Their pleas were ignored. In the meantime, soon after his conviction, McElroy was seen in a local bar brandishing an M-1 rifle with an affixed bayonet – a clear violation of his bond – and vowing bloody revenge on the Bowenkamps and all who sided with them. It was the final straw.
Witnesses who saw an armed Ken McElroy told the county prosecutor to request a bond revocation hearing. The people of Skidmore organized a caravan to escort the witnesses to the hearing, but McElroy’s lawyer got it postponed. As a resident put it: “That was the last straw. That was the last failure of criminal justice“. If the authorities would not save them from McElroy’s crime spree, then maybe it would take a crime of their own to fix the problem.
On July 10th, 1981, the infuriated townsfolk gathered in Skidmore’s American Legion Hall. When word arrived that McElroy was in town, two men met him in his truck, and told him to leave Skidmore. They were followed by a crowd. As McElroy started his truck, some men hustled his wife Trena out of the passenger seat, and gunfire erupted. When the shooting stopped, McElroy lay slumped against the steering wheel, the engine revving at maximum RPMs with one of his feet jammed down on the accelerator. Nobody called an ambulance, and everybody just… went home.
State troopers finally arrived in Skidmore, to find that the streets were deserted. All was quiet, except for the rumbling and smoking engine of McElroy’s pickup, that nobody had bothered to turn off. Shell casings from at least two firearms were recovered, but the weapons were never found. Although at least 40 people had witnessed the public killing, the people of Skidmore kept mum.
State and federal grand juries were convened to address the crime, but other than McElroy’s wife Trena, nobody was inclined to say anything, and her testimony was deemed too weak by the prosecutors. To this day, although it happened in broad daylight in front of dozens of witnesses, the killing of Ken McElroy remains an unsolved homicide. As his lawyer put it: “I know why they didn’t talk – they were all glad he was dead. That town got away with murder“.
5. Leo Tolstoy and Canada’s Nudist Russian Terrorist Cult
Russian Doukhobors, or “Spirit Warriors“, were a pacifist and anti-materialist Christian sect that formed in the seventeenth century. Their belief that a divine spirit resides in everybody raised eyebrows. What raised eyebrows even higher was their penchant for nudity to emulate Adam and Eve, a tendency to swap wives, plus a notion that nobody has any right to worldly goods. The result was centuries of persecution. Officials especially detested the Doukhobors’ pacifism, which led them to refuse conscription into the Russian military.
The persecution’s intensity waxed and waned over the years, and ranged from beatings to imprisonment to exile to death. In the nineteenth century, the Doukhobors won over Leo Tolstoy as a patron, but his patronage was not enough to shield them. So early in the twentieth century, they emigrated to Canada in search of religious freedom. Unfortunately, they morphed in Canada from an odd sect and into a dangerous one, famous for mass nudist protests, and infamous for arsons on a massive scale and one of Canada’s weirdest crime waves.
In 1902, the Doukhobors first arrived in Saskatchewan, their emigration facilitated by Leo Tolstoy and the Society of Friends, or Quakers. At first, the Canadians saw the industrious Doukhobors as ideal settlers. However, their religious beliefs prevented them from swearing allegiance to the Crown, which led to their deprivation of title to lands that had been allotted them.
They viewed that as a breach of promise by the authorities. Embittered, the Doukhobors trekked to British Columbia, where they established drab little communal villages on government land. The sect’s leader, a charismatic figure named Peter Verigin, maintained a semblance of control over his nudist followers by flogging them with brambles. Then some Doukhobors blew him up with dynamite in 1924. With their leader’s demise, the Doukhobors fractured into rival factions, and things swiftly spun into a downward spiral of crazy and crazy crime sprees.
A radical splinter broke off from the Doukhobors in 1924, following the sect leader’s assassination. This radical splinter of what was already a radical splinter of the Russian Orthodox Church eschewed the modern world. Or what little there was of the modern world in the Canadian sticks, where they dwelt.
The splinter group encouraged their brethren to avoid the trappings of modern society in everything, from exploiting animals to electricity. Their “encouragement” went beyond adopting a simple life for themselves. Those who refused became victims of a religiously-driven crime wave. Like a deranged Quaker Al Qaeda in Canada’s back of beyond, the splinter group terrorized other Doukhobors who partook of modernity by burning their homes and destroying their material goods, while parading nude to emulate the simple lives of Adam and Eve.
Authorities were flabbergasted about what to do with the radical Russian religious migrants. Mass nude parades would probably raise eyebrows even today. Back in the early twentieth century, the Doukhobor splinter – who eventually named themselves The Freedomites – shocked sensibilities when they took to protesting in the buff. In one nudist epidemic, police sprinkled itching powder on the protesters. In 1932, the Canadian Parliament criminalized public nudity, and the courts began to penalize the Spirit Warriors’ naked protests with prison sentences of about three years per offense. When another march in the buff scandalized British Columbia in 1932, over 600 men and women were banished to serve prison terms in Piers Island, BC.
In a way, the naked protesters’ passive resistance exasperated Canadian authorities like Gandhi’s passive resistance was exasperating the British in India. More worrying was when the Freedomites went from passive protest to actively persecute other Doukhobors for being too worldly. Time after time, Freedomites turned to violent crime and raided the villages of other Doukhobors, to burn their homes and dynamite their factories as punishment for straying from the simple life.
The Freedomites waged a virtual guerrilla war in British Columbia against the modern world for decades, especially against other Doukhobors whom they viewed as backsliders. From 1923 to 1962, the Freedomites’ crime spree included over 1100 bombings and arsons. The authorities fought back with sentences of up to three years imprisonment for nude protesters and seizing the sect’s children to send to state institutions.
The violence continued, however, culminating in a series of 259 bombings in 1962 in just one region of British Columbia. Targets included ferries, railways, power lines and stations, hotels, courthouses, and the destruction of entire villages. The authorities finally decapitated the sect in March of 1962 by arresting sixty of its leaders, and charging them with conspiracy to intimidate the Canadian Parliament and the Legislature of British Columbia. With their leaders behind bars, the remaining Doukhobors rapidly assimilated into Canadian society. Relative peace has reigned since, while Canadian Doukhobor numbers dwindled from a peak of 40,000 to about 2,200 in 2011.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading