Hannibal Hearnes: The Murder of Amos Stillwell

Murder of Amos Stillwell

Amos Stillwell owned a pork packing plant and was one of, if not the most, wealthy and influential citizens in the town of Hannibal, MO during the late nineteenth century. In 1870, Amos was a 50-year-old widower with two grown sons. It was during that year that he married a beautiful 22-year-old Kentucky-born Fannie Anderson. Fannie, of course, came to live at the stately Stillwell Mansion and took up her place as the queen of the Hannibal social scene. The socialites welcomed her and allowed her to take up this role, even at her young age. Though the couple were years apart in age, the marriage seemed to be a happy one. Fannie was thought to be a model wife, and the aging millionaire, Amos, reportedly told friends and family that he had never been so happy in all his life.

The Murder

By the 1988, the couple had four children together and seemed to be as happy as ever. On December 29th of that year, the couple attended a party at their neighbors, the Mungers. When it was getting close to midnight, the party decided it was time to dance and Amos said they should leave to make room for the younger guests. The couple walked home, and relieved the servants watching the three younger children. Their 14-year-old daughter, Mollie, normally slept in the room adjoining the parents, but she was staying over at a friend’s house. The couple retired for the night in separate beds, the children sleeping with Fannie. Around 1:30AM, Fannie awoke to a noise in the room. She heard Amos say, “Fannie, Fannie is that you?” She could make out a man standing with his back to her, shrouded in darkness. Then she heard a whirring noise, before heavy footstep descended the stairs. She rushed to her husband and found him with a gaping wound in his head. She took her screaming children back to the servants before running to a neighbor, Mr. Leagues, to raise the alarm. He notified more neighbors: doctors Hearne, Allen and Gleason. They reported to the Stillwell house as well, finding Fannie unconscious after she fainted in the room with her husband. The doctors examined Amos’s body, but determined nothing more could be done for him. It appeared an ax had been used to gash at the man’s head; the blow was delivered so hard that it severed both his jugular vein and carotid artery. Dr. Hearne then moved his attention to Fannie, to whom he had been previously advising for a nervous condition. He brought her back to consciousness and helped to calm her. The police investigating the crime scene concluded that the murderer had entered through the cellar and came up into the house via the steps. The murder weapon belonged to the murdered man and was found in the alley part the yard of the Stillwell mansion. The weird thing is that they found pretty much a trail of money leading to the ax. They discovered a $5 bill in the yard and every few feet there was another bit of currency; like an actual trail of money leading out of the yard and into the alley where they located ax. The initial investigation concluded that a burglar had been interrupted and killed Amos before fleeing. This was a popular opinion also held by family members, including Amos’s son Richard from his first marriage. Richard put up a $10k reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrator.


Of course, the gossip mill started working. People were suspicious of Fannie, and of her relationship to Dr. Hearne. Many thought there was something romantic between the two; something the preceded the murder of her husband. Richard would hear nothing of it; he was adamant that the incident was a burglary gone wrong. Early on Fannie was friends with Dr. Hearne’s wife. Mrs. Hearne died not long after meeting Fannie, and the young doctor remained in the home with his daughters and his mother. Whispers also began to circulate about the state of the Stillwell marriage. I was said that Amos was somewhat of a mean old man. He managed his household like a business and detested waste and excessive spending. He was a vegetarian and very serious about health. He forced Fannie to wear a heavy cotton nightgown, as he claimed the newer lacy gowns were unhealthy. He did not believe in physicians, but Fannie sought out Dr. Hearne whose office was just around the block from the Stillwell mansion to help with her nervous condition. She was spotted at the Doctor’s office so much, in fact, that people began to gossip that there was much more going on than the treating of ailments. After the murder, the Hannibal elite believed Dr. Hearne was involved in the murder. Richard Stillwell, however, was holding to the burglary theory, and with his money and influence, he was the driving force behind the investigation.


Almost a year to the day after the murder, Dr. Hearne and Fannie were married. They returned from their honeymoon to live in the Stillwell Mansion, and the community shunned them. The once prominent medical practice of Dr. Hearne was now failing and the couple moved to St. Joseph. Dr. Hearne was named the chief surgeon of Hannibal and St. Joseph railroad. The gossip followed them, and couple often fought. Following one of these fights, while the doctor was away on business, Fannie fled with her children to New York to gain passage to Europe. The doctor was notified somehow and her hurried for New York, arriving just a half hour before the ship was to set sail. He demanded to know his Wife’s stateroom number. He went to the door and knocked. Fannie locked him out and he asked her to allow him just one more word. Fannie cracked the door, Dr. Hearne leaned in a whispered one word, and she gathered her things and the children and went back home with her husband. What was the word? No one knows. Not long after, the couple moved to California. The murder case of Amos Stillwell went cold. Five grand juries would hear evidence without returning indictments on any suspects.

Trouble in Paradise & The Return

In 1894, Fannie filed for divorce citing cruelty and failure to provide. She even alleged that her husband beat her often. While reporting on the divorce a San Francisco paper mentioned the murder six years earlier, and Dr. Hearne filed a libel suit for $200K. Not long after divorcing, the couple remarried and moved back to Hannibal. The timing could not have been worse for them to move back. Richard Stillwell had finally come around to the idea that Fannie and Dr. Hearne could have murdered his father. He had started his own investigation and found out quite a lot of information regarding the couple and their doings before the murder. He even cancelled the reward so as not to interfere when the case went to trial. He agreed to be deposed by the paper in lawsuit case and presented some of his evidence, and afterward another grand jury was convened. Richard had learned from several sources that Dr. Hearne and Fannie had been engaged in criminal intimacy before the murder. One person claimed Dr. Hearne did not see Amos as a fit companion of Fannie and hoped to use his influence over her to bring about a divorce. They said that Dr. Hearne had also claimed that he could have a slug put in Amos for $2.50. Mrs. Heywood, an acquaintance of Dr. Hearne had told of the time Dr. Hearne was at the Stillwell mansion while Amos was away. Amos returned unexpectedly and the naked Dr. Hearne had no time to dress. He hid in the shadows unnoticed until he was able to make his getaway. He told Mrs. Heywood that if Amos had caught him, he would have shot Amos dead and everyone would think it was a burglar because no one ever suspects doctors or ministers. Another interesting bit of information was regarding Mollie, the 14-year-old daughter that was staying over with a friend the night of the murder. Turns out, this was the first time the girl had ever stayed over with a friend. Many people who were on the scene the night of the murder testified that the body appeared to have been moved after death. Fannie was also wearing a modern lace nightgown when everyone arrived, and a plain cotton nightgown was found hidden on the property; it had blood stains on it. This time, the grand jury indicted Dr. and Fannie Hearne on first degree murder and the couple was arrested.

The Trial

The trial was moved to Bowling Green, MO in Pike county on a change of venue. The prosecution decided to try Dr. Hearne first and would drop all charges on Fannie should he be acquitted, conversely also try her for the same if he were convicted. The trial began in December of 1895, and was a buss throughout the state. The courthouse was packed every day. There were upwards of 11 attorneys between the prosecution and defense. Both sides had recruited the best in the state to try the case and it really was a battle of greats as far as attorneys go. Both Dr. and Mrs. Hearne took the stand to deny their involvement. The trial lasted two weeks, and it was the closing arguments that make this case interesting.

Dramatic Closing Arguments

During the trial, the timeline was the most debated topic. Dr. Hearne had been seen at or right outside his building at 1:15AM by three witnesses, and Fannie had stumbled out to the neighbor’s to report the murder at 1:45AM. That left only 30 minutes for Dr. Hearne to have made his way to the woodshed, through the cellar, and into the bedroom for commit the murder. Everyone agreed he could have walked to the Stillwells in around ten minutes, leaving twenty minutes to commit the murder. He could have done it. Every attorney involved in the trial would give separate closing arguments. The last one for the defense was Nat Dryden, chief attorney for Hearnes. He was known to be the best storyteller in all of Missouri, with most of his stories drawing tears from those listening. One thing I didn’t mention before was the matches found. There were piles of matches found in the woodshed, around the cellar door, in the cellar and through the home. All the matches had been burned down to the ends. This was what Dryden used to “prove” that Hearnes could not be guilty. Dryden recounted the trial transcripts regarding the matches; 44 in all found throughout the home. He asked that everyone watch the clock, and in dramatic style began lighting matches one after the other and letting them burn down to the end. He recounted every step Hearne would have had to take to commit the murder as he lit the number of matches found in each area. When the last match burned out, 38 minutes had passed. That proved, he said, that Dr. Hearne could not have had time to commit the crime. Dryden cleverly had found a box of matched that were a good half inch longer than normal matches and by a trick of his hand had concealed this from the eyes of the jury. The jury was out only an hour before returning a verdict of not guilty. Both Dr. and Mrs. Hearne were released immediately. The Hearnes returned to California where they won the lawsuit against the San Francisco Chronicle for $10K. There has never been any other suspects in the case of the murder of Amos Stillwell.

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