A simple phone inquiry at the Historical Society by a descendant of Sheriff Jim Simmons led to this story of a murder on Hampshire Street, which was followed by a shootout on the Kansas City train, and the deaths of an innocent bystander and two Quincy law men at the hands of a pair of brothers from Missouri. The events read like the script of a western movie.
Wednesday evening, April 2, 1919, the proprietor of a pawn shop, the Gem City Loan Bank at 333 Hampshire, Emil R. Licht was murdered during a robbery. Thirty-four gold watches, jewelry, diamonds, and cash were taken. The robbers escaped by stealing a boat near the North Side Boat Club and rowing across to the Fabius River in Missouri, then upstream as far as a train crossing.
Suspicion fell on a pair of men who had stayed at the nearby Cissna Hotel at 302 Hampshire. Proprietress Mrs. Zack Cissna reported that they stayed in their room all day and only left at night. After they vacated the premises she found a nickel-plated flashlight and a club they left behind.
On Sunday, April 13, 1919, two men were arrested in Kansas City when they attempted to pawn some of the stolen watches. They only had seven watches in their possession, but authorities believed them to be the culprits. Sheriff Simmons and Quincy police officer Robert E. Bumster went to Kansas City and brought the two back to Quincy. The two men gave their names as Frank Mason and Fred Holt and claimed to be a cook and a waiter. An enterprising Quincy detective, Fred Scharnhorst, found a local cook who had purchased a set of knives from the pawnbroker bearing the initials “F.H.” This seemed to prove that Fred Holt had indeed been in town.
Both of the arrested men claimed alibis, but their stories conflicted. The two “yeggmen,” as thieves were known at the time, were not the actual murderers, but part of a larger gang operating out of Kansas City. Another duo, known as Clyde Estabrook and Harry Wells were fingered as their source for the stolen watches and arrested by Kansas authorities. Estabrook proved his alibi, so Sheriff Simmons and Bumster headed back to Kansas City to pick up Harry Wells on a charge of murder. They were prepared to deal with danger but the outcome was beyond all predictions.
About 11:30 on Saturday night, April 20, aboard the Eli train eastbound on the tracks between Annabel and Clarence, MO, a gunfight broke out which left one man dead, three wounded, and the prisoner missing. Prisoner Harry Wells, whose real name would turn out to be Wilford Lankford, was seated with Sheriff Simmons. Bumster sat across the aisle. A man entered the car, shot Bumster and then shot the Sheriff as he was turning to return fire. Sheriff Simmons was shot twice more, but managed to wound the gunman. Both the prisoner and his bleeding companion jumped from the slow moving train – the prisoner out a window and the gunman through the car door after he shot an innocent man who happened to be in the way. Frank Vache was performing with an acting troupe on the way to Quincy for a performance at the Orpheum. He died in the train car in front of his wife and young son.
Brakeman L. C. McKenzie followed the wounded gunman as he fled the train. The shooter, who gave his name as Bert Clare, took shelter in the powerhouse of the Clarence Light Company and believing he was dying confessed to McKenzie and a railroad flagman, J. F. Shoemaker. Clare said he killed Emil Licht and could not let his friend Wells be prosecuted for that crime.
Former Chief of Police Koch hurried to Clarence to interview Clare. Clare insisted that Wells only handled the “loot” and was never in Quincy. Koch believed Clare to be the brother of a John Clare who killed the chief of police in Clinton, Iowa, two years before.
Once back in Quincy,Detective C. C. Carlyle, special agent for the Burlington Railroad, positively identified the prisoner as Clarence Lankford, born in Bevier, MO, and sent to the state prison in Missouri (along with his brother, Wilford) for robbing the Dearing store at Taylor, MO, in 1916. In all there were four Lankford brothers from the Palmyra area. Oddly, Lankford would have been in the Missouri Prison about the same time as another notable Quincy criminal, Ray Pfanschmidt.
Lankford recovered and began regaling one and all with tales of his criminal feats including an escape in 1919 from a Kansas City Jail. His story about the Licht murder matched the known facts, but things got murky when he discussed the gun battle. Sheriff Simmons maintained that he was shot in the back by a second gunman, and the actors also said there was a second gunman. The prisoner claimed he was alone.
Sheriff Simmons was soon well enough to sit up in hospital and smoke a cigar, but the bullets could not be removed. Bumster was failing. On Friday evening, April 25, Officer Bumster died of his wounds. Lankford prudently decided to plead guilty to prevent the possibility of hanging, and was sentenced to life in prison.
Yet the story continues. His fugitive brother was arrested near the southern Illinois prison holding Francis Lankford and thought to be plotting his escape. Lankford was moved to Joliet, where he engineered a short-lived escape but was recaptured. Sheriff Simmons returned to duty, but never fully recovered, and died from complications in June of 1924. Estabrook, one of the first men arrested and released, went to jail for murder in 1920. Mrs. Bumster became Probation Officer for the Adams County Court and served until 1925 when she retired due to ill health. The third and fourth Lankford brothers were not accounted for.