In January of 1934, Missouri newspaper headlines announced a grim discovery in Laddonia. A prominent family of four living in Laddonia had been found in a burned home in the middle of the night. Evidence found in the ruins had prompted a murder theory. Despite there being more questions than answers after reviewing the evidence, the case was quickly closed without further investigation. Details about the incident found in the Laddonia Centennial History book reveal the findings of the investigation.
“Tragedy struck this town last week when the home of Stewart L. Garner burned and the bodies of Garner, his wife and two children were found in the ruins. The community received an added shock when investigation of the fire indicated there was a possibility Garner had killed his family and had set fire to the house.
Garner, who was 38 years old, was postmaster of Laddonia. His wife, Mrs. Verla Garner, was 36. The children were John, 12 and Ann, 9. The fire was discovered at 2 a.m. on Thursday morning. The entire town was aroused by ringing of bells, and efforts were made to rescue the family, but the flames had gained too much headway. The bodies were found later in the morning.
A hole in Boy’s skull: A closer investigation into the deaths resulted after Arthur Chaney, head of Laddonia’s volunteer fire department, discovered what appeared to be a bullet hole in the skull of John Garner, the 12-year-old son. Then it was learned an investigation had been started by postal inspectors into Garner’s accounts in the post office, revealing a shortage of $1,218.18 (approximately $26,000 in today’s economy). The coroner’s jury which investigated the deaths returned a verdict of ‘death by some unknown cause in a burning building.’
Mrs. Garner missing: Mrs. Harry Smith, the Garner family laundress, was believed to have been the last person to have seen Mrs. Garner alive and she testified before the coroner’s jury she had not seen her since 9:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, the day previous to the fire. Mrs. Garner was supposed to attend a bridge party Wednesday night. Mrs. Ford Christian, the hostess, testified that Garner had called her early in the evening informing her that Mrs. Garner would not attend. He told her, she said, his wife had gone out of town. Mrs. Smith also related she had not seen the children as usual at lunch and dinner time.
Open verdict at coroner’s request: County Coroner W. K. McCall of Laddonia, at the inquest over the tragic death of the Garner family instructed the jury when it convened early Friday that the investigation must seek full data on the circumstances of the deaths of the four who died when their home burned Thursday morning. Members of the coroner’s jury hearing the inquest testimony included Horace McCoy, Lee Boyd, Grover Ferguson, A. B. Hale, M. V. Smith and Lee Gorman. A number of witnesses were called to testify, among which was Mrs. Ford Christian who was to entertain the bridge club of which Mrs. Garner was a member at her home Wednesday evening. Mrs. Christian said, ‘It is customary to call, or at least notify the hostess if a member cannot be present, Mrs. Garner did not do this. I saw Verla for the last time Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 16, in the post office.’
T. F. Rhea, of Hannibal, post office inspector was called as a witness. He said that he and T. E. Schutt, of Chilicothe an associate, inspected the Laddonia post office Wednesday, Jan. 17. The office was in charge of the acting postmaster, S. L. Garner. The inspection was made from about 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. ‘Primarily the inspection was made due to the alleged loss of a check drawn on the Laddonia, Mo., State Bank in the amount of $724.89, sent to postmaster at St. Louis, Mo. as a deposit of surplus funds,’ Mr. Rhea said. The inspector continued: ‘We found Mr. Garner’s accounts were admittedly short. The amount of the shortage, so far as we know at this time is $1,218.18. Mr. Garner accounted for part of the shortage.
After we compiled our figures, we asked Mr. Garner how much he thought he was short. He stated that he did not think he was short, and when we told him we felt sure he knew better than that he then admitted that he was short. By his own figures, he informed it would take a little time to figure it up. He later gave us $1,222 as his figures for the shortage.’
The chain of circumstances gave rise to concern that Mrs. Garner, who was not seen after Mrs. Harry Smith, the family laundress left at about 9:45 that morning, may have met with a fatal accident in some manner earlier in the day, before the fire.
Arthur Chaney, chief of the Laddonia Fire department, on the stand described what he believed to be a bullet wound in the skull of what he thought was the body of the son, John. The verdict by the coroner’s jury, after a day of investigation and the hearing of the testimony, that the members of the Stewart L. Garner family, of Laddonia met their deaths ‘by some unknown cause in a burning building’, came almost at the same time that the funeral services for the four members of the family were concluded at the Laddonia cemetery.
Disturbing evidence: Searches directed by Sheriff E. S. Haycraft and Coroner W. L. McCall, continued through the debris of the burned home in intensive effort for further evidence concerning the death of Garner, his wife and two children. Search of the ruins, carefully and thoroughly disclosed a .22 rifle, discharged by firing as shown by cap dent, a 12 gauge pump shotgun, discharged in the same manner as the rifle, a watch belonging to the postmaster, that stopped at 4:35, a diamond ring, belonging to Mrs. Garner, in front of the furnace door, and a corn knife and an ax, with blood-like stains on them.
It was noted that while the trunks of the four bodies had been found, that no legs or arms of the bodies were discovered. Whether these had been consumed in the intense heat of the fire that did not completely devour the trunks, was one of the question-marks of the case. Authorities continued to have a guard stand over the ruins, in order that any thing that might have a bearing on the case, might not be removed.”
According to the account, Garner was born and raised in Clarksville, Mo. He lived for a number of years in Bowling Green and was employed by the Lacrosse Lumber Company. He would later become a member of the drug firm of McCubbin and Garner and the postmaster of Laddonia. He was also the chairman of the Audrain County Democratic Central Committee. Mrs. Garner was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. J. W. McCubbin of Laddonia, where she was born and raised. She was a graduate of Hardin College and of the University of Missouri. She taught school for a number of years prior to her marriage.”
Although crime scene investigations have dramatically improved in the last century, 1930’s forensics should have left no doubt that a bloodstained corn knife and ax, coupled with four bodies that were missing all of their limbs, was likely the work of an unknown suspect at large. The killer, after all, would not be able to dismember his own arms and legs.
What had Garner done with all that money? Who else was involved? Can anyone solve this century old murder mystery? Read part two of this story in the Feb. 16 issue.