ST. LOUIS • James O. Broadhead was an influential Unionist during the Civil War. Alonzo Slayback was a Confederate officer who rode in the last major rebel raid in Missouri.
After the war, they became law partners downtown and enjoyed social prominence. Broadhead was the first president of the American Bar Association. Slayback was a founder of the Veiled Prophet pageant. His daughter, Suzanne, was the first belle, or queen.
Slayback belonged to the Elks. So did John Cockerill, managing editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Brotherly love couldn’t bind them.
Broadhead ran for U.S. Congress as a Democrat in 1882 with the backing of St. Louis’ social elite. The Post-Dispatch furiously opposed his candidacy, claiming he sold out the people by representing the city in a gas-utility case and then becoming the gas company’s lawyer. Broadhead also represented robber-baron Jay Gould, who had railroad interests in St. Louis.
In the 19th Century, newspaper rhetoric and personal honor were highly charged things. The Post-Dispatch mocked Broadhead as “Weakhead” and accused him of “vacillation, duplicity (and) selfishness.”
On Oct. 12, 1882, Slayback spoke at the 18th Ward Democratic meeting in John Howard’s saloon, 405 Garrison Avenue, and called the Post-Dispatch a “black-mailing sheet” where no gentleman would work.
Cockerill fished from his files an old letter to the editor that called Slayback a “coward” and derided his Confederate service. Cockerill ran it in the Oct. 13 edition.
Slayback saw the paper and was outraged. He grabbed fellow lawyer William Clopton and marched two blocks to the Post-Dispatch at 515 Market Street. They burst into the managing editor’s office as Cockerill was chatting with the newspaper’s business manager and composing-room foreman.
Cockerill’s pistol was on his desk. Stories differ on the ensuing exchange, but Cockerill fired. Slayback fell dead on the floor.
Cockerill went home to wash up and surrendered to police. Officers had to rush to the newspaper to defend it from an angry mob gathering on Market.
The next day, the Post-Dispatch called the homicide an “Unfortunate Affair” and said Slayback had a pistol. The St. Louis Republican, which backed Broadhead, called Slayback an unarmed victim of Post-Dispatch “venom.”
At the coroner’s inquest, Post-Dispatch employees identified a .44-caliber revolver with some rust as Slayback’s weapon. Cockerill and his witnesses said he fired in self-defense.
When the coroner asked Clopton if Slayback was armed, he testified, “No, sir, he had no pistol.” Slayback’s friends scorned the weapon as a low-quality piece far beneath his standards.
Cockerill wasn’t charged, but left the Post-Dispatch after it lost 1,300 subscribers. The newspaper’s owner, Joseph Pulitzer, soon bought the New York World, where Cockerill became an editor. Broadhead served one term in Congress.
Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series.