Forgotten history: What law enforcement can learn from the Young Brothers massacre
A 1932 bloodbath at a remote Ozarks farm that resulted in the death of six LEOs still offers tactical lessons for officers today
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In police history, the name Newhall carries a quiet shudder: every year it’s remembered as the largest loss of police lives in a single gunfight before 9/11 – except, that it’s not. Greene County (Missouri) Sheriff’s Captain Jeremy Lynn, an unofficial unit historian, knows that a 1932 bloodbath at a remote Ozarks farm, the Young Brothers massacre, holds that bleak record.
A sheriff, a police chief, a constable and assorted officers and deputies arrived on the Young property in Brookline, Missouri to arrest Harry and Jennings Young. The notorious car and railroad thieves were wanted on federal charges for running a complex and highly profitable interstate car theft ring.
They were also wanted on local charges for murder. In the summer of 1929, Town Marshal Mark Noe patrolled the little city of Republic, Missouri, home to about 800 residents. When he stopped Harry Young for driving drunk, Young shot him and left him to die in a ditch. For more than two years, a manhunt continued without success.
That changed on January 2, 1932, when sisters Lorena and Vinita Young drove a stolen car to Springfield to sell it. The dealer rejected the sale because they had no title for the car, and called the police. When the sisters came back that afternoon to try again, they were arrested, and local officers quickly concluded that the notorious brothers were back in town.
The hastily planned operation to arrest them ended with six officers dead and three more (plus a civilian) wounded. The Young brothers died by suicide in Texas using guns stolen from the fallen officers, at the end of what was then called the “greatest manhunt in history.”
The entire incident unfolded swiftly, according to the timeline explained to me by Lynn.
Sheriff Marcell Hendrix formed a posse and headed to the Young farm within an hour of the sisters’ arrest at 3 p.m. He was the first to die at 4:05 when shots were fired from the apparently vacant house. As he fell, he called out to his officers to run.
Within minutes, more officers were dead or dying, some were wounded and pinned behind scant cover, and a few had retreated to summon backup from town. By 4:30, backup was arriving.
By a quarter to six, a crowd of wrathful townsfolk had gathered, with trucks, cars and an ambulance. They brought weapons with them and lent more to officers on scene. Constable Scott Curtis deputized the entire mob and then used his authority to keep them from burning down the house. It was a crime scene, and evidence needed to be preserved.
“They used that ambulance the way we’d use a Bearcat,” Captain Lynn said. The vehicle was slow but solid and heavy; one by one the dead and wounded were cleared from the field of fire. During the response, the suspects slipped away, stole a car and fled to Texas where they died a few days later, cornered by Houston police and Texas Rangers.
Capt. Lynn said, “I teach survival mentality. I read about felonious killings to learn from each one. When you hear about an event like this, it’s important for it to resonate, to learn from it.
If nothing changes, the officers died in vain.”
Off the radar
The Young Brothers massacre was extensively covered at the time. In the years since, the story has been retold in news articles, books and indie films. It has all the elements of a spectacle, a dark circus filled with vigilantes, gangsters, a posse, the National Guard, the American Legion, airplanes, bloodhounds and even a psychic. So why haven’t you heard about it before? And what should you do with the knowledge now?
First, the main reason why such a significant incident has fallen completely off the radar of modern policing: it happened in a rural area, so major news outlets received the story second-hand from the local paper. The Ozarks are remote and difficult to travel even now, in some parts. The rugged highlands cover 47,000 square miles, choked with dense forest and pocked with caves, sinks, and mines for zinc and lead.
During the Public Enemy Era, the papers were crammed with breathless accounts of far more charismatic gangsters than the Young Brothers: the Barker Gang, Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger, and Bonnie and Clyde. While it was disturbingly common for notorious bad guys to commit their crimes in cities, and then flee to remote places to hide, city crimes are flashy and easy for big news outlets to cover. The Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping took place barely two months after the Young Brothers Massacre. The lurid crime afflicting a glamorous hero, near the epicenter of 1930s high society, effectively knocked the Ozarks shootout out of the headlines.
Could it really be that simple? Yes. It’s happened far more recently, even with 24-hour news cycles and the internet. Everyone in law enforcement knows of the North Hollywood Bank Robbery and can tell you what changes the shootout wrought on police training and equipment. The incident was televised live, and it’s indelible because of it. Footage posted to the internet never disappears.
In contrast, very few can describe what happened less than six months after in Colebrook, New Hampshire, when an interstate gun battle raged all day, involving multiple state, local and federal officers and leaving behind four dead and four wounded. Most of the casualties were cops; the other two were a judge and a newspaper editor. But, no one was in the small towns and woods to report it in real-time, so it was invisible.
Small town complacency
What should be done with the knowledge of the incident now? Officers and trainers should pay attention to the themes embedded in the incident and its aftermath.
Small town complacency afflicted the sheriff. Despite the brothers’ history of violence against law enforcement, Sheriff Hendrix simply did not want to believe his neighbors would hurt him, and repeatedly discouraged other officers in the posse from taking stronger cautionary measures.
It was also well known that the brothers were expert marksmen; Harry had been banned from local turkey shoots since the age of 16 because of his proficiency. Hendrix did not believe that the brothers, whom he had known as children, would use that expertise against him. He died for that belief, and so did five other men.
There is evidence that the Young Brothers knew that the posse was coming, and prepared to meet them. They worked as a team during the shootout, with one drawing the attention of the officers while the other fired upon them. They knew the terrain surrounding their home, and they used the two-story structure to their advantage. The casual, ad hoc posse had no plan to meet resistance. They hadn’t studied the property or surveilled the people in it. They were lightly armed with mostly revolvers and two gas grenades and without armor or extra ammunition. Once the sheriff was killed, the posse was leaderless and directionless.
Despite the current rhetoric describing armor, armored vehicles and rifles as “militarized,” recent developments, several interviews, news reports and one after-action review by an unnamed military and law enforcement expert decried the lack of such tools as critical to the loss of life in this Ozarks gun battle. The expert from 90 years ago was direct about complacency by rural law enforcement agencies when evaluating risk, noting correctly that “big city” bad guys use the country to hide:
“Your worst crooks frequent our cities. Our worst criminals frequent your country… Half-way measures should not be tolerated in the preparations that are necessary to properly apprehend barricaded criminals...
The Springfield officers were forced to go to the Young premises with many odds against them, and they were after a murderer who had boasted he would not be taken alive. They had no armored car to protect them, they had no bullet-proof shields or vests, they had no sub-machine guns or automatic rifles, they had no gas masks, they had no smoke screens, they had no sickening gas, they had little tear gas; in fact, they had very little that would be considered useful in such raids by metropolitan police. They had a world of valor then, but it doesn't do them or their families any good now.”
Lynn asked that the fallen officers and their colleagues should be viewed with some forbearance. Hindsight can be harsh. He said, “As observers of history, we are quick to judge. If you place yourself in their shoes, with their resources, with the information they had available, you’ll likely understand they did the best they knew - and you may well have done the same.”
Times change. Humans don’t, and recent incidents prove that.
In 2018, seven officers were ambushed in Florence, South Carolina. in similar circumstances: a warrant to be served, a waiting gunman with superior firepower, a near-complete lack of cover and a 30-minute wait for an armored vehicle to extract wounded and dying officers. While multiple casualty events in rural towns are rare, they do happen. Just this July, multiple officers were wounded and killed in a tiny Kentucky town, trying to serve a protective order on a domestic violence suspect. One official described the gunman’s house as a perfect field of fire from a “nearly unbreachable position.”
Then this August, in an Ohio village of just under 200 residents, a bail bondsman tried to retrieve a suspect who skipped his court trial and found himself under fire instead. The wanted man and his brother were barricaded in their home.
In circumstances reminiscent of the Young Brothers standoff, law enforcement knew where the brothers were, that they were armed and that the bail jumper was a skilled marksman. But this time, officers made a plan before approaching, asked for aid from surrounding agencies, and warned neighbors to shelter in place. They took note of a propane tanker staged near the suspects’ home, courtesy of the gas company they owned. Armored vehicles provided cover, and took rounds while officers remained safe. A state police helicopter provided overwatch and kept its distance when gunfire turned its way. In the end, the only ones who got hurt were the bad guys, when they left the barricade and charged the officers on an ATV.
Even with modern perspectives and equipment, every tragedy cannot be averted. But we can try – and learning from history is the place we begin.
For additional resources on officer safety, download Officer Down! A Police1 Survival Guide.