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Mother lode of Alexander Doniphan stories discovered in Liberty

By Linda Emley

I had a friend tell me they heard a story about Alexander Doniphan getting married in his later years. I was excited to hear this because I wanted to think that Doniphan didn’t spend his last 14 years alone in Richmond.
His wife Elizabeth died in 1873 and Doniphan lived alone in the Hudgens House until he died in 1887. My friend also told me about a house in Liberty that is called the “Heart House” because it’s shaped like a heart. Over the years, many people have been married in this house and it was even suggested that Doniphan may have been married there.
The Heart House was built in 1881, so Doniphan could have been one of the first grooms who got married there.
After hearing this story about Doniphan, I decided it was time for a road trip to Liberty to see what I could find. The first obvious stop was the Clay County Courthouse, but the only marriage license found was his first wife Elizabeth on Dec. 21, 1837.
The next stop was the Clay County Archives and Historical Library. They had two big files on Doniphan, and after searching a little bit deeper, they found a file on the “Heart House”.
I was sad after reading these files, because it looks like Doniphan spent his final years without a wife since no stories were found about him being married to anyone except Elizabeth.
I found myself telling my new friends at the Clay County Archives that it was OK because Doniphan was a man who’d spent much of his life alone due to his military career. I would like to think he had a happy life, but there are many reasons to wonder how he felt as a person because he did have his share of tragedies.
My trip to Liberty was not a total loss because we found some interesting stories about Doniphan, including this in The Liberty Advance Dec. 23, 1910: “Doniphan and the Hog Thief. It was in the days of old Judge Woods across the river at Lexington and the celebrated General Alexander W. Doniphan was then a struggling young lawyer, said the Richmond Missourian.
“The young Doniphan one day received word to go on the next Saturday up to Davis Creek in Lafayette county to defend a hog-thief. Putting on his buckskin suit, he struck out afoot, with gun and ammunition, to combine pleasure with business. At his journey’s end on Davis Creek, he found a log house used as a school house, church, political quarters and courtroom. About 40 people were there to ‘hear the big-mouthed feller from the County seat.’
“It was a bad case. The defendant had gotten ten of the hogs and had acknowledged it to one man. Therefore, Doniphan never talked much about the evidence, he spoke only of the tear-starting scenes of life and the natural similarity in the appearance of all hogs. He pleased the Justice and tickled the people. The judge decided the case, clearing the hog-thief quickly so as to get to hear young Doniphan make a political speech before he started home. The acquitted man extended his hog-stealer to the future of $5 and yelled, ‘Hooray for General and paid the bigfee Donnyphin!’ The young lawyer was too happily embarrassed to refuse to try to make a speech. Mounting a platform of loose puncheons, he began his talk and he won another victory. He later related to a friend of the Missourian editor that on this occasion when he thought he was saying something extra fine he was smooth and easy in his speech, but when he ran out of anything to say, he raved and stormed – and stomped the puncheons.
“ ‘And,’ he remarked, ‘they liked it best when I stomped the most. It was my first real lesson in oratory, finding out that the people do not want high sounding nothings – they want the plain living facts of life as it is. If you want to please the people be plain and true.’
“Herein is a lesson to be drawn from the two victories won by the immortal Doniphan just across the river in old Lafayette county.”
I loved this story because it gave a personal side of Doniphan, but there are a couple of problems with the details. The first one being that this is a story about him as a young man in Lexington, so he had not reached that point in his life where he was “General Doniphan” yet. So it sounds like the account of the hog-stealer’s yell of “Hooray for General,” was added as this story was retold over the years. I’m sure Doniphan was embarrassed by this story as it was told by his friends, but it’s a great example of how everyone looked up to him.
The second issue I have with this story is the statement, “About 40 people were there to ‘hear the big-mouthed feller from the County seat.’ ” I didn’t like them calling my friend Doniphan a “big mouthed feller,” but I got a new perspective on this statement from another article I found in the Doniphan file.
This was in The Liberty Advance on Nov. 13, 1914: “Gen. Doniphan’s Large Mouth. Dr. R.B. Kice, the veteran dentist who has been practicing dentistry in this city for over a half century, can tell some interesting remembrances. And a conversation with him is always productive of results. A few days ago he was making a plate for a set of false teeth and the remark was made that it was an exceptionally large one. He immediately replied that it was not of any great size, that he once made a set of teeth for Gen. Alexander M. Doniphan and he had such a big mouth that he did not have an impression mold large enough and could not secure one and hence had to make one. He said it was the largest set of teeth he ever made and that he wished many times afterwards that he had saved this plate because of its size.
“Dr. Kice now has several of Gen. Doniphan’s teeth which he extracted many years ago. He also has a part of the impression plate of one of his lower jaws and if size counts for anything in a man’s lower jaw it is easily seen why the old General possessed such an indomitable will and power to do things.”
Yes, it’s now OK with me that Gen. Alexander Doniphan was called “a big mouthed fellar” because apparently he did have a big mouth. So now the question is, “where are Doniphan’s teeth?” I would also like to know what size shoe he wore and if any of his suits or uniforms are still around. I’ve heard that some of his items are in Jefferson City, but I will need to research further on that story.
No “Doniphan” trip to Liberty would be complete without visiting his grave, so we had to stop at Fairview Cemetery. There are over 8,000 graves there, so I was worried about finding his grave but it didn’t take long. His stone is a massive pillar that reaches high in the sky. It was a cold day, but I stopped my car and get out to pay my respects to Gen. Doniphan.
I found many new stories about him, but I want to share one more now. “General Alexander W. Doniphan died in Richmond, Mo. at 9:40 p.m, Aug. 8, 1887. He was conscious to the moment of dissolution and passed away without a struggle. His sister-in-law, Mrs. Lawson, who arrived an hour or two before his death, he readily recognized. The funeral and burial occurred at Liberty, the remains being taken by special train.”
I was happy to know that he was not alone in his final hours. Thank you, Theodosia Trigg Thornton Lawson for being there for our Gen. Doniphan.
So who was Theodosia? She was a sister of Doniphan’s wife. Theodosia lived to be 98 and had a very exciting and full life. She even got to meet Queen Victoria on a trip to London. On Oct. 6, 1924, a new capital building was dedicated in Jefferson City and guess who was there? “Among the speakers was octogenarian Mrs. Theodosia Thornton Lawson, a daughter of Colonel John Thornton of Clay County, who more than a century before had chaired the commission to select a site for a permanent seat of government.”
Theodosia is buried at the Fairview Cemetery with her husband, her sister and a number of other family members including our main man, Gen. Alexander W. Doniphan. Theodosia died July 9, 1935, which is a very fitting ending to this story because July 9 just happened to be Gen. Doniphan’s birthday. Doniphan may not have had a wife when he died, but he did have lots of friends and family members that remembered him long after he was gone.

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