Jason Offutt's book of ghost stories, "Haunted Missouri: A Ghostly Guide to Missouri's Most Spirited Spots," is here. Order online at tsup.truman.edu, www.amazon.com, or visit Jason's Web site at www.jasonoffutt.com
Tombstones stick like jagged stumps from the overgrown weeds of Peace Church Cemetery in Joplin, Mo. An occasional plastic flower is placed on a grave, a colorful reminder that someone remembers the old, tree-lined cemetery.
But the cemetery’s most famous resident gets no flowers. Serial killer Billy Cook was buried under the anonymity of night in an unmarked grave at this cemetery, and has since been hidden by history.
“Badman Bill Cook, mad dog killer of six persons” headlines a 1952 article from The Joplin Globe. He killed a family of five and a sixth random motorist during a cross-country spree of murders in 1951. Some have said they’ve seen the killer walking the grounds at night, a black shadow weaving through the trees. Some have reported strange lights. Still others have heard voices.
Billy Cook, the fifth of eight children, was born Dec. 23, 1928 in a windowless shack outside Joplin. He was abandoned at age 5 by his father. A year later, his mother died. Cook grew up in relatives’ homes, foster homes, reform school, and prison.
Cook had been born with a growth over his right eye and, although the growth was later removed, his right eyelid always sagged, which earned him merciless teasing and is thought to have stoked his anger and his resentment toward his fellow man.
On Dec. 31, 1950, the Mossers – Carl, Thelma, and their three children – were on vacation from their home in Atwood, Ill., when they picked up a hitchhiking Cook. At gunpoint, Cook kidnapped the family and forced them to drive throughout the Southwest before taking them to Joplin and shooting them.
After dumping the Mosser family down an abandoned mine shaft, Cook drove west and kidnapped a sheriff’s deputy in Blythe, Calif. He then confessed to the murders. Cook dropped the deputy on the side of the road and later murdered a traveling salesman from Seattle just to take his car. Police arrested Cook 600 miles south into Mexico.
The killer was sentenced in to 300 years in prison in 1951. According to a Time magazine article, the prosecutor left the courtroom shouting, “the goddamdest travesty of justice, ever,” because Cook had not been sentenced to death.
Cook was later sentenced to death for the murder of the salesman. He was put to death in the gas chamber in San Quentin.
After 12,000 people viewed Cook’s body in Oklahoma, Cook was brought to Joplin. “Badman Bill Cook is buried at night in Peace Cemetery,” read the headline of a 1952 Joplin Globe story by reporter Gerald Wallace.
The graveside service under the cover of darkness was officiated by Rev. Dow Booe of nearby Galena and lasted 10 minutes. “Brief service held at night with aid of flashlights and lanterns before about 15 persons;” “Funeral cortege, consisting of four cars and hearse, moves to burial place over back roads,” the sub-headlines read. “Just as the graveside rites ended,” Wallace wrote, “the cry of a small child could be heard in the chill of the night air.”
So, does Cook’s lonely, pain-ridden ghost haunt Peace Church Cemetery?
Local paranormal groups have investigated the cemetery over the years and, although they haven’t turned up Billy Cook, they have measured strange magnetic fluctuations in the cemetery, according to a 2004 article in the Joplin Globe.