Newspaper Scandal and a Murder
Nebraska has seen many unusual murder cases through the years, each with its own unique causes. One, in Adams County in 1892, was prompted by local gossip about a young Hastings woman that was spread statewide by sensational newspaper reporting.
The killing itself, which occurred on the late afternoon of February 22, 1892, was not mysterious. The Kearney Daily Hub reported the next day: "Captain A. D. Yocum, special inspector of customs, with headquarters in Idaho, and ex-mayor of this city [Hastings], who is home on a visit to his family, walked up Second street and, when in front of the Hotel Bostwick, pulled a large revolver from his overcoat and, without warning deliberately fired four shots at Myron Van Fleet, a prominent character about town, every bullet taking effect. Van Fleet fled inside the hotel to evade the fusillade of bullets, fell exhausted in the office inside, and died about forty minutes later.
"The tragic affair is the culmination of a cowardly scandal circulated in this city and published in a scandal paper in Lincoln, December 13, 1890, which at that time stirred social circles from center to circumference. Van Fleet alleged that on December 4, 1890, Miss Yocum, a daughter of the captain, and the colored coachman [Jeff Teemer] had skipped to Denver and had been clandestinely married." Teemer, who had accompanied Yocum to downtown Hastings when the fatal shots were fired, was arrested as an accomplice in the killing.
Vanity Fair, the "scandal paper in Lincoln" mentioned by the Hub, lost no time in defending itself against accusations that it had been partly to blame for Van Fleet's death. It said on February 27, 1892: "The story that Captain Yocum shot Van Fleet because he believed he had written the article that appeared in Vanity Fair something over a year ago is not true. The captain had been informed by reliable parties that Van Fleet had never written a line for that paper. . . . The whole story was printed in the Hastings papers with much more complete details before it was even hinted at in Vanity Fair. True they did not mention names but the innuendo was not lacking. It was also printed in the State Journal, the Bee and the World Herald, and numerous other papers, before it appeared in Vanity Fair. It was no new thing when that paper appeared on the streets of this city."
Yocum was tried for the killing of Van Fleet in March 1892. While many in Hastings believed that he should not have taken the law into his own hands, there was also general sympathy for him as a father who had sought to avenge his slandered daughter. On March 24 Yocum was convicted of manslaughter, and less than a month later, on April 15, was pardoned by Nebraska Governor James E. Boyd. The pardon cited "mitigating circumstances" and the "overwhelming approval of public sentiment" as reasons for the governor's action. The case against Teemer was dismissed on the motion of the Adams County attorney.
Vanity Fair, despite its disclaimers, could not escape public blame for Van Fleet's death in 1892. Its editor, John M. Cotton, eventually tired of the turmoil surrounding his newspaper, and it was discontinued early in 1893. Its "ominous resuscitation" in Lincoln was noted on November 11, 1894, by Willa Cather, then writing for the Nebraska State Journal, but Vanity Fair's reincarnation was short-lived.
Second Street, Looking west, Hastings. NSHS2923.PH2-8
From the Kearney Daily Hub, March 25, 1892.
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