The fall morning breeze bites at my skin as I step out onto my porch. But for the areas the sun has touched with its warmth, the rooftops in my subdivision are covered in frost. I hug my coffee close and inhale the steam. The subtleties in its aroma add to the layers of mystery that shrouds this time of year, reminiscent of cinnamon brooms.
It’s October: the death of a lifecycle as all things go into the ground.
We humans have an odd curiosity about death. We’re intrigued that people can do the unthinkable, we’re obsessed with the thought of life after death, we love to feel fear, and yet we’re so driven to survive that ruminating on the topic of death also gives us a sense of control and eases those fears. Humans throughout the ages have been entertained by death. While the Romans watched gladiators in the Colosseum, we consume the topic through books, film, and podcasts. The mystery genre has exploded in the past few years.
All the great crime stories, mysteries, and legends have an element of death: Lizzie Borden, Bonnie and Clyde, H.H. Holmes, The Lemp Mansion, Jesse James, Blackbeard.
I’m not impervious to a good mystery surrounding the ending of a lifecycle. With the passing of my father, death touched my life at a young age, sparking a lifelong curiosity of death, supernatural phenomenon, criminal behavior, and legends deep-seated in historical significance.
My aunts – all six of them – were so passionate about genealogy that my cousin and I practically grew up in a graveyard as we tracked down long-lost, departed relatives. Every tombstone had a million stories, most of which were lost to time, to failing memories, and to the grave. Most of the cemeteries we walked through made me wonder about the life the dash between dates represented; most cemeteries, save one: De Lassus Cemetery. Sometime after its last occupant was laid to rest in 1969, the cemetery was abandoned. Graves sunk into the earth 12 inches deep, and ivy covered the ground beneath a young forest of oak trees, most of which were around seven inches in diameter. Their roots threatened to devour the worn name markers.
Octobers remind me of my own roots, tangled in the St. Francis Mountains.
A mining community, Madison County has been the scene of many scandalous acts throughout its history, and the area where I once lived is no exception.
Just down the road, there is a half-mile stretch of E highway that is what I believe the be the most beautifully haunting, best-kept secrets in Missouri. To one side, the edge of the road abruptly drops down to the St. Francis River where, in the summertime, you can see a variety of river turtle species stacked two and three high, sunning themselves on logs. The other edge winds around the curves and bluffs of Black Mountain. Tree roots protrude from the mountain as they fight to find soil, and their crooked branches loom over the highway like a tunnel. The turning leaves and 15-foot wet-weather waterfall make it a drive to behold in the fall seasons, but the sequestered highway is nearly forgotten in the winter months, making its icy surface dangerous.
If fall is the ending of a lifecycle, winter is death.
If this stretch of land could talk, it would tell you of floodwaters climbing the 30-foot embankments and making the way impassible; of cars going over the edge, being upended and saved from the river by massive tree trunks; of Civil War soldiers using the mountains for cover as they marched between Fredericktown and Pilot Knob; of legends of ghosts, gold, and murder in the isolated villages of the mountains.
This area of the Ozarks appropriately became known as “French Mills” and was home to around 200 people at the turn of the century. If you drive that stretch, the only indicator that French Mills ever existed is a weathered, wooden sign chained to a faded red cattle gate that reads, “French Mills Cemetery.”
That graveyard is the final resting place of at least a dozen people, three of which are alleged to have been murdered. One of those stories turned into a legend of lies and hidden gold. This legend has always intrigued me.
Simon Durand died on December 3, 1917. He was a French settler who amassed great wealth as an owner of many businesses in the area. He and his business partner, Jacques “Jake” LaCondemine came to the Liberty Township in 1879. They owned and operated a grist mill, flour mill, sawmill, general store, and distillery.
Simon had a head of grey hair that was matted and a beard to match. He layered his clothing and generally appeared disheveled. He was a short 5’5” but was a stout man known to pick up a 50-gallon whiskey barrel and drink from the bunghole, never spilling or dripping it down his beard.
Whiskey barrels weigh between 110 and 520 pounds depending on their contents. Any man that can pick up a barrel of that size and drink from it is going to become the subject of stories, but the real story isn’t in his show of strength; it’s in the events surrounding his death.
During the Civil War, Simon hired a live-in housekeeper named Sarah. Sarah's husband was apprehended from their farm to serve in the war and was never seen or heard from again. The men who took him burned her home, leaving her with her son and an iron washing pot. Their arrangement lasted long enough that she became Simon’s common-law wife and gave birth to Simon’s son, Candide.
The cause is unclear, but Sarah died in the 1870s. Since Simon was the only father that John had known, he lived with him until he married a young woman named Mary King. Mary was also from a prominent family in the area, so she and John quickly became well-respected members of the French Mill’s community. Like Simon, John became a businessman, owning a farm and two stores.
Mary and John had a tab for Simon in their stores that grew to a debt of over a thousand dollars. It’s said that Mary nagged John for months to collect upon Simon’s debt before he eventually went to talk to him. This led to a falling out between the two men, and Simon would be heard telling anyone who would listen about what John had done to him.
Simon was smart with money but tended to be frugal, promising others a generous repayment upon his death in lieu of paying them for the services and goods he’d received from them. He’d taken another housekeeper, whom they called Birdie, and showed her rams horns that had been filled with gold nuggets of varying sizes. If she would keep his secret, he promised, she would be given a reward upon his death.
Birdie married a man named Eli, and Simon, still wishing to be cared for, asked them to live with him, promising that they would never have to work again if they stayed. They stayed but it soon became clear that Simon was not a man of his word.
All the promises he made in the community likely contributed to his death. Candide, Simon’s sole heir, was murdered. With John also out of Simon’s life and so many assurances of wealth upon his passing, many people started to wiggle into his life in hope of learning his money’s whereabouts and stealing it. People that had “an ax to grind” with Simon, one of which even had a lawsuit against him.
After cutting logs for firewood, Eli came home and noticed that the farm was unusually quiet. He went into the house to find Simon tied to his bed and badly beaten. Simon told Eli that the people, though records are unclear of who these people were, had taken the key to his money box and would keep coming back to beat him until he told them where he’d hidden his gold.
There are no records that indicate the beatings continued, but other incidents did. A Madison County newspaper published a story in 1899 that Simon had been stricken with an illness causing odd colorations and swelling of his right leg. The newspaper supposed it was a tick bite, but others began to believe that the old man was being poisoned.
In 1908, another newspaper article said that Simon had received a non-fatal shot to the arm by a man known as “Orr” after a dispute over a cider mill.
Shortly before his death, Simon changed his will. He had bonds from every state of the union, Mexico, Canada, and Australia totaling around $60,000. In her old age, Birdie was often heard repeating a story in which Simon had told her, “Birdie, when I die, they will never find half of my gold.”
Simon was known to have cash on hand, including the ram’s horns filled with gold, which Birdie had seen but didn’t have knowledge of their location.
His health continued to decline, with the stories all pointing to poison as the cause of his death. It’s said that there were men there the night he died, who refused to bring John in for reconciliation when Simon asked for him, and who threw him into his grave under a waning moon once he’d passed.
An autopsy was never performed, a death certificate was never filed, and charges were never brought against anyone for the death of Simon Durand.
Simon made a lot of enemies throughout his life. Though unclear why, the sheriff was thought to be one of the people who conspired to kill him, and the reason for his death was never investigated.
The will dated November 19th, 1917, and written just 13 days prior to his death, states that all his debts be paid as soon as possible, that Jack LaCondemine’s widow be given $4,000, and that his old friend Siliven receive $50. The will was signed in front of the sheriff and John’s father-in-law, Sam King.
The probate judge, suspicious of the events that lead to Simon’s death, ordered respondents to pay $500 for a headstone out of the money of the estate and to find and turn in the box of money that was still unaccounted for.
On November 3, 1921, four years after these events unfolded, a newspaper article announced that the Simon Durand Estate was nearly ready for its heirs. It continued by saying Simon gave the sheriff a farm worth $2,500, Sam King $1,000, and Mrs. Sim Graham $500, all before his death in return for their kindness.
The hidden gold was never found.
There are many accounts of this story, and they’re all full of holes. The story I’ve recounted here are the things all the versions have in common, some of which are found in public records.
Even with all its holes, it’s a great story. There’s deceit, violence, a child born out of wedlock (scandalous for its time), lost treasure, and two murders. Even lacking concrete facts, many people, including descendants of these characters, have clung to this story. One account even said that “people from all over the world have come to search for Simon Durand’s gold,” which is interesting because there is virtually no mention of it on the world wide web, so how did they learn of this story?
I first learned of this story from Bob Kemp, a man I called Grandpa. His grandpa knew Simon Durand as a neighbor and had an ongoing dispute with him. Grandpa often told stories about Jake and Simon, “No one ever did find that gold.” He would become quiet as he contemplated it.
A leaf scrapes the concrete in front of me as the breeze gently pokes it across the porch. What remains of my coffee has gone cold. Empty, my rocker taps the brick behind it now that I’ve stood.
Was Simon Durand an old miser, or did he just take advantage of his neighbors and family? If it ever existed, is the gold still hidden or did someone find it and never tell? Was he really poisoned?
I turn to go inside.
Fall is the ending of a lifecycle and Winter is death, but Spring reveals the secrets that Winter has kept.
We may never know the truth behind Simon Durand’s hidden gold, or of the many other murderous stories, we hear and read.