Generation IX: Stella Mae Lowe & Rufus Asbury Penley
It wasn't just the local newspaper that noticed the gatherings at Priscilla Penley's mountaintop home. The most ludicrous documents ever found came from the F.B.I., provided by cousin Charles Penley. When Charles filed under the Freedom of Information Act for the Kinnie Wagner papers from the F.B.I., he never expected 800 pages! Notorious desperado Kinnie Wagner escaped from a Mississippi prison in 1942 and traveled home to his family in Scott County. J. Edgar Hoover ordered agents to apprehend him in Scott County. They put Priscilla's mountain under surveillance, and told Hoover that they couldn't climb up to get Wagner because our Grandma Priscilla Penley was armed, dangerous and had an army of lawless sons defending Wagner. They named Rufus, Malcolm and Mitchell Penley, and repeatedly blamed our tiny Priscilla for ruling the fortress with an iron fist. They also sat in a living room across the street from the Rufus Penley home on Flannery Street in Morrison City waiting for Kinnie's visits, and probably watched Aunt Jeet polish her nails on the porch. This was 1942; there was a war going on. For these agents, Scott County was safer than the beaches of Normandy or Iwo Jima. They avoided the real war by painting Priscilla and her sons as hardened criminals, risks to national security. The 800 pages are worthy of a comic book, and someday must be transcribed.
There was some fire behind the smoke, but not the flames the federal agents described to Hoover. Kinnie was a second cousin, Hiram Penley's grandson. Rufus and Malcolm, and Stella's Uncles Jerry and Jimmy and other Penleys were friends with Kinnie Wagner. They believed that Kinnie was set up for an ambush by a crooked sheriff, back in 1925, during prohibition. The sheriff wanted to get rid of Kinnie to keep him from turning the sheriff into the revenuers. The deputies at the river were just following orders from higher up, probably unaware of the background. When ambushed, Kinnie was the better shot, and he killed the two deputies.
Much of the family was appalled by the unfair trial and lies told on the witness stand. Amy Lou Penley, Priscilla's niece through Sam's brother Enoch gave eyewitness testimony in Kinnie's defense. Mitch grew up knowing the story so well, he was shocked years later to find out he was only a few months old at the time. Rufus and Stella may well have taken Mitch with them to court that day, but he realized his memories came from the repetition of the story through the years. Kinnie was found guilty and sentenced to electrocution. Family legend is that Rufus, Jerry and other Penleys arranged Kinnie's escape from jail. The truth will never be known.
When Kinnie escaped from jail or came home on furloughs, he lived off the land in the backwoods and sneaked visits with friends and family. He was a moving target, and never stayed anywhere long. He did visit Grandma Priscilla’s farm, and would shoot targets with the boys on Sunday afternoons. Mitch watched Kinnie drive nails into fence posts with a 22 rifle from fifty feet across the yard. He would name items, then hit them in that order, as fast as he could pull the trigger, never missing a target. After Luther left for the war, Rufus sent Mitch out in Luther's 1937 Plymouth to take Kinnie places. Mitch once asked Kinnie how many men he had killed. Kinnie Wagner looked him straight in the eyes and said, “Mitch, I never fired on a man who wasn’t already firing at me.” Mitch believed him.
Like many people, Mitch was amazed by Wagner's silken nerves, physical strength, and sharpshooting. He believed Wagner had a tough childhood, and got a raw deal in 1925. After that, things spun out of control; no side was all good or all bad; there was no victory to be had. Mitch raised his daughters to believe that Kinnie Wagner created much of his own bad luck, as well as heartbreak and hardship for many others.
Wagner was charismatic; his saga remains interesting to many 50 years after his death. The story is too complicated and sensitive to be dealt with in these pages. Mitch said that the people who knew the most talked the least, and now they are gone. There is more of Mitch's story at PenleyPearls.com. Other valid and conflicting points of view have been published.
Priscilla was not a national threat, but would probably feed Sam's hungry nephew who grew up hard. If the feds heard gunfire from the mountain, the boys were hunting or target shooting. And those bungling F.B.I. agents would have made lousy soldiers anyway, and would never have made it as Marines.