John Avy, the "Phantom of the Ozarks," was a "godfather" a century before his time. His criminal exploits in the 1830s – wholesale thievery, counterfeiting, murder-for-hire and the political corruption to make it all possible – marked the most lawless period in Missouri history, making Jesse James' gang a few decades later seem mild and inept by comparison. It took a vigilante group known as the "Slickers" to bring him down.
by Ronald J. Lawrence
"The ruling spirit was a man far removed from his assumed character of a simple pioneer. He was so shrewd in concealing his identity and his connection with the outlaws … " J. W. Vincent
John Avy was a chameleon, adept at blending with his immediate surroundings. He wore different faces designed not only to deceive and confuse, but also to conceal his true identity and give him anonymity. They helped create the enigma that surrounded the man who was to become known as the "Phantom of the Ozarks."
The face Avy most often wore was that of a simple, decent, soft-spoken man. There appeared to be nothing sinister about him. He kept to himself and no one really knew, or cared, for that matter, what he did for a living or from where he came. He seemed just another settler who had drifted west in the late 1820s as the frontier, then Missouri, opened up. He preferred the obscurity of the backwoods near what is now the sprawling tourist center of the Lake of the Ozarks. A low profile was the way he wanted it and this posture served his purposes well for many years.
Behind another face, rarely seen by the public, was a calculating, perverse and violent man.
Avy was, in fact, a Mafia "Godfather" a century before his time. He and his trusted, loyal soldiers, a collection of murderers, robbers, thieves, swindlers, manipulators and extortionists, were the precursor of organized crime in Missouri, if not the country. As primitive as it might have been, the Avy mob was unlike the rag-tag outlaws of the time. It was as sophisticated, ruthless, disciplined and as cohesive as any contemporary crime family, perhaps lacking only in the opportunities that exist today. Jesse James' gang a few decades later would seem meek and inept by comparison.