Monday, July 18, 2016
A "Charming Family"
Why is it that, despite the unfolding of a horrific event, journalists can still paint the perpetrators with the most rose-colored word pictures?
It was after the tragedy which had occurred at the home of "wealthy farmer" David Spragg that reporters from newspapers throughout the midwest descended upon the obscure region where the Spragg family had lived in Missouri. Indeed, in addition to the reports generated by those journalists on the scene, several newspapers picked up the story across the nation—from as far east as New York to San Francisco and Los Angeles on the west coast.
Although not withholding any of the bloody details, the newspapers nevertheless equally packed their narrative with flattering descriptors. While being characterized as insane, David Spragg was also portrayed as a man whom, no doubt, neighbors and townspeople were more likely to recognize.
The Saint Louis Republic called him "an honest and industrious farmer, well-to-do and greatly respected by his neighbors." As a father, he was portrayed as "always indulgent and provident."
Still, such kind euphemisms did not mitigate the fact that, on the afternoon of December 12, 1894, David G. Spragg—a father who, only moments before, had been holding his baby boy and playing with him—"patted the baby gently on the face" and then, suddenly, escalated into what one newspaper dubbed "the most horrible butchery which ever stained the history of Northern Missouri."
Nor did it help to know that the man had had a terrible headache earlier that day. Or that neighbors reflected later, after coming upon the gruesome scene at the Spragg farmhouse, that he had been ill for some time.
Though the event itself erupted on Tuesday, December 11, 1894, by the weekend, the story had gained national coverage. Many of those news reports can still be accessed by searches on such services as NewspaperArchive.com, which retrieved twenty eight stories (likewise for the collection at GenealogyBank), or by accessing National Endowment for the Humanities' Chronicling America site, where a search for David Spragg yielded thirty three results.
With as much care as reporters had taken to present Spragg in favorable terms, they heaped devastation upon the man as well. Carrying out his act with "unconceivable ferocity," David Spragg was said to have been "enraged by the demon of insanity" and engaged in his destruction with the frenzy of "a human monster."
The "demented man"—as the newspaper back in Warren, Pennsylvania, where his brother once served as editor, dubbed him—had been complaining "all morning long" of "an aching head." The closest neighbor, who lived nearly a mile away, had been sent to summon a doctor from town, but before any help arrived, something must have snapped in David Spragg's mind and his behavior changed radically.
He had been noted to have been "never quarrelsome...not an intemperate man...never known to abuse his family." After the brutal devastation he brought upon his family that day in December, he turned upon himself. Inside the house and out of view of the assembled neighbors trying to stop him, two shots signaled the end of the carnage.
Someone had wired for the coroner "and other officers," who came and took charge of the remains. That night, at the conclusion of the inquest, the coroner's determination was that no motive could be found for the murders other than that the man "suddenly became insane."
When I learn of such appalling instances in current events, it sometimes turns out that there was, indeed, some organic cause for such a sudden change in personality and behavior. Of course, back in the 1890s, there may not have been the ability or even the custom to pursue such possibilities. No mention was made of an autopsy in the news reports about David Spragg, for instance. Diagnostic abilities would have been limited, even if one had been performed. No doubt, the people of the town of Ridgeway would have been disturbed to learn of such a tragedy, but would also have had no way to be assured that such devastation was not the result of evil intent, or that it was unlikely to ever happen again without that same underlying cause—whatever it might have been.
Sometimes, when I run across such stories in my pursuit of family history, it causes me to wonder whatever became of those left behind, afterwards. In this case, it was hard to even determine if anyone was left behind. The last line of one newspaper article, having detailed every minute aspect of the crimes, closed its report with the mention of the "two" children who had escaped with their lives: "The two stepchildren who were still alive were cared for, but cannot recover" from their injuries. It was hard, though, in taking in all the various reports, to determine how many had died—and just who they were.
Even seeking their burial records proved fruitless—but enlightening as to just what the aftermath of the tragedy had meant to those in Ridgeway. The only burial record I could locate on Find A Grave, for instance, was that of David Spragg, himself—complete with a copy of one newspaper account of the carnage plastered alongside his memorial.
My question, of course, was: did any family members survive this ordeal? If so, what burden did they carry with them for the rest of their lives? It turns out, thanks both to search capabilities and newspaper repositories online, that there were enough clues tucked between the lines of all those reports and records to find out more about the children.