Wednesday, July 20, 2016
His, Hers and Theirs:
The Wife is the Key
In trying to determine the reliability of newspaper accounts of what was labeled "the most horrible butchery which ever stained the history of Northern Missouri," I found the easiest way to sort out the children in David Spragg's household was to focus on researching each of his wives. And yet, that very approach led to some complications.
The article I referred to yesterday—that explicit eye-witness report from the Kansas City Times—had said the murderer's wife was named Louisa. Because some of the victims named in the report—her children—had had a different surname, we can surmise that Louisa was the widow of someone named Onstatt.
That, at least, is the conclusion we can draw by the information provided in the newspaper report of the crime. It didn't take long to discover how incorrect that was.
For starters, the unfortunate second wife of the murderous David Spragg was not named Louisa, but Lucinda. And her former married name was likely spelled Onstott, not Onstatt. A minor detail, admittedly, especially during an era in which spelling didn't hold so much importance, but helpful to us as we attempt to reconstruct each family tree.
It didn't help that the Find A Grave entry for David Spragg, while listing several other relationships, did not include a mention of his second wife, at all—only his first wife, who predeceased his rampage by almost exactly three years. Searching Find A Grave's cemetery listing for the Ridgeway cemetery where David was buried brought up only three other Spragg burials: David's first wife and that of his brother—the merchant and newspaper editor we've already mentioned—and his brother's wife. No sign of Louisa.
There are many more ways to discover the details we are seeking, however. One way was to attempt finding Louisa's first husband, Mr. Onstatt. That, however, brought up no results with that spelling. Turning to Ancestry.com in hopes that the one child who had, for sure, survived the melee might be found in subsequent records, I gambled on the newspaper error of eyewitness Dora's surname and searched for Dora Onstatt, rather than Dora Spragg. I estimated her date of birth, based on those same fallible reporters' articles, and came up with a young woman in the 1900 census.
Her name was Dora Onstott. By then sixteen, she was still in Harrison County, Missouri, working as a servant in the home of Charles and Ida Fordyce. One additional clue—that Dora had been born in Illinois—sent me to records in that other state which might reveal a marriage between an Onstott and someone named Louisa.
Well, not quite. It turned out her name wasn't Louisa, after all; it was Lucinda. And on November 3, 1881, in Clay County, Illinois, she had married someone named John J. Onstott.
Sure enough, when I returned to the Ridgeway cemetery to see if there were any Onstotts, that minute revision in the spelling yielded one result: the memorial for John Onstott, who died there in 1892—just over two years prior to the tragedy which took his wife's life.
There was another Spragg wife in that same cemetery, of course: the first wife of David Spragg. Though Orpha Spragg had died in 1891, her children had remained in the Spragg household until the moment at which their father had erupted into his murderous rampage. Documentation from back in Pennsylvania, home state for the couple, showed that David had married Orpha B. Rush on January 22, 1887, in Greene County. They had moved to Harrison County, Missouri, sometime before the birth of their oldest child in 1888.
Having seen, within that one newspaper account, the child who was said to be Dora Spragg turn into Dora Onstott, and the murdered mother turn out to be not Louisa but Lucinda, I wondered what became of the children. Given the record of reporting errors in this case, it was not beyond possibility that some who were thought to have been doomed might actually have survived. One clue already evident in the memorials at Find A Grave gave credence to that theory. The handy device at Ancestry for linking individuals to their parents for later documents such as Social Security applications provided more clues as I put each child's name through the search engine paces at Ancestry. Despite the somber assessment in the Saint Louis Republic that the children "were cared for but...cannot recover," it turned out that there were survivors in the aftermath, after all.