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 nationfrom 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. Spragga 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, 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 himhad 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 causewhatever 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 diedand just who they were.

Even seeking their burial records proved fruitlessbut 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, himselfcomplete 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.



  1. I can see why family didn't talk about that horrible event. Reading what happened is hard enough. I suppose an autopsy might have uncovered a brain tumor that untreated might have caused "instant insanity." I doubt that would have been much comfort to anyone though, but they would have had an answer.

    1. It was hard to read all that, Wendy! Gruesome! And there may have been more reasons than that, as I've realized in the last couple days.

      I guess I'm coming at it from my own point of view. Any time I've heard an awful news story, I always want to know what the conclusion of the matter was. Not knowing is like being left in limbo, wondering, "So, can this happen again?" Perhaps I'm too much of a problem-solver, but I need conclusions in my life, even in remote news stories.


    I found the understate assessment in the item, odd.

    1. Yes, agreed. It seemed news stories of that time period vacillated from the understated to the "TMI" of over-exposure.

      One thing my law-enforcement husband noticed right away was that your link included not only the Spragg story, but several others in which a person turned murderous on their own family members. Not sure whether it was a difficult era, or just a newspaper which prided itself on collecting odd stories from across the country.

      Thanks for the link, by the way. Good resource!

  3. ah such a sad bit of family history. It is said that my Great Grandfather pushed my Great Grandmother down the stairs and she died...I wish I could find a newspaper article that talks about it...but I think it was all hush hush:(

    1. Depending on how much you want to know the details, it may or may not be helpful to pursue the search. Of course, that depends on whether it really happened, or was simply spiteful hearsay. And then, whether it was ever reported--and printed in the news. Of course, that's also depending on whether they got the report right in the first place...

  4. I have come across this info while looking for my maternal grandfather's half-sister. I recently found her and her husband in an excerpt on Google books. We always new Aunt Kitty married a Clint Onstott and then I found several newspaper articles. I have questions still but if you go by confirmed dates, this is what I have deduced: Ina Lee Spragg and Caleb Spragg were born to Orpha B Rush, David's first wife. Dora Onstott and Clinton Burrell Onstott, were in fact David's stepchildren. Albert Spragg was the son of David and Lucinda Wells Onstott Spragg. Clinton and Dora lived long lives. Clinton went and lived with his mother's family; Ina lived with her father's parents (she never married); Caleb and Albert were each buried with a parent (supposedly). My main question(s) is...where was Ina Lee during this horrific ordeal? Were Ina and Caleb twins? Did Orpha pass shortly after their births? Just a thought...thanks for listening to my rambling.

    1. A belated thanks for your comments. In answer to your questions, I did post some additional findings in the next two days' articles which may be of help in clearing things out.

      As you can imagine, there was a rush to publish information in the local--and national--newspapers following this horrific incident, and some of it was incorrect. Best I can tell, Ina and Caleb were not twins, but I base that only on the ages given for Ina and Clint in the newspaper accounts. Caleb, having not survived the ordeal, was in that window of time between census records, and thus any verification for his dates is now lost to me--other than, likely, any on-site research.

      Though the newspapers identified Ina in error as an Onstott, they did indicate that, at first, she suffered so many cuts and injuries that townspeople presumed she would not survive the ordeal, so that indicates she was right there in the home when the tragedy unfolded.

      As for David's first wife, Orpha, she died in 1891, according to her headstone (shown on Find A Grave). While I can't yet find any record stating cause of death, because of her age, I presume she died from something related to childbirth or pregnancy, especially considering it was about two years after Caleb (the next oldest of her children) would have been born--just about time for another baby.

      I did see an entry for a Kathryn in Clint Onstott's household in the census enumerations for 1920 through 1940, which likely would have been your Aunt Kitty.


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