Friday, July 22, 2016

Beyond the Aftermath

Out of all the people involved as the tragic scene unfolded at the Spragg household in 1894, the one child who escaped without any injuries was David Spragg's step-daughter, Dora Onstott. At least, as far as we can say, no physical injuriesthough who knows what psychological burdens she bore for the rest of her life.

This was the ten year old eye witness whose reports became fodder for the more graphic journalism erupting from the December 11 murder-suicide in the small town of Ridgeway, Missouri. Dora was the child who, lying sick in bed as the episode escalated, realized the best course of action was to escape and run for help.

In the aftermath of the crime, shealong with her brother and a step-sister who were not expected to recover from their injurieswere the only ones to have survived the attack that day. Everyone else in the family was now gone.

A traumatic event as sudden and irrevocable as that could surely trigger serious psychological repercussionssomething I wondered about as I reviewed what could be found out about the subsequent life events of the other two surviving children. In the case of Ina and Clint, I was actually surprised to discover that they had, indeed, survived the gruesome affair and lived long lives afterwards.

In Dora's case, however, it was easy to presume she would live long after that point. She was, after all, only ten when the murders occurred. I wanted to see what life held for her after that devastating episode.

Unlike her step-sister Ina, whose grandparents took her into their own household, Dora apparently didn't have any such grandparents to extent the customary kindness expected in that time period. I hadn't been able to find out much about her motherthe former Lucinda Wellsexcept a possible entry in the 1880 census for a fifteen year old daughter of a widow living in Illinois, the state where Lucinda was born. If that widow was the one who later became Dora's maternal grandmother, perhaps by the time of the 1894 tragedy, she was no longer alive.

With no one in her extended family stepping up to offer a home for the orphan, Dora found herself doing the same as many young people in such circumstances then: find work to support herself. In Dora's case, that was as a servant for a family living not far from her home in Ridgeway.

Not long after that point, though, Dora married George Ashley Herbst, a man just two years older than she and born right in Harrison County. By the time of the 1910 census, the Herbst household grew to include three children: daughter Gladys, followed by two sons, Lloyd and Leo.

By 1920, the family had moved to Des Moines, Iowapossibly so carpenter George could follow construction work. Within the next ten years, though, things did not go well for Dora. Life introduced some changes by the time of the 1930 census. Dora was then listed as the mother of a three year old sonbut also listed as a divorced woman who may have had to depend on the earnings of her twenty year old son Leo to make ends meet. Though her husband remarried before the early 1940s, I find no evidence that she had done so.

The last trace I can find of Dora is that of her headstone. In the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Des Moines, Iowa, under a marker proclaiming simply, "Mother," she is, if never before, now at rest. Who knows what tales she took with her, or whether her childrenor her grandchildrenknew of the upheaval in her young life. Sometimes, people back then didn't talk about hardships, let alone tragedies. There's no way to know whether this became part of the "heritage" passed down to the current generation. Sometimes, events like these become enveloped in the silence enshrouded by Time.  


  1. My thoughts exactly when I read yesterday's account - how did these kids live with such horrible memories? I wondered if it wouldn't have been better not to recover. I guess the wounds sounded worse than they really were, or maybe they lucked into some memory loss. The available records seem to show normal lives all around - I hope that was so.

    1. I hope so, too, Wendy. Of course, all we have to go by are essentially snapshots of their lives once every ten years or so. Hard to tell with such scant input. I'm hoping the resilience of youth helped bring them through it all.

  2. I bet she never spoke of it with her children...such a sad story.

    1. It may just have been too hard for her to speak of it at all, considering how traumatic an experience it must have been.


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