Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Deconstructing the Narrative

In the aftermath of a crime, it is no surprise to discover that newspaper reports may have included errors. In the case of a crime so horrific as the one which unfolded at the Spragg farm just outside Ridgeway, Missouri, the rush to report may well have amplified the problem.

For those called in to help as David Spragg went on his rampage in mid-December, 1894, eventually the facts got sorted out. The coroner performed his examination and held an inquest. True to form, the journalists who were all in a rush to get the scoop on December 11a bloody one, I might addwere mostly silent in the aftermath.

For those of us trying to reconstruct just what happenednot from a forensic, or even from a journalistic, point of view, but from a genealogical standpointcarefully reviewing each line of the various versions of the Spragg murders eventually pointed to one fact: there were errors in the story.

Since the whole reason I stumbled upon this story was in my pursuit of family history, I find myself having to go back, again and again, to sort out just who had died, and who was only supposed to be mortally wounded.

Initially, one newspaper had carried a version of the story which seemed to keep track of each of the members of the ill-fated family: the Kansas City Times. I started using that to try to build a family tree. We'll begin with that, today, as well, but will have to continue in the next few days with further examination.

Perhaps the reason why the jumble of family namesand fatesseemed so confusing was that there was one other detail in this story, though one which didn't seem to play any part in David Spragg's sudden insanity. That detail was regarding the blended family residing in the Spragg household. Apparently, David Spragg had lost his wife a few years earlier, and, now having remarried, had an infant in common with this second wife, as well as his children from the previous marriage and his second wife's children from her deceased first husband.

Not that this was an unusual occurrence, back in that time period. For our case, though, it introduced a second surname into the narrative, as well as the possibility of mis-identification of parentage for each of the children. Yes, I realize that, in a matter of moments, they all lay dead at the hand of the man (be)heading their household, but remember, I'm solely thinking genealogically, here. I want to be able to correctly identify which child belonged to which parent.

The report in the Kansas City Times was valuable for another reason: it included the eyewitness report of the one family member who had managed to escape: a child whom the newspaper identified as Dora Spragg. Though the Times report was not the one picked up by most wire services across the land, the few papers which did carry it provided a raw snapshot of what unfolded on that bloody afternoon.

It also provided a seemingly straightforward listing of the characters involved in this tragedy. These were laid out in the opening paragraph of the Times report:
In the sitting room of a little farmhouse about ten miles northeast of this place, upon pine boards placed on chairs, lie the dead bodies of David Spragg, Louisa Spragg, his wife, Caleb Spragg and an infant, their children. The head of each is almost severed from the body. The carpet is blood-soaked and the walls besmeared.

These were not the only ones in the Spragg household that day, of course, so despite having that convenient catalog at the very start, this lack of a full census of family members required wading through more gore to isolate the rest of the details I was seeking.

Continuing with their December 12, 1894, report, the Times list provided more specifics of the family members, including their relationships:
All this is the result of David Spragg's frenzy of yesterday. Until that time the family consisted of David Spragg, his wife Louisa, Dora Onstatt, aged 10 years, Clint Onstatt, aged 8 years; Ina Onstatt, aged 6 years, all children of Mrs. Spragg by a former husband; Caleb Spragg, aged 5 years, a child by David Spragg's first wife, and the infant son.

A list like this seems complete enough to go by. After all, what else could we use to double check that report? There no longer remains any 1890 census; none of the children were alive at the time of the 1880 census. And they certainly wouldn't remain long enough to make the 1900 censusat least not in reportable conditions.

As serendipitous as it may seem to stumble upon this handy newspaper listing of the family, don't let that fool you into accepting it as reported. As it turns out, the more I tried to double check the list, the less confident I felt in the news story. Note, for instance, how little Dora—the one providing the eyewitness report of the scene—was called Dora Spragg in one paragraph, and yet her name was given as Dora Onstatt just a bit later. Of course, reading reports, from publication to publication, of how the crime itself unfolded, I realize the rush to report in the heat of the moment may have contributed to an escalating error rate, not just in the deeds but in the names, too.

Though we often place great confidence in the documents which supposedly verify our genealogical conclusion, from the number of times in which those items have proven to be error-prone, it warns us to alwaysalwaysdouble check and even triple check the details. In the absence of those source documents, even as complete a listing as this newspaper report provided cannot tempt us away from our resolve to seek the actual circumstances. While I'm glad to have found this helpful listing in the Times report, it can serve only as a guide to lead me to more accurate information, as we'll see in the next few days.


  1. I've read various accounts of the murder-suicide and I can't make head or tails of this family and its members!

    1. That's what I thought at first, too, Iggy. Confusing reporting!

  2. I see you have a bit of a mystery on your hands:)


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