a Saturday night, March 4, 1922, in Slaton,
what may have begun as a whisper, an aside, a comment, or just mindless chatter
amongst neighbors, transformed the community and introduced an air of instability
and perilous paranoia. |
It was past the buds of bright red verbenas that
the Civic Culture Club had urged the people of Slaton
to plant so visitors who passed through by train would come to know the town as,
“Slaton – Home of the Red
Verbena”. It was beyond the altar that sat undisturbed in the dark church already
prepped for Sunday morning mass in the St. Joseph Catholic Parsonage.
that night with only the light of the astonishing stars that have flickered against
the skies from unknown regions throughout little known histories – Father Joseph
M. Keller staggered into the Slaton
city limits, past cotton fields and newly built houses on the north end of town,
verging on the appearance of a monster rather than a man.
he limped, wearing nothing but a layer of tar and scorched skin, cooled only momentarily
by the gentle night breeze which, every once and while, may have made some of
the white feathers attached to his body flutter, but not many.
down the street that night,” In the book Preachers of the Plains, John
Peddigrew Hardesty wrote about Father Keller’s journey into town. “With only one
house shoe on, neither barefooted nor shod, to his room.”
may have screamed, may have shouted, may have cried out and shrieked so loud it
could have shattered a thousand communion chalices. However, there are no known
reports of anyone hearing anything unusual from the barren cotton fields. All
that remains are the various accounts of what may have happened in that field
and the years leading to that one fateful night, nothing more than hearsay.
Catholic Church in the 1920s|
murmurs and whispers began years before in 1917, two years after the sinking of
the Lusitania but the same year American troops fired the first shot in the trench
warfare of WWI. That year in Slaton,
anti-German sentiments radiated from The Slatonite and Joseph M. Keller
was chosen by the Catholic Diocese of Dallas
to serve in the town after a brief stay in Hermleigh.
His hometown, however, was thousands of miles away in Aachen, Germany.|
book Slaton Stories reported that the Catholic Church in Slaton
dates to the same year as the town’s birth, 1911. The first mass was held on December
8, 1911, on the day of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a Catholic Holy
Day celebrating the Immaculate Conception of Mary; the mass was officiated by
Father Reisdorff with two Catholic families of Frank Simnacher and A.L. Hoffman,
Because Father Reisdorff had an agreement with M.F. Klattenhoff
that he would receive a commission on all land sold to the Catholic families who
bought land in the area, the church grew tremendously within four years, and by
1917 the time had come to appoint a new pastor. The new pastor was German native,
Reverend J.M. Keller.
Michael Carter of the Catholic Diocese of Amarillo,
wrote in an essay that when Keller arrived the small town chatter began early.
“Keller’s life entered a web of personality conflict and confusion,” Carter wrote.
“By this time, the First World War
raged in Europe and the editor of the Slaton
newspaper began to denounce the Germans as barbarians and ‘Huns,’” he wrote. Carter
also wrote that since Keller had strong feelings about the war, he eventually
confronted the editor of The Slatonite with an, “angry retort.”
this exchange, it is believed, the rumors began, “Soon the jaundiced eyes of Slaton
turned toward Father Keller,” Carter wrote.
The first rumor that circulated
was that The Kaiser, the emperor of Germany whose policies helped bring about
WWI, had appointed several hundred
priests to do spy work in the United States. Keller, at one point, was believed
to have been one of those priests, especially since Keller insisted on keeping
a picture of Kaiser Wilhelm above his desk and, “did not remove it until his parishioners
forced him to,” Carter wrote.
When the United States entered the war,
it is believed that Keller made a patriotic gesture at a rally by buying war bonds.
The next week, at another patriotic rally, “the speaker had publicly denounced
him because he was the only one who had failed to pay his share,” Carter wrote.
community was not pleased and the congregation became more and more divided over
Keller’s appointment. According to Carter, “In 1918, some of the parishioners
sent a petition to Bishop Lynch asking him to remove Father Keller but Lynch rejected
the petition and ordered the petitioners to grant Keller the respect due him as
However, the people were not deterred and soon the priest was
now a target for more personal ridicule and suspicion. Soon Keller was accused
of lechery and adultery by citizens who also, “claimed that he had syphilis,”
The complaints continued to the bishop but, once again,
there was no hard evidence of suspicious behavior. “Bishop Lynch investigated
these charges thoroughly,” Carter wrote. “Documents of this investigation reveal
that Keller was a man of odd habits and strange personality quirks but no evidence
could be found to support the more serious charges against him.”
time, according to the book Slaton Stories, German families continued to
expand the church’s size and, in 1919, a third and larger church was built. This
building, costing approximately $10,000 was finished in 1920 by the men of the
Two years after the construction of the new building the next
round of rumors began to circulate. This time, the priest was accused of breaking
the seal of confession. This time, the people had had enough.
Keller Sitting On His Porch|
Slaton, Texas, 1920s
the night of March 4, 1922,” Carter wrote. “Keller got up from his reading to
answer a knock at the door.”
When Keller answered the door, he was met
with six masked men wielding pistols.
It is believed one man fired a shot
at the ceiling before the other men burst across the doorsteps and detained the
shocked priest. Bound and gagged as the priest’s terrified housekeeper watched,
Keller was hauled away to a waiting car.
Carter wrote that Keller’s assailants
stuffed him down into the back seat and sped away past the safety of the newly
installed city lights and out into the dreadful darkness of the country night.
“They drove out on a lonely road,” Carter wrote. “To a place several miles north
of town, and when they stopped, the terrified Keller rose up to see 15 or 20 men
waiting for him.”
On Sunday, March 5, 1922, a meeting was held at the
Odd Fellows Hall in Slaton.
A statement was made to the associated press, “The citizens of Slaton
gave approval and commendation to the act, and it is the unanimous conviction
that a very undesirable citizen had been dispatched.”
John Peddigrew Hardesty
wrote in his autobiography, Preachers of the Plains. “There were some exciting
times during those days, one night a group of men kidnapped the Catholic priest,
took him to a secluded spot, whipped, tarred and feathered him.”
before the meeting, however, many citizens did not know of the exact extent of
the attack or the brutality that took place beneath the nightly stars.
after the rumbling and rattling of the 1920’s vehicle stopped, there may have
been a brief moment of silence in the dark night; a small thought may have floated
from man to man, but it was too late to go back. The decision had been made. Before
the cruel and degrading tar and feathering, there was the lashing of whips that
sliced the air and cut through Father Keller’s skin.
After ripping his
clothes off, it is believed his captors poured substantial blistering black tar
over the priest before soft white feathers were thrown at him. As the tar cooled,
encasing his skin and closing off his pores, the men left him out in the fields
to find his way back.
Various accounts stated that the men told Keller,
“You have twenty-four hours to get out of town,” soon after the inhumane assult.
There are no records left as to how long the beating lasted. All that is known
is that Father Keller was left alone in the barren field of chirping crickets
and crying coyotes. Facing no other option, Father Keller staggered back into
town with one house shoe on and wearing an outfit of tar and feathers.
Michael Carter wrote in an essay for the Diocese of Amarillo,
“The scourging ended after about 20 strokes, but the ordeal continued as the vigilantes
proceeded to cover him with a coat of heated tar. Someone produced a pillow and
after ripping it open, the group gleefully scattered feathers all over him.”
claims that Dr. Tucker helped the priest in his time of crisis. “Dr. Tucker spent
hours extracting the tar and feathers from his hide,” he wrote. It is believed
Keller may have stayed with Dr. Tucker that night, however, the next morning he
boarded a train at Posey, “and left for parts unknown, he never returned to Slaton,”
Other documents show that Keller spent a few days healing
in a hospital in Amarillo.
Carter said that when Keller left Amarillo,
he stayed in a St. Louis hospital and it took him a year to fully recover from
the incident, although, some say he never truly did.
would cause deep second and third degree burns,” Michelle Harvey said in a recent
interview. Harvey is a Physical Therapy Supervisor for the University Medical
Center in Lubbock
and works regularly with burn victims. “Once the tar’s been applied, you’re talking
about a risk of infection and a significant loss of fluids which can cause various
problems including organ failure and death.” Harvey also said that since there
were no regulations at the time as to the temperature of tar, there is really
no accurate gauge as to the extent of the trauma that could have been imposed
wrote that for months, “gum shoe men, and women, walked the streets of Slaton,
trying to figure out, ‘who done it,’ but they had no luck.” Hardesty also wrote
that the District Judge stated he would, “get to the bottom of this.” However,
nothing was ever done. “The public was too well satisfied,” he wrote.
have claimed it may have been the work of the Ku Klux Klan, however, according
to Hardesty who neither acknowledged nor denied ever being affiliated with the
Klan, wrote, “Certain ineligibles, men whose private life, or social and business
connections were such as to bar them from membership, ganged together and pulled
some rough stuff on a few hoodlums, and laid it to the work of the Ku Klux Klan.”
however, wrote, “I did know a great deal about the work of the Klan in the early
twenties. I do know that the law enforcement officers, school trustees, many of
the county officials, including the sheriff, were Klansmen, and that the backbone
of the evangelical churches of the community consisted of Klansmen.”
to what Hardesty wrote, though, “It is a fact, brought out in the open next day,
that at the very hour the priest was being tarred and feathered, a group of Catholic
men were in the office of Attorney R.A. Baldwin, pleading with him to organize
a, “party,” to wait on the priest and do exactly what was at the moment happening
to him [Keller].”
However, Carter wrote that the attack left many German
Catholic residents in the community with a feeling of apprehension and mistrust
that they too could be attacked in their community, their hometown. Even the Sisters
of Mercy, who were in Slaton
at the time, were advised to leave until mind-sets were less hostile and the populace
was, once again, forbearing.
Carter claims that no Catholics were among
the ones who attacked Keller. “The attack provoked a response from Texas Catholics
and several chapters of the Knights of Columbus sent letters to protest the City
of Slaton.” Carter also wrote that the National Catholic Welfare Council offered
a $2,500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the guilty
party. “Bishop Lynch watched and waited,” Carter wrote, “he [Lynch] considered
placing Slaton under interdict
but soon he realized that the damage was done and the church [St. Joseph] would
have to go on about its business.”
whereabouts of Keller, however, did not remain a complete mystery. According to
Carter and various historical documents, after his yearlong recuperation, Keller’s
last location was believed to be in Wisconsin.
According to a document
about the history of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Parish in Burlington, Wisconsin,
on February 27, 1927 more than 6,000 people attended the reception of a new Reverend,
Fredrick J. Hillenbrand.
“The time was spent in an informal manner,” the
document stated. “Music was furnished by Joseph Hoffman’s Orchestra, which played
from an alcove of banked ferns.” It is believed that the Rev. Joseph M. Keller
was one of the people who attended this party. He was serving at a parish in Brighton,
With his scarred body and mind, Keller found himself surrounded
by new camaraderie and a calm existence in Wisconsin. The murky night of March
4, 1922, as he was left to die in a bleak cotton pasture outside of Slaton,
remained only a ghostly memory to him. One can only hope that the nightmare eventually
wilted away like the final petals of a red verbena in the beginnings of a Slaton
Keller died in 1939.
Column, October 1, 2010
Originally Published in The Slatonite, Slaton's newspaper
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