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"They shoe horses, don't they?"

The Tar and Feathering
of Father Joseph M. Keller

Slaton, Texas

by James Villanueva
James Villanueva

On 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.

On 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.

Mostly nude 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.

“He walked 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.”

Father Keller 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.

SlatonTX Catholic Church 1920s
Slaton Catholic Church in the 1920s

The 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.

The 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, celebrating.

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.

J. 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.”

After 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.

The 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 a priest.”

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,” Carter wrote.

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.”

At this 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 parish.

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.

Slaton TX Father Keller Sitting On His Porch
Father Keller Sitting On His Porch
Slaton, Texas, 1920s

On 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.”

The night 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.

Soon 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.

J. 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.”

Hardesty 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,” Hardesty wrote.

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.

“Essentially, it 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 on Keller.

Hardesty 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.

Some 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.”

Hardesty, 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.”

According 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.”

The 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, Wisconsin.

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 autumn.

Keller died in 1939.

© James Villanueva
"They shoe horses, don't they?"
Guest Column, October 1, 2010
Originally Published in The Slatonite, Slaton's newspaper

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