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Entries in family (3)

Tuesday
May012012

Skeletons in the Family Closet, Part Two: A Shooting in Phillips County

William Mansfield's simple grave marker in Maple Hill Cemetery, Phillips County, ArkansasSupposedly, my great grandfather shot first. 

However, we only have the testimony of his killer for this fact. There were no other witnesses, so ultimately we’ll never know what really happened. All we know for certain is that on April 8, 1920, William P. Mansfield died of four gunshot wounds he received the previous day in Lexa, Arkansas. 

Believe it or not, learning that my great grandfather died in a gunfight is not what shocked me most. The more startling revelation relates to what my great grandmother did afterwards. 

William P. Mansfield was born in Kentucky in 1880, the son of a Scottish immigrant who married an American girl from the bluegrass state. I don’t know a lot about William, and I know even less about his parents, but I’ve learned enough to piece together his movements for the last fifteen years of his life. 

In 1905, William married Daisy Julian, a young woman whose families had settled a couple of generations earlier in the northwest corner of Tennessee in Obion County. Daisy had grown up in Union City, right on the border with Kentucky, where she no doubt had met William. They married on Saturday, April 22, in Alexander County, Illinois. I’m not certain why they went to Illinois to get married, but it’s actually only 70 miles north of Daisy’s hometown.

By 1909, they were a family of four living in Helena, Arkansas: William, Daisy, Mary Elizabeth (age 2) and John my grandfather (age 1). William worked for the Solomon-Moore Land Company, and they all lived in company housing on the south end of town. 

William moved the family wherever he could find the best work to provide for them. The very next year, the family crossed back over to the other side of Mississippi River and settled in Boyle, Mississippi, roughly seventy miles south down river. 

The details surrounding the next few years are sketchy, but by 1920, the Mansfield family had moved back to Helena, Arkansas, where they show up in the 1920 U.S. Census, taken in January of that year. They were no longer living in company housing, and William seems to be working as a freelance carpenter.

Daisy (my great grandmother) and her son, John (my grandfather), 1957 in Memphis, TennesseeIn my previous post, I wrote about John Mansfield (William’s son), my grandfather who died a few months before I was born. John was intelligent and charismatic, but ultimately, his life brought with it much tragedy. In the course of less than two decades, he abandoned two separate families--two wives and seven children combined. In the end, as an alcoholic and diabetic, he died alone in a flophouse of gangrene poisoning because he would not go to the doctor regarding his infected leg. 

I also noted that my grandmother (John’s second wife) felt like her husband could have accomplished more in life had he not had to drop out of school with only a grade school education in order to support the family. 

Why, though, did John have to drop out of school? When I started researching my grandfather and his family, I initially got stuck in 1920 because there were a number of unanswered questions. 

Although I found the family intact in Phillips County, Arkansas, living in the town of Helena in January, 1920, I stumbled upon a marriage record for December of the same year in which a Daisy Mansfield married a man named L. E. A. Yeager. Assuming that there weren’t multiple Daisy Mansfields in Helena, Arkansas, in 1920, I had to wonder what had happened to William Mansfield? Did they divorce? Did something happen to him?

So I dug a little deeper and came across a listing in the Arkansas Death Index for a William Mansfield, who died on April 8, 1920, in Phillips County, Arkansas. Was this my great grandfather? Could he have died at less than 40 years old? To know for certain, I sent off for his death certificate. After I received it, I discovered that it was indeed the William Mansfield of my family tree. 

If not some kind of terminal illness, I halfway expected to discover that William died in some kind of accident--perhaps a misstep in his line of work as a carpenter. I did not expect to see “gunshot wounds” as his cause of death. I was a bit shocked. Part of me, which has no real emotional attachment to this man, thought it sounded a bit exotic to have an ancestor die in a gunfight. 

Nevertheless, I knew there had to be more to this story. How did my great grandfather get into a position in which he died of gunshot wounds?

Assuming that such an event would be big news in a small town in 1920, I contacted the Phillips County Library, which I had learned housed the archives of the local newspaper. After I described the event to one of the local librarians, she told me she would look in the newspaper around the days surrounding William’s death to see if there were any accounts of what happened. 

When I talked to her later that afternoon, the librarian told me that she had found two articles regarding William Mansfield’s death. One was written soon after he had been shot, but while he was still alive. The second one was written after he had already died. She told me she would send the articles to me in the mail.

After I thanked her and was about to hang up, she said, “Oh, and I now know the name of your great grandfather’s killer, if you are interested.” I was certainly interested but had not really thought about it. I assumed that the killer would just be a name to me. Out of curiosity, though, I said, “Yes, please, tell me the killer’s name.”

From The Helena Daily World, April 8, 1920You hear of people’s jaws dropping when hearing shocking news, but it seems like more of a cliche than an actual physical reaction. Yet, I can promise you that my jaw literally dropped when she said that the shooter’s name was L. E. A. Yeager. 

Yes, this was the same man my great grandmother, sweet Daisy, married later that year!

There were no eyewitnesses to what actually happened. The events reported in the paper on April 8, 1920, were based solely on the story of Lester Elgin Archer Yeager, a Phillips County sheriff’s deputy, and the shooter of my great grandfather. On the evening of Wednesday, April 7, 1920, my great grandfather, William P. Mansfield, traveled from his home in Helena fifteen miles to nearby Lexa, Arkansas. 

According to Yeager, the quarrel between the two was over lumber contracts. Yeager also claims that William fired a gun twice before he could even open the door (a little detail that still sounds odd to me--was he trying to shoot through the door?). Then, Yeager returned fire shooting William four times. He died the next day. 

Of course it’s tragedy enough that Daisy lost her husband in such a violent manner. Yet it absolutely blows me away that eight months later, she married her husband’s killer!

There is obviously much more to this story, and it will require an eventual trip to Helena, Arkansas, to look for more answers. In the meantime, though, I have lots of questions. For instance, I don’t blame Daisy for marrying so quickly. That was common in those days for means of support, especially when there were children involved. But why would she marry her husband’s shooter? Was William Mansfield a really bad man and Yeager seen as a savior? Were Daisy and Yeager involved in an illicit relationship? Did Yeager have some kind of power over Daisy and the rest of the family?

From The Helena Daily World, April 9, 1920And what about my grandfather, John? Even if his father was a bad man, such events had to have taken a terrible toll on a 12-year-old boy. To lose a father at such a formative time in a young boy’s life would have long-term consequences. And what did John think about his mother marrying his father’s killer? 

I will always want to be clear that I don’t want to excuse my grandfather’s bad decisions in life. He made poor choices and they were his direct responsibility. And yet, with the knowledge I have now--even if still incomplete--I have to admit that I judge him less harshly than I did before. 

Is it any surprise that someone who had experienced such tragic loss at such a young age might have trouble maintaining long-term relationships later in life? Again, even if William was not a nice guy, young boys often want to look up to their fathers, often overlooking their flaws. What kind of feelings were inside 12-year-old John when his mother married his father's killer? When she brought him into their home? Is it surprising at all that as an adult, he might try to futiley escape these memories in a bottle? 

In my next and final installment, I’ll offer some closing reflections on these events and my grandfather’s life. And I may even throw in a little bit of philosophical speculation in regard to this very enthralling section of my family tree. Check back in a few days.

 

As always, your thoughts, questions, comments, and rebuttals are welcome below.

Wednesday
Apr252012

Skeletons in the Family Closet, Part One: The Grandfather I Never Knew

John at 49 in 1957, ten years before he died. I never knew my paternal grandfather. He died five months before I was born.

John William Richard Mansfield (one of many variations of his name) died during the first week of July (we don’t know the exact day) in 1967. Estranged from the family, he died alone in Memphis, Tennessee, as a result--according to his death certificate--of septicemia. 

If you’re not familiar with septicemia, I’ll save you the bother of looking it up: it’s blood poisoning. My grandfather, John, had two conflicting maladies; he was both diabetic and alcoholic. The two do not go well together because consumed alcohol converts to sugar in the digestive system. Moreover, John was not one to faithfully take his insulin injections. 

About a week before he died, my father’s older half-brother, Johnnie, paid his father a visit. John had a wound on one of his legs that looked badly infected. Actually, it was gangrenous. Johnnie told his father that he need to go to the doctor, but John wouldn’t go. He knew they would remove his leg, and he felt that he just couldn’t live as an amputee. Very true, but I'm sure not as he meant it. 

I’ve heard hushed stories about my grandfather, John Mansfield, all my life. As I said, I never knew him. I also heard that I had aunts and uncles I’d never met--as well as cousins--all from a marriage my grandfather had to a woman who was not my grandmother.  

My grandfather was born on March 17, 1908, somewhere in Kentucky (we’re not certain exactly where). His parents were William P. Mansfield (born Nov 4, 1880) and Daisy Dean Julian (born sometime in August, 1882). There was also a sister, Mary Elizabeth, about a year older than John, whom the surviving family knew as “Aunt Beth.” I’d never heard of any of them except for John until a few months ago.

Frankly, John Mansfield was not an overly responsible individual (and that’s being very kind). In 1931, he married Ena Prier, and they had four children--two boys and two girls. But sometime around 1938, John started seeing Maurene (yes, that spelling is correct) Fowler, my grandmother, in Little Rock, Arkansas. When Maurene found out John was married, she broke things off with him. She told him she was not the kind of woman who would date a married man.

Maurene was nearly 30 years old when she had started seeing John. I have very distinct memories of my grandmother, but they all come about three decades after these events and beyond. When I remember her, she’s at near saint-level in my mind. She was a pillar of her church when I knew her. I’m sure she could have told you her sins, but I couldn’t tell you what they were. I never saw them.

Therefore it’s hard to imagine a man like John being willing to leave a wife and four children for my grandmother. And even after he came calling again in 1939, with the ink still fresh on the papers of his divorce from Ena, it boggles my mind that Maurene would have anything to do with him. Perhaps it was her age. I have no idea how many suitors had come calling in her younger days, but I’m sure that by the age of 31, the number had drastically dwindled.  

And yet history has a funny way of repeating itself. In late 1939, John and Maurene got married. After they had three children, one of whom is my father, John simply disappeared one day. I believe it was around 1947, but I could be off a year or two. By the time he came back about half a decade later, begging Maurene to take him back, she simply wouldn’t hear of it. She’d worked three jobs at times to support herself and three children. Maurene was college educated (a rarity for women in those days) which allowed her to teach elementary school, but an Arkansas teacher’s salary in the 1940s and 50s was not enough to make ends meet. 

The charismatic John Mansfield at 20 (1928). On the left, a family friend, Aubrey; and on the right, John's sister, Beth.I don’t blame my grandmother for not taking my grandfather back. I have no doubt she probably loved him even years later. From everything I can tell, he was an extremely charismatic individual. But his increased drinking had brought chaos into her life years before, and now she had to think of what would bring the greatest stability for her three children. John and Maurene never divorced, but they would never live in the same house again either. John moved to Memphis where much of his family from his first marriage lived. 

In spite of John’s faults, there were some positives. My father tells me how smart his father was. And this information comes not from his own memory, but from the testimony of his mother, Maurene. She said there wasn’t anything mechanical that he couldn’t figure out. He could take any device apart, fix it, and put it back together again. My grandmother told my father that she really believes he could have been something more if it weren’t for the fact that he had to drop out of school after about the fifth grade to help support the family.

Also, I’ve recently met some of my “half” first cousins--that is, grandchildren of John and his first wife, Ena--who are a bit older than me and remember him. Although John’s wives and children had great reason to be wary of him, his grandchildren who knew him seem to have fond memories of their brief experiences with him. They describe John as kind and funny, even if he did tend to always smell a bit like tobacco and whiskey. One of my cousins told me that she really liked her grandfather, but her father didn't let him come around much.

It’s easy to judge my grandfather harshly. Certainly no one can excuse the abandonment of not one, but two separate families. But where did John’s life first take a turn for the worse? 

No one living now seemed to know the exact circumstances that led to my grandfather’s disadvantaged childhood, vaguely described years ago by my grandmother. As I began digging into the past, I discovered a family scandal that is not only shocking to me--even weeks after I first discovered it--but still sounds like something more the stuff of fiction than real life. Nevertheless, I have the historical records and newspaper reports that prove what happened on the night of April 7, 1920. 

I’ll provide the jaw-dropping account of those events in my next installment. 

 

As always, your questions, thoughts, comments or rebuttals are always welcome below. 

Friday
Feb032012

My First (and Most Important) Bible Teacher

Currently, in the Sunday morning Bible study I teach, we are going through the Book of Deuteronomy. A couple of weeks ago, while discussing Deut 4, these verses became the focus of our conversation for the morning:

“Only be on your guard and diligently watch yourselves, so that you don’t forget the things your eyes have seen and so that they don’t slip from your mind as long as you live. Teach them to your children and your grandchildren. The day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, the LORD said to me, ‘Assemble the people before Me, and I will let them hear My words, so that they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth and may instruct their children.’” (Deut 4:9–10, HCSB)

As many of you may know, the context of the Book of Deuteronomy surrounds Moses' instructions to what is essentially a new generation of Israelites before they enter the land promised to their ancestor Abraham. Moses reminds the Israelites of what has taken place before them, and he repeats the law (hence our name for the Book) to them lest they forget. To make certain that the Israelites' faith doesn't end with that generation, they are instructed to teach what they've seen and heard to their children and grandchildren.

HCSB bullet on "fear"Probably the majority of participants in the Bible study I teach have children, and this dynamic dominated a lot of our discussion. Our church is also in the middle of bringing in a new student minister (what was called a youth minister in my day, but I guess that doesn't sound as cool anymore). Through our discussion, the parents in our group recognized that just as the Israelites didn't depend upon their religious leaders for the spiritual teaching given to their children, today's parents must also take responsibility for the faith development of their own children. 

Church leaders are important. Moses was certainly important! However, the ultimate responsibility for a child's spiritual nurture belongs to parents (and grandparents!). Note that the instructions for this in Deuteronomy entailed not only teaching God's word to children, but also required parents to give testimony ("what you have seen and heard") of their own journey of faith. Believing parents can't hand their kids off to church leaders with the assumption that their children will grow in their faith, any more than parents can depend solely on a child's school teachers for all education. Not only does education start at home, faith begins there as well.

No books in this picture, but in this chair Mom read to me nearly every single day when I was little.This made me think back to my own experience. Some of my very earliest memories have to do with my mother reading to me. She not only read to me, she also taught me to read before I even started school. When I was very young, I would sit in her lap, in a rocking chair that she still has to this day. From what she tells me, she began reading to me even before I could form a sentence of my own. And she did this nearly every day until I could read on my own. No wonder these are some of my earliest memories. 

Mom read all kinds of books to me, but I especially remember her reading Bible stories to me. We had two Bible story books. I can't remember the name of one, but the other one was Kenneth Taylor's Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes (yes, the Kenneth Taylor who paraphrased The Living Bible—he knew how to explain the Bible to people of any age).

The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes contained short Bible stories confined to one page each, along with full-color pictures that I often "studied" for long periods of time all by myself. Each story also included a couple of discussion questions that Mom read to me, and I would then answer. We had our own regular Bible study together—just the two of us!

Sometimes I asked Mom questions. She usually knew the answers, but I got back "We're not supposed to ask that" in reply to my continual pressing for an answer to the question, "If God made everything, who made God?" Mom was a Bible teacher, not a philosopher. 

One of my two Bible story books from my childhood.Mom didn't just teach me the Bible; she taught it elsewhere, too. I can remember both of my parents, probably because they were very young themselves in those days, working with the high school students at our church (we didn't have any professional youth or student ministers back then). In the summer, when I went to Vacation Bible School, Mom was there, creatively teaching stories from the Bible to me and all my friends. She didn't just teach us the stories, she made us understand the principles learned from those stories to help us in our words and actions toward each other. Eventually, she even taught my Sunday School class, and all of this demonstrated to me a consistency in her own faith both at home and elsewhere. 

I've had lots of Bible teachers over the years, but undeniably, Mom was my first Bible teacher. However, I've often heard psychologists note that the first five years of our lives are possibly the most important developmentally for determining who we are and who we will become as adults. If this is true (and I believe it is), that means that Mom was not only my first Bible teacher, she was also my most important Bible teacher

For those fortunate enough to be parents who might be reading this, don't minimize how important your role is in developing your child's faith. Even if perhaps you weren't your child's first Bible teacher, you can still be the most important. Don't leave this role to someone else; it's yours.