“I had been writing for twenty-five years before I realized that the subject of all my writing is . . . LOSS!”
“For all of my great love of the Delta, Mari says my basic problem is that I have never left Selma!”
(See my earlier post titled “The Way We Were.”)
In this post I reprint an article published by the Dumas Clarion newspaper on December 31, 1980. It is a personal story recounted by my maternal grandfather, Rev. Willis Barrett, of my birthplace of Selma, Arkansas. It is presented just as he told it to my mother, Vivian Barrett Peacock, who recorded it in pencil on a Big Chief writing tablet still in my possession.
I submitted the story to Charlotte Schnexnayder, editor of the Clarion, who published it along with three photos from my mother’s private collection of family photos. I have reprinted the article below just as it appeared in the Clarion thirty-four years ago with the photos and original captions in approximately the same positions as in that article.
The only change I made in this post is the date of the tragedy which occurred in 1904 rather than 1902 as reported in this newspaper article and the spelling of the word “Shanghai.”
The event described in the Clarion newspaper article includes the death of my grandfather’s first wife, Edna Ella Fox Barrett, who was carrying their first child at the time of her brutal murder at the hands of unknown assailants.
I am indebted to Estelle Fox, whose husband Meritt Fox is a relative of Edna Ella Fox. It was E. Fox, as she prefers to be referenced, who provided me two Arkansas newspaper articles from 1904 which described the event in detail when it occurred a hundred and ten years ago
Now here is the Dumas Clarion presentation of my grandfather’s story from his childhood to that unthinkable and unforgettable event that changed his life forever. The opening editor’s note is part of that Clarion account. I have made some minor editorial changes and insertions set in brackets, capitalized and lower-cased some words for consistency of style, and divided some longer paragraphs into shorter ones.
“Unsolved Murders at Selma Remain a Memory”
(Editor’s note: Desha County Historical Society members recently heard the story of triple, unsolved murders near Selma in 190. The community then was known as Shanghai. Vivian Barrett Peacock prepared this paper, and permission for it to be used was given by her son, Jimmy Peacock of Sapulpa, Okla. The paper was read to the Historical Society by Mary Gail Tutt.)
If you should happen to meet my dad, you would see a small man of fifty years who really shows his age. He works hard all the week on the farm and rides 12 miles horseback, every Sunday to preach at a country church. He always wears a sad, far-away look. Yet he goes about his work whistling a low tune.
I used to wonder when I was at home why he asked, “Where is your mother?” the minute he hit the door when he came in from work. And he never stopped until he laid eyes on her. As I grew older I learned from other people that there was a story in his life.
I always buy the True Story [a popular magazine of the time] and save it for Dad and Mother to read. One night after supper Dad came over to get it and sat down to talk awhile. He seemed to be in a mood to unload his troubles so he told the following story to [my] husband and myself before he realized it was twelve o’clock and Mother would be wondering why he had not come back.
This is Willis Barrett’s story as told to his daughter Vivian Barrett Peacock.
I was born in the backwood of southeast Arkansas. The youngest of a family of seven children. My father died when I was eight years old [possibly as a result of his imprisonment as a Confederate soldier in a Union POW camp during the Civil War], leaving my frail mother only a small farm, heavily in debt. Yet the memory of their years of love and companionship gave her the will-power to carry on for the sake of their children.
The education I received came from riding a mule three miles to Shanghai school. Sometimes in the winter I was forced to study at home, for I could not cross the creek that ran close to our house after the rains set in.
Our best farming land was in the lowlands or bottoms along the creek. Many times after our crops came up in the spring a big rain would come and the water would rise, washing our crop[s] out of the ground. Then by the time we would get them up again the weather would be so hot they would burn up and we would not make anything.
I often wonder how my little mother (who weighed hardly more than a hundred pounds) had the courage to keep trying. Always saying, “Everything will turn out all right.” Or I suppose it is the Lord’s Will.” Even when the fall payment was due on the place and the winter food and clothing had to be bought and not a dime in sight. She had a way of saying, “Don’t worry children, the Good Lord will provide.”
I know it was her continual praying, hard work, and good management that kept us from actual hunger at times. But the “Good Lord” did provide and by the time all the children were gone from home but Tom (a brother) and myself, the old place was clear and we were living fairly well.
In my boyhood days the people of Shanghai gave me the name of being a tough kid. There is no wonder they thought that of me. For I was the leader of a mischievous gang of boys who wanted to have some fun. But most of them were afraid of the consequences, should their parents find them out. So to clear themselves they laid the blame on me. In time I accepted it as my lot and made no effort to deny anything I was accused of.
I know that the mothers gossiped to each other about what an outlaw I was going to be, since my father had died right when I needed a strong hand to control me. For when one of the boys happened to get mad at me he never forgot to tell me, “Ma said you never would amount to anything.”
I will admit that I couldn’t resist the temptation to knock the windows out of a vacant house with my bean shooter, or sometimes make a kid sick on a chew of homemade tobacco (that I slipped just for that purpose), and all such things that many a boy does. Especially after he learns that all the women are wondering what in the world he is going to do next.
Shanghai consisted of the post-office, a general mercantile store, the one-room school, church, a saloon, a one-room log calaboose [jail], and a grist mill.
Sometimes on Saturday afternoon I would take a sack of corn on my mule and go to the mill. While I was waiting to get the corn ground I would slip off over to the saloon where the men were always drinking, playing cards, cursing, and spitting on the floor. When they saw me they would nod to one another with a look of understanding. I knew from their slow grin and sly wink that they were thinking it wouldn’t be many years until I was in their midst.
As I look back now I don’t doubt that the so-called “Christian Mothers” would want their boys to shun me, although my own mother never seemed to worry about what I was going to “turn out to be.” She did lecture me on the importance of right and wrong and I surely was not sassy or disobedient. If it had not been for her love and the confidence I learned to know my mother had in me, who knows what I might have been just what everyone expected of me.
How well do I remember the first kind word or praise that I received from a grown person. The first respect anyone showed me as a kid came from an absolute stranger.
What a sight I must have been to her. Dressed in my homemade jean pants that struck me two inches above my heavy brogan shoes, which were about two sizes too big. In an outgrown coat and an old corduroy cap with the bill flopped over my left ear. I was riding a tall raw-boned horse with a turtle-shell saddle and using a blind bridle with a rope plow line for the reins. And this is how it happened.
I was on my way home from the post office riding Tom’s horse in a slow gallop. I was wondering about the creek water, for it had rained all night Friday night and the water was nearly out of the banks and rising fast when I went over right after noon. I could hear it roaring before I reached the top of the hill that led down to the flats.
When I came to a halt at the top of the hill I could see nothing but one mad whirling stream of water, foaming and churning, sweeping away logs and chunks. It must have been about 300 yards across the flat and the water was from hill to hill. In this distance the road formed the letter “S” and I could not tell whether the bridge was there or not for it was around the bend from me. I could tell just about where the road lay by the tops of the bushes that grew along the sides and the opening in the trees. I was not afraid for I had crossed it many times and I knew my horse was not excited.
It was getting late so I drove on without a thought of danger for mother was waiting for the mail which we only got on Saturday afternoon.
As I came around the bend a woman began to scream at me from a buggy sitting on the bridge. My heart gave a leap for I saw the harness piled on the dashboard and no horse in sight. She was telling me not to come on for there was a hole in the bridge.
What could a woman be doing sitting there at this time of day alone? Where was her horse? I rode closer to the foot of the bridge and saw that a plank had washed away but a horse could step it. She explained that she and her son had come from Blue Ridge, 16 miles away, to spend the night in Shanghai with a sick relative. When they reached the water it was too late to go back so they had decided to tackle it. But when the horse saw the hole he began to buck and pitch, so the boy rode the horse back to Old Man Will Stacey’s house at the top of the hill, to get some help. The woman was scared half to death and her teeth chattered so she could hardly talk.
I rode my horse up to the hole. He snorted a little and all at once made a quick step and was standing beside the buggy. I jumped down on the bridge in the water that was splashing over the bridge and with the woman crying, talking, and protesting, hitched my horse to her buggy. When the boy returned with a plank and a couple of Negroes on mules, I had piloted the lady with her buggy all high and dry to the other side.
You should have heard the praise I received. It would have been a treat to any boy’s heart and it was more than that to me for I had never known what it was to even hear such words. She raved about what a brave boy I was. What a big heart I had in me to help an old lady like her. And saying that she knew I must have a good mother to raise such a fine boy.
I could not say a word for my heart was nearly bursting and I could hardly hold back the tears. I muttered some quick excuse about having to hurry home not even realizing that I was shaking and numb with cold. I rode back across the waters home.
From there I grew into young manhood never forgetting that I had at least one good deed in my life, although I never told anyone about it—not even my mother.
During these years my older brother had died, leaving a wife and several small children. She had a hard time trying to fee[d] and cloth[e] them so it was only natural that Mother was always sending them something and visited them as often as possible, doing everything we could to help them along. I grew very fond of the children so when my sister-in-law married an old man (more for a home than love), I still visited the children. It was there I met the girl of my heart. They lived so far from our home that I would always go on Saturday afternoon, spend the night, and come back home Sunday. The boys, Dick and Ralph, always went with me to put up my horse for the night.
[Here the original newspaper story was broken to be continued on a later page]
Historical Society hears about mystery
[Continued from the front page]
On this particular day, I related that Dick was eager to be off to the barn. Before we were out of hearing distance of the house, Dick ran up beside me and said, “Uncle Willie, I have found you a girl. She’s one of Mr. Cox’s (their stepfather) girls. Ma knew he had some grown children, but she didn’t know any of them was going to live with us. Her name is Edna [though she came to be called Ella]. She’s been living with an aunt, but quick as they found out her Pa was married, they sent her home. Her and Ma don’t get along very well and I don’t see why. She’s purty and I like her. She works hard.”
I let him rattle on for I had always been too bashful and awkward to pay any attention to girls and I wasn’t much interested. Yet his brief story put me to thinking. I had noticed someone sweeping in the back yard when I drove up but I did not see her face for she wore one of those old time sun bonnets and darted in the kitchen door as soon as I got down from my horse.
At supper, I saw her again for she had to wait on the table. I know the boys had given her a history of me for I could feel her looking at me when she slipped in at the end of the table after everyone else was nearly through eating. Of course she had to wash the dishes so I pretended to get a drink from the wooden bucket on the back porch just to peek in and get a good look at her.
I didn’t like the looks of the old man and I was really surprised at the girl. She was actually beautiful, dark brown eyes, auburn hair and a complexion as soft and fair as a lily. She carried herself in that kitchen as if she were in some beauty parade. I could not resist the temptation to go in [the kitchen]. I soon found that I wasn’t as backward as I had thought. I even put away the dishes for her, something I hadn’t done since I was a small boy helping Mother.
We sat at the kitchen table and laughed and talked as if we had known each other all our lives, until we were reminded that it was bed time. When I went to bed that night, I knew she was the girl for me. I knew life would be different and it was nearly daylight before I could go to sleep, for dreaming of the future. After that I went there nearly every Saturday night and it wasn’t many months until I brought her home with me to live with Mother and myself.
It is strange how the love of a good woman can change a man’s life. I didn’t need a drink of booze to make me feel carefree and light. I noticed the beauty of the world about me. I walked on air. I had always thought that life was cruel and unhappy. I never had anything particular to love for. I [had] merely existed, getting on a spree nearly every Saturday night and feeling bad all the week from the effects of it.
For the first time in my life, I was actually living and enjoying it. I had someone to love and to work for. Someone loved me and showed it in every word and move. Edna was so gentle and kind. I got a job hauling stave bolts that fall after the crops were gathered and sometimes when I was late getting in she would already have the feed and water put out for my team.
I begged her not to overdo herself, for she had already whispered a secret that makes any man’s heart swell with pride. But it made her happy to do things for me. After supper when we sat before the open fireplace, I would smoke my pipe while she sewed the tiny garments that we both loved to touch. Oh! we were so happy it makes my heart ache to think of it. I sometimes wonder if it was because we gave no thought to anything else but ourselves that she was taken from me.
I dreamed of the boy through which I was going to relive my boyhood. Through him I would enjoy the childish pleasures I had missed in my own life. He was going to be treated like other boys—not shunned and scorned. He would not be hurt by the gossip of wagging tongues. I pictured him in school. The head of his class, appreciated and honored by well-to-do people. All day at my work, I thought this out. It was my guiding star and caused me to work even harder and faster as my thoughts ran on. But oh, how soon were my hopes and happiness shattered.
We lived about a quarter of a mile from Mr. Sturgeon (Stephenson) and it was his bolts I was hauling.
One Friday in late December, I carried a load over to Shanghai and Mr. [Stephenson] asked me to stop at the store and bring him some money that a certain fellow was going to leave there for him as a payment on some of the timber. I well remember I brought him 30 dollars in paper and three silver dollars.
When I stopped to leave the money on my way back home he [Mr. Stephenson] asked me if we were going to the dance that night. His daughter, Bertie, wanted to go but she was only fifteen years of age so he would not let her go unless some married person was along, I was in a hurry to get home for Edna was alone. Mother was off visiting my sister, but I told him we would go if Edna felt like it.
The moon had already risen when I reached home and Edna was at the lot with the gate swinging open when I drove up. What a picture she was, the soft moonlight shining on her face. She ran into my arms as soon as I stepped from the wagon. I hated to mention about the dance for I had rather stay at home with her and I knew too that she would not want to go in her condition.
When I did tell her I saw a disappointed look come over her happy face. She hesitated a moment then she cried, “Oh, Willie, I had a little party all planned for just the two of us. You know tomorrow is our wedding anniversary and we were going to make a cake and some candy tonight. You know we seldom ever get to be alone, not that Mother is any trouble or in the way, but wouldn’t you just love to have a little party all by ourselves?”
Of course I would enjoy it but after all Mr. [Stephenson] had been good to us. He gave me work and was our nearest neighbor, so in a way I felt like I ought to go. Again he was old and childish and used to being humored.
So we decided that we would hurry on back and she could stay with the old folks while I went with Bertie and her half-brother to the dance. I promised not to stay long. The dance was about two miles over across the creek and we would go horseback instead of in the buggy.
Arm in arm we walked to Mr. [Stephenson’s] in the moonlight, leading my horse. I kissed her at the gate before [she went back] in the house. She clung to my neck with such a grasp that I asked her what was the matter. “Oh, nothing, I guess it’s because I’m not well that makes me feel like this.”
What was the trouble? It wasn’t like Edna to act like this. I wanted to tell her I wouldn’t go. Yet, in some unknown way, I felt obligated to Mr. [Stephenson] so I never said anything. There was something telling me to stay and another feeling that I ought to go. By this time our appearance was known and Bertie and Fred were grabbing their coats and hats, ready to be off.
When they were ready we went out. Mr. [Stephenson] was sitting straddle of a cane chair looking over the back of it into the fire. Mrs. [Stephenson] had brought out her sewing basket, preparing to do some mending, and Edna still had her coat on when I left.
The dance had already started when we got there so Bertie joined in with the fun. But somehow there was a cloud about me. Something I could not shake off. I stood out on the porch and smoked one cigarette after another while the others went on with their fun.
I guess God printed that picture [of the Stephensons and Edna] on my mind for I never saw them alive again.
Everyone undoubtedly thought old man [Stephenson] had a lot of money in the house and came that night to rob him. No one will ever know what happened, for the house was burned to the ground. The charred bodies [of the Stephensons and Edna] were found on the bed springs. The head was completely severed from Mr. [Stephenson’s] body. [On December 18, 1904, an Arkansas Gazette newspaper report of the triple murder noted, “When found Mr. Stevenson’s (sic) head was about four feet from his body, apparently having been severed with some instrument, and his skull was cracked.”] They were identified by their teeth. The sewing thimble was still on the bone of Mrs. [Stephenson’s] hand.
This is another one of those unsolved murders, for there was never any evidence found to start on in trying to find who did this horrible thing. If I only knew who did it and that they were being punished, maybe I would not think of it so much.
This is the story that Willis Barrett told concerning the tragedy that took the life of his beloved first wife.
Since this story was started my father passed away with a sudden heart attack. We all feel that maybe it was brought on because of this thing that had bothered him all these years. We cannot grieve too much for him because maybe he is with the one he once was so happy with–his first love. Now we can truly understand why he always asked us, “Where is your mother?”
[Blogger’s Note: Willis Barrett eventually became a country Southern Baptist preacher, married the daughter of an Irish immigrant, and produced six children: three boys and three girls, one of whom was my mother Vivian Barrett Peacock who recorded this story on that Big Chief tablet so long ago. Together, she and my grandfather and a small group of others established the Selma Baptist Church of which my grandfather was the pastor during my childhood in Selma until his sudden death not long before my family moved to McGehee, Arkansas, in 1948. He is buried in the Selma Cemetery between Edna Ella Fox Barrett and my grandmother Ola Emery Barrett.]
The photo of the Big Chief tablet was taken from the following Web site:
The two 1904 newspaper articles about the murder of Edna Ella Fox and the Stephensons were provided by Estelle Fox from the December 17 and 19 issues of the Arkansas Gazette and titled “Triple Tragedy Near Monticello, Arkansas.”
The photos of Edna Ella Fox’s tombstone, Rev. Willis Barrett and his second wife Ola Emery Barrett, the Selma Baptist Church, and Arthur and Vivian Peacock on their honeymoon in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1927, were taken from the original family photo collection.