When Grandmother White shared that newspaper clipping with me, she knew I was becoming a teller of stories. She knew I would tell.
By Jacqueline White Kochak
I am in my Grandmother White’s powder-blue living room in her house on Second Avenue in Dodge City, Kansas. The living room is perfect and neat, with low plush carpeting and a fireplace at one end of the long room. She has lived in this house since before my grandfather died, since before I was born, and I will always associate my grandmother with the soft shade of powder blue.
On this day, Grandmother White has decided to share a family secret with me, a family secret so awful that it had been buried for some 40 years. I am 20-ish and staying with her—I don’t remember why—and we don’t often talk about anything serious. With no preamble and without words, she hands me a yellowed newspaper clipping that she has obviously kept hidden for decades. The story covers the whole front page of the publication, and the aging newsprint is splitting along the fold lines.
We are a family that keeps and guards our secrets zealously. The corollary to that family trait is that secrets so carefully protected must at some point be shared, passed on, in homage to their power. Not shared carelessly, but not lost forever. If never spoken, they might never have existed, which for some might seem a good thing—but how can unspeakable pain be denied completely? For some reason, my grandmother chose me to carry the secret forward.
A SENSELESS FAMILY MASSACRE: I can’t forget the story. On the hot morning of June 25, 1927—a Saturday—my grandmother’s cousin William Payton Justice was out plowing a distant field with his father and older brother, John. The 13-year-old boy—I suppose they called him Billy—paused, shaded his eyes as he looked at the vast blue sky, and announced he was going to make a trek back to the house to get his gun. The day was stifling hot and humid, with no shade and no relief from the sun. He was going to shoot the crows, Billy said.
Instead, when he got to the house, he shot his family. He killed his 45-year-old mother, Minnie, and his 8-year-old sister, Emogene. Billy’s older sister, 18-year-old Mary Evelyn, was bending over the icebox on the back porch, and her younger brother’s assault was so rapid and unexpected that she didn’t have time to straighten herself or react. Billy’s shot glanced off her spine, causing her to limp the rest of her life. Then Billy shot himself. Three dead, a senseless family massacre that today would be reported in newspapers all over the country.
I have no idea why my grandmother chose to share this story with me, her eldest granddaughter, and I have no idea why she chose that particular day. My Grandmother White was not a talkative person, nor was she a gossip. She was always proper in both dress and behavior, cognizant of her illustrious Southern forebears. I don’t remember her ever joking, or laughing uncontrollably, or “letting go” in any way.
I think we both knew I was a lot like her, bookish and quiet. My grandfather died before I was born, and when I asked Grandmother White why she never remarried, she admitted, “I couldn’t imagine crawling into bed with another man.” She cautioned me to maintain my professional skills because “men die or they run away,” and when I graduated from college with a degree in journalism, she told me she was proud of me because when she was young, women could be only nurses or teachers. She was a second-grade teacher for some 30 years after my grandfather died, even though she hadn’t worked while he was alive.
I try to imagine the shame that would have choked the extended family—including my grandmother, her siblings and her parents—a shame so heavy that only hidden memories remained, with no words to pierce the shadows. Even today, my husband cautioned me that perhaps I shouldn’t be telling people this horrific story—and we don’t live in a rural county where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and they are not close relatives. I wonder sometimes if those ghosts have left their sign upon me.
There is no obvious pathology, no secret violence or alcoholism, no dark shadow of insanity. Just a sticky hot day, perhaps a taint of ineffable sadness, and the aftermath of illness.
I try to imagine Cherokee County, Kansas, in the late 1920s, before Wall Street crashed and the Great Depression engulfed the country. I know from experience that the June heat is searing and the humidity is oppressive. The local newspaper speculated young Billy “went crazy from the sun,” a diagnosis that makes some sense if you’re familiar with the region. Billy also suffered from measles or chicken pox—I can’t remember which—just a few weeks before, the newspaper said. Now I can’t find the article.
Although the Justices were all farmers, Cherokee County occupies the western edge of the Ozarks plateau, and the rolling land is rich with minerals like zinc and lead and also with coal. Mining was important to the economy, and the small town nearest to the Justice farm—West Mineral—is so-named because of the nearby coal mines where miners stripped coal from shallow veins. In the 1920s, the area produced a third of all the nation’s bituminous coal, which fired the kilns that processed the zinc and lead mined in the region.
Iron foundries, cement plants, tile and pottery manufacturers, glass pane factories, lead and zinc sheet mills, and brick plants transformed southeast Kansas into the most industrialized part of a state known for its agricultural prowess. The dirty, dangerous jobs required workers, and so the immigrants came. Census records note that one of the Justices’ neighbors was born in Italy.
But the Justices, all of them, were without exception farmers. My great-grandfather, Joseph Curtis Justice, was the son of one of three brothers who migrated west to Kansas with their families in the 1880s. John Wesley Justice, Billy’s father, was my great-grandfather’s older brother. They came from Illinois, but from the part of that Yankee state that is totally Southern, located across the Ohio River from Kentucky. The area is called Little Egypt because the major city is Cairo, pronounced “Kay-ro.”
LIFE ON THE FARM: I know exactly what young Billy’s life on the farm was like because of my Uncle Joe’s recollections about his grandparents. I can also see that sturdy farm couple, my great-grandparents, in my mind’s eye. Joe Justice was about 5-foot-10, lean and hard. He had sandy hair, chewed plug tobacco and smoked a pipe. He sat in a rocker by the window to watch people go by on the road outside, so Grandma Justice put paper under the rocker along with a bucket full of sand for her husband to spit in. For her part, Laura Justice was small and lean and wore long dresses. Her hair, which she wore in a knot on the back of her head, nearly touched the floor when unbound.
The Justices worked from daylight until dusk, keeping so busy they almost ran from chore to chore. Laura, my great-grandmother, got up first and started a wood fire in the big steel stove equipped with water storage on each side so they had hot water. Grandpa Justice replenished the water every night as well as filling the wood bin, and his wife made biscuits every morning to accompany fried eggs, gravy, ham or bacon, and coffee. Then they milked as many as 10 cows every morning; my great-grandmother always milked two, while my great-grandfather and Houston, the only child left at home by the time Uncle Joe made his debut, milked the rest.
When that chore was done, they carried the milk to the cellar where they collected cream in a cream can to sell in town. Milk they intended to use was hung in the cool depths of the well, while the rest was fed to the hogs. The family raised chickens, too, and grew vegetables. Profit from selling the little bit of leftover eggs and cream to the general store was used to buy flour, sugar, coffee, and cornflakes. They enjoyed ice only on Saturdays, and only if they were making ice cream.
Both Justice families, like all their neighbors, still farmed with mules, smart but balky animals. When old Joe Justice went to the barn and got their harnesses out, the mules knew they were going to have to work. They didn’t like that, so my great-grandfather would take a mule’s ear in his mouth and bite down until the stubborn beast stood still and let him finish getting them harnessed.
When Houston graduated from high school, he told his parents he absolutely would not stay on the farm unless they bought a tractor. He said he wouldn’t walk behind the mules ever again, because the obstinate beasts are famous for passing clouds of gas that engulf anyone unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity. Houston’s stubbornness turned out to be a good thing, because the farm never had a money crop until they bought a tractor and planted wheat.
At the time Billy was working in the field with his father and older brother, though, they were still dealing with balky, smelly mules. Billy’s life wasn’t easy, no question, but why would he turn on his mother and sisters?
He learned of the tragedy via an email from a distant cousin. Even then, in 2001—more than 70 years after the murders—the subject was deemed too difficult to share with a family member on a public message board.
A TAINT OF INEFFABLE SADNESS: Joe Justice was a good man and well-respected, but my Grandmother White described him as a man who was very serious and not given to smiling or enjoying himself. My grandmother was the same way, and that has made me wonder about the dark stain of depression that runs through my family and might have touched young Billy, the boy who killed his family.
Volumes have been written about children who kill, and more particularly children who kill their families. Of course I didn’t know Billy’s family, but I know his cousins and their stories. There is no obvious pathology, no secret violence or alcoholism, no dark shadow of insanity. Just a sticky hot day, perhaps a taint of ineffable sadness, and the aftermath of illness. As I have pondered this story, that illness has caught my attention.
Most children today never experience the discomfort, high temperature and spreading red rash of measles or itchy bumps of chicken pox, but in Billy’s day almost every child succumbed. As childhood illnesses that were so common they were expected, diseases like measles and chicken pox don’t sound very scary at all. Even today, however, medical books note the existence of a rare illness that can occur many years after exposure to these viruses and cause brain damage, including behavior changes and bizarre actions. When I dug a little deeper, I learned that in the late 1800s, infection was accepted as one of the causes of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.
Emil Kraepelin—the German physician who is considered the founder of modern psychiatry—described rare cases of insanity following such once-common diseases as chicken pox, scarlet fever and measles, with brain inflammation the suspected cause. By Billy’s time thinking had swung around to the belief that insanity was caused only by experiences or by genetics, and only recently is infection once again being considered as a cause.
PERHAPS SILENCE WAS KINDNESS: I have pored over what records I can find, trying to reconstruct that place and that time in my mind. I imagine Billy’s father and older brother returning to the house to find a bloodbath on a hot June afternoon. From census records, it looks entirely possible the shattered family continued to live in the rural farmhouse, located on a dirt road in the county’s northwest corner. Billy’s father lived just six more years, dying in 1933. His older brother John and his surviving sister Evelyn lived out the rest of their lives in the area; John was buried in the county seat of Columbus some 40 years later.
I have wondered how a secret of this magnitude could be kept for so many years. My father never knew until I told him, although my Uncle Joe heard some of the story from his uncle Houston, an inveterate gossip. Far more puzzling, Billy’s older brother John—the one left alive in the field when his mother and sister were slaughtered—went on to raise a family who were unaware of the tragedy.
As best I can determine, his two sons grew up in southeast Kansas, in close proximity to the murder site, attending high school in nearby West Mineral. Yet no one ever breathed a word of the family shame. At the time of the crime, some 30,000 people resided in the county, but just a handful of them—a few hundred—lived in the rural townships where my family members lived. Perhaps the murders were just a quickly forgotten curiosity, or perhaps in a rural neighborhood where everyone was related to everyone else, silence was kindness. Perhaps the silence was like a scab covering an open wound, allowing healing to occur.
Mary Evelyn and her brother John apparently grew apart. She had no children herself, and John’s sons did not know they had an aunt named Evelyn until one of them got interested in genealogy. Seeking information about his father’s family, he ventured into a public genealogy forum and learned of the tragedy via an email from a distant cousin. Even then, in 2001—more than 70 years after the murders—the subject was deemed too difficult to share with a family member on a public message board.
In fact, to the best of my recollection, my grandmother and I never again spoke of the family’s heartbreak after I folded up that yellowed newspaper and returned it to her for safekeeping. I have wondered if the story is really mine to tell, or if by telling the story I will be causing pain to some descendant who doesn’t know his or her family’s bloody history. Yet, when Grandmother White shared that newspaper clipping with me, she knew I was becoming a teller of stories. She knew I would tell.