The life and times of the infamous Joseph Slagle has been recounted many times in Livingston County, Missouri history since 1886. As in all such research on events that occurred nearly two centuries past, many of my sources were in conflict and I had to make calls as to which is most likely true. Also I will make occasionally make some clearly-marked suppositions as to what may have occurred.
We likely will never know the full story about the man who instilled such fear and suspicion amongst his neighbors in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Along the way, I will provide context by speaking to what life was like on the Missouri frontier. My hope is that this account will be the most comprehensive and balanced of any such attempts to date. Ideally, it will generate dialogue that may eventually bring us closer to ground truth.
For the benefit of our apparently expanding readership by numerous other towns in our state, I will now summarize his life.
The History of Caldwell and Livingston County (1886) tells us:
Joseph Slagle was born in Augusta County, Virginia, on September 26, 1810. He was the youngest of twelve children from the marriage of George Slagle and Elizabeth Koiner. His father was a prominent businessman and landowner.
Joseph "succeeded in acquiring an education by no means limited." This publication goes on to say that he attended Charlottesville College to study for the ministry.
Joseph Slagle came to Missouri in 1839 and sold goods at Cox's Mill, which he bought soon afterward. The mill was on Medicine Creek, then the only water mill in Northwest Missouri.
In 1846, he was elected to the official bench of the county and was also justice of the peace for many years.
He was one of the largest property holders in the Livingston County during the 19th century, having in his possession some 1,400 acres of land.
Joseph Slagle married five times:
First wife, on January 27, 1832 he married Catherine Long of Ohio, but she died July 6, 1841, leaving a son, Columbus Genoa.
Second wife, on November 22, 1843 he married Miss Catherine Stone of West Virginia, but she died August 24, 1844.
Third wife, on May 5, 1845 he married Miss Sarah Littlepage, but she died in September, 1846, leaving a daughter, Susan Catherine.
Fourth wife, in 1848 he married Miss Crawford of Illinois, who died in 1849.
Fifth wife, in 1869 he married Mrs. Lottie Parent Ellis of Indiana. One son resulted from that marriage--Joseph Lee Slagle.
In 1853, Joe Slagle played a prominent role in the first recorded homicide in Livingston County. The dead man (Benjamin Collins) was a no-good-for nothing, drunken manager of a “Negro Show” that had repeatedly threatened poor old Joe’s life. A jury of his peers deemed that his honor was entirely justified in shooting the unarmed banjo player twice with his shotgun at point blank range.
In 1886, seventy five year old Joe remained a respected member of the community.
The History of Caldwell and Livingston County was published in 1886 by the St. Louis National Historical Company from "the most authentic official and private sources."
I believe that there are flaws (some significant), omissions (some intentional), and a few outright lies in this account.
Unfortunately, these shortfalls have been repeated (unintentionally) in subsequent retellings of his life.
This comprehensive, 1200+ page history of the two counties most certainly provides us a wealth of information about our heritage. I am not implying that Joe’s account is total myth. The first part of Joe’s history has been supported well and is generally true. The school he attended was much more likely the University of Virginia (not a nonexistent Charlottlesville College). This anomaly will lead me to present for consideration some interesting possibilities that I will share regarding an American Founding Father.
Incidentally, this landmark history is now available free for download in PDF format from the online New York Archive. Because my wife Judy’s family has deep Caldwell County roots, that section should be an interesting resource.
In reading the Preface I found some information that speaks “volumes.” There appeared to be a general sense of frustration, embrassment, and unease from the St. Louis compilers in dealing with some Livingston County accounts. Two Livingston County-specfic paragraphs noted that certain contributor stories were in direct conflict wih one another; judgement calls had to be made as to which were included.
In my view, this 1886 account was reviewed and sanctioned by Joseph Slagle himself.
Now, consider these points to support my contention:
Personal bios were readily encouraged and assumed to be true, if you read some of these it is clear a positive spin was taken in almost all cases.
They acknowledged in the Preface that the book was already ten months late.
They wished to be paid (implied only.)
They knew that a still hale-and-hearty Joe Slagle knew where they lived!
Joe Slagle was clearly an early pioneer and key contributor. In my opinion, he was likely not the pariah as some have said. He has a rightful place in our history. He was powerful and feared by many; using “respected member” in the last bullet seems be overstated.
Joe killed a man in cold blood from my view. He had at least six wives and I think deliberately omitted some key facts and injected ambiguities.
Special thanks go to my Chillicothe: As We Remember blog cohort (and master storyteller) Danny Batson for his many excellent pictures of the Slagle Cemetery. At the moment, we cannot imbed photos into our blog entries. Hopefully that limitation will soon be removed.
So, I am moving forward and plan to relate old Joe’s expanded saga in six relatively small "chunks” (titles and exact date spans are tentative):
Early Years and Context of the Times (1810 - 1832)
First Five Wives and Children (1832 - ?)
Dead Men Tell No Tales (1853-1854)
Batchelor Joe (? - 1869)
Last Wife (1869 - 1912)
He Haunts Us To This Day (1912 - 2012)
Incidentally, I intend to make dual use of this information. I plan to share these blog entries as a series of "Public Member Stories" on Ancestry.Com. I do this in hopes of soliciting support to “connect a few more dots” on one of the most interesting puzzles have found in many years. Ancestry pundits have already provided me much information; as a "rank amateur” genealogist...I still need lots of help.
Here are my key takeaways thus far on my personal journey through Joe's life:
Did he kill one or more of his six wives? Maybe So.
Did he kill one or more of his nine (not three) children? Likely Not
Is the Slagle Cemetery haunted? I Would Like to Say... No
Would I stay at his cemetery overnight by myself? Not on your Life!
What do you think?