The Slaughters’ Eyes are Upon Me
Frank Lee Slaughter never looked in little Billy’s eyes. A tall, broad-shouldered seventeen-year-old with close-cropped hair and deep shadows under his eyes, Lee died of appendicitis early in the morning on June 5, 1910. Life should’ve been better for the third son – one of his older siblings died in infancy – of prosperous Missouri farmer Wesley Franklin Slaughter. Lee would have likely headed to college in Columbia that fall. After all, younger sister Martha Irlene would graduate from the University of Missouri and marry fellow Mizzou graduate Jesse H. Wright, my great-grandfather.
The only image I own of Lee comes from an electronic copy of a Slaughter family portrait taken sometime before the last day of May 1910, when he was placed in a doctor’s care with the condition that would, within a week, end his young life. In that boy’s face, I see my own mortal eyes staring back. Those shadowy eyes belonged to his sister Irlene, too. Almost eleven years after Lee’s life ended, my great-grandmother gave birth to her first child, William Wesley Wright. I inherited the Slaughter eyes from my father, who received them from Grandpa Bill.
I recently ran across a history of Harrison County, Missouri, written in the 1920s. It provides a rather syrupy account of the community’s prominent residents, including my third Great-Grandfather Milton B. Slaughter, who uprooted his family from the Appalachians of southeastern Ohio and came to Harrison County, where he served the Union in the Civil War as a private in the 57th Regiment, Enrolled Missouri Militia. His eldest son, my great-great grandfather, was born just before the outset of the war. The historical account mentions that Wesley Franklin Slaughter, who went by Frank, owned several hundred acres in and around the Bethany community. A gentleman farmer with a shiny bald head, Frank also taught school and built a spacious three-level estate for his family. Frank’s rural estate, the history book says, included a glass-enclosed playroom. I am guessing that playroom served as the ideal place for Frank Slaughter’s grandson, little Billy Wright, to nap and play on a still summer day as his shadowy eyes discovered the world.
Although, the passage about Frank gushes at length about his home and his large family, it mentions my Great-Grand Uncle Lee’s death only in passing. Histories rarely record the lives of those who never had the chance to prosper and go bald. Lee never voted, married or raised a family. He must have dreamed of how his life might go. I had a vague sense at seventeen I wanted to be a writer. Maybe Lee wanted to farm like his father, but I wonder if he would have joined countless other young Americans in flocking to the nation’s growing cities. Would he have served in World War I? Would he have struck it rich in the oil fields of East Texas? History never saw fit to write that chapter.
At a time when many children died in infancy, maybe Frank took solace in the fact that Lee got to live well into adolescence. But I suspect the old man woke at night in a cold sweat, his head rattling with the echoes of Lee’s voice crying out, “Pa, it hurts. My side hurts so bad.” No house is big enough to escape from the ghosts of two children a father outlived, especially the seventeen-year-old with so much wonder in his eyes.
Foreign and Familiar
I find the figures in the old portrait equal parts foreign and familiar. I never met any of the Slaughters. Great-Grandmother Irlene died several months shy of my second birthday. To my knowledge, she never cradled my infant body in her arms as she did my older cousins. For my dad, Irlene Slaughter Wright was a doting grandmother. But even for my dad and his three brothers, the Slaughter name was one shrouded in myth and mystery. The Wrights, despite their own farming/ranching background, had a joke that the Slaughters were nothing but farmers going all the way back to the beginning of recorded history. A parallel tale, according to my mom, was that the Slaughters had deep Texas roots and were related to Old West icon Texas John Slaughter. I can find no evidence of the Texas John claim, but Irlene did have a sibling who relocated to Texas – Texas County, Missouri.
Not all family folk tales are false. There’s plenty of truth to the Slaughter family’s deep agricultural roots. I have distant Slaughter relatives who today reside in the rural hamlet of Bethany, Missouri. Indeed, the family’s Missouri roots run deep. My third great-grandfather Milton B. Slaughter left Pike County, Ohio, behind in his late twenties. His aging father, Turner, came too. For some reason, over several generations, tales of the family’s journey from the Appalachians to the Great Plains stopped being told.
Milton died when his great-grandson little Billy Wright was seven. I wonder if my Grandpa Bill knew much about Milton or ever heard of Milton’s grandfather Ezekiel, who was born three years before the beginning of the American Revolution in what is today Martinsburg, West Virginia. Ezekiel was an interesting fellow. He lived to be 105 years old, an impressive age, especially without the benefit of modern medical care. Old Ezekiel, my fifth great-grandfather, appears to have been the grandson of another Ezekiel Slaughter, a Virginia native and Revolutionary War veteran who died in 1792 on Georgia lands he earned as a war bounty. Grandpa Bill never hinted at any knowledge of his Ohio and West Virginia Slaughter ancestry. Likewise, I wonder whether Milton B. Slaughter, who fought for the Union in the Civil War, ever knew he descended from Virginia planters. My presumed seventh great-grandfather, the Ezekiel Slaughter who died in Georgia in 1792, left his three grandsons, one of whom was almost certainly my fifth great-grandfather Ezekiel, in his will “the increase and offsprings of negro women Hance and Dilce.” My seventh great-grandfather Ezekiel, then, promised his grandsons ownership of future slaves yet to be born. It is nauseating to think that an unconceived child could be willed to an heir like a wooden rocking chair or a parcel of farm land.
The same will bequeaths to John Slaughter, my sixth great-grandfather, “one negro boy named Stephen, plus livestock and one negro girl named Mary.” Two African-American children are given the same value in this will as farm animals. My direct ancestors treated humans as cattle. I prefer to think of myself as the scion of Midwesterners who fought for the Union in the Civil War. Yet, it turns out my own family had a hand in perpetuating this country’s legacy of slavery.
Old Ezekiel broke away from this shameful tradition. If my fifth great-grandfather ever owned any of his inherited future slaves, Census data does not record it. He married Letticia Thompson in Patrick County, Virginia (today West Virginia) in 1803. The 1830 Census (the earliest one I can attribute to him with any certainty) shows him living in Beaver, Pike County, Ohio with a household numbering seven people – all of whom are classified as “free white persons.” I am not sure what circumstances led Ezekiel from western Virginia to Ohio, where land was plentiful and slavery was prohibited. But I am comforted by the notion that my Slaughter line’s slave-ownership legacy died with Ezekiel.