Although I have tried to focus on the positive when writing this little history of the community of La Farge, there are some bad things that happened in the town as well. I have not ignored the negative entirely. Back in 2010, I wrote about the death of Sam Hook, a storeowner in Seelyburg who died under mysterious circumstances as his general store was being robbed and set on fire. That two-part Local History Notebook about Sam Hook’s unusual and tragic ending in 1917 detailed how his death was investigated thoroughly. In the end though regarding the death of Sam Hook, nobody was ever prosecuted for a crime, although Seelyburg residents always contended that he was murdered.
Eleven years after Sam Hook’s death, another mysterious death took place on Main Street of La Farge. It involved the death of Robert Morris, who died on February 24, 1928. The circumstances of Morris’ death and the legal maneuverings that followed make for another interesting story from La Farge’s past. To begin, let’s look at the story of the death of Robert Morris as told in the March 1, 1928 issue of the La Farge Enterprise newspaper. The headline on page 1 of the Enterprise read, “Robert Morris Found Lying Unconscious On Sidewalk Friday”. A sub-headline under that lead read, “Both Hands Frozen and Face Covered With Blood”. The article in La Farge’s weekly newspaper at the time continued:
Excitement ran high in the village on last Friday morning when the intelligence was passed about that Robert Morris had been found on the street just before daybreak, almost frozen to death. The unconscious man was first discovered by John Mullett, who chanced to pass by the stairway leading to the second floor of the Travers building, heard a strange sound, at first thinking it might have been a dog that had crawled up the stairway seeking shelter from the extremely cold night air.
Let me interject here that the Travers building is the former post office in La Farge, the brick building that last housed a real estate office and sat between the current post office and the Zzip Stop. It was torn down a few years ago after it started to fall down. For more information on the building, check out my Local History Notebook columns when I wrote about it in 2013. In 1928, the building had a covered outside stairway that led up to the second story apartments. Now; let’s return to the Enterprise article:
Upon drawing closer, however, Mr. Mullett discovered the sound issued from the numb human, who was lying on the snow-covered walk with his head resting on the lowest step of the stairway. Mr. Mullet immediately hastened to the Central Hotel next door, and divesting the knowledge of his discovery to those within the hotel, who were already about, lost no time in notifying Marshall Showen, and as quickly as the village official arrived on the scene of the tragedy, he, with two other men, loaded the unfortunate onto a handsled and placed him on the cot in the village lock-up.
The Central Hotel was located where the present post office of La Farge sits. Beside the hotel there was another large store building that would have been next to the Travers building. Both of those buildings burned down during the great hotel fire of 1942. When Robert Morris was sledded to the jail by Village Marshall Showen and others, they probably only had to go a block or so. Taking the severely injured man to jail seems like a strange choice, especially when you had warm rooms at the hotel right next door. But there are lots of strange occurrences involving this case, so let’s return to the newspaper story:
Not once since the man was first discovered until life became extinct did he regain consciousness. Immediately after the man was placed on the cot, Dr. Haggerty was called, but his services were of no avail, as the man’s life ebbed before he arrived. Parties who remained with the man after he was placed on the bed say that he opened his mouth once or twice, but that was the last and the only sign of life.
At the inquest and hearing held in the afternoon, conducted by the district attorney and county sheriff, the details of the case were brought out. Depending on the strength of our memory, this is the way we got the run of the dope:
“Run of the dope”? That sounds like something from a present day song infused with hip-hop slang. Dr. Eber Haggerty, who was called to the jail to pronounce Morris dead on that cold February morning in 1928, lived a block away from the jail. His house that contained an office for his medical practice sat across the street from the newly constructed Masonic Temple that would be formerly dedicated later that year. Meanwhile, back to the story:
It appears that quite late last Thursday evening Robert Morris mounted the stairway of the Travers building, a portion of the second story of which is occupied by Frank Traister and his family. Morris, knocking on the door, made inquiry of Frank Traister, who answered the knock, if he could get something to drink. Upon receiving an answer from Traister in the negative, Morris turned from the door and Traister closed it and went back to his chair. Perhaps a moment afterward a commotion was heard within the hallway, and upon investigation, it was found that Mr. Morris had fallen down the stairway. With the aid of a second party, Frank Traister carried the man to the doorway of the Central Hotel, where inquiry was made regarding the engaging of a room, but was told that the house had no rooms available. Morris was then taken back and deposited at the bottom of the stairway, where it was presumed he would soon be able to collect his senses and repair to a place of warmth and shelter for the night. The accident, as near as we were able to determine, happened about 11:30 in the evening, and if the man remained outside from that time until he was found in the morning around 5 o’clock, small wonder that his fingers and hands were frozen white, when one remembers that a temperature of between 12 and 15 degrees below zero prevailed throughout the night.
First of all, it is important to know that in 1928, the United States had Prohibition in effect, so there were no bars or taverns in La Farge. It does seem interesting that Robert Morris goes to the Traister apartment at nearly midnight on a Thursday evening to get something to drink. Another interesting part of the story was that Frank Traister and somebody else (and don’t you wonder who that person was at that time of the night) carried a badly injured Morris over to the hotel to get him a room. That seems like a decent thing to do. But then Traister and his buddy drop off Morris back at the bottom of the stairs to sleep it off. There is not much compassion in that determination.
Perhaps, Traister could have let Morris stay the night in his apartment where the injured man could recover from his fall. At the time Frank Traister and his wife Cora had four children who lived in that second story apartment in the Travers building. The children were John, aged 14, then there was Floyd, 12; Harold, 9 and little May or Mae (found it spelled both ways) Traister aged 7. With all of those kids, perhaps there wasn’t any room in the apartment for the injured man? But wouldn’t you think that Morris could have been laid on the kitchen floor to get him out of that bitter -15 degree cold night? Frank Traister does not seem to have much compassion for Morris in this situation. We perhaps will learn more about why that may have been, when other information starts to come out about Frank Traister. (Don’t forget about little May Traister, the 7-year old daughter – she may be a key in this case.) The newspaper article continued:
Arrangements were made Saturday afternoon to conduct the funeral on Sunday, but all such plans were cancelled when those closely related to the deceased were advised by county officials that a post-mortem examination would be held over the body on the following Monday. It appears that a more thorough and careful search of the premises upon which the tragedy occurred, by village and county officials, brought to light certain complexities connected with the matter which they wished to investigate and to effect a possible solution thereof.
Following the post-mortem examination of the body, on Monday afternoon, by local and deputy state medical examiners, the funeral was held Tuesday, at 2 o’clock, at the Free Methodist Church in the village.
Mr. Morris was a man of close to 40 years of age, and only until quite recently, was in another section of the country, but returned to La Farge last fall and had been making his home with his brother, John. We have endeavored to report the particulars of this case to the best of our ability. As is always the case when an accident of this nature occurs, one will hear a great many and different stories, but we have tried to adhere only to those statements brought out at the inquest.
Thus ended the newspaper article about the death of Robert Morris. As mentioned in the concluding paragraph, there were many stories swirling around La Farge regarding Morris’ untimely death. Some of those stories had more merit than others and soon, more stories about that frigid February night on La Farge’s Main Street would surface. Next time in the history blog, we will continue to look at the unseemly death of Robert Morris.