On a Saturday night, March 4, 1922, in Slaton, what may have begun as a whisper, an aside, a comment, or just mindless chatter amongst neighbors, transformed the community and introduced an air of instability and perilous paranoia.
It was past the buds of bright red verbenas that the Civic Culture Club had urged the people of Slaton to plant so visitors who passed through by train would come to know the town as, “Slaton – Home of the Red Verbena”. It was beyond the altar that sat undisturbed in the dark church already prepped for Sunday morning mass in the St. Joseph Catholic Parsonage.
On that night with only the light of the astonishing stars that have flickered against the skies from unknown regions throughout little known histories – Father Joseph M. Keller staggered into the Slaton city limits, past cotton fields and newly built houses on the north end of town, verging on the appearance of a monster rather than a man.
Mostly nude he limped, wearing nothing but a layer of tar and scorched skin, cooled only momentarily by the gentle night breeze which, every once and while, may have made some of the white feathers attached to his body flutter, but not many.
“He walked down the street that night,” In the book Preachers of the Plains, John Peddigrew Hardesty wrote about Father Keller’s journey into town. “With only one house shoe on, neither barefooted nor shod, to his room.”
Father Keller may have screamed, may have shouted, may have cried out and shrieked so loud it could have shattered a thousand communion chalices. However, there are no known reports of anyone hearing anything unusual from the barren cotton fields. All that remains are the various accounts of what may have happened in that field and the years leading to that one fateful night, nothing more than hearsay.
The murmurs and whispers began years before in 1917, two years after the sinking of the Lusitania but the same year American troops fired the first shot in the trench warfare of WWI. That year in Slaton, anti-German sentiments radiated from The Slatonite and Joseph M. Keller was chosen by the Catholic Diocese of Dallas to serve in the town after a brief stay in Hermleigh. His hometown, however, was thousands of miles away in Aachen, Germany.
The book Slaton Stories reported that the Catholic Church in Slaton dates to the same year as the town’s birth, 1911. The first mass was held on December 8, 1911, on the day of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a Catholic Holy Day celebrating the Immaculate Conception of Mary; the mass was officiated by Father Reisdorff with two Catholic families of Frank Simnacher and A.L. Hoffman, celebrating.
Because Father Reisdorff had an agreement with M.F. Klattenhoff that he would receive a commission on all land sold to the Catholic families who bought land in the area, the church grew tremendously within four years, and by 1917 the time had come to appoint a new pastor. The new pastor was German native, Reverend J.M. Keller.
J. Michael Carter of the Catholic Diocese of Amarillo, wrote in an essay that when Keller arrived the small town chatter began early. “Keller’s life entered a web of personality conflict and confusion,” Carter wrote. “By this time, the First World War raged in Europe and the editor of the Slaton newspaper began to denounce the Germans as barbarians and ‘Huns,’” he wrote. Carter also wrote that since Keller had strong feelings about the war, he eventually confronted the editor of The Slatonite with an, “angry retort.”
After this exchange, it is believed, the rumors began, “Soon the jaundiced eyes of Slaton turned toward Father Keller,” Carter wrote.
The first rumor that circulated was that The Kaiser, the emperor of Germany whose policies helped bring about WWI, had appointed several hundred priests to do spy work in the United States. Keller, at one point, was believed to have been one of those priests, especially since Keller insisted on keeping a picture of Kaiser Wilhelm above his desk and, “did not remove it until his parishioners forced him to,” Carter wrote.
When the United States entered the war, it is believed that Keller made a patriotic gesture at a rally by buying war bonds. The next week, at another patriotic rally, “the speaker had publicly denounced him because he was the only one who had failed to pay his share,” Carter wrote.
The community was not pleased and the congregation became more and more divided over Keller’s appointment. According to Carter, “In 1918, some of the parishioners sent a petition to Bishop Lynch asking him to remove Father Keller but Lynch rejected the petition and ordered the petitioners to grant Keller the respect due him as a priest.”
However, the people were not deterred and soon the priest was now a target for more personal ridicule and suspicion. Soon Keller was accused of lechery and adultery by citizens who also, “claimed that he had syphilis,” Carter wrote.
The complaints continued to the bishop but, once again, there was no hard evidence of suspicious behavior. “Bishop Lynch investigated these charges thoroughly,” Carter wrote. “Documents of this investigation reveal that Keller was a man of odd habits and strange personality quirks but no evidence could be found to support the more serious charges against him.”
At this time, according to the book Slaton Stories, German families continued to expand the church’s size and, in 1919, a third and larger church was built. This building, costing approximately $10,000 was finished in 1920 by the men of the parish.
Two years after the construction of the new building the next round of rumors began to circulate. This time, the priest was accused of breaking the seal of confession. This time, the people had had enough.
“On the night of March 4, 1922,” Carter wrote. “Keller got up from his reading to answer a knock at the door.”
When Keller answered the door, he was met with six masked men wielding pistols.
It is believed one man fired a shot at the ceiling before the other men burst across the doorsteps and detained the shocked priest. Bound and gagged as the priest’s terrified housekeeper watched, Keller was hauled away to a waiting car.
Carter wrote that Keller’s assailants stuffed him down into the back seat and sped away past the safety of the newly installed city lights and out into the dreadful darkness of the country night. “They drove out on a lonely road,” Carter wrote. “To a place several miles north of town, and when they stopped, the terrified Keller rose up to see 15 or 20 men waiting for him.”