On Sunday, March 5, 1922, a meeting was held at the Odd Fellows Hall in Slaton. A statement was made to the associated press, “The citizens of Slaton gave approval and commendation to the act, and it is the unanimous conviction that a very undesirable citizen had been dispatched.”
John Peddigrew Hardesty wrote in his autobiography, Preachers of the Plains. “There were some exciting times during those days, one night a group of men kidnapped the Catholic priest, took him to a secluded spot, whipped, tarred and feathered him.”
The night before the meeting, however, many citizens did not know of the exact extent of the attack or the brutality that took place beneath the nightly stars.
Soon after the rumbling and rattling of the 1920’s vehicle stopped, there may have been a brief moment of silence in the dark night; a small thought may have floated from man to man, but it was too late to go back. The decision had been made. Before the cruel and degrading tar and feathering, there was the lashing of whips that sliced the air and cut through Father Keller’s skin.
After ripping his clothes off, it is believed his captors poured substantial blistering black tar over the priest before soft white feathers were thrown at him. As the tar cooled, encasing his skin and closing off his pores, the men left him out in the fields to find his way back.
Various accounts stated that the men told Keller, “You have twenty-four hours to get out of town,” soon after the inhumane assult. There are no records left as to how long the beating lasted. All that is known is that Father Keller was left alone in the barren field of chirping crickets and crying coyotes. Facing no other option, Father Keller staggered back into town with one house shoe on and wearing an outfit of tar and feathers.
J. Michael Carter wrote in an essay for the Diocese of Amarillo, “The scourging ended after about 20 strokes, but the ordeal continued as the vigilantes proceeded to cover him with a coat of heated tar. Someone produced a pillow and after ripping it open, the group gleefully scattered feathers all over him.”
Hardesty claims that Dr. Tucker helped the priest in his time of crisis. “Dr. Tucker spent hours extracting the tar and feathers from his hide,” he wrote. It is believed Keller may have stayed with Dr. Tucker that night, however, the next morning he boarded a train at Posey, “and left for parts unknown, he never returned to Slaton,” Hardesty wrote.
Other documents show that Keller spent a few days healing in a hospital in Amarillo. Carter said that when Keller left Amarillo, he stayed in a St. Louis hospital and it took him a year to fully recover from the incident, although, some say he never truly did.
“Essentially, it would cause deep second and third degree burns,” Michelle Harvey said in a recent interview. Harvey is a Physical Therapy Supervisor for the University Medical Center in Lubbock and works regularly with burn victims. “Once the tar’s been applied, you’re talking about a risk of infection and a significant loss of fluids which can cause various problems including organ failure and death.” Harvey also said that since there were no regulations at the time as to the temperature of tar, there is really no accurate gauge as to the extent of the trauma that could have been imposed on Keller.
Hardesty wrote that for months, “gum shoe men, and women, walked the streets of Slaton, trying to figure out, ‘who done it,’ but they had no luck.” Hardesty also wrote that the District Judge stated he would, “get to the bottom of this.” However, nothing was ever done. “The public was too well satisfied,” he wrote.
Some have claimed it may have been the work of the Ku Klux Klan, however, according to Hardesty who neither acknowledged nor denied ever being affiliated with the Klan, wrote, “Certain ineligibles, men whose private life, or social and business connections were such as to bar them from membership, ganged together and pulled some rough stuff on a few hoodlums, and laid it to the work of the Ku Klux Klan.”
Hardesty, however, wrote, “I did know a great deal about the work of the Klan in the early twenties. I do know that the law enforcement officers, school trustees, many of the county officials, including the sheriff, were Klansmen, and that the backbone of the evangelical churches of the community consisted of Klansmen.”
According to what Hardesty wrote, though, “It is a fact, brought out in the open next day, that at the very hour the priest was being tarred and feathered, a group of Catholic men were in the office of Attorney R.A. Baldwin, pleading with him to organize a, “party,” to wait on the priest and do exactly what was at the moment happening to him [Keller].”
However, Carter wrote that the attack left many German Catholic residents in the community with a feeling of apprehension and mistrust that they too could be attacked in their community, their hometown. Even the Sisters of Mercy, who were in Slaton at the time, were advised to leave until mind-sets were less hostile and the populace was, once again, forbearing.
Carter claims that no Catholics were among the ones who attacked Keller. “The attack provoked a response from Texas Catholics and several chapters of the Knights of Columbus sent letters to protest the City of Slaton.” Carter also wrote that the National Catholic Welfare Council offered a $2,500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the guilty party. “Bishop Lynch watched and waited,” Carter wrote, “he [Lynch] considered placing Slaton under interdict but soon he realized that the damage was done and the church [St. Joseph] would have to go on about its business.”
The whereabouts of Keller, however, did not remain a complete mystery. According to Carter and various historical documents, after his yearlong recuperation, Keller’s last location was believed to be in Wisconsin.
According to a document about the history of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Parish in Burlington, Wisconsin, on February 27, 1927 more than 6,000 people attended the reception of a new Reverend, Fredrick J. Hillenbrand.
“The time was spent in an informal manner,” the document stated. “Music was furnished by Joseph Hoffman’s Orchestra, which played from an alcove of banked ferns.” It is believed that the Rev. Joseph M. Keller was one of the people who attended this party. He was serving at a parish in Brighton, Wisconsin.
With his scarred body and mind, Keller found himself surrounded by new camaraderie and a calm existence in Wisconsin. The murky night of March 4, 1922, as he was left to die in a bleak cotton pasture outside of Slaton, remained only a ghostly memory to him. One can only hope that the nightmare eventually wilted away like the final petals of a red verbena in the beginnings of a Slaton autumn.
Keller died in 1939.