And on His Farm He Had a Gun

There are two schools of thought about how Cuba, Kansas, got its name.  Some say the first settlers who arrived there were Southerners, a few of whom had spent some years soaking up the tropical heat in Havana before coming to southeastern Republic County.  There’s no question that much of the population emigrated from Bohemia and Czechoslovakia, where the name “Kuba" is common.  Perhaps both traditions are true, and the name given to the town is one both groups could agree on.

There are also two competing stories about which sort of firearm ended the life of Will McDonald, lately a citizen of Cuba, in the spring of 1913 as he took a break during a day's work on his new farm two miles southwest of Lovewell.  Will had been getting the place ready for the arrival of his family, who would join him as soon as school let out for the summer at Cuba.  Born in Baltimore, Ontario, in 1868, William McDonald had married Addie Sager in 1889.  Eleven children were born to the couple, but by 1913 only six survived, three boys and three girls.  Ruth, Margaret, Susie, Paul and Donald continued to live at home, while another son, Francis, had left for California.  

The McDonalds’ nearest neighbors at Cuba were Addie’s brother Frank Sager and his wife Susan.  Will McDonald’s brother John also lived nearby with his wife Jennie and their eight children.  There was no lack of companionship for the McDonalds at Cuba, but Will had toiled alone at the new farm in Sinclair Township for most of the winter.

On March 28 Will McDonald walked across the road to chat with one of Willis Fordham’s sons who was plowing.  After McDonald left to resume his own plowing, he started another furrow, went into the house where he deposited his overcoat, and then walked back out toward the road.  Halfway between his house and the road he suddenly crumpled.  Supposing that he was suffering heart trouble, the Fordham boy ran to help.  Thomas Lovewell’s neighbor J. W. Quick, who was passing along the same road, also stopped and tried to render assistance.  They found McDonald dead with a bullet hole through his heart.  At first they did not notice the .38 revolver lying nearby.  The boy hurried to the home of a neighbor who had a phone and called for help.  A crowd soon gathered, and someone examined the revolver.  Except for the one spent cartridge in the cylinder, it appeared as though the gun had never been fired before.  McDonald had held it close enough to his chest that his clothing was burned.

Short service was held at Mr. Sager’s home in Cuba after which the funeral services were held in the M. E. Church conducted by Rev. R. L. Turk who took for a text Job 14:14, ‘If a man die shall he live again.’  The church was crowded.  Several could not get in.  The M. E. choir rendered splendid service.  The four brothers and two brother-in-laws were pallbearers so with their kind hands did the last kindness that could be done by loved ones, carried him to his last resting place.

The Rev. R. L. Turk was also publisher of the Lovewell Index, which ran the obituary quoted above and an adjacent item with details about the shooting.  Since he would have known everyone involved and also must have talked with Will McDonald's widow Addie, there is no reason for preferring the story in the April 3rd Belleville Telescope, which sounds almost like a different incident.

Will McDonald, a well known resident of Cuba and vicinity committed suicide Friday afternoon near Lovewell, by shooting himself with a shot gun.  The full charge entered his heart and made an ugly wound.  Mr. McDonald, a man about 50 years old, recently bought a farm near Lovewell and had been staying there, making improvements preparatory to moving his family there from Cuba.

… A neighbor boy heard the shot and soon afterwards found him with the gun by his side and the horses nearby.

The body was taken to Cuba, Saturday and the funeral held at the Catholic church, Monday.  Burial was made in the Catholic cemetery.  The wife and nine children survive.  Mr. McDonald is a brother of county commissioner Eugene McDonald of this county.

The item in the Telescope adds a few years to McDonald’s age (He was actually 45) and three more surviving children to his family, alters the site of his funeral from the Methodist Episcopal Church to the Catholic Church and his weapon from .38 revolver to shotgun, an unwieldy choice for killing yourself while taking a stroll.  The case may be a cautionary tale against putting too much faith in a single news source.  While it is possible that the “short service” at the Sager home was presided over by a Catholic priest, most details from the two news items concerning the shooting itself are mutually exclusionary.  Did the roar of a shotgun bring the boy running, or was the report of the revolver so muffled by being pressed against McDonald’s breast that the boy mistook the slumping form for the victim of a heart attack?

There are a few clues in the version of events printed in the Lovewell Index that lead me to wonder whether Will McDonald's death should really be termed a suicide.  Here was a man who seemed to have something to live for.  He was about to get a crop in the ground on his new farm, and was soon to be reunited with his family.  That morning he had gone into Lovewell, arranging to return later in the day to pick up some farm implements.  The early spring weather was unusually mild and McDonald may have worn himself out trying to get the field plowed before heading back to town, as promised.  He had stopped for a breather at mid afternoon, then started plowing again briefly, only to stop again and head for the house to remove his topcoat.  And pick up his revolver.

A few months later a Lovewell woman, Mrs. Ed Davidson, ran to her mother’s house with a child in her arms, announcing that all her other children were dead.  When her family checked on the kids and found them all doing well, they understood immediately what was the matter.  The woman had spent the previous afternoon doing laundry in the hot sun and evidently had what was termed “a serious stroke of insanity.”  Mrs. Davidson, her husband, her mother and her doctor all piled into Ben Stofer’s new car and headed to Mankato.  Mrs. Davidson was shown inside a cell at the county jail until she could be admitted to the State Asylum at Topeka for treatment.

Norman Bates said it best.  “We all go a little mad sometimes."

© Dale Switzer 2023