One of Our Stofers Is Missing

Loose ends irritate me.  I like certainty and finality, qualities which are often in short supply in the study of local and family history.  Yet, I value them highly enough that I once made a 400-mile round trip to Topeka to spend one afternoon seated in from of a microfilm reader at the Center For Historical Research, just to satisfy my curiosity on the date of the Jewell County Massacre.  For the record, it apparently happened on April 30, 1867

There are other matters that must remain unsettled for the time being, however much it bothers me to leave them alone.  For instance - was the young man from Texas who was calling himself Emery Perry Moore when he communicated with Orel Jane Lovewell in the early 1900’s, really her son, whom she had named Vinson Perry Moore?  She had her doubts about him and I have my own, but it’s hard to say for sure that he wasn’t her boy, even if it seems unlikely.  He was seven or eight years too young, he had the wrong name, and he was fuzzy on matters of family history, but he could have been who he said he was.

When doing a little digging into the early history of the Stofer family in Kansas, I came across a news item  that led me down another blind alley where I wandered aimlessly for a day or two.  Quoting the Republic City News, the following story circulated among dozens of Kansas newspapers during the Christmas season of 1891:

"A frightful accident occurred on the farm of Jake Stoffer, near Lovewell, which resulted in the death of his 16-year-old son."

The farm almost had to be the one owned by Ben Stofer’s father Jacob, though I couldn't find a follow-up story which firmly identified the victim or gave further details of any kind.  I had previously tried to fill in the names, ages, and birth location of Jacob Stofer’s children, as provided on various census forms, in order to map the family’s trail from Illinois through Iowa to Kansas.  While I could find no son who fit the sparse facts reprinted in the Kansas press, the one who came closest to being 16 at the time was Ben Stofer, whose life was not cut short in 1891, as his many descendants can attest.  Using I found a tombstone at Laurel Hill Cemetery for a William Stoffer who died Dec. 1, 1891, but which provides no date of birth.

Not only was there no census information pointing to a likely suspect, I could find nothing germane in Gloria Lovewell’s 1979 “The Lovewell Family.”  Fortunately, there is now Rhoda Lovewell’s superb updating of Gloria’s book, which contains a comprehensive section on the Stofers.  I was in luck.  

The victim turns out to be 9-year-old Willie, born September 16, 1882.  According to the family story supplied to Rhoda, Willie was driving cattle when his horse took off and dragged him to his death.  A neighbor told the editor of the Republic City News about a farm boy who was killed while driving cattle on Jacob Stofer’s ranch, and though the paper did not name him, someone must have decided that the most apt candidate for the newly-deceased was Ben Stofer, whose 16th birthday was a little more than three months away.  Here is the full story carried by the News

John Maxwell brought us the particulars of a frightful accident that occurred on the farm of Jake Stoffer, near Lovewell, which resulted in the death of his 16 year-old son.  The boy got on his pony in the barn yard to go after the cattle.  It shied and threw him off but one of his feet was fastened in the stirrup and the pony dashed about the place in a frightened way with the boy’s head dragging the ground beneath his feet.  The young man’s mother was a witness to the terrible fate of her son, but could not get control of the pony until the boy lay mangled and lifeless at her feet.  It is said that the shock was so severe that his mother has since been quite ill.

Despite living in Kansas, which conducted its own enumerations during years ending in “5,” Willie managed to slip through the cracks.  Born after the 1880 census, undoubtedly listed along with the rest of his family in the 1890 federal census, which went up in smoke, he died before the 1895 Kansas census was taken.  I did not find Jacob and Nancy Stofer’s family listed in the 1885 Kansas census, for the simple reason that no population schedule exists for that year in Sinclair Township and nine other townships in Jewell County.

The event on the Stofer farm provides an interesting model for the speed at which news traveled in the 1890’s.  If the date on the boy’s tombstone is correct, he was killed on December 1st.  The initial sketchy report, with no first name and the wrong age, had traveled 12 miles to be printed in the local press by the 11th.  The first sentence of the item, containing the misinformation about the victim’s age, was swiftly echoed in the Lawrence paper on the 14th, and then made the rounds of other Kansas newspapers, misinforming the rest of the state before New Years.  

Finding the story in the News wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be, finally requiring a keyword search of “Lovewell” rather than “Stoffer,” while zeroing in on the last month of 1891, and then  sifting through columns of type.  Cagy newspaper editors forced readers to peruse the ads by sprinkling them among news items.  The story of poor Willie is on page five, sandwiched between “Cheapest line of plush albums suitable for Christmas presents, at Stanfield’s,” and “Now is the time to buy a suit of clothes and Stanfield’s is the place to get them.”  Things haven’t changed that much.

But that’s all settled, and now I can sleep well.

© Dale Switzer 2023