Slow-Motion Tragedy

The first chapter in the tragic chain of events that befell the Johnson household at Formoso in June of 1907, should have come as no surprise to anyone who knew Peter Johnson well.  He had spoken so often about killing himself that the threat had begun to sound stale.  He also talked about building that new and far bigger house in town or about moving to the mountains for his health, and he had never done those things.

A poor lad who had emigrated from Denmark in the mid-1860’s, Peter Johnson was one of Formoso’s first draymen, picking up freight that arrived at the railroad depot and delivering it to merchants on Main.  The job supplemented income from his farm two miles west of town where he had begun raising cattle and hogs.  

Bearing children was a struggle for Peter’s wife Amy.  Their first child Annie, born in 1886, did not survive infancy and may have been stillborn.  While a thriving Meda Lavina came along two years later, another five years elapsed before the birth of their son Ray, whose arrival was apparently fatal for his mother.  Amy Johnson was interred in the Delta Cemetery in June 1893.  

Ray and his older sister Meda would stay with the Walkers in Formoso until 1896, the year Peter married Alice May Greenwood, who was about fifteen years his junior.  She would contribute two more children to the Johnson family, Dorothy, called “Dora,” and John.  

In the 1900 census Peter is listed as a stock dealer, a business venture that may have been partly funded by his new father-in-law Napoleon Bonaparte Greenwood, who was a prosperous local farmer.  Of course there was an element of risk in being a middleman in the livestock and grain markets, as noted by the census-taker in 1905 who listed Peter Johnson’s profession as “speculation.”  What went up could come down, and at the worst possible moment.

As Peter approached the half-century mark his health became an occasional topic for comment in the local paper.  When he made the list of ailing residents he stayed on it for a while, eventually coming under the care of local physician Dr. Roberts, who finally reported the patient to be improving.  Nonetheless, Johnson put up his own livestock and farm equipment for public auction in 1905, sold the acreage to his father-in-law, and moved his family into town.  If there had been business reversals, no one in Formoso had heard about them.  As far as anyone knew, Peter Johnson continued to live “on easy street.”

Peter spent the afternoon of June 4, 1907 talking to friends uptown before heading home around six o’clock.  Arriving at his house at the west edge of Formoso he seemed to realize that he had forgotten something, because he sent his thirteen-year-old son Ray to Shedden’s Drug Store for a bottle of carbolic acid.  Bottle in hand, Peter gently explained to his children that he would never see them again, then crossed the railroad tracks and set out towards a stand of trees outlining the creek southwest of his property.

The Greenwoods

May Johnson phoned her parents on the east side of town as soon as the children alerted her about the carbolic acid and their father’s disturbing farewell.  Mrs. Johnson may have read news reports linking the common disinfectant to a recent spate of suicides.  Despite petitions to limit its sale, carbolic acid remained on store shelves in 1907.  

While the Greenwoods reminded their daughter that Peter had made idle threats many times before, Mr. Greenwood privately called Peter’s friends to ask their opinion.  The consensus held that there was no need to send a posse into the woods at dusk after a 50-year-old man.  Peter would soon come to his senses and return home to his family.

When May called again at 4:00 a.m. to report that there was still no sign of her husband, her father immediately began rounding up volunteers.  Searchers found Peter Johnson’s body only half a mile from his house, with an empty bottle and a glass near his hand.  He was buried in Delta Cemetery beside his beloved Amy, while newspapers across the state printed the doleful story.   

There are many versions of the second and more horrific story that would drop two weeks later and would continue to be reprinted around the state until the end of July.  Besides being the most detailed, the one from the Formoso New Era published Thursday, June 27, 1907, also contains an eyewitness account from the editor.  

Attempted Suicide at Formoso

Wednesday morning about 5:45 o'clock, the people in the east part of town were aroused by screams as if some one was being murdered, and in a few moments, proved to be no false alarm. 

Mrs. May Johnson and her two children, a daughter about nine years old and a boy of four years, were staying with Mrs. Johnson's parents, the Greenwoods, since her husband, Peter Johnson had taken his own life.  Mrs. Johnson got up, put on her dress and came out into the kitchen where her sister and mother were preparing breakfast.

She asked if she might help them to prepare breakfast, and they told her "no, they could get it."  She went directly back to the bed-room, where the two children were sleeping, locked the door behind her, and began her deathly work.

From all appearances, she took the bed chamber and dealt the little girl a blow on the head which broke the vessel in pieces, and completely stunned the child;  then she took a broken piece and attempted to cut the little boy's throat with it.  His screams attracted the attention of the sister and mother, who ran to the door and tried to enter, but found it locked.  Her sister then ran out and gave the alarm which brought Mr. Greenwood from the barn, where he had gone to milk.  

Finding the door locked, the sister ran around to the east window of the room, and there saw the infuriated mother trying to murder the little boy, who had succeeded in getting out of bed, and was doing his utmost to save his own life.  The mother left the child and ran upstairs, at this time Mr. Greenwood had got to the scene, also Sylvester Case, who lives near by. 

They tore the screen from the window and hoisted it; the little boy, wreaking in blood, rushed to the window and was taken out by Sylvester Case.  Mr. Greenwood and he then entered the room through the window, and unlocked the door; we were at our barn and heard the screams and ran to the scene. When we entered they told us May was up-stairs. 

We rushed up and found her lying in the north bedroom with her throat cut. She had gone up there after her attempt to murder the children, and broken a glass dish which was on a dresser in the room, and with a piece of it attempted to take her own life.  Every thing that could be done by willing hands was done, medical aid was summoned.

The children will recover, but her life is despaired of.  For the past two weeks, she has been in a despondent state of mind, and has attempted to take her life.  It is one of the saddest and most awful deeds that has ever been attempted in this county. 

May Johnson died a few days later.  Peter's son Ray escaped the carnage, having been placed with another family in Formoso after his father’s death.  An abbreviated account appeared in the Jewell County Monitor on the same day as the one in the New Era.  The Mankato paper also attempted to provide some background for the recent string of terrible events. 

Peter Johnson was a stock and grain dealer at this place.  He and his family were considered among Formoso's best citizens.  His wealth at the time of his death was estimated at about $30,000, mostly in real estate.

He was 50 years old.  He lost his first wife fourteen years ago, and married a second time about eleven years ago to Miss May Greenwood.  The husband and second wife had not lived happily together.  That and his losses in speculation is supposed to have been the cause of his taking his life.

His wife's attempt was caused from brooding over the death of

her husband.  She had become partly insane, but was not considered dangerous.

Formoso was sometimes referred to with its original spelling, “Formosa,” on the extremely rare occasions when it was mentioned at all in the press outside of Jewell County.  Now it had suddenly drawn statewide attention twice within a few weeks.  In some cases news of the husband’s suicide had only gone to press when rumors of a second chapter began to trickle in.  

Newspaper reports about the Johnson family may have been the first inkling for many Kansans that there even was a town called Formoso, a bucolic farming community which took its name from the Portuguese word for “beautiful,” but a place where the worst kind of horror was possible.

© Dale Switzer 2023