A Ray of Daylight

Previously I’ve presented two versions of the shooting of Will McDonald at his farm south of Lovewell in 1913, each with a different slant.

The headline of the item in the Belleville Telescope left little to doubt, trumpeting the news: “WILL McDONALD, A SUICIDE - Shoots Himself With Shot Gun on His Farm Near Lovewell Friday.”  According to the Telescope, the farmer was about fifty years old and his funeral Mass was celebrated at the Catholic church at Cuba, where his widow and nine children mourned his passing.  The writer should have held a few doubts in reserve, since almost every particular given in the item was wrong except for the fact that well-liked area farmer Will McDonald was indeed dead from a gunshot wound.

The Lovewell Index accurately narrowed McDonald's age to forty-five, correctly changed the weapon to a .38 revolver, gave a few circumstances of the shooting which made premeditation seem less certain, and moved his funeral service to the Methodist Episcopal Church where his widow and six surviving children were among the mourners.  I knew there had to be a third and more definitive version out there, but I also knew that finding it would need to wait a few days.  The Belleville Newspaper Archive website was down last week, and it is the only online source I know of for the Cuba Daylight and many other small-town Republic County newspapers. 

The Cuba Daylight, the McDonald family’s hometown paper, was understandably more circumspect about the incident, suggesting that, “whether this calamity came as a result of accidental or intentional shooting will not be known, as there was no eyewitness, as far as can be determined and nothing that would shed any light on the matter.”  The paper then proceeds to supply what may be enough illuminating details to show us how Will McDonald came to shoot himself on a Friday afternoon in the spring of 1913, and whether it was intentional or not (I’ve peeked at the end - It was not intentional).

William was the eighth and last of Owen and Bridget McDonald’s children to be born in Canada.  The family arrived in eastern Republic County about the time of the great influx of newcomers in 1870, following several years when fear of Indian attacks curtailed settlement.  Owen died in 1876, perhaps before his Irish bride donated some of their acreage for St. Isidore Catholic Church and the Catholic cemetery.  If Owen is buried there, he rests in an unmarked grave.  Their son William was buried in Farmington Cemetery at Cuba, probably because his death was suspected to be a suicide.  That must also have been the reason his funeral service was held at the local M. E. Church, with the Rev. R. L. Turk from Lovewell presiding. 

No one had been aware that William McDonald even owned a firearm until it was found lying a few feet from his body after the Fordham boy and John Quick hurried to his side.    He had made a trip to Kansas City two weeks earlier, and neighbors speculated that he may have picked up the weapon while he was there.  He had also returned to Lovewell a few days before the shooting with a wagonload of household items hauled from the family’s home at Cuba.  Over the next few weeks he would bring the rest of their possessions to their new home, along with his wife and children.  He may have purchased the handgun to protect himself from the armed bandits who sometimes robbed railroad passengers, or from highwaymen who might accost him on his long drives across Republic County.  Whatever the actual crime rate was in rural Kansas, local newspapers made the place seem rife with thievery. 

The Daylight echoed the statement from the Lovewell Index that Will McDonald had gone into Lovewell that very morning to buy “a supply of eatables,” and had made arrangements to return later to pick up some farm implements.  He had been plowing a field in the afternoon, but paused long enough to cross the road to chat with the Fordham boy who was also plowing.  They had talked for only a few minutes when Will asked the young man to continue so he could observe the plow at work.  Turning for another pass, the Fordham lad was surprised to see that Mr. McDonald was no longer watching, but had returned to his house, deposited his overcoat and was walking back to the road.  There was a sudden puff of smoke and Will McDonald fell dead.

A crucial piece of evidence reported by the Daylight is the coroner’s finding about the trajectory of the bullet, which entered McDonald’s abdomen and traveled upward to pierce his heart, killing him instantly.  When McDonald took off his coat, perhaps he noticed the revolver still in the pocket where he had tucked it two weeks earlier at the Kansas City Depot.  Why not take it out now and test his aim on a few fence posts?  On his way to the road he dropped the gun, which fired as it struck the ground.  That would explain both the trajectory of the bullet and the fact that the weapon that killed him was found lying a few feet distant from McDonald’s body.

If the three entries in this series on the McDonald shooting were an episode of “CSI,” I think I’d fade to black and roll the credits after this one. 

© Dale Switzer 2016  dale@lovewellhistory.com