Tag Archives: Jackson County Historical Society

Rumors of Murder at the Wornall House

Frank C. Wornall's memoir of the Wornall House is missing a few pages. Do the missing pages point to murder? (photo by bethanywearsphotography.com)

Frank C. Wornall’s memoir of the Wornall House is missing a few pages. Do the missing pages point to murder? (photo by bethanywearsphotography.com)

By Tony Lawson

When I first became familiar with the Wornall House history, one of the stories I heard was the tale of wounded Confederate soldiers recuperating in the second floor children’s bedroom.  When the Union troops moved in and pushed Shelby’s troops back south they found the Wornall House being used as a regimental field hospital and the wounded Confederate soldiers inside.  Local lore claims Union troops came into the bedroom and bludgeoned to death several wounded Confederate soldiers to make way for their own comrades wounded in the Battle of Westport.  I was told that that plaster on the first floor ceilings had to be replaced from the blood that had oozed through from this event and that there still remained blood stains on the bedroom floor. Someone suggested we call in the police department forensics team to spray Luminol and whip out the black lights.

As I dig through the primary source material I have yet to find hard evidence that these murders occurred at the Wornall House.  I did find that all the floorboards in the home were replaced sometime in the early twentieth century when plumbing, gas and electricity were installed.  So, cancel that call for Luminol.  There is nothing in Frank C. Wornall’s papers that explicitly tells this story, however, he does cryptically say that after the battle the Missouri State Militia officers had to use their sabers and other means to prevent the less disciplined troops of the Enrolled Missouri Militia “from killing them all.”

Frank apparently repeated this story several times in speeches that he gave over his long lifetime.  In those cases, Inflection and tone would have been provided, however, in text form, that statement is perfectly vague.  Does he mean some were killed and others were not?  Or, does it mean, the EMM troops wanted to kill them all.  It hints at the story of murder, but it is not conclusive of anything other than there was a confrontation between MSM officers and EMM troops over the handling of wounded Confederate prisoners at Wornall House. The confrontation nearly became violent at the least and at most it was the violent and cold blooded murder of wounded prisoners that has been obscured and forgotten by the general tumult of the war and its aftermath.

Additional evidence of this event is hinted at in the Wornall’s recounting of the battle.  Both Frank and his father, John, mention the presence of seven dead Confederate soldiers on the southwest lawn.  One of these was a colonel and a makeshift rail fence had been constructed around his body.  There were surely lots of Confederate dead lying around the Wornall farm; why do they both mention those seven? Were these the Confederates bludgeoned to death in the bedroom?

(As an interesting side note, I discovered that the officer left in charge of the Confederate prisoners at Wornall House was Colonel John F. Richards who later headed up the firm of Richards and Conover Hardware Co.  The building they built still stands as prime loft space in River Market area of KC.  http://www.kcloftspace.com/richardsconoverlofts/)

Adding to the frustration of getting to the bottom of this story are several pages missing from Frank C. Wornall’s typed manuscripts at both the Wornall House and the Jackson County Historical Society.  On top of that, the memoirs are the recollections of a nine-year-old boy writing some 70 years after the event.  Everything should be taken with a small grain of salt.

Despite the paucity of hard evidence, my research tells me this story is completely believable.  Troops under the Enrolled Missouri Militia were often locals with long standing scores to settle with Missourians.  This region was the scene of the bloodiest most violent civilian insurrection in American history.  Bushwhackers and Union troops regularly tortured, hung, scalped and defaced one another’s corpses and neither side was known for taking live prisoners.  Regular army troops in pitched battles were different though.  At least they were supposed to be.

I did find evidence of Confederate prisoners being executed at the Battle of Westport, but that event did not occur at the Wornall House.  That happened after McGhee’s charge to capture Union cannons in what is now north Loose Park.  That charge marked the high point of the battle and Price’s 1863 Missouri “expedition.”  (During that charge there occurred an event rarely recorded in Civil War battles; two opposing officers shot and wounded one another with their sidearms.)  The first charge initially failed, a later second charge captured the Union position and Confederates discovered the bodies of comrades who had been captured and then executed in the first charge.  Were these the seven dead on the Wornall lawn and the source of the story of murder at Wornall?  Are there motivations for stories such as this, true of not, to be propagated after the war?

I do not know the answers to these questions.  I do know I will keep researching to learn what I can with the knowledge that a true mystery can never be solved…it can only be made a better mystery.

“Old Hattie” and Foucault’s Field Day

By Tony Lawson

KC Star newsper clipping from the Wornall House archives at the Jackson County Historical Society

KC Star newsper clipping from the Wornall House archives at the Jackson County Historical Society

Since reading Dr. Mutti-Burke’s book, On Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s Small-Slaveholding Families 1815-1865 in my first semester of grad school, I have become interested in power relationships between enslaved African-Americans and their said “masters” in Missouri.  No two relationships were quite the same and they were as varied and diverse as the people and personalities that entered into them.  The only thing that characterizes all of these relationships is that the folks with the white skin were supposed to be the ones in control.

Michel Foucault would have a field day with a study of the following power relationship.

While researching for the Wornall House Museum project, I stumbled across a newspaper clipping at the Jackson County Historical Society that caught my eye.  It is a type of juicy tid-bit of history that displays how easily our society was willing to first, elide the sins of slavery and second, a bit of that dynamic of slave-master power relationships.

Like many of the Wornall stories, I am finding a couple of differing versions.  Here is one version of “Old Hattie.”  This article is undated and clipped from the Kansas City Star and it tells the story of “Old Hattie.”  My research informs me the article is circa December 1927.

At a slave auction in 1855 at Boone’s Store in Westport (now Kelley’s Bar) there was up for bid a 13-year-old slave girl named Hattie.  She was about to be sold to a “cruel” master and begged a “kindly looking” man to purchase her instead.  That man was Westport trader and city father, Charles Kearney.  He was cashing in on the Santa Fe wool trade before the war and apparently had cash to spare.  The bidding became heated until Hattie finally sold to Kearney for $1300.  That was a fortune in those days.

Kearney took Hattie home and set her “free” . . . to work for the Kearney family for the rest of her life.  And she did just that.  She rose two generations of Kearney’s children, became ingrained in the family’s life, and adopted the family name.  Colonel Kearney’s oldest daughter, Julia, married Frank Wornall, and it appears that for a time Hattie lived at Wornall House raising the Wornall children.  She reared children and cooked meals and likely knew those families better than they knew themselves.  In her later years the extended family members would squabble over which family would get the privilege of having Hattie be the live-in maid/nanny.  She lived to be 91 years old and enjoyed “listening in” to the radio in her last days.

Irony abounds in this story.

From our twenty-first century perspective it is easy to see the irony of buying a person, taking them home , and setting them “free” to work for your family until you die.  But perhaps more nuanced in the story is the ultimate power Hattie wielded over the Kearney and Wornall families.  Then again, perhaps not: the headline practically of screams about Hattie’s power.  What do you think?

Mystery Solved at Wornall


Horse Parking?

By Tony Lawson

One of the tasks I was assigned as an intern at the Wornall House was to solve the riddle of the bronze “H” plaque.  None of the current staff of volunteers and administrators knew exactly what it represented or when it was put there.  Archaeologist Doug Shaver did a preliminary investigation over the summer and concluded it was put there sometime between 1890 and the 1930s and it was NOT placed by the NPS for its Historic American Building Survey (HABS) in the 1960s.  From experience in old buildings I knew it was not structural, and so did Doug.  It was surely commemorative of something.  But what?

I asked around locally.  Nothing.  For kicks and a learning experience I tried crowd sourcing.  I took it to hundreds of my Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee relatives and friends on Facebook.  There are lots of antebellum homes there.  Maybe one of my cousins has seen this.  Nada.  I took it to reddit.com askahistorian and whatisthisthing.  Some insisted it was structural.  Hospital?  Horse Parking?  A tiny vertical landing pad for helicopters?  I learned in the UK this “H” plaque is the designation assigned to building with a recessed fire hydrant.  I learned that in an episode of “Psyche” there was a button behind a plaque like this in a tourist trap type of museum that shut off a fountain that then allowed access to a secret portal.  Very interesting.  But, zilch in the hard facts department.

I suspected the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  They loved placing bronze markers in their hey-day.  They have several markers around the KC area and there was a file at the Missouri State Historical Society I was yet to lay my hands on.

I finally found the answer, in the last place I looked.  The last file in a box at the Jackson County Historical Society contained forgotten facts and documents .  It turns out the “H” confused the JCHS for a while too.  From 1965 to 1985 they apparently had no idea what it was until local historian Kathy Taggart found documents that told the story of the H.

“…the enclosed records were found which indicate the plaque was one three hundred which were purchased by the Kansas City Centennial Celebration on March 1923 and paid for by Mrs. AdaMacLaughlin.  Apparently the H indicates historic importance.  To date we know of no others in existence.”  — K. Taggart  January 1985

Mystery solved!  It was my first professional case and now I’m closer being a real live hard-boiled history detective.  Now where is my shot of whiskey, cigar and .38?  Somebody que up my theme song…

H file at JCHS

The last place I looked!


Stewards of History

By Tony Lawson

I have been immersing myself in the history of the Wornall House these last few weeks and I’ve learned as much about the present as I have the past.  What strikes me most is the depth people have for caring about the past.  The archives I visit, the historic objects I observe, and the meetings I attend all indicate the collective concern of individuals toward preserving the past and handing it down to future generations to study, analyze and evaluate.  I feel the weight of the generations before me–as well as my profession and my moral obligations to myself and the society I live in–tasking me to do the best job I can in dissecting this history to learn from it and pass it down to the next generations. Like teaching, as a historian I am always asking myself; am I doing a good job?   Have I learned all I can?  Am I fair and honest? Am I a worthy of being a steward of history?  


What one person deems an important piece of history and worth preserving, such as genealogy, ephemera, or financial records, may be insignificant to another, but all these types of things wind up in archives.  I’ve been sorting through some archives at the new digs of the Jackson County Historical Society piecing together the puzzle of the past so that I may tell a compelling story of the Wornall House.  I did not think I would be interested in genealogy, but I got sucked into a black hole for about 90 minutes yesterday.  I barely escaped.  I’ve always prided myself on being a local history geek, but I am stunned by the amount stuff I did NOT know about the Wornall family in Kansas City history.  So far, I seem to only be working around the edges of my topic picking up tidbits of information here and there.  Hopefully, this thing will start to come together when I write some papers and start to organize my research.