The story of what history calls The Lost Child is one that continues to resonate with men and women alike each and every time it is told.
I’ve been fascinated as well as horrified by the saga for years so you can imagine how excited I was when my friend Ann Kruger gave me another slant on the story when she presented me with an interview conducted with “Granny” White by Edith Edwards.
Mrs. White was a friend and a neighbor of the Spraggins family. She was with Mrs. Spraggins as the fateful days unfolded, and I assume she recorded her memories accurately.
It was a Wednesday, in the early part of October 1879 that the Spraggins family’s world turned upside down. The family consisted of Mr. And Mrs. Spraggins (Mrs. Spraggins’ mother was Mary Jane Gore Edwards.) and four children. The two that I know are the two that figure into the story: Texana, age 13, and 22-month-old Frances Ellen. The family lived in the Harmony Community.
Having been to the site of the Spraggins’ cabin, I can testify that their well was quite a distance from the house. Mrs. Spraggins’ went for water that Wednesday morning, leaving Frances Ellen in the care of her oldest child, Texana, who was to do the churning. It is difficult for me to understand how (in a tiny log home) Texana could “lose” Frances Ellen; however, I would assume that 13-year-olds have not changed over the course of the last century, and Frances Ellen probably had her mind on other things.
Mrs. Spraggins’ brother, Jim Edwards who had been hired to clear the land, helped her draw water for the stock. After they finished, the brother and sister sat down to rest as well as to talk future plans. It was probably while the Edwards siblings were planning their futures that Texana missed her little sister. She called to her, and received no answer; Texana then went outside to look for Frances Ellen there. Assuming that her sister had started to the well, Texana headed in that direction. It wasn’t long before she noticed her mother’s footprints and her sister’s footprints side by side on the path, and Texana assumed the two were together. She returned home and resumed the churning.
“Later the mother returned with her water; Texana had deeply confined herself to the task of churning, as scheduled by her mother. ‘Where is Frances?’ inquired the mother.
In fright, Texana hesitated—‘I thought she was with you!’ she exclaimed…Both dashed out- side in fright, making fast circles around the place—fully realizing that Frances Ellen did not go to the well. Carefully searching the trail toward the well, they found the baby’s tracks leaving the trail.
They ran, constantly calling her name, thinking it would attract her attention…she would answer or they would hear her crying. No answer! No cries! Soon they alarmed their nearby neighbors. The men spread fast, far and wide. Immediately they took their courses in the wilderness. By nightfall, the mother was frantic. She was running, listening, screaming, calling her baby’s name over and over: Frances! Frances! Mrs. Spraggins could not be persuaded to go home.”
Nerves were shattered and hearts were tattered as eyes openly wept for the baby girl. Mrs. Spraggins realized that it was “torture to her child to be lost in that confusing mass of blue-stem grass which was waist high to any man. Heavy timber with thick underbrush [was] looped from branch to branch with briars….mindful that the community was uncultivated and thinly settled…with the hazard of wild animals coming from their secret chambers and caves. In incomparable grief, they continued searching and calling her name.”
By Thursday morning the search was under the direction of Sheriff Dave Cunningham, and people began arriving from all parts of the county, coming in wagons, on horseback, and on foot. Most of the businesses in Comanche closed so that everyone could participate in the search. A “food camp” was established so that the women could prepare meals for the searchers. “The Comanche Bakery sent out bread; water was hauled to the searching groups in barrels, and the merchants of Comanche sent out boxes of food.” Before Thursday evening there was an estimated 300 people searching for the lost child, and very few of those stopped to rest or sleep.
“Thursday, the second evening, the mother, Mrs. Spraggins, was put on a horse—so weak she had to be held on the horse by her husband. A strip of material was found and sent to Mrs. Spraggins—she identifying it as some of the baby’s clothing. The mother would not eat or drink—only wring her hands and sadly say—‘My precious baby is not eating or drinking, and I will not.’ She could visualize the slashing, the tearing, and the mangled little body, torn beyond recognition and eaten by some wild animal. She’d scream in a penetrating sound, and a whispering voice with forced breath, praying her child would somehow win her battle, praying for the return of her baby’s body—if not alive.”
“Second evening—baby still not found. The parents suffering in disappointment. The faithful, broken-hearted mother! Her eyes clouded in watery tears—her face a chalky white—her tongue swollen until she couldn’t close her mouth. Her voice had failed her, except just above a whisper. With continued searching without food or water, she became desperately weak. By force, and of course against her will, they took the weeping mother from the searching group.
“Tears poured down her pale face, frantically furious in unbelievable grief which suddenly turned into pitiful nightmares. They held her clawing hands from her raw face. She objected to staying in the house. She would say, ‘My baby is not sheltered, and neither will I be!’ This only seemed to increase her burden. But, she was faithful in her muffled whispering voice, extending her prayers for her baby’s body. Yet, they could not persuade her to eat or drink. She would say, ‘Let us perish together!’”
Mrs. Spraggins was by this time completely worn-out, her walk nothing but a stagger. She had to be held down on her bed where, in her grief, she cut gashes into the palms of her hands with her fingernails. According to her friend, Mrs. White, even from the prison of her bed, the mother never stopped trying to call Frances Ellen’s name, albeit she could not speak above a raspy whisper.
Thursday night was a cold night, and the men kept fires burning, hoping that the girl would see the light and come toward it. Most of the men carried lanterns, both to aid their own sight as well as to hopefully send a signal to Frances Ellen…hoping against hope that she would see the light and cry out to someone.
Early Friday morning the searchers began straggling back into camp for a quick breakfast. There had been no results with the exception that every once in awhile one would see a little barefoot track in the cattle trails. However, it turned out that at least some of those tracks were made by children who were walking with their mothers who had joined in the search. “One group thought they were tracking the lost child, but…found they were Emma White’s barefoot tracks….Some of the group thought maybe a wild animal had eaten the child for they had surveyed the hills, valleys, branches (or creeks), and mountains without success.”
By Friday night when the searchers came into camp for a meal, there were those who were considering leaving the search. They were terribly disappointed and disheartened and probably just plain worn out. However, there were men who still held hope that little Frances Ellen would be found, and they talked the others into staying at least until Saturday night. Once again the search resumed with 300 voices echoing across the way, “Frances Ellen! Frances Ellen!”
Saturday, the last day of the search, finally dawned with no sound from Frances Ellen. “Again the searchers gathered in camp for breakfast—no results. Disappointment and tortured hearts stamped each face. Some ate their breakfast, and some only had a cup of coffee. They had elected Dave Cunningham captain of the groups. He strung the men out in a long line and said, ‘Now boys, we are going to find that child before we quit. Close together—not more than eight or ten feet apart. Cut your way through if need be, and go forward. All go south.’ Mr. Cunningham and his helpers called out, ‘Steady, boys, let those in the thicket catch up.’ They had gone something like a half mile, taking all precautions not to overlook that child!”
“Just before sunup on the northeast side of the mountain, approximately five or six miles from the Spraggins home, was a tired and anxious-hearted group of three men. This group consisted of Bud Holford, a young man, D.H. Cunningham, the sheriff, and Tom Edwards, a young man of 18. Bud Holford remarked, ‘I want to find that child, but I believe it would scare me to death if I were to see her.’ They walked on a few more steps. ‘Here she is, Tom! Here she is,’ said Bud. They paused for a brief second. ‘Yell as loud as you can,’ said Tom. ‘I can’t yell,’ answered Bud. Tom yelled, running at the same time to the top of the mountain, firing pistols several times. The firing or the ringing of bells was to announce the baby-finding and to summon all groups to the exact spot. They came running from every direction and gathered around the lifeless child who had been dead only a few hours. Her battered little body was a little warm, lying face in her hands, and [she] had been sucking her thumb which was still moist. A strip of her dress left on and firmly fastened on briars and pulled over her head—presumably in an effort to free herself…her clothing consisted mostly of the small bands of what had been garments.”
“This was the most pitiful and unpleasant scene ever to witness—this lifeless baby in the basket of underbrush—crowned in briars—where Jesus locked the door on her misery and unhappiness, and then in a cradle of love, Jesus rocked her to sleep. There, as this group watched, this as a torture to their eyes and a dagger to their hearts. Their voices were overloaded; tears fell thick and fast…feet, heavy weights, knees shaking like feathers in a storm while silence crowned the circle.”
“Some of the group began ‘sinking’ within sight, crushed to the ground in bitter sorrow…Some men turned sick and vomited right there. One man fainted. Some walked away to console themselves. The lifeless body of the baby was turned over to Mr. And Mrs. White to make preparations for burial before the bereaved parents saw her.”
The following is from the Comanche Chief, November 20, 1879:
“The monument prepared and erected by Mr. Thomas Matthews to designate the place and to perpetuate the memory of the mournful circumstances of the losing of the little child of Mr. and Mrs. Spraggins will be dedicated on Saturday, November 22, 1879. The ceremonies to commence at 11 o’clock a.m. on the spot where the child was found. The dedication discourse will be delivered by Rev. P.W. Gravis. The friends and acquaintances of Mr. and Mrs. Spraggins are respectively solicited to attend. –A Friend”