The 1930’s were a terrible time in American history, but nothing can justify the events of the Davenport Family Massacre in 1932.
Setting the scene for the Davenport Family
1929 was the beginning of a decade of misfortune for many people. The stock market crash sent the United States into the Great Depression, which saw a rise in unemployment and poverty that touched nearly everyone in the U.S. Those already in the lower to middle classes were hit the hardest. The midwest was especially hit hard. Economic struggles coupled with the environmental disaster of The Dust Bowl sent many farmers into crisis, and desperate choices were made. For some, it was to pack up everything and move out west, looking for work in California. For others, much darker choices were made, and today’s story, sadly, is an example of this.
The events of this case took place near Patton, MO. Patton is located in Bollinger County, which sits along the Missouri-Illinois border and is roughly 100 miles south of St. Louis. This area is full of rural farming communities, and it was on one of these farms the Davenport family lived in January of 1932. Oliver Davenport was known as a family man and had a good reputation. He and his wife, Clara, lived on the small farm off Highway 51 with their seven children: Wooster (12), twins Vergie and Verda (10), Clara Fay (7), Raymond (5), Louise (3), and Vanita (10mo).
The Davenport family name
The Davenport name was known in the area as Oliver had several brothers spread out in the county. Oliver and Clara had lived on the small farm for about two years, and on January 7th, they were planning to move to another area. Ten months before, Oliver had sold the farm to a neighbor, Fred Stone, and later arranged for the family to move to another farm. He had hired men and wagons to help them load up and move. All seemed to be going as well as it could for the family. However, in the early morning of January 7, 1932, things went horribly and unexpectedly wrong.
We don’t have records of the house’s layout, but the farmhouse would have been small. News articles imply that the family slept in the main room together, with at least two separate beds mentioned. A small kitchen was in an adjacent room that was either an add-on or partitioned off from the main room. Beyond that, not much more can be determined.
Sometime between 3 and 4 am, Oliver Davenport got out of bed and fully dressed. He retrieved a one-and-a-half-pound claw hammer and woke his wife, Clara, who was still asleep with the two youngest children beside her. Oliver told his wife that all he saw was starvation in the future for their family and blamed her extravagance for the financial ruin they were facing. With that, he began attacking his wife, striking her in and around her head with the hammer nine times.
Clara’s screams woke two of the oldest children, Wooster and Verda. Both children began to run from the house. Her father struck Verda as she ran. When the two children got outside the house, Wooster said they needed to stay safe and run to get help; however, Verda insisted on going back inside the house to help her mother and siblings.
This decision would lead to Verda losing her life as she was killed by her father when she returned to the house. It took an hour for help to arrive, as Wooster had to run barefoot in the snow to get to the nearest neighbor to start raising the alarm. During that time, Oliver continued to attack the rest of the children in the house with the hammer. When he had finished, he sat on the floor of the main room, put a single-barrel shotgun to the side of his head, and pulled the trigger using his toe.
Later, Clara would report that she heard Oliver call her as he sat with the gun, but she remained quiet. Assuming she was dead, he continued with ending his own life. When help arrived, they were initially leery of going into the house as they were unsure if Oliver would attack them. Oliver’s half-brother heard groaning in the house, and when he called out, Clara replied. She said that Oliver had attacked them and then shot himself. Realizing that the threat was gone, they entered the house to a horrifying scene.
Oliver’s body was lying where he shot himself; some reports claim the hammer was still clutched in one of his hands. The only family members alive when they arrived were Clara, Vergie, and Clara Fay. However, 7-year-old Clara Fay passed away before being taken to the hospital. Clara and 10-year-old Vergie were rushed to the nearest hospital, both suffering from fractured skulls due to the attack. Newspapers reported that they were still in critical condition a week later, but both mother and daughter would recover. Verda, Raymond, Louise, and Vanita were all declared dead at the scene.
News of the murders and suicide spread quickly, with newspapers printing the story just hours after it occurred. Through the associated press, it made some national papers as well. With the first reports, many cited that the Davenports were facing financial ruin and were losing the land they lived on. However, that was later amended when they realized they had sold the land themselves. Many pointed out that Oliver showed no signs of distress leading up to the attack, and they couldn’t fathom why he would commit such a horrible crime. In the newspapers, it was claimed that he must have suffered some mental imbalance that caused him to kill his family with no warning and in this manner.
The aftermath of the Davenport Family Massacre
It was reported that somewhere between 3,000-3,500 people attended the funeral of Oliver and the five children. The pastor spoke on the positive reputation of Oliver and his love of his children. The children all had their caskets but were buried together in one plot. Oliver was buried nearby. Wooster went to stay with an aunt until his mother and sister recovered. Beyond that, we know nothing about the surviving Davenport family members.
The land and house endured for a time and even began to carry stories of hauntings and misfortunes. After the murders, relatives moved the household items out of the house and locked it up; however, it was broken into by people who wanted to see the crime scene. The family reported that hundreds went through the house before they were forced out and the house nailed up. Some locals say that strange deaths occurred in the house by occupants through the years before the house eventually burned down. Others claim a strange fog always seemed to hover over that area.
What is a family annihilator?
Oliver Davenport is just one of a long list of family annihilators. In an interview with Newsweek, sociologist and criminologist Jack Levin defined a family annihilator as a “husband/father (certainly one of the family members) who kills the family unit, not just his wife or one of his children, but every member of the family.” While Oliver was, thankfully, unsuccessful, he intended to end the whole family’s lives that night. Also, like most family annihilators, Oliver ended his own life after his attacks.
Economic struggles are a primary motive amongst male family annihilators. The annihilator sees the deaths as merciful compared to the future they envisioned. The annihilator also sees themselves as victims, blaming something or someone else for the misfortune. Clara claimed that Oliver told her they were going to starve, and it was her fault before he began attacking her. This fits with the pattern that many family annihilators follow. With the Great Depression raging and the outlook for farmers being bleak, Oliver may have seen no hope for the future. This does not make the act any less senseless but perhaps gives us perspective.
- Davenport kills own family 1932 – Newspapers.com
- 14 Jan 1932, 1 – The Democrat-News at Newspapers.com
- 07 Jan 1932, 1 – The Democrat-News at Newspapers.com
- Bollinger County Chamber of Commerce – Posts | Facebook
- Missouri Life During the Great Depression
- Why Ordinary People Murder Their Families (newsweek.com)