The Death of Jessie Kephart McPherson

Jessie Cordelia (Kephart) McPherson was the daughter of my maternal great grandfather, John Arthur Kephart and his first wife, Mary H. Duncan. Jessie was born December 10, 1903 in Wellston, Lincoln County, Oklahoma. 

Jessie Cordelia Kephart - Ancestry Chick
Jessie's mother died when Jessie was just over three years old. After that time, Jessie lived with her father, while her sister, Mary Alma went to live with their grandparents, Henry and Laura (Hendee) Duncan.

When Jessie was 21 years old, she married 27 year-old, Samuel Archie McPherson. They had two sons together: Warren McPherson (1925-2017) and Larry McPherson (1928-1928).

Jessie Kephart McPherson and Grandparents - Ancestry Chick
Jessie, Standing. Seated L to R: Laura (Hendee) Duncan and Henry A Duncan
Toddler is Jessie's son, Warren McPherson. Circa 1927.

Just shy of their fifth wedding anniversary, Jessie died under mysterious circumstances. Her death is our Monday Mystery for this week. The media account of the circumstances surrounding Jessie's death appeared in a Chandler, Oklahoma newspaper as follows.

Wellston Woman Takes Her Own Life
September 9, 1930

County Officers were called to Wellston late Thursday night to investigate the death of Mrs. Sam McPherson, whose body was found on the Frisco tracks near the section house in which she & her husband, foreman for the railroad Co. resided. Immediately upon receipt of the call, Sheriff Mears, County Attorney John Embry, Deputies Vassar, Orr, and Hicks proceeded to Wellston where a coroner's jury was impaneled, and an investigation launched. McPherson was taken into Custody and held until the investigation was completed. 

According to the evidence submitted, Mrs. McPherson's death was the result of a family quarrel. McPherson had come home from work about five o'clock and had taken a drink or two, to which Mrs. McPherson objected. After having supper, Mr. & Mrs. McPherson & Ellen Swinford, who was staying with them, went fishing. There had been quarreling all evening concerning the drinks which McPherson had taken down at the creek. The argument became more bitter, and finally McPherson told his wife to pack up and get out. 

Upon returning to the house the quarrel broke out afresh and finally Mrs. McPherson told her husband that she was going & that was that. “This is the last time that you will see me alive." The schoolgirl [Ellen Swinford] was told to get her things and go to a friend's house for the night. This she did, accompanied by two friends who had come to the house in the meantime and heard part of the quarrel, and had heard Mrs. McPherson tell her husband goodbye. 

Following the departure of the girls, everything was quiet about the house. McPherson, who was outside in his car, became alarmed and went to finding his wife. Not finding her in the house he went to the front door and saw her going down the tracks toward the tool shed. He started to follow her and got within about seventy-five yards of her; she turned and told him not to come on. 

McPherson, according to his statements, did not know that she had a gun and kept on toward her. He saw her turn and saw the flash and report of the gun and saw his wife fall. He rushed to her, started to raise her up, and then put her down again and went for the Doctor. When they returned Mrs. McPherson was dead, probably killed instantly. The muzzle of the gun, a 410 Gauge shotgun, had been placed beneath her chin on the left side. The charge ranged upward and to the right, completely shattering the jawbone. It was the opinion of the medical examiner after that she never knew anything after the trigger was pulled. Her husband was the only eyewitness to the act.

In view of the quarrel preceding her death, and the statement of the school girl that McPherson had threatened her, he was taken into custody and held until the investigation was completed. Evidence brought out the fact that the deceased was in ill health. She had been suffering for some time from a goiter, which ailment has a tendency to make her extremely nervous. And witnesses stated that she had on previous occasions threatened to take her own life. Two weeks previous to her death she had written two communications, one of which was a will. 

Although the coroner's jury did not immediately return a verdict, preferring to wait until the gun had been examined by the fingerprint experts, the general opinion was that the death was by suicide. McPherson was not taken to the county jail but was held in Wellston until a report was received from the state bureau as to fingerprints. Later the report was obtained, and the Jury returned a verdict of suicide. Mrs. McPherson is survived by a son, Warren, about four years of age.

Jessie McPherson Death Ruled Suicide - Ancestry Chick

In the Duncan family, the story of Jessie's tragic death has been passed down through generations. Their story has been that Samuel McPherson was drinking and they [Samuel & Jessie] had been fishing; but they had a fight over the fact that he was drinking and had made a pass at the girls at the creek. When Jessie and Samuel got back to the house, she was trying to leave, and he wouldn't let her. Jessie told the girls to go get her father [John Arthur Kephart], who lived close by. When they got back Jessie was dead. And later, Jessie's fingerprints were found on the gun.

The Duncan family descendants believe that Jessie did not commit suicide, and that Samuel had a good lawyer, which is why no charges were filed against him. They never believed that Jessie killed herself. 

I found out about the circumstances surrounding Jessie's death when I came across some newspaper articles about her death online within the last couple of years. And I just recently began communicating with another genealogist who provided more information about the Duncans, and Jessie's death. After first reading about her death, my gut feeling was that it was a suspicious death at the very least. Not many women would choose to kill themselves with a shotgun, so that was not quite right to me. Plus, Jessie had sent the girls who were at the house to go get her father when she and Sam were arguing. It's odd that she would send for her father if her intention was to kill herself. It sounds more like she was wanting help. And as for the rumors of her alleged prior threats to kill herself, that's all hearsay. They said she also wrote a will just two weeks prior to her death. That's very convenient information after the fact and I'd want to see a copy of the will before I'd ever believe she actually wrote one.

Regardless though, Jessie's death is a bit of a mystery. No one but Sam knew what actually happened that day. No one will ever know if he and Jessie were perhaps were fighting over the shotgun and it went off accidentally; or if Sam intended to kill Jessie, or if it was indeed a suicide. Whatever truly happened though, we can only hope she is at peace.