John Pleasant Smith Sr – Was His Death an Accident or Murder?

John Pleasant Smith, Oak Grove MO, Murder
1968 Oak Grove Missouri

My Grandfather, John Pleasant Smith Sr. lived a very long and colorful life. He was born September 8, 1882 in the small rural town of Hazel Hill, Missouri. He was the youngest of the 3 known children of Pleasant Smith and Sarah Jane Page.

John lived on a farm in Lafayette County, Missouri for the first few years of his life. His father was murdered when he was about 4 or 5 years old and his mother remarried soon afterwards.  His step-father was a miner so they moved into the Township of Clay. Not much is known about his childhood except that he was an adventurous boy. He spent every waking hour exploring the countryside, fishing and building tree houses. He only attended school through the 3rd grade.

In 1903 he met a beautiful young girl, Ella McGowan. He was 21 and she was just 14. The next year they got married in Lexington Missouri on September 17, 1904. John started working as a farm hand and Ella kept the house.

In November of the next year they welcomed the first of 6 children into their home. 2 of those children, one boy and one girl died at a young age. Mary E. was born in November 3, 1905 (d. 1980), John Pleasant Jr was born October 11, 1906 (d. 1974), Mildred Ella was born March 2, 1910 (d. 1916), Leslie Franklin was born October 3, 1913 (d. 1915), Raymond Eugene was born May 24, 1917 (d. 1989) and my Mother, Emmajane was born April, 25, 1919 (d.1999).

Sometime between 1904 and 1910 John moved his family to Napoleon, Missouri. He began working at J.Y. Ewing Company as a Coal Miner. He also worked as a carpenter and was very skilled at building cabinets for homes.                                                                                      Grave digger

On November 19, 1921 John lost his beloved wife of 17 years. She hada bad heart and it eventually gave out.  John then moved the family to Fort Osage, Missouri where he began to make his living as a farmer, carpenter, and a grave digger.  In 1926 he married Nellie Jane Barrett.  They moved to a farm in rural Oak Grove, Missouri.

John was a religious man and attended Church every Sunday. He was a member of the Baptist faith. He loved to sing and he sang in the choir.  Music was a large part of the Smith household. On the weekends they would invite friends and family to their home for singing and dancing. John also loved to tell stories. No one could ever tell if the stories were true or not because he was very convincing.

John and Nellie were married for 22 years when she passed away from a heart attack. John found himself alone in a large house and farm. The next year (1949) he married Nellie Bryant, sold his farm and moved into town. From stories I have been told this was a tumultuous marriage. John was a Baptist and Nellie was a devout Methodist. In the 19 years that they were married they never attended Church together. John loved to farm and Nellie hated it. Nellie loved to crochet and John thought it was a waste of time.

11 months after I was born my parents moved my sister and I to Arizona for health reasons. My Grandfather made a few trips to Arizona to visit and I really looked forward to his visits. I remember one time when I was about 9 years old; we took him to Nogales, Mexico.  John was a generous man and he had a big heart. He was very shaken by the poverty that he saw. He was especially concerned for all the poor children who begged for money or who tried to sell “Chiclets” to the tourists. As we were walking down the main street he pulled out his wallet and began to give dollar bills to 5 children who were selling gum. This was in 1964 so a dollar was a lot of money, especially in Mexico. The next thing we knew we were surrounded by about 20 children who were trying to get some of the money. They had trapped us in a circle and we couldn’t move. A man from a nearby shop came out, grabbed John and pulled him into the shop. The children all ran off. The man told John that his generosity was admirable but most of those children were crooks and that they would have stolen his wallet or worse.

In 1967 my family moved back to Missouri and we rented a home in Oak Grove just 8 blocks from John and Nellie. I would go over to their home after school and my Grandfather would take me outside to his garden and orchards and we would pick vegetables or fruit. He taught me a lot about growing things. He was very proud of everything I did in school. He never missed a concert or program I was in.

At the age of 85 John stood straight as an arrow. He had never been ill in his life and he was still hand digging all the graves for the surrounding cemeteries. He took care of his little “urban” farm and orchards and his chickens, pigs and cows without any ones  help . He continued to make cabinets for the homes in Oak Grove.

On June 19, 1968 John was outside mowing the yard. He had an old push mower and he handled it with skill. He had gone to the doctors the week before and for the first time in his life he had to take medicine for allergies. He hated taking them because they made him sleepy. Nellie came outside with his medicine and a glass of water and tried to get him to take it. He refused. My Aunt Mae was standing in the doorway and she told us what happened next. “Nellie got mad and started yelling at John. John kept shaking his head no and suddenly Nellie reached out and shoved John. He then fell backwards over the push mower and broke his neck!” He was rushed to the hospital in Independence Missouri where he died 6 days later. When the police came around asking questions my Aunt never told them what happened.

Grandpas HSI guess we will never know if it was intentional or just an accident. What I do know is that I lost the only Grandparent I ever knew and a very loving, kind, intelligent man that day.




I am a professional genealogist, writer, photographer, crafter, reader, wife, mother, and grandma. I have two books available on Your Family History: Doing It Right the First Time and Planning Your Genealogy Research Trip. You can also connect with me via Facebook or Twitter.


8 thoughts on “John Pleasant Smith Sr – Was His Death an Accident or Murder?

  1. Surely it was an accident, says my mind first. But then I wonder why Aunt Mae didn’t speak up. Perhaps only because it would create doubt and expose the family to scandal.

    1. Ruth,

      That is kinda how I was thinking. One thing I didn’t mention was that my Grandma inherited everything. She sold it all real quickly. She actually lived to be 102 years old!


      1. I’m confused about who your grandmother is…
        I thought she died, and your grandfather remarried.

      2. Sorry my Grandmother did die when my Mom was 2. This was his 3rd wife but since we did not know any other Grandmother we just called her (Nellie) Grandma. I know confusing.

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