WWI in West Texas: The Tar and Feathering of a Texas Priest

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Tony Maples Photography


In 1917, Joseph M. Keller was a Catholic priest in Slaton, Texas. He also was a recent German immigrant. Back then, that was a problem. Anti-German sentiment was at a fever pitch in those days. The United States was about to enter World War I against Germany. Newspaper editorials frothed with anger. Slaton was a small town. Their sole Catholic church had only been established six years prior. Any priest would have had a rocky start there.

Unfortunately, Father Keller’s personality made matters worse. Keller was an outspoken man, condemning anti-German newspaper editorials from the pulpit. He enjoyed shocking people with his sermons.

Keller even hung a portrait of the Kaiser in his office. After the US officially entered the war, some of his parishioners convinced him to take it down. After a while, Keller realized his mistake. He tried to buy Liberty Bonds, but for some reason, he didn’t follow through on his payment promise, and the whole town knew about it.

Horrible rumors about Father Keller’s supposed adultery and lust started to travel through the community. One rumor even suggested that he was infected with syphilis. Some folks petitioned the Catholic Church to remove Keller from his position, alleging that the rumors were true. The Church looked into the accusations but found no evidence of wrongdoing. The local bishop essentially told the disgruntled parishioners to accept Father Keller.

WWI in West Texas: The Tar and Feathering of a Texas Priest

Photo: @N_Olechka via Twenty20

However, many of the locals refused. In 1919, after World War I was over, Father Keller applied for US citizenship. After making the trip from Slaton to Abilene, he discovered that other Slaton residents had also made the journey, just to ensure that Keller did NOT become a US citizen. Based on their testimony, Keller’s application was denied.

Keller’s relationship with the community worsened, aggravated by his church’s success. His congregation built a large church building in 1920, costing $10,000. This success alarmed locals with anti-German and Anti-Catholic viewpoints.

Finally, in 1922, a rumor circulated that Father Keller had broken the seals of confession. Some of the townspeople decided to take action.

On March 4th, Father Keller answered the door to find six masked men aiming pistols at him. One of the men fired a shot into the ceiling. Two cleaning women who were there at the time were forced to leave the room.

Keller was forced into the back of a car at gunpoint and taken to a remote field. There, the priest was met by another 15-20 people, all wearing masks. They dragged him from the car, whipped him about 20 times, and then covered him in blistering hot tar. After that, they ripped open some pillows and threw feathers at him.

The ordeal was excruciating. Keller was covered in burns. The gang lectured Keller on his supposed sins and then left. Before leaving, they told Keller that they weren’t KKK members. The gang considered themselves virtuous citizens of Slaton.

Afterwards, Keller was abandoned in the field with a warning to leave town by 12 noon the next day. The priest had to walk two miles back to town. He only had one shoe on. It’s amazing that he didn’t die.

WWI in West Texas: The Tar and Feathering of a Texas Priest

Photo: @Kat7 via Twenty20

According to some accounts, Father Keller had to walk almost naked through an ongoing street fair. Apparently, some eyewitnesses found that humorous. Keller got out of town the next morning, uncertain if he was going to be attacked again.

The constable launched an investigation. Keller had memorized some license plate numbers, but the cars were registered out of the county. So, the constable couldn’t do anything. No leads turned up.

A statement, supposedly written by the offenders, was read publicly at the local Protestant churches. The statement basically said that the tarring-and-feathering wasn’t directed at Catholics, or even Germans. It was merely Keller that offended the good citizens of Slaton. If the Bishop would pick someone else to lead the local church, the next priest almost certainly wouldn’t be assaulted by a vigilante mob.

Catholics in the area were offended by this. One group offered a $2500 reward for anyone who could give information about the crime. No one came forward.

Father Keller came close to dying a number of times. In Slaton, the local doctor removed as much tar as possible by using turpentine and scrubbing.

However, after he left Slaton, Father Keller was immediately sent to the hospital. His burns were extensive.

Finally, he slowly recovered at the Precious Blood Convent in Missouri. Father Keller was so terrified of his assailants that he insisted everyone call him “Father Hubert,” which was Keller’s middle name. The nuns who were treating him obliged.

His former parish forwarded his mail to the bishop of Texas, who placed it in an envelope addressed to “Father Hubert.”  This was to make sure that no one could find and harm Father Keller.

After a long recovery, Father Keller decided to preach again. The priest moved to Wisconsin and spoke to a congregation until he passed away at the age of 57. Damage from his burns shortened his life.

Many of his parishioners in Wisconsin knew that he was tarred-and-feathered in Texas. Father Keller wore long sleeves to hide his scars, but marks could still be seen from time-to-time.

His congregation didn’t care. They loved his matter-of-fact style, along with his thick German accent. He was buried at the Precious Blood Convent, where the sisters ministered to his wounds after that horrible incident.