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Behind the big themes, celebrated figures, and dry dates of history are the interesting stories of life in the past and ordinary people. Southeast Missouri has a varied and rich history that you often don’t hear about in history classes. Join Bill Eddleman of the State Historical Society of Missouri to hear about these stories with “Tales from Days Gone By.” Listen in on the second and fourth Thursday of the month during Morning Edition (7:45 a.m.) and All Things Considered (4:44 p.m.)

A Spanish-American War Veteran's Mysterious Death

Walker Leslie during his service in the Spanish-American War. The pine trees suggest this photo is from either Jacksonville, Florida or Savannah, Georgia.
Photo courtesy of Courtney Marquis.
Walker Leslie during his service in the Spanish-American War. The pine trees suggest this photo is from either Jacksonville, Florida or Savannah, Georgia.

Robert W. Leslie, who went by his middle name of Walker, was the oldest son of William H. and Mary Leslie of the Gravel Hill area in Cape Girardeau County near the Bollinger County line.

When the Spanish-American War began in 1898, the 22-year-old joined the 6th Missouri Infantry, Company I, and enrolled at Kennett on July 11, 1898. He mustered in at Jefferson Barracks on July 21 and was to serve two years unless mustered out. The 6th headed to Jacksonville, Florida, then to Savannah, Georgia three months later. The Spanish in Cuba had surrendered on July 17, but the Army still needed troops for various duties, so the 6th sailed for Havana on December 21.

The Cuban service of the 6th Missouri was uneventful. As the war effort wound down, the regiment departed Cuba on April 9, 1899. They mustered out in Savannah on May 10, and returned to St. Louis to the cheers of city residents. Walker left the service at the rank of Sergeant. Shortly after Walker mustered out, he found employment in June 1899 with a local farmer and businessman, John Devore. Sadly, much of what is known about Walker Leslie is the manner of his demise.

Walker headed into Whitewater near the Devore farm on September 22, 1900. City Marshall G. F. Buckhanon saw him at 4 or 5 p.m. Walker stopped and spoke with the Marshall and told him he had just purchased the fine saddle mare he was riding. After supper, Buckhanon went back to town and saw Walker and two or three others drinking and getting loud. He arrested Walker and one other man and took them to the jail. Once they sobered some, he released them around 9 p.m. J. F. Weisman, proprietor of a local restaurant and pool hall, testified that he had put Walker and 4 or 5 other men out and closed at 10 p.m.

The St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad line ran through Whitewater, bridging Whitewater River at the edge of town. Train Number 90 originated in Delta, Cape Girardeau County, leaving at 11:25 p.m. The engine entered Whitewater at 11:44 at a speed of about 18 to 19 miles an hour. The engineer noted an object on the track that he thought was a calf or sheep. When he got within 40 or 50 feet, he saw it was a man, shut down the engine and applied the brake. Stopping took about 5 or 6 car lengths. The crew got off and found the body of Walker Leslie about 20 feet from the north approach to the bridge. They estimated the engine dragged the body about 60 feet.

Three days later the county coroner convened an inquest. After hearing the evidence and nature of the injuries, the jury ruled that Walker Leslie met his death accidentally by being struck by the train.

There are lingering questions about Walker Leslie’s death. Three of the witnesses stated the body was “a little warm,” “quite cold,” or “too cool” by 12:20 a.m. This does not mesh with his time of death at about 11:45—only 35 minutes earlier. Walker’s family suspected he got into a fight, or someone robbed, beat, and left him unconscious or dead on the tracks. It is also possible he passed out or fell while walking over the bridge, struck his head, and suffered a fatal blow to the head.

Lacking modern forensic evidence, however, the exact manner of Walker Leslie’s death will never be known.

Bill Eddleman was born in Cape Girardeau, and is an 8th-generation Cape Countian. His first Missouri ancestor came to the state in 1802. He attended SEMO for two years before transferring to the University of Missouri to study Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. He stayed at Mizzou to earn a master of science in Fisheries and Wildlife, and continued studies in Wildlife Ecology at Oklahoma State University.