Saturday, August 4, 2012

Deathbed Promises

Margaret Josephine with children: John Daniel, Jessie Adeline and Robert Franklin (sitting)

The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep.
      -Robert Frost

Until now, my maternal great-grandmother has only been remembered for the violent, horrific way she died.  In my quest to learn and share the stories of my family, I have discovered that it is how she lived that should be passed on as well.

She made two deathbed promises to her husband that changed her life.  But they also altered the destiny of her descendants.  It is this story that I want my brother, sisters and our children to know.

Margaret Josephine Phelps was an Alabama girl, born the second of 10 children.  Her father, Daniel served as a Sergeant in the Tennessee Regiment of the Confederate Army.  He was granted land by the government as a soldier-survivor of the Civil War.  Just like me and my siblings, Margaret grew up on a farm.

At age 20, Margaret met and fell deeply in love with Franklin Wakefield Peacock, 14 years her senior.  Franklin had been raised on a large plantation and loved working the land.  Like Margaret, his father had also served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. 

Franklin had been alone for almost 12 years, since the death of his first wife and baby during childbirth. He had  moved to Covington County to homestead 160 acres of woodland.  He became acquainted with Margaret’s parents and was soon introduced to their beautiful oldest daughter.

Franklin and Margaret were married on Christmas Day in 1890 at her parent’s home. It was said to be quite the soiree.  For the next few years, the two of them worked their land together. Three children joined their family;  their oldest son, John Daniel is my grandfather, Jessie Adeline and Robert Franklin.

It was late July 1898 when tragically, Margaret would lose her love.  She was forced to confront the reality that she was going to be left alone to raise three small children (7, 6 and 2) and run a large and demanding farm. Franklin’s health had been declining and now he was suffering. There was no real treatment (and certainly no cure) for Bright’s Disease, a term used then for kidney failure. 

In some of their last precious moments together, Margaret promised Franklin that she would NEVER remarry.   
Margaret would have several other suitors and opportunities to remarry; to make her life and the lives of her children easier. Even with the help of her family, she struggled. (My grandfather, John was forced to quit school after eighth grade to work full-time).

My mother wrote that the combination of hard-work, worry, stress and grief changed Margaret’s appearance and aged her prematurely.  My grandfather remembered many nights when his mother would disappear to walk the fields crying for Franklin.

Margaret Josephine kept her romantic pledge to her first and only love to the end.


It was her second promise that would forge a future she couldn’t have imagined, rippling through time and the lives of those who came after. It is the reason my parents would someday meet and marry in the desert.

During Franklin’s illness and decline, he had converted to the Mormon Church.  He was baptized on August 20, 1896.  Margaret joined the church eight months later and her parents and sisters were baptized shortly thereafter.  

This was not a popular decision among the “hard-shell” Southern Baptist community.  Since this new religion was neither established nor looked upon with particular favor, they were encouraged to move west to “Zion” to be among those who shared their faith.  This became their dream; to someday live among the saints in the west and to be near an LDS temple.

But Franklin knew he wasn’t going to live to see this dream realized.  And so he asked Margaret to promise that if possible, she would move west to be closer to the faith they had chosen together.  She should go somewhere near an LDS temple so she could finally participate in the rituals and ordinances of Mormonism. 

It took nearly 30 years, but Margaret Josephine was determined to keep her promise.  In the latter part of 1928, she moved across the country to settle in Mesa, Arizona.  My grandfather John and his wife Katie Mae followed in February of 1929. 
The 1930 census shows Margaret and her widowed sister, Mary Etta Manning, living together in Mesa, just a few blocks from the LDS Temple.   I just learned that Mary Etta died on April 11 of 1934, leaving Margaret alone again at 64.
Apparently on June 23 of that same year, Margaret was working in her garden when a ram (goat) charged at her, knocked her down and gored her to death. 

On her death certificate, the medical examiner reported extensive bruising on her head and chest. 

She must have been terrified.  I wonder if she screamed for help, or if she fought alone… or at all.  I don’t know how long she suffered or who found her, but it makes me sad to know this is how she met her end. 


I will always regret that I didn’t ask more questions about the Peacocks while my mother was here to answer them.  I am ashamed to admit how often discussing my own dramas seemed more interesting than listening to tales of dead relatives.

Nearly 2 1/2 years after Mom's death, I finally screwed up the courage to begin sifting through the contents of her study.  She left behind a treasure trove of notebooks, pictures, stories and poems. For whatever reason, she did not share many of them with us. But I believe she wanted to.

It's not too late.  See Mom, I am listening now.

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