The Legend of Slagle's Mill
A Collection by Mary Saale
November 26, 1979
II. Sources of Information
III. Transcripts of Interviews
IV. Author's Analysis
The Legend of Slagle's Mill has been part of Livingston County folklore for more than one hundred years. According to the History of Caldwell and Livingston County (1886), Joseph Slagle was born in Augusta County, Virginia, September 26, 1810. He was the youngest of twelve children of George Slagle, who owned considerable property, operated a mill and ran a distillery. Joseph "succeeded in acquiring an education by no means limited." He attended Charlottesville College to study for the ministry.
Joseph Slagle came to Missouri in 1839 and sold goods at Cox's Mill, which he bought soon afterward. The mill was on Medicine Creek, then the only water mill in Northwest Missouri. In 1846 he was elected to the official bench of the county and was also justice of the peace for many years. He was one of the largest property holders in the county, having in his possession some 1,400 acres of land. This county history states that Joseph Slagle has been married five times. First, on January 27, 1832 to Catherine Long of Ohio, who died July 6, 1841, leaving a son, Columbus Genoa. He married Miss Catherine Stone of West Virginia on November 22, 1843, but she died August 24, 1844. His third marriage took place May 5, 1845 to Miss Sarah Littlepage, who died in September, 1846, leaving a daughter, Susan Catherine. He married his fourth wife, Miss Crawford of Illinois in 1848. She died in 1849. He was married a fifth time to Mrs. Lottie P. Ellis of Indiana in 1869. One son resulted from that marriage--Joseph Lee Slagle.
This history of Caldwell and Livingston County was published in 1886 by the St. Louis National Historical Company from "the most authentic official and private sources." It contains an account of the first homicide in Livingston County--the killing of Benjamin Collins by Joseph Slagle. This occurred April 19, 1853 when Slagle was married to Elizabeth Crawford, who was a half sister of Benjamin Collins. Collins at this time lived in Quincy, Illinois, where "he was connected with a 'negro show,' and led a low disreputable life generally...he was regarded as a malicious, evil-disposed person, of a quarrelsome nature, especially when intoxicated, as was frequently the case."
When Collins heard that his half sister married Slagle, he "flew into a great passion, and swore that he was coming 'right over to Missouri and kill Slagle.'" Collins seemed incensed against Slagle because the latter had been married twice before marrying his sister, and because he was somewhat older than she was. Collins uttered threats against Slagle, "declaring he had killed his first two wives, and 'he shan't live to kill my sister.'"
On the morning of April 19, Collins left a boarding house near Chillicothe and started in town with Thomas Gilkison. Collins was unarmed. That same morning Slagle started from home to hunt for one of his cattle that had strayed. He was on horseback and carried a double-barreled gun. He soon overtook Collins and Gilkison. Mr. Gilkison testified to the following:
We had got but a short distance from Mrs. Sapp's house till we seen Mr. Slagle. This man that got killed remarked to me, "Will he shoot?" I told the man that I did not think he would shoot if he met him friendly. When he met Mr. Slagle he spoke and bid him "good morning," Mr. Slagle bid him "good morning." Collins asked Mr. Slagle: "How do you come on." Mr. Slagle's reply was: "Ben, my life has been at stake long enough." As he spoke these two words he cocked his gun and shot. As he did not kill him the first shot, he shot again; the last shot killed him dead on the ground.
Gilkison also said that after Slagle had killed Collins, "he seemed greatly affected, 'shedding tears' and declaring 'I would not have done it, but I had to. I would as soon have shot my own brother.'"
Slagle surrendered himself and was indicted by the grand jury. He was acquitted, "the jury believing from the evidence, as did a majority of the community, that he had killed Collins from motives altogether proper and justifiable."
There is a major discrepancy in some of this information. First of all the
"Miss Crawford" he married in 1848 died in 1849, so she could not have
been around in 1853 when Joseph Slagle killed Benjamin Collins. Some people
believe (as will be shown later in the informant text of Eunice White) that
Collins came to Missouri to take revenge on Slagle because Slagle had married
the sister (Elizabeth Crawford) of his dead wife. Collins was afraid that this
other half sister, Elizabeth, would be killed by Joseph Slagle as her sister
supposedly had been. If this is indeed true Joseph Slagle would have had six
II. Sources of Information
(1) Mrs. Russel (Eunice Inman) White, Chillicothe, Missouri.
Mrs. White is 74 years old and is from an English and German background. She
lived on the Slagle farm, 8 miles northeast of Chillicothe. Her grandfather
bought the farm from Joseph Slagle. She attended the Slagle School, a small
country school not too far from the farm. She graduated from Chillicothe High
School and from Northeast Missouri State at Kirksville. She is a retired teacher
and principal. She is a member of the United Methodist Church.
Mrs. White seemed to be a sincere person with a great love for the farm that was her childhood home. I sensed an urgency in her to defend Joseph Slagle, contrary to common beliefs about his character. She seemed to be a very meticulous woman, as was evident by the way she talked and kept her home.
I talked with Mrs. White in a sort of question/answer session, and she would add anything she thought would be of interest to me. Her home was very comfortable, and we both sat on the sofa in front of a big bay window that overlooks a neighborhood park. It was a rainy day and she had a fire in the fireplace. I talked with her at 2:30 in the afternoon, and I used a tape recorder to get pertinent details. The conversation lasted about an hour. Mrs. White's attitude about the legend was one of disbelief and she strongly supported Joseph Slagle as a good pioneer.
(2) Mr. Howard Wray Leech Chillicothe, Missouri.
Mr. Leech is 85 years old and is from English descent. He moved to Chillicothe in 1941 from Ohio, where his father was a farmer. He graduated from Maryville Teacher's College in Maryville, Missouri. He received his masters from the University of Missouri at Columbia. He is a retired teacher and former county superintendent of schools. He is a member of the United Methodist Church.
Mr. Leech. . . . takes a great interest in the local history. Based on my observation, Mr. Leech seemed to have a keen mind and a lively spirit. He first heard the legend of Slagle's Mill when he moved to Chillicothe, and he thinks the legend has some truth to it.
I talked with Mr. Leech in the kitchen of this home, while his wife listened to our conversation and added details she had heard. I used the interview technique, and used a tape recorder to get items that pertained to my collection. I talked with Mr. Leech at 1:45 in the afternoon for 45 minutes. He had a humorous belief in the legend and was certain that a man could get away with killing his wives back in the early days of Chillicothe.
(3) Mrs. Howard (Emelia) Leech, Chillicothe, Missouri.
Mrs. Leech is 80 years old and is from German descent, with her parents moved
from Germany to Iowa. She has her B.S. from the University of Iowa. She is a
retired teacher. She belongs to the United Methodist Church. In talking with Mr.
Leech, Mrs. Leech listened to our conversation and added what she had heard over
the years concerning the legend. She, too, was sharp witted, and took a great
interest in the subject. She firmly believed that Mr. Slagle was a treacherous
man and firmly stood by her beliefs.
(4) Mrs. Bill (Grace Gilbert) Martin, Chillicothe, Missouri.
Mrs. Martin is 80 years old and is of English ancestry. She attended Slagle school and Chillicothe High School and also did extension work toward college credit through the county superintendent's office. She is a retired teacher and a member of the United Methodist Church. Mrs. Martin lived on a farm across the road from the Slagle Mill and farm.
I interviewed Mrs. Martin in the living room of her dark, older home. Her husband and one of his friends were carrying on a conversation in the next room. I talked with her at 1:30 in the afternoon for about an hour.
Mrs. Martin, having lived in the neighborhood of Slagle's Mill, had heard most of the tales surrounding the legend. Although only a child at the time Mr. Slagle was living, she heard first hand stories from her brothers, sister, parents and grandparents who were acquainted with Mr. Slagle. Mrs. Martin believed every story she heard about the deeds of Mr. Slagle, although she admitted that parts of the stories might be stretching the truth, she became very excited when she related them to me, as if the events happened only yesterday.
(5) Mr. Leo Hopper, Chillicothe, Missouri.
Mr. Hopper is 71 years old and is of English and Irish ancestry. He graduated from Chula High School in Chula, Missouri, which is a small town about 15 miles northeast of Chillicothe. He received a B.S. in Agriculture from the University of Missouri at Columbia. He now owns the Slagle farm, which includes the mill site and the cemetery. He belongs to the United Methodist Church.
Mr. Hopper is immensely interested in local history, especially cemeteries. He had done some research on the Slagle family, the mill and the cemetery.
I talked with Mr. Hopper in my home from about 7 to 9 in the evening. My
mother listened in on the conversation. Mr. Hopper had a keen interest in the
subject but he was more interested in historical facts surrounding the mill, the
cemetery and Joseph Slagle. He was humored by the stories surrounding the
legend, but was reluctant to put full faith in them. I used a tape recorder to
capture the added details he had collected in his research.
(6) Ruth Elizabeth Saale, Chillicothe, Missouri.
Ruth is 17 years old and is from German and French descent. She is a senior
at Chillicothe High School, and plans to attend the University of Missouri at
Columbia. She attends St. Columban's Catholic Church.
I interviewed Ruth in our home while she was working on her homework. It was 1:30 in the afternoon. Ruth has always been interested in the legend of Slagle's Mill since she first heard it in a Girl Scout folklore badge meeting. She had visited the area both in the daytime and at night, and seems to think there is a great deal of validity in the legend. Our conversation lasted about 30 minutes, and she was very willing to relate all she had heard concerning Slagle's Mill. I used a tape recorder to obtain the information I needed from her.
(7) Rebecca Sue Pyrtle, Chula, Missouri.
Becky is 20 years old and is from English descent. She graduated from
Chillicothe High School and attended Missouri Western State College in St.
Joseph. She is a member of First Baptist Church.
I talked with Becky when she came to visit me during Thanksgiving holidays. During the course of our conversation, I asked her what she might have heard concerning the legend. She related what she had heard to me, with the belief that most of what her parents and grandparents had told her was true. She lives on a farm not far from the Slagle Mill and farm. She is a very serious and religious individual.
While I talked to her we watched parts of a college football game. My younger sister and brother were also in the room. I wrote down what she told me, since I just asked her direct questions, and she gave direct responses.
(8) Mary Ann Saale, Chillicothe, Missouri.
I am 20 years old and of French and German descent. I graduated from Chillicothe High School and am a junior at the University of Missouri at Columbia. I attend the Catholic Church.
I first heard of Slagle's Mill when I was in junior high. My schoolmates would talk about what a dreadful man Mr. Slagle was (except we called him Mr. Slago, and talked of the legend of Slago Mill). We compared him to Bluebeard and conjured up stories of him burying wives in his cellar. I had been out to the cemetery a few times with my parents, and it seemed to have a certain magical air about it. There is also an old covered bridge out by there, which made the place seem all the more spooky. The bridge was very old and rickety, and has been restored in the last few years.
I heard that Mr. Slagle had eight wives, just like Henry the Eighth. Among my
friends, we said that he poisoned a few, drowned one, choked one, hung one,
ground one in the mill, and pushed one down the stairs.
III. Transcripts of Interviews
(1) Mary: When did you first hear of Joseph Slagle?
Howard: When we moved to Chillicothe in 1941.
(2) Mary: Do you remember who told you about Joseph Slagle?
Howard: At various times as I got acquainted with people in that area out there, they would be talking about Mr. Slagle and his business and the kind of a life he lived and his wives.
(3) Mary: Do you know how many wives Mr. Slagle had?
Howard: Eight of them are buried out there and the last one refused to be buried out there. (Amelia nods her head) The last one, I don't know how she managed it, evidently she had it understood before she passed away that she did not want to be buried out there. (Informant places a big emphasis on "not")
(4) Mary: What did you hear about Joseph Slagle's character?
Howard: He was quite a guy. Our history books rate him very high as a citizen, but this one thing where he killed this man kind of puts question mark in my mind about Mr. Slagle.
Amelia: Somebody was fooling with one of his young wives.
(5) Mary: If he had this reputation, how did he get women to marry him?
Howard: This is the story that I got somewhere,..from some of the people in that area out there where he got his wives. See, this was a crossing of the river there where he had his mill and that was on the trail of people going west from Indiana and Ohio and Illinois, and they would have these young ladies in their personnel of people that were making this trip and ... that was his source of supplies for his wives--those young ladies in those caravans that were going west.
(6) Mary: Would you say there was some variation in the number of wives there were?
Howard: Yes, I would say there was some variation.
(7) Mary: Where did you hear these variations?
Howard: I call it sidewalk talk just as I've met people.
Amelia: His wives' gravestones are marked consort, not wife.
(1) Mary: Where did you hear the stories of Slagle's Mill?
Eunice: Having been born into it, I heard it all my life.
(2) Mary: Are you familiar with the cemetery?
Eunice: Of course. We went by the cemetery about every day to get our mail. My mother would walk with us in the cemetery and she would never let us walk on a grave. You just didn't then.
(3) Mary: What did you hear about Mr. Slagle's character?
Eunice: I think the reason he was thought to be such a horrible man was because his wives died in such a short period. Prenatal and Postnatal care was certainly nil. These young wives probably had their babies born without benefit of a doctor at all, because it was eight miles out from any doctor. They simply died in childbirth. After four of them died, gossip started.
(4) Mary: How many wives' graves are in the cemetery?
Eunice: I think the reason some people think he had seven wives...he had some little daughters born right along there and you could count seven women's names and they thought they were all wives, but they weren't. The fifth wife wasn't buried there.
(5) Mary: What did your grandparents tell you about Mr. Slagle?
Eunice: My Great-Grandfather Wilson on my mother's side was a friend of Mr. Slagle's and my great-grandfather would say that he would be walking with Mr. Slagle, say cutting across the pasture and Mr. Slagle would look back and say, "See, there she comes, there's that ghost."
(6) Mary: And your grandmother?
Eunice: At that time my grandmother said he was an awful man. He was just a terrible man. And he was so feared that my mother would say he could hang his gold watch on a tree limb, hanging over the roadside, and nobody would ever touch it because they were so afraid of him.
(7) Mary: He owned a gold watch? Was he wealthy?
Eunice: Of course. There's supposed to be a pot of gold buried on the place. He buried a pot of gold. He didn't believe in banks.
(8) Mary: Did anyone ever find the treasure?
Eunice: Even as a child I remember people would come from far and near and ask my father if they could dig for the pot of gold... It was never found.
(9) Mary: Did you hear anyone say how Mr. Slagle killed his wives?
Eunice: I remember saying to my mother, "Well if he killed his wives, well how did he kill them?" She's say that he poisoned them or choked them. I'd rather think he worked them to death if he did it because life was so hard then.
(10)Mary: Did you hear any variation in the number of wives he had?
Eunice: You always heard that there were seven wives and usually people would insist there were seven.
(11)Mary: I think I read he was away from this area for about twenty years. Had you heard anything about that?
Eunice: Mr. Slagle was away from here for twenty years after his fourth wife died. The Civil War was over and he was doing freighting from this part to the west... When he brought his fifth wife back he walked in the cemetery with her and he said to her, "Now this is where you'll be buried." and she said, "No, I won't, but you will."
(12)Mary: Was there anything unusual about the cemetery?
Eunice: Each wife had her own little headstone and then there was the big main headstone with all the information on it--when he married the wife and when she died and all. At the base of his headstone was the inscription "After life's fitful fever he sleeps well." That's taken from Macbeth.
(13)Mary: Did you hear how he got his wives?
Eunice: I was told that when he lost a wife he would always go back to Ohio for his next wife. He didn't marry into the young women around here. This comes from my mother and grandmother. (informant pauses)
Eunice: In on case he married his wife's sister and there's where the shooting came in. He must have been quite a Beau Brummell. I don't think he had any trouble finding another wife. And he certainly didn't wait long after one wife died.
(14)Mary: Do you know how many children he had?
Eunice: Since the wives died within the first year of their marriage, there couldn't have been many children. I can't think he had more than six children at the most.
(15)Mary: You said you used to play in the cemetery a lot?
Eunice: Yes, when I was a child living out there. We certainly were not allowed to walk on any of the graves in the cemetery or pick a flower. That was for the dead. (Informant becomes grave.) When we went to get our mail we went past the cemetery as I've said. But if we played around and forgot to get the mail and then when dad came in for the evening and wanted his mail and it wasn't there, he made us go for it after dark. In the day it seemed like a calm, pretty place, and yet when we'd go for the mail after dark, we'd just run like mad...because the cemetery seemed so awesome.
(16)Mary: Did you hear people in town talk about the cemetery being haunted?
Eunice: Yes. Ten years ago, I was at the Mary Kay Beauty Shop and a customer was all excited and told me that she and her boyfriend or husband, I can't remember, went out one evening to see the cemetery and they were sitting there parked and it was a warm evening and they had the windows rolled down and she was leaning back towards her car door and they were talking and all at once she felt some unseen hands come into the window and go around her neck like this (Informant demonstrates) and then in a little while he felt a hand on his side come in around his neck and they just knew it was haunted.
(17)Mary: Were there other people buried there besides the Slagle family?
Eunice: Yes, there were graves of some children who died tragic deaths. There was a grave of a little girl-- her name was Edna. My mother said that her mother threw a stick of stove wood at her and killed her. (Informant's face becomes very serious) And then here were three little brothers from a poor family.The brothers had pneumonia and they were just getting over it when their father came home drunk from town in a fit of rage, and he drove the little boys out in the snow and the cold and they died of pneumonia.
(1) Mary: Your sister saw Mr. Slagle? (When I had talked to the informant earlier to set up an interview she told me this.)
Grace: My sister is ten years older than me and she came back home one day and said she and my brother were walking down the road and here come Mr. Slagle in that buckboard and those ponies (Informant becomes excited) and they always told that there lay his gun down in the bed of the wagon.
(2) Mary: Did your parents tell you anything about Mr. Slagle?
Grace: They say he had a very bad temper. If something didn't suit him he got mad. That goes to show what type of character he was. He got mad at that Collins and shot him. And then they tell that he poisoned his wife because she didn't do to suit him.
(3) Mary: So they say he poisoned one of those wives?
Grace: Yes, they say he poisoned one of those wives. He had five wives and he went east to get another wife that he thought would be superior to anybody around here, and she just didn't do to suit him and they told that he poisoned her.
(4) Mary: So you lived on the farm across the road from the Slagle Mill and farm?
Grace: Yes. My grandfather took wheat to the Slagle mill to have it ground. But other than that we didn't associate with him. We stayed out of his way. My, I played in the cemetery many a day, though.
(5) Mary: Was it well kept?
Grace: Yes, Mr. Slagle saw to that. And he put small headmarkers with each one of his wives names on it and their date of birth and everything of the kind. And then he had one big stone with Slagle, the family name on it (Informant pauses) If Mr. Slagle liked you he was good hearted. He had a quick temper but he was good hearted and if some child would die, say of whooping cough, well, poor people what were they going to do but take him up and bury him in Slagle cemetery.
(6) Mary: Did you ever think the cemetery was haunted?
Grace: Well, I tell you about the haunted story. This is a story my old uncle and my father laughed about so much. It got around that it was haunted. There were two men that went quail huntin and as they went along they killed quite a lot. By that time they had come to the cemetery. They said there was a fence around the cemetery to keep anything like the Mormons and the like of that out of the cemetery. The man said let's just put what we've accumulated because it's heavy inside of the cemetery and get it on our way back and they went on looking for a deerlick and they was just moseying, thinking about another day's hunting, but they went on and all the game that they come home with was a couple more quail. So when they come back to the cemetery it was getting night and so they laid their two quail down just outside and said now let's go inside and divide the quail between them and so they sat down...It was getting kind of dark. Well, I got a little ahead of my story. But ti had been rumored around that the cemetery was haunted and that after it got dark that there was evil spirits and ghosts and everything like that up at the cemetery. So there was a couple of boys, I don't know who they were but one of them was pretty good size and he said lets just go up to the cemetery one night when it's pretty dark and see. Well, it happened to be the night when these men was in the cemetery with these quail. And they was there dividing them and like I said instead of saying we've got ten--you take five and I take five--he said let's just divide 'em--you take one and I'll take one and you take one and I'll take one. And the boys about this time came up and heard them say this and then the man said and then we'll go outside of the gate and get the other two. Well, they thought it meant them. So he said "Oh, Charlie," he said, "Run, run. That they was coming. They thought that was ghosts in the cemetery a talking and was going to come out and get them and he said, "Well run, Charlie, run," he said, "if you can't run get out of the way so I can run." Well, these boys went home and told their folks what they heard now. And they said that the devil and the good Lord was up there dividing the souls in the cemetery and they was ready to come out and get them.
(7) Mary: How do you think he persuaded all these women to marry him?
Grace: I don't think he was very attractive. He wasn't that type. They say he didn't have but one arm.
(1) Mary: What did you hear about Mr. Slagle's character?
Leo: After Slagle was running the mill, this Mr. Wade, he had Way's Foundry, come down that way one evening..He was moving, had his goods in a covered wagon, and he wanted to cross the bridge and come on to Chillicothe, but Joseph Slagle didn't know him and wouldn't let him cross, made him camp over on the east side till the next morning.
(2) Mary: Did you hear anything about his physical characteristics?
Leo: Yes, he had only one arm. I don't know how he lost one arm or which one it was.
(3) Mary: Did you hear anything about his wives?
Leo: I have heard he had seven wives and he killed some of them, but they couldn't prove anything.
(4) Mary: Did you know there might be a pot of gold on your property?
Leo: (Informant chuckles) People would want to come out to the mill to dig to find some of his buried treasure. Nobody knows whether anybody found anything or not. Last year at the east corner of the cemetery there was was evidence someone was digging, probably still trying to find the treasure.
(5) Mary: Do you know any other tales about Mr. Slagle?
Leo: (Informant pauses) Yes, I do. Charley O'Hara's grandfather was acquainted with Mr. Slagle and he borrowed some money from him one time. He wanted to buy some cattle or something. He said Mr. Slagle was wearing a big coat and he just reached down into a pocket down there in the lining and pulled out a roll of money and loaned him some. He was a wealthy man in those days, and he didn't trust banks too much. When people would start talking the tales of how Mr. Slagle murdered a man and killed his wives, Mr. Fitzpatrick (O'Hara's grandfather) would defend him.
(1) Mary: How many wives did you hear Mr. Slagle had?
Ruth: I heard that he had eight wives.
(2) Mary: Did anyone say how he killed them?
Ruth: Yes. At school people said that he hanged them.
(3) Mary: Did you hear the cemetery was haunted?
Ruth: Yes. On Friday the thirteenth you were supposed to go out to the cemetery and knock on his grave and he's supposed to knock back.
(4) Mary: Have you ever been out to the cemetery?
Ruth: One night I went out there with some friends because we heard his wives came out of their graves and walked around the cemetery weeping. The cemetery was pretty grown up with brush and it was real dark that night. We walked to the gate all of a sudden we saw the brush moving on the other side of the cemetery. We didn't wait around to see what is was. It could have been some sort of animal, but if it wasn't we didn't want to mess around with the dead.
(1) Mary: How many wives did you hear Joseph Slagle had?
Becky: My mom and grandma always said he had eight.
(2) Mary: Did they say how he killed them?
Becky: They said he hung one, choked one, pushed one down the stairs and
poisoned all the rest.
IV. Author's Analysis
The legend of Slagle's Mill fits the general category of legend because it is set in the historical past, and it has humans in its major roles. Specifically though, Slagle's Mill is a local historical legend. Even though the subject of the legend died in 1895, people who are over age 70 can still remember the most pertinent information surrounding the legend.
Another interesting comparison can be made concerning the informants. Five out of eight of them are of the Methodist religion. Since there is only one Methodist church in Chillicothe, perhaps this legend was discussed most widely among people of this religion. Church dinners, bazaars, and other gatherings could have been the basis for its dissemination.
Three of the five Methodist people lived in the Slagle Mill area, making them quite familiar with the stories that circulated about Joseph Slagle. These three informants could have prompted the circulation of the legend among their Methodist counterparts. This dissemination would explain why Howard and Amelia Leech are familiar with legend even though they are not originally from Chillicothe. In addition, these five people know each other very well, and are all extremely interested in local history.
All five of these people who attend the Methodist church have a college education. A college education was much more difficult to acquire fifty years ago, especially if one is from
a small rural community. This reveals something about these individuals--they had a lot of determination and a desire to further themselves intellectually. Therefore, I believe they were a reliable source of information. Equally important, they tended to analyze the legend themselves and pull out what they believed was valid.
The other three informants were aged twenty or under represented the younger generation. It is obvious, as is true with most legends, that the details surrounding the event have been exaggerated. Because I was familiar with the typical pattern that most folklore followed, I expected my collection to follow this pattern of an incident starting out small and gradually, through word of mouth, growing beyond all proportions. In the older people's interviews, the reasons for the deaths of Joseph Slagle's wives was speculated, but the reasons were never really substantiated. The interviews of the younger people, though, show that a reason for each wife's death has been formulated.
I think the reason that the number of wives Joseph Slagle had has grown over the years is because people had a set way in their mind of how he murdered one or two of his wives. When two or more people were talking about this legend, one person might say, "Well, I heard he poisoned a few," to be joined with another claiming, "Well, I heard he choked one," and so the story expanded to accommodate the growing ways of murdering a wife.
Moreover, I believe that the reason this legend was started was because people in this area were afraid and possibly jealous of a man that had considerable wealth and power in their community. These people needed a device to dispel their apprehensions about a man who always carried a gun and was most capable of making use of it on anyone who threatened him, like Benjamin Collins, for example.
Security and abiding by the law were often much more lax a hundred years ago than they are today. It was difficult for a young community to establish laws to the point that people would obey them. I think a man, especially since he lived on a farm that was somewhat isolated from the rest of the community, could have murdered both another man and some of his wives and escaped just punishment under the law. This is evident by Joseph Slagle's acquittal for the murder of Benjamin Collins.
In addition to lax enforcement of the law, a woman's position in the 1800's was not at all what it is today. Women filled their widely accepted role as child bearer and mother, nurse and servant and probably last in line, companion. A higher mortality rate of pioneer wives in the 1800's is evidence that the women worked hard not only a domestic chores, but also at some of the same farm labors their husband did. It wouldn't have seemed that uncommon for a man to have to marry again, but marrying five, six or seven times would have been something to gossip about. Since women took the back seat to men society wise, the unsuspected death of a woman, especially if she wasn't from around the community, wouldn't have moved people to take legal action against Mr. Slagle when there was not blatant evidence against him.
I think the reason the haunted cemetery was added to the legend was because people needed to keep this legend alive after Joseph Slagle died. It would be difficult to erase the man's influence on the community and the people's anxiety as a result of his behavior, so the legend was perpetuated after his death. Thus, the belief that the cemetery was haunted filled the void people in the community felt as a result of his death.
In a culture or environment such as the early years in a small rural community, there weren't the activities that a larger settlement could provide. There weren't any plays being produced at theaters or libraries in which to obtain reading materials. All that most of these people had to occupy their time was their work on their farms. Because of this, people in the Chillicothe area created the legend of Slagle's Mill as one part of the folklore of the area which occupied what little leisure time they had.
Since books were scarce and the illiteracy rate high, people circulated local events by word of mouth. This spreading of information is analogous to the dissemination of rumors. Each time a person told his neighbor or family member a story about Joseph Slagle, the storyteller changed a part of the report when telling it to another to make it more interesting to the listener and in turn make the storyteller seem more important.
In repeating the legend time after time, people thought they were doing some sort of justice to Joseph Slagle for his treacherous deeds. It was as if he would suffer more in his grave or have unrestful peace if people could keep memories of his deeds alive through their children, grandchildren, and new people in the community. Moreover, maybe the fact that he had just one arm dismayed some people. Handicapped people weren't as widely accepted as they are today. People thought that handicapped people, because they weren't normal in all ways, were somehow a work of the devil. This belief was widespread because science and medicine were still backward, and people in the culture of the 1800's were not ready to abandon their old practices and beliefs for those of a new way of living.