Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened August, 1984
Oral History Interview with
April 19, 1984
by Niel M. Johnson
JOHNSON: Mr. Slaughter, would you tell me when and where you were born?
SLAUGHTER: I was born on our farm one mile south of Hickman Mills, on October 14, 1901. I was brought up on the farm and went to the local Hickman Mills schools.
JOHNSON: What are your parents' names?
SLAUGHTER: My father was Orlando Y. Slaughter, born in Jackson County, August 9, 1854. He was born over on the Rule farm, near an ice house in a valley.
JOHNSON: What was your mother's maiden name?
SLAUGHTER: My mother was Elizabeth Miller Havron,
born in Bedford, Indiana, in 1863.
JOHNSON: Can we have the names of your brothers and sisters?
SLAUGHTER: My oldest brother was Homer Havron Slaughter. He was born on the Hedges farm when father was renting it. He went to West Point and became a colonel. He was in Ekaterinburg the day after the Czar was murdered.
JOHNSON: Yes, it is in the book.* He was in Russia.
SLAUGHTER: The food was still on the table.
My second brother was "Doc" William Miller Slaughter. He was also born on the Hedges farm. He was an osteopath in Kansas City. My third brother, John Marion Slaughter, was born on the Raytown farm that my father had bought about 1887. They lived at Raytown until 1900 when Father sold the Raytown farm and bought the Hedges farm and moved back. Seth was born in Raytown too. He went to the University of Missouri one year, then to Culver-Stockton one year, then to Drake University
*Stephen S. Slaughter, History of a Missouri Farm Family: The O.V. Slaughters, 1700-1944. Harrison, N.Y. : Harbor Hill Books, 1978.
in Des Moines. After graduation from Drake he went to the University of Chicago and got a master's degree. He became a minister. My brother John bought the controlling interest in the Hickman Bank in Hickman Mills. He died in January 1961.
JOHNSON: Do you have any sisters?
SLAUGHTER: I'm getting to it. There were eight of us in the family. You have to work through the boys first. The first five were all boys. Minor was born in Raytown, graduated from the local schools, and went to the University of Missouri in engineering. He was in World War I. He died of TB in 1926 when thirty years old. Then there was my sister Ruth, the sixth child. Ruth was born in Raytown in 1898. She graduated from the University of Missouri and then went to New York to study music. She was a music teacher, and married Robert D. Barry.
I was next. I went to the local schools, to Hickman Mills and Ruskin. I went to New York,
to Columbia University in 1925. I thought I'd go into the academic world with a degree in history. I was offered a job teaching in Long Island University in the summer of 1929 and didn't take it. It never occurred to me that the Depression was coming on. When I tried to get a job in 1931-32, there were no jobs. You just don't understand if you haven't lived through that time. There were no jobs. In the meantime, I became interested in different things, in art and pictures. I went into photography.
I was a late bloomer. I gained these interests later. And I became interested in writing.
JOHNSON: Have you named all of your sisters?
SLAUGHTER: No, I've got another sister, a younger one, Eunice. She's in Arlington, Virginia. She was born in Hickman Mills. She went to Drake University one semester, and graduated from the University of Missouri. She taught school. She married Joseph A. Logan in 1943. Her husband died in September 1981. They had no children.
Eunice and I have no children,
JOHNSON: Have we named them all now?
SLAUGHTER: I've named them all; eight of them.
JOHNSON: Then you were the next to the last?
SLAUGHTER: Next to the last.
JOHNSON: Where did you go to school, grade school and high school.?
SLAUGHTER: I went to local schools, to Hickman Mills grade school and Ruskin high school. I got an A.B. from Drake University in Des Moines. I got a master's degree at Columbia University.
JOHNSON: In what field?
SLAUGHTER: It was American history but I never took American history classes at Columbia. I just took the exams. That was one problem actually. I took what I wanted -- sociology, economics, psychology...I wrote a thesis in American history, and took the exams. I became interested in the Reformation, in the lives of the Protestant sects. It was a segment
of the growing feeling for democracy actually, in local self-government, and the idea hasn't been developed fully even yet. But I became interested in it, and nobody else at Columbia was interested. I had been working on my own, and so that's another reason why I never finished my education.
JOHNSON: But you got a master's. When?
SLAUGHTER: I did get a master's. In 1928.
JOHNSON: Okay. Then what did you do after that? After you got your master's?
SLAUGHTER: I continued my work in history, and got whatever material I could. There was a lot of material at Union Theological Seminary, a certain section on the Reformation. I studied at the Harvard library one summer, and the New York Public, and Columbia library. I went over to England and studied at the British Museum, at the Records Office in London, and spent the winter, seven months, in Norwich, England. I studied Robert Browne, the father of Congregationalism. I took notes and came back.
And as I say, by that time the Depression was
on, and I needed some money. I just backed into photography; there was some money in it. There was a chance for a job. It was interesting. It's fascinating.
JOHNSON: When did you get into photography?
SLAUGHTER: There was no definite date; I don't know when I bought my camera. I stayed in New York. I had been in New York from 1925 on, for 57 years, until coming back here in 1982.
JOHNSON: So you came back to New York City?
SLAUGHTER: Yes. Twenty-five years in New York City, and 32 years in Tarrytown.
JOHNSON: So you got a job in photography in New York City?
SLAUGHTER: Yes. I worked for other people, and worked for myself. I did almost all the work for Columbia University; I did work for all the pictures of the Manhattan Project, identification pictures, and things of that sort.
JOHNSON: Do you mean the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb?
SLAUGHTER: Yes. Well, I had to take a picture of everybody that worked there at Columbia on this project. I took a lot of famous people, knew who they were.
JOH'N'SON: Now they were at different places. Did you go to the University of Chicago and work there too?
SLAUGHTER: No. They had a local unit there at Columbia, and I think all the pictures I took were in the Columbia buildings.
JOHNSON: And you wrote up the captions and commentaries, whatever for your photographs? Did you manage to do some writing with your photography?
SLAUGHTER: Not in connection with the photography. My writing was all outside that.
JOHNSON: You didn't do photo essays, for instance?
SLAUGHTER: I was just a photographer as far as they were concerned.
JOHNSON: I see. Were you free lance, or were you employed by the university when you were a photographer?
SLAUGHTER: They expected me to take the pictures but I had no contract with them.
JOHNSON: Is that right?
SLAUGHTER: Oh, no, I could refuse anytime.
JOHNSON: They just paid you for what you did do?
SLAUGHTER: I just knew them.
JOHNSON: You weren't on their payroll?
SLAUGHTER: No. Oh no.
JOHNSON: So you were free lance.
SLAUGHTER: I was free lance, sure.
JOHNSON: For how many years did you do that?
SLAUGHTER: Off and on until I went to Tarrytown in 1950. I don't know whether I kept my contact with Columbia, or whether I was more independent
at that time. I did a lot of writing you know.
JOHNSON: On the side?
SLAUGHTER: On the side, yes.
JOHNSON: And you had it published, some of it published?
SLAUGHTER: Some of it published, yes.
JOHNSON: In magazines?
SLAUGHTER: Yes, You know, anything that didn't pay me anything, I could get published without any trouble. But I sent only one article to The New Yorker, the only thing I ever sent, and they sent me a check for $200 for the thing.
JOHNSON: What year was that?
SLAUGHTER: I don't know; in the thirties.
JOHNSON: You didn't save the article?
SLAUGHTER: Yes, it's somewhere. I can find it.
JOHNSON: So you got published in The New Yorker.
JOHNSON: Well, that's a real honor.
SLAUGHTER: Well, I wrote very well. It wasn't that. It was what I was interested in writing most people weren't interested in. I would have been a writer, but the problem was making a living at it.
JOHNSON: What was the subject you liked to write about mostly? What was the subject you wrote about for The New Yorker?
SLAUGHTER: I don't know the year, but I was curious about that Navy yard, the Brooklyn Navy Yard. So I went over there one morning and just walked in. Nobody stopped me. You know, after I was there prowling around, I began talking to a fellow. He seemed to be footloose, and he began asking me questions. He found I didn't have a pass. He was an officer, and he took me up before the captain and they queried me. Finally, they turned me loose, and I wrote up that episode. I sent it in to The New Yorker. Well, of course, they were
interested in it, and they published it. But I never went back to the Navy yard.
Well, one of the comical things about it is that it was such a secret, and he told me all about that ship that they were building. I didn't know what ship it was, and he told me. It was a well-known ship, one of the important ships.
JOHNSON: Was it an aircraft carrier, or a battleship?
SLAUGHTER: I didn't know what it was. He told me it was the North Carolina, a big battleship.
JOHNSON: So you were there through the war years, in New York City, through the forties.
SLAUGHTER: Yes, I was there.
JOHNSON: And you probably were doing some photographic assignments related to the war effort, I suppose.
SLAUGHTER: No, I don't think so; it was just the Manhattan Project. Nobody knew what that was. The students at Columbia who had volunteered and were working in it -- they were scientists -- but they didn't
know what they were working on.
JOHNSON: They were in the physics department I suppose.
SLAUGHTER: The only thing I knew, I took a picture of Urey.
JOHNSON: Harold Urey?
SLAUGHTER: Yes, I knew that name, and then this fellow who was head of the whole thing.
JOHNSON: Groves, Leslie Groves.
SLAUGHTER: Groves! Got into an argument with Groves.
JOHNSON: What about?
SLAUGHTER: I think I belittled the Army someway.
JOHNSON: And he reacted?
SLAUGHTER: I think so. And I apologized.
JOHNSON: Okay, so then in 1950 you moved to Tarrytown, New York.
SLAUGHTER: Yes. I bought a photographic studio
JOHNSON: You did general photography.
SLAUGHTER: Did everything.
JOHNSON: Did you do weddings and that sort of thing?
SLAUGHTER: Yes, but I took portraits mostly, and commercial work. If somebody had an auto accident, they would call me. I'd go and take that. I d