How would you feel if you caused the death of your wife? It’s unthinkable, but such a tragedy occurred in Curry County nearly 87 years ago.
Sometime on the Sunday night of Sept. 2, 1917, on a farm about 20 miles northwest of Clovis, a man walked up to the house of Rufus and Summerfield Duke, got their attention and said his car had run out of gas.
Rufus Duke was not one to refuse a neighbor or a stranger and he tried to help the man.
A lot of people considered Rufus Duke a stern man, but he was a good family man. He was 60 years old and, like a lot of other settlers, had weathered a lot of hard times, from his birth in Mississippi prior to the Civil War to his moves west through Texas and Oklahoma and finally to New Mexico in 1907.
He and his wife had seen three of their 10 children die as babies. The last, Bessie who was born in 1903, died before she was 2. A 15-year-old daughter, Mamie Lee, was the only child living at home with her parents on that fateful day in 1917.
Rufus Duke lit a lamp and went outside to his garage to get the traveler some gasoline. One story says he was siphoning the gas out of his car’s tank; another says it was a barrel. Either way, it’s clear the gas was being drained into a bucket with a hose.
It’s not clear who was holding the burning light, but somehow the gas in the bucket ignited.
Rufus Duke, holding the bucket, did the only thing reasonable: He flung the burning bucket of gas out the garage door.
At that same time, Summerfield Duke approached the garage. The bucket of flaming gas flew out the door and struck her in the chest. She and her clothes were instantly on fire. In shock and fright, she ran with her horrified husband running to catch her. He finally caught her and with his bare hand managed to smother the flames.
Mamie Duke soon went for help and both her parents were taken to the hospital in Clovis.
Mrs. Duke’s burns proved fatal within 24 hours.
Mr. Duke’s hands were badly burned. His burns, coupled with the grief of the loss of his wife, put him in a critical condition. He died after nine days.
In 1918, Mamie married George Ledbetter and they had five children: Marjorie, Dora, Aileen, Edmond and Bert. George was a brother of Charles Ledbetter, who was killed in World War I.
Haney Tate told me this tragic story several years ago.
The Duke place was two miles north and four miles west of Ranchvale school. It was sold in 1920 or 1921 and later, in 1926, another tragedy occurred in the house.
But that’s another story.
Don McAlavy is Curry County’s historian. He can be contacted at: