Finding branches of your family tree in someone else’s murder trial


During the two years I spent researching the story of Florence Knoblock’s murder and the subsequent investigation and criminal trials, I was astonished by the number of names I encountered. I expected to find details about Florence and her family, but I hadn’t really appreciated just how well I would get to know the people living in Pleasant Township, the city of Burlington, and the various people working for the courts and the law. One of the great advantages of researching a major historic murder case in a small town: because they don’t happen often, when they do, they’re big news. The local paper may add extra sheets to cover the details if the editor thinks he can make enough sales. As Sherwood Anderson wrote in his book, Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life, “The paper…had one policy. It strove to mention by name in each issue as many as possible of the inhabitants of the village.”

Let’s look at what this might mean for someone researching family history during a time period that coincides with the Florence Knoblock murder investigation.

Statements from possible witnesses

The Daily Republican included some early statements from various witnesses who might have seen a potential suspect. In addition to learning about what she saw, we learned that Mrs. E. E. Liggett worked at the Katy Store on West Neosho Street in Burlington and that she worked on Saturday mornings.

E. E. Liggett's statement, from "Deacon Stevens Claims He Was in Independence at the Time of the Murder," Daily Republican, June 2, 1925.

E. E. Liggett’s statement, from “Deacon Stevens Claims He Was in Independence at the Time of the Murder,” Daily Republican, June 2, 1925.

Law enforcement, medical personnel, and other officials

Sometimes when researching family members, we might find names and dates of major life events, but we don’t always know much about what those ancestors actually did for a living. Newspaper articles tell us the roles played by various official personnel. Imagine being able to understand exactly where your great-uncle-so-and-so was the afternoon of May 30, 1925. Here, we learn the names and roles of the sheriff, the coroner, the county attorney, the marshal, and a doctor.

From "Skull Crushed and Throat Cut--Mrs. Knoblock is Found by Her Husband Saturday Afternoon," Daily Republican, June 1, 1925.

From “Skull Crushed and Throat Cut–Mrs. Knoblock is Found by Her Husband Saturday Afternoon,” Daily Republican, June 1, 1925.

Possible suspects

Several different men are arrested during the investigation of the murder of Florence Knoblock. Because there was no apparent motive and no obvious suspects, anyone who was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time was likely to be arrested and questioned. For example, a man named Vance Fox cut through a farm field of William Strawn to shorten his walk home. After a manhunt involving a hundred people, he was taken into custody. A genealogist learned a lot about Vance Fox; where he lived, the fact that he was probably poor because he walked from Emporia to Strawn instead of taking the train or a car, and that he was healthy enough to make a 35-mile walk.

"Crowd Gathers in Response to Alarm Vance Fox Held," Daily Republican, June 6, 1925.

From “Crowd Gathers in Response to Alarm Vance Fox Held,” Daily Republican, June 6, 1925.

Subpoenaed witnesses

Both the Daily Republican and the Emporia Gazette printed lists of subpoenaed witnesses. In the case of State of Kansas v. John Knoblock, the number of witnesses would ultimately clear one hundred. Here is an excerpt from the list printed for the preliminary hearing. The genealogist will see names, family connections, and lots of people who lived in the same neighborhood.

Some of the witnesses subpoenaed for the preliminary hearing. From "Are Preparing for Hard Fight at Preliminary," Daily Republican, November 7, 1925.

From “Are Preparing for Hard Fight at Preliminary,” Daily Republican, November 7, 1925.

Prospective jurors

My favorite newspaper articles involved the jury selection process. Reporters John Redmond and Bill White listed every juror and every excuse they used to try to get out of jury duty. The genealogist might learn where their relatives live and work. They might learn that their ancestor was hard of hearing or was recovering from the flu, or that they can’t afford the financial burden of sitting on a trial instead of earning a living.

A sampling of the juror selection process from the first trial. From "Making Good Progress Toward Securing Jury to Try John Knoblock," January 12, 1926.

A sampling of the juror selection process from the first trial. From “Making Good Progress Toward Securing Jury to Try John Knoblock,” January 12, 1926.

A sampling of prospective jurors from the second trial. From "Accept Two Jurors," Emporia Gazette, May 6, 1926.

A sampling of prospective jurors from the second trial. From “Accept Two Jurors,” Emporia Gazette, May 6, 1926.

Reporting on other reporters

To emphasize how important the trial might be, reporters might take the time to mention other reporters and important citizens who are attending the trial as spectators. For example, John Redmond mentions a newspaper reporter and a magazine reporter present at the trial.

From "Notes on the Trial," Daily Republican, January 13, 1926.

From “Notes on the Trial,” Daily Republican, January 13, 1926.

Trial witnesses

We expect to see information about testimony from witnesses in newspaper articles about murder trials. Genealogists may also learn details about the witness: where he/she works, lives, who he/she associates with, and even what he/she looks like. Although the local reporter might not go into great detail about local folks, an out-of-town reporter will make the extra effort to describe how witnesses appear on the witness stand. For example, here are two descriptions of Coffey County woman Stella Menard, a witness called by the prosecution, as written by Emporia Gazette reporter Bill White:

From "Trial Slowing Up," Emporia Gazette, January 14, 1926.

From “Trial Slowing Up,” Emporia Gazette, January 14, 1926.

From "State Rests Tonight," Emporia Gazette, January 15, 1926.

From “State Rests Tonight,” Emporia Gazette, January 15, 1926.

As I read through the newspaper articles about the Florence Knoblock murder, investigation and trials, I was overwhelmed by the hundreds of names that appeared connected just to this story. The tough part for the genealogist is learning about the major trials that might have happened in an area where his or her ancestors lived, and then accessing those newspapers if they’re not already available online.

As part of my research, I created a giant spreadsheet of all of the names I encountered in just the newspaper articles. Although they don’t all turn up in Shadow on the Hill, I wanted to make the information easily available for anyone who might be researching family who lived in Coffey County and Lyon County between 1925 and 1926. It’s also a handy way to keep track of the several hundred people who do turn up in Shadow on the Hill. As you explore the database, think not only of the trial, but what it was like to be on that witness stand, or hoping to avoid jury duty, or being interviewed by the paper for something you saw. It’s an enlightening way to think about your ancestors–as regular human beings experiencing a moment in time.

For Readers and Genealogists: Names connected to the Knoblock murder investigation and trial

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6 thoughts on “Finding branches of your family tree in someone else’s murder trial

    1. Erin

      The reservoir was originally called Strawn Dam because the town of Strawn had to be moved for the dam. Later, it was renamed to John Redmond due to his dedication for flood control of the Neosho River. John Redmond was the owner of the Daily Republican newspaper (which is known today as the Coffey County Republican).

      Reply
      1. Diana Staresinic-Deane Post author

        Thanks so much for your answer, Erin! My reaction to learning John Redmond was the owner and editor of the Daily Republican was just like Rachel’s. “Oh, the reservoir guy!” I didn’t realize that the reservoir was originally named Strawn, though it makes sense.

    2. Diana Staresinic-Deane Post author

      I found the process of getting to know people living in Lyon and Coffey counties in 1925 and 1926 fascinating. I especially love the jury selection process – people back then were often as desperate to get out of jury duty as people are today.

      Erin got to the John Redmond question before I did. Thanks, Erin!

      Reply
  1. wm1104

    Hi, Ms. Diana! My name is Whitney. This might sound nuts, but several years ago, I bought a 1909 edition of a history of Kansas reader at an antique shop here in Texas because its owner had scribbled all sorts of oddball notes in its margins. I’m 99% sure that the previous owner was Ray Pierson. I was wondering if, in your research, you had come across Mr. Pierson’s family? I feel like this is something they’d really want to have. I know I would if it had belonged to my ancestor! In the book, Mr. Pierson wrote a nonsensical (sometimes fanciful) full-page obituary for himself that concludes with him coming back from the dead in 1898 (which a cursory Google search revealed to be Mr. Pierson’s year of birth), an apparent private name-change (he wrote “Razor Pierson” across the top of one page in stylized script), and the lyrics to a song called “Go Easy Mabel” that came out that year on the back page. If you happen to have come across any contact info for Mr. Pierson’s family, or if you could advise me on to how to acquire it, I’d be much obliged. I keep thinking about how much I’d want this book if it had belonged to my great-grandfather! Thanks, and have a great night!

    Reply
    1. Diana Staresinic-Deane Post author

      Sorry for the delay in my reply! Yes, there ARE still relatives of Ray Pierson around, because I remember meeting some of them at my events during the past year! I suggest contacting the Coffey County Historical Society and Museum. The staff members there are long-time natives and can probably point you to the right person (or at least someone who knows the right person). Their website is http://coffeymuseum.org/ — good luck! What a neat find!

      Reply

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