APRIL 1, 2013
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Unsolved 1925 Kansas murder reexamined in new book, Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder
On Decoration Day in 1925, John Knoblock returned to his Kansas farm to find his wife, Florence, slaughtered on the kitchen floor. Within hours, dozens of lawmen, family members, well-meaning neighbors and gawkers paraded through the Knoblock farmstead, contaminating and destroying what little evidence was left behind. A small team of inexperienced lawmen, including a newly elected sheriff who had never run a murder investigation, attempted to reconstruct and solve the most gruesome murder in the history of Coffey County, Kansas.
What begins as the murder of a very private and somewhat sickly farmwife and mother turned into a multi-county fiasco. Two different pairs of bloodhounds were called in and pulled investigators in two different directions. Florence Knoblock’s family disobeyed the sheriff’s orders and scrubbed clean the crime scene before the investigation was complete. Fingers began to point in so many directions, neighbors saw everyone else as a potential suspect. In a county where many residents didn’t have locks to latch at night, women began to keep shotguns by their stoves to point at anyone who knocked on their doors.
With no obvious motive and no known enemies, Florence Knoblock’s murder caused an entire county to panic as man after man was arrested and then released. Desperate for a conviction, the law would arrest John Knoblock and try him twice before he was acquitted.
Then the story vanished from the headlines and the memories of all but the old-timers.
In 2007, Diana Staresinic-Deane, then a library assistant at Emporia Public Library in Emporia, Kansas, discovered an abandoned folder of newspaper clippings about the murder and trial. The dramatic headlines—“May have Murder: Burlington Awaits Report on Fingerprints,” and “Call Out a Posse: Burlington Thought Murderer was Captured, Night Ride Only to Find Weary Pedestrian”—were captivating. As someone who helped others research local history, Staresinic-Deane was fascinated.
“It was the kind of tragedy that shook an entire community,” Staresinic-Deane said. “I remember reading those clippings and thinking, ‘Why haven’t I heard of this?’”
What began as a curiosity turned into a mission to try to understand the murder case and the impact it had on the community. As she spent hours reading newspaper articles, courthouse documents, and interviewing descendants of the people involved, Staresinic-Deane heard a rumor that there may have been a witness who saw someone approach the Knoblock house that fateful morning.
“As I sifted through information, I realized there was a lot of evidence to substantiate that rumor,” Staresinic-Deane said. “In fact, I began to suspect that John Knoblock was tried not because there was enough evidence to convict him, but because the community desperately needed to feel like someone had paid for a crime that, months later, still had people on edge.”
The investigation stayed on the front page of several local newspapers for nearly a year. Two of Kansas’ most prominent reporters, William Lindsay White at the Emporia Gazette and John Redmond at the Burlington Republican, brought the story to life through colorful commentary and excruciating detail, amassing hundreds of pages of clippings between the first article announcing the murder and the last article announcing the outcome of the trial.
An awkward man, John Knoblock was known for his nervous ticks and twitches and uncomfortable demeanor. He was a somewhat simple homebody who preferred to stick close to family. With no better suspects and the public’s demand to hold someone accountable, the prosecution arrested and charged John Knoblock, a decision that would tear the community apart. His friends and family, including his late wife’s parents, were so confident in John Knoblock’s innocence that they mortgaged their farms to raise the $25,000 bond—more than $300,000 in today’s money.
Many who didn’t know him were just as sure of his guilt.
More than 100 people were subpoenaed for the biggest trial ever held in the courtrooms of Coffey County. Even as the trial generated excitement in the community, it was clear that there were problems with the prosecution’s case. Several key witnesses, including the coroner, vanished without a trace. Evidence that was to be presented at the trial disappeared. It would be revealed that the most important witness the prosecution presented—the man who claimed to know John Knoblock was having affairs with his wife’s sisters—admitted on the stand that the prosecution paid him for his testimony.
Hundreds of citizens packed the courthouse or stood on the courthouse lawn to listen to the courthouse proceedings. Reporters from around the state followed the trial from sunup to sundown, filling the pages of their hometown papers with notes from the trial.
After 18 votes, the county’s most expensive trial ended in a hung jury.
Undeterred, the prosecution pushed for a retrial. Realizing Knoblock could not get a fair trial in Coffey County, the trial was moved to Emporia, the Lyon County seat, where citizens treated the trial like a sporting event. Far different from the somber and sensational air of the first trial, the Emporia trial was peppered with humorous and frustrating interruptions ranging from loud trains and backfiring cars that drowned out testimony to the judge’s admonishments of a misbehaving audience.
In less than six hours, the jury acquitted John Knoblock, who left Emporia a shattered, homeless, jobless man others would be suspicious of for the rest of his life.
“John Knoblock and his son would eventually leave Kansas and start over in California,” Staresinic-Deane said. “The family as a whole just didn’t talk about it. As I interviewed descendants of the Knoblock family and Florence’s family—the Mozingos—I realized that they also wanted to know and understand an event that shaped their families’ lives. The story needed to be told.”
Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder is the culmination of three years of research. “This project began with the desire to fulfill my own curiosity,” Staresinic-Deane said. “I had to know how the story ended. I had to understand why a tight-knit farm community—people who worked together, worshipped together, raised their children together—would ultimately choose to believe they had identified but failed to convict a murderer rather than accept the possibility that the real murderer lived and worked among them in anonymity. In the end, I felt it was really important to share this snapshot of 1920s Kansas with everyone.”
As part of her quest to continue the conversation, Staresinic-Deane has included numerous newspaper headlines, courtroom documents, links to maps of the counties involved, and even a list of all of the names that appear in the newspaper stories from 1925 and 1926 on her website, http://dianastaresinicdeane.com.
Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder is now available in both paperback and eBook formats.