Tag Archives: 1925

The Florence Knoblock Murder, Bread Dough Forensics, and a Loaf of Grandmother Bread

Shadow on the Hill readers know that bread dough played a role in narrowing down Florence Knoblock’s time of death.

Shards of broken dishes littered the hardwood. Bread dough, long past risen, had flowed over the lip of a crock, down the side of the stove, and onto the floor, where it began to dry out. A pan of washing water, likely pumped from the well that morning, sat on a chair.

We also know that bakery employees were able to testify to the time Florence Knoblock called to place an order for lard because they knew what stage the bread they were baking was in.

“I spoke with Florence on Decoration Day,” Ray said. “We were discussing compound and then she said, ‘John is coming to town and will talk to you.’”
“And at what time was this?”
“About nine o’clock,” Ray said. “I was sure it was nearly nine by the stage of the bread. It had been put in at seven and the dough was put on the bench just as she called.”

But for those of us who aren’t bakers, what does that really mean? Even though my mom was a superb baker, most of the things I make come out of a box. So I turned to someone who really knows her way around a kitchen: Veronica. Veronica not only bakes, but she wins RIBBONS at the Kansas State Fair (and not just the participation ones).  Veronica is going to walk us through baking the old-fashioned way so that those of us who don’t bake from scratch can better understand how bread behaves and why it could be a valuable tool for determining how much time had passed since Florence’s death.

Hi, my name is Veronica and you can usually find me posting recipes over at my blog, Veronica’s Cornucopia. I like to eat (a lot), so I cook because I have to, but my true love and passion is baking. I’ve won many ribbons over the last several years at the Kansas State Fair for my cakes, cookies, quick breads, and yeast breads. Although, I have to admit, many of my yeast bread attempts (especially whole wheat) don’t turn out so well…

Since bread dough plays into the 1925 murder of Florence Knoblock, which Diana’s book, Shadow on the Hill details, she asked me if I would do a bread post for her readers. While I consider myself a yeast bread novice, I have made many loaves, some failures, and some successes, and I suppose I’m moderately suited for the task. In any case, I wasn’t going to turn down such an honor! Thanks, Diana!

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The day Florence was discovered murdered in her kitchen, there was a kettle of over-risen bread dough on the oil stove that had escaped the crock and spilled down the side of the stove, and onto the floor. This was one factor that helped determine the timeline of the morning and her murder, by how much it had over-risen.

Now today if we need bread, most of us pick up a loaf while we’re doing our grocery shopping at the supermarket, but in 1925, bread wasn’t as easily available for purchase if you lived in the country. While Florence had placed an order for lard at the bakery, which her husband and son went to retrieve the same morning she was murdered, she did not place one for bread and had instead started some herself.  Florence obviously was not a wasteful sort, and chose to do the things she had been raised doing, rather than paying a higher price for someone else to do it.  Making the bread was just another daily chore that Florence had begun.

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As tradition has it, each day of the week had it’s own assigned chore: Monday: Wash Day ~ Tuesday: Ironing Day ~ Wednesday: Sewing Day ~ Thursday: Market Day ~ Friday: Cleaning Day ~ Saturday: Baking Day ~ Sunday: Day of Rest. Florence was murdered on a Saturday so this might have been just the beginning of a long day of baking for her. Baking Saturdays would be my favorite chore day! Maybe it was Florence’s too, and she was in a haze of baking bliss before she met her maker. I’d like to think so.

I wanted to bake a loaf of bread in Florence’s memory, something that was old-fashioned and not fussy. I decided on this Grandmother Bread from Chickens in the Road. It’s an old, simple recipe that’s been in Suzanne’s family for generations, and while it doesn’t require you to harvest your own yeast the way Florence might have, it suited my purposes just fine. I’d like to think that Florence approves of me skipping a step made unnecessary by modern convenience, as I got the impression from the book that she was a no-nonsense kind of woman.

Grandmother Bread

Printable recipe
Printable recipe with picture

1 1/2 cups warm water
1 teaspoon yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
3 1/2+ cups all-purpose flour

To start, you need to activate your yeast. I usually prefer to use rapid-acting yeast (bread machine yeast) because it’s easier and faster, but to get into the old-fashioned spirit to a degree, I stuck with active yeast. So sprinkle your yeast, sugar, and salt over warm water and let it rest so the yeast can get happy in it’s warm, sugary bath.

Or you could forget to add the sugar and salt like I did, and then add them along with your first cup of flour. See, it’s OK to mess up to a degree. If you’re new to bread making, it’s important to ask yourself, “What Would Florence Do?” Do you think she’d waste her precious yeast and start a new batch of dough because she forgot to add the sugar and salt at the right time? Heck to the no! She’d soldier on like a good early 20th century Kansas housewife. So will you.

Mix that all up with your spoon and then gradually add the remaining flour, stirring as you go.

When it gets too thick to stir, flour your hands and start kneading more flour in until you get a smooth and elastic dough. Most people, including Florence, would flour a counter and knead it there because it’s efficient, but I went against my WWFD (What Would Florence Do?) theme and did what I usually do, kneading it in the bowl so I don’t have to clean up a bowl and a counter afterward. It’s aggravating and makes your neck and back sore, but hey. I’m all about less mess to clean up. Florence put off sweeping up her husband’s and son’s hair after cutting it that morning, so I’m thinking she’d be all about less clean-up.

Once the dough feels right (if this is your first time making bread, then knead flour in until it’s not very sticky, just very slightly tacky, and is nice and stretchy and elastic and smooth), oil your bowl and turn the dough over in it so that all sides are oiled.

Cover your bowl with a cloth (or plastic wrap if you’re not feeling the WWFD thing) and set it in a warm, draft free place. Florence chose to put it on top of her stove, which we know she had going and was warm since she was using it to boil a kettle of water for tea. My trick is to preheat my oven to 350F for one minute, then turn it off and put my bowl inside. Works great! Oh and sorry, Florence, please forgive my dirty oven that I’ve never cleaned.  I don’t think you would have shirked that chore as long as I have.

Let it rest for an hour, or until doubled in size.

Most people, including Florence, would then place the dough on a floured counter and smooth it into a rectangle, then roll it up into a loaf, pinching the seams, and place it in an oiled bread tin. Again, I didn’t want to flour a counter and have to clean it up so I kinda just smooshed it together in my hands and then patted it down as evenly as I could in the pan. Florence is probably rolling over in her grave.

Cover the pan and let it rise until doubled, about 30 minutes or more depending on the temperature and humidity. I forgot about it and left it for an hour and you can see how much it had over-risen with only and extra half hour of rising.  I imagine it really would have run out of the pan and down the sides like Florence’s dough if left unattended for hours on end.

But WWFD if she lost track of time and found her dough in this state? She’d smack that dough down and start over with the rise, that’s what! We ain’t gonna have no over-risen mushroom bread with big holes up in here. I had to go to our evening church service, so I put it in the fridge this time to slow down the rise. By the time I got back, about two hours later, it was perfectly risen–no shrooming over the sides.

Once risen, bake for 25-45 minutes at 350F. I found I needed to bake a lot longer than the recommended 25 minutes because I had to add soooo much flour to my dough (maybe the humidity, although the recipe does call for a lot of water IMO) so my dough was a little more bountiful that it probably should have been. Also, I was multi-tasking and toasting pecans for cookies at the same time. I’m sure efficient and no-nonsense Florence would approve.

Look at that gawjus loaf! You know it’s done when you take it out of the pan and it sounds hollow when you tap it on the bottom. I think I could have baked mine a little longer but it was still so, so good. If you under-bake your bread a bit, you can always toast the slices. That’s WFWD!

Now slather the top (and the sides and bottom) with butter while it’s still hot and try your best to wait until it’s cool to slice it. Oh who am I kidding? Well, wait at least fifteen minutes for best slicing. You’re probably thinking no-nonsense Florence wouldn’t be going hog wild with the butter so it’s time to ask, WWFD? Well, Florence’s family had cows, so I’m sure they had plenty of butter on hand, and despite her usual thrifty ways, according to me it was her secret pleasure to slather copious amounts of butter on freshly baked bread. So slather away! 😀

I want to thank Diana for writing this incredible true-life story of a Kansas murder, for all the hard work and research she put into it, and offering me some satisfaction in the long-time unsolved mystery. And for offering me this opportunity to be a part of her book in a small way as well! And thank you for reading. Now go get your bake day on! 😀

Recipe source: Chickens in the Road <–click the link for the two-loaf recipe

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The Knoblock Murder From Outside of Kansas

Florence Knoblock’s murder and the subsequent investigation and trials captured the attention of people all over the United States. Here is a sampling of some of the articles that appeared outside of Kansas.

This story announced the murder and presumed suspect almost immediately after the murder occurred. Mexia Daily News (Texas), June 1, 1925.

This story announced the murder and presumed suspect almost immediately after the murder occurred. Mexia Daily News (Texas), June 1, 1925.

John Knoblock's arrest is announced in the Kansas City Star (Missouri), August 15, 1925.

John Knoblock’s arrest is announced in the Kansas City Star (Missouri), August 15, 1925.

This story reveals the discourse regarding the bloodhounds evidence. Fayette Democrat (Arkansas), March 20, 1926.

This story reveals the discourse regarding the bloodhounds evidence. Fayette Democrat (Arkansas), March 20, 1926.

 

John Knoblock, Blackie Stevens, and 1920s Race Relations in Kansas

When I was researching the Knoblock murder, I really struggled to understand why the citizens of of Coffey County were so quick to arrest Sherman “Blackie” Stevens and continue to keep him in jail despite having verified his alibi and likely innocence. As modern readers, we need to take a step back and look at race relations in Kansas in the 1920s to better understand what was happening in Coffey County and the potential danger Blackie Stevens was facing.

Kansas and the KKK

It is a common misconception that the Ku Klux Klan rose to power immediately following the Civil War and continued to gain momentum through the 1930s. The popularity the the KKK declined steadily through the 1870s, only to experience a resurgence in membership and power in the 1910s and 1920s.  The KKK, which began as a Southern institution, worked its way into Kansas social circles through the early twentieth century and by 1925, Klan supporters controlled the Kansas Senate and had a good grip on the seats in the Kansas House of Representatives. This was scary news for minorities, immigrants, Catholics, and anyone else of whom the Klan did not approve.

Thanks to the newspapers, we know that the Ku Klux Klan was operating in both Coffey and Lyon counties in 1925 and 1926. In fact, the KKK publicly denounced any connection to John Knoblock about the time that he was first arrested for the murder of his wife. Rumors were circulating that his arrest was delayed because of the KKK’s influence. According to the Emporia Gazette article, “…whether or not Knoblock ever was a klansman, it is certain that he is one no longer…as the leaders of the order have been embarrassed by stories connecting his name with the organization.”

Not wanting to be associated with the murder of Florence Knoblock in any way, the normally invisible KKK publicly denies any association with John Knoblock.

Not wanting to be associated with the murder of Florence Knoblock in any way, the normally invisible KKK publicly denies any association with John Knoblock.

Meanwhile, in the Daily Republican, we occasionally run into ads not unlike ones for other fraternal organizations.

KKK ad Daily Republican May 15 1926

This ad appeared in the May 15, 1926 Daily Republican.

Not everyone was a fan of the KKK. William Allen White, the editor of the Emporia Gazette, was adamantly opposed to the Klan and ran for governor primarily to draw attention to the problems the KKK brought to Kansas. Charles Griffith, the attorney general who took an interest in the Knoblock murder case, was also working to drive the Klan out of Kansas.

In June of 1926, the Emporia Gazette records an ongoing battle with the Klan, which wanted to march in a parade in downtown Emporia. The attorney general’s office issued an order disallowing the Klan to march with their masks in place, and the Klan argued that it was a violation of their rights to impose such an order.

It took a legality to finally push back the tide of the Klan in Kansas: they did not have a charter to operate in the state. After the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the Klan’s appeal, they were forced to cease business in the Kansas. By this time, members around the country were reconsidering their associations with the KKK, and the Klan began to rapidly decline in numbers and influence.

Lynching and Law Enforcement

Lynch mobs did happen in Kansas, even if it wasn’t as frequent as in other states. The UMKC School of Law suggests there were 54 reported lynchings between 1882 and 1968, which is a low number when compared to Georgia, where 531 people were lynched in the same time period. Kansans were also more likely to lynch regardless of race; of the 54, 19 were African American (compared to 492 of the 531 lynched in Georgia).

Still, lynchings were regularly reported, even if they happened in other states. At the time of the Knoblock murder investigation and trial, stories about lynchings appeared in the newspaper.

Reports of a lynching in the August 7, 1926 Emporia Gazette.

Reports of a lynching in the August 7, 1926 Emporia Gazette.

Does this mean that Sherman Stevens was in real danger?

The potential for danger was real enough.

Today, we would immediately argue that the sheriff violated Sherman Stevens’ rights by holding the man in prison for several weeks despite the fact that no charges were brought against the man and even the newspapers announced that evidence appears to clear the Sherman Stevens of any guilt beyond having worked on a bridge close to the Knoblock home and accepting strawberries from Florence on a previous occasion. Yet, we have to look at what else was going on in Kansas at the same time.

Rumors were circulating in surrounding communities about the supposed mob that was going to lynch Sherman Stevens. Though he refutes the seriousness of these rumors, in the June 5, 1925 article “Some Wierd [sic] Tales Being Circulated About Burlington,” John Redmond writes, “There was some talk of lynching the negro suspect, but half of those who talked it wore a silly grin as they said it. One loud-mouthed man might have turned that crowd into a mob, but there was no leader and consequently nothing that looked like a mob, but the officers were taking no chances and kept the negro away as a precaution…”

The talk was there. The situation didn’t escalate because there wasn’t an instigator.

To the poor, inexperienced sheriff’s credit, all indications show that the law truly did investigate Sherman Stevens’ whereabouts. I really believe that they would have released Sherman Stevens much sooner if they were able to redirect the public’s attention to another, more viable suspect. However, because there was no other suspect, they continued to hold Sherman Stevens in jail for his own safety until speculation turned to John Knoblock as the potential murderer.

What happened to Sherman Stevens after his release remains a mystery. We know that he spent some time in Garnett, Kansas, because he had communicated with the sheriff. But soon after, he leaves Anderson County and is never heard from again.

Disturbing to me is the fact that, in an interview with John and Florence Knoblock’s granddaughter, I was told that she and her sister grew up believing that their grandmother’s killer had been hanged.

Did a secret lynch mob chase down Sherman Stevens? Though we don’t know definitively, there is no evidence to suggest that he was lynched. I can’t imagine that the community would have allowed John Knoblock to endure two trials if they believed strongly enough that Sherman Stevens was the real killer.

 

Additional Reading

Kansas Battles the Invisible Empire: The Legal Ouster of the KKK from Kansas 1922-1927 by Charles William Sloan, Jr. Kansas Historical Quarterly, Autumn 1974.

History of Lynchings in Kansas by Genevieve Yost. Kansas Historical Quarterly, May 1933.

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