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