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.
After last year’s drought, this spring’s series of rainstorms have been a welcome sight. I especially love driving through the countryside during these times, where nothing impedes the view of the clouds rolling in. Many Kansas storms seem to follow the I-35 corridor, and I ran into the rain turning at Beto Junction (the intersection connecting highways to Burlington, Emporia, Topeka, and Ottawa) on my way to Burlington.
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.
I never would have known about the murder of Florence Knoblock if I hadn’t stumbled upon a folder of newspaper clippings at the library in 2007. Although radios were finding their way into homes during the 1920s–John Redmond even reports that a Day-Fan radio was installed in the jurors’ room in the basement of the Coffey County Courthouse–the newspaper was still the most common form of daily widespread communication.
As a both a reader and a researcher, I was really fortunate that most of the important newspaper articles were written by two extraordinary newspapermen: John Redmond of the Daily Republican in Burlington, Kansas, and William Lindsay White of the Emporia Gazette in Emporia, Kansas. Smart, funny, and extremely observant, both men vividly portrayed the events and people connected to the murder of Florence Knoblock in their own distinct writing styles.
A native of Burlington, Kansas, John Redmond had all but finished law school and was ready to sit for the bar exam when legendary newspaperman William Allen White (father of William Lindsay White) rerouted Redmond into a journalism career with the Emporia Gazette. Redmond would go on to work for the Topeka Daily Capital, the Wichita Star, and the Wichita Beacon before returning to Burlington in 1898 to buy a paper called the Jeffersonian for $400. During the next several years, numerous local papers would be acquired and merged together into the Daily Republican, whose masthead would first appear in 1921.
Redmond was an incredibly civic-minded man. During the Depression, he put a lot of energy into the Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided education and training to about 3,000 men during the years it was open. When Kansas began building reservoirs and enacting other flood prevention measures, Redmond championed Coffey County’s need for a reservoir, which would be named for Redmond after his death.
John Redmond’s writing style was a reflection of the man himself. His stories not only reported on the events of the day, but how the community responded to them. For example, in “Some Wierd [sic] Tales Being Circulated About Burlington,” which ran June 5, 1925, he reports on how other newspapers are portraying Burlington: “Burlington has been getting some very undesirable notoriety from the outside papers in connection with the brutal murder of Mrs. John Knoblock. Many wild and wierd [sic] stories have been published in them under a Burlington date line, and some have worked up stories of their one [sic]…” Similarly, in a June 11, 1925 article called “Another Tourist Wandering Around Brought to Jail,” he writes, “With the nerves of the people still on edge following the brutal murder of Mrs. John Knoblock on Decoration day, it is unhealthy for strangers to wander around much on the country roads or even in the towns.”
His writing could be compassionate, such as in the June 17, 1925 article “Mrs. John Mozingo Made Very Ill By Thoughtless Talk,” where he wrote, “Mrs. John Mozingo is quite ill from a nervous breakdown at her home west of Burlington, made so by the thoughtless people who have phoned or talked to her so much concerning the brutal murder of her daughter, Mrs. John Knoblock, and the efforts to find the murderer.”
Redmond could also be extremely funny. In the middle of a January 8, 1926 article listing all of the citizens subpoenaed to testify at John Knoblock’s first trial–an incredibly long list that goes on for several column inches–he throws in, “[George] Eaton’s dogs are not subpoenaed.”
A native of Emporia, Kansas, William Lindsay White was the son of the same William Allen White who rescued John Redmond from a career in law and set him on the path to journalism. White’s family home hosted people like Teddy Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, and Douglas Fairbanks, and his father was known far and wide for his forward-thinking editorials.
Groomed to take over the paper some day, he would complete his degree at Harvard and would marry a New Yorker. When he returned to Emporia, he came back with a monocle, a walking stick, and a British accent–definitely NOT a typical Kansan and not nearly as well liked as his father.
However, W. L. “Bill” White was an extraordinary journalist. He served as a war correspondent during World War II, wrote several books, and took the reigns to the Emporia Gazette after his father’s death in 1944. He was very involved in politics and even served in the Kansas Legislature. He was not popular for some of his in-town causes, however; he argued that the beautiful second courthouse should be repaired instead of replaced, and he fought against the construction of the Civic Auditorium, which was, ironically, named in his honor.
Like John Redmond, Bill White was an excellent observer, and took the time to describe what people looked like as well as what they said and did. In the January 19, 1926 article, “Stand By Knoblock: Relatives Substantiate Defense Version,” he describes Florence Knoblock’s sister. “Mrs. Ella Kellerman, a sister of the murdered woman, then testified in Knoblock’s behalf. She is a pretty, young woman in her early thirties, whose hair is more of a reddish gold than yellow. ” He was also keenly aware of the atmosphere at both trials, and in “Accept Two Jurors,” an article that appeared on May 3, 1926, during the second trial, he wrote, “The general atmosphere of the trial seems to be different in Emporia. The attorneys are the same…the principals are the same and the judge is the same but some unknown something that seemed to hang over the Coffey county [sic] courtroom like a fog is missing today.”
Bill White did not feel the need to hold back out of respect for the feelings of others. He would write that Florence Knoblock’s father, John Mozingo, had a head shaped like a pear; he waxed poetic on attorney Owen Samuels’ comb over; and speculated on how much tobacco juice an autopsy would find in attorney W. C. Harris’ neck–all in a space of three paragraphs (January 19, 1926).
When Florence Knoblock was murdered, John Redmond and Bill White were at very different places in their careers. John Redmond had been running his own newspaper for 27 years. Just shy of his twenty-fifth birthday, Bill White’s career was just beginning.
We know that John Redmond was recording the story from the very first moment word got out about the murder. He arrived at the Knoblock farm with County Attorney Ray Pierson and Dr. Albert Gray shortly after Sheriff Frank Hunter and Coroner J. O. Stone were called to the scene. Determining when Bill White began covering the story is a little trickier. We know the murder and investigation were being covered by the Emporia Gazette because of the newspaper articles, but because newspapers generally didn’t run bylines back then, we are only sure of Bill White’s presence when John Redmond mentions him in a Daily Republican article during the first trial.
The newspapers have two goals: report the news and sell newspapers. Because most people like to see themselves in the papers, newspaper reporters know that including as many names as possible is a great way to increase interest and sales. However, there is a caveat: you don’t want to irritate people into canceling their subscriptions. You don’t slam your own people. People outside your subscription area, though, are fair game. As a result, you almost have to read both the Daily Republican and the Emporia Gazette in order to get the complete picture. And because the two reporters report on each other, you get to know John Redmond and Bill White, who become part of their own stories.
Coffey County, Vol. 1 – A glimpse into its past, present and future!, compiled by Wanda Christy and published by Coffey County Today in 1987, is a good history of Coffey County with lots and lots of historic photographs.
William Lindsay White: 1900-1973: In the Shadow of His Father, by E. Jay Jernigan, University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.
During the 1920s, many Kansans were transitioning to new technology as it became available and affordable in their communities. People living in cities might have running water while their country counterparts might still use a well pump and outhouse. Farmers might read by lantern light while their cousins in town had gas or electric light.
Transportation was also in transition. The earliest Kansans reached the state by wagon or horseback; by the 1860s, most of the major eastern Kansas towns were accessible by train. For Coffey and Lyon counties, the railways–particularly the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Line (known as the Katy) and the Atchison-Topeka-Santa Fe (ATSF)–were a crucial and reliable means of traveling from town to town.
In town and in the countryside, wagons and horses were still the dominant modes of transportation through the 1910s. As automobiles became more affordable and maintainable, they began to travel alongside the horses and oxen. In places like Coffey County, it wasn’t until the roads in town were paved–about 1920–when more and more people began to use cars as their preferred mode of transportation.
As cars took over the roads, so did the problems associated with them. Burlington installed their first stop signs in 1925 and began arresting jaywalkers for endangering themselves and others. The newspapers were filled with stories of traffic accidents, including accidents involving fatalities.
Transportation in all its forms played an important role in the story of Florence Knoblock’s murder and in the trial that followed. Numerous witnesses testified to seeing John Knoblock and his four-year-old son, Roger, driving into town the morning of the murder. One witness, W. P. Phillips, was sure of the time he saw the Knoblocks because he was standing near the Mosher’s Regulator–the official clock that regulates the railroad times, and the clock to which many citizens set their own watches.
After discovering his wife’s body, John Knoblock and several others jump in their cars and travel to nearby towns to look for suspects. John Kellerman, a brother-in-law, borrows a neighbor’s car to drive to Hartford to break the bad news to one of Florence’s sisters after he discovers that John Knoblock’s car has a flat tire.
Because John Knoblock’s trials were held in district court, many of the court officers came in from other towns (the district court covered multiple counties). The judge and court staff members had the option to drive themselves or take the train. While the train was a reliable mode of transportation between Emporia and Burlington and Burlington and Ottawa, it did limit the options for when the court officers could arrive and leave.
Both forms of transportation would cause delays at various times. During the preliminary hearing, John Knoblock’s attorneys, W. C. Harris and Owen Samuel, who chose to drive from Emporia to Burlington, were impeded by muddy roads. Fred Harris, an Ottawa attorney assisting the prosecution, was delayed by the train schedule.
During the hearing to determine if John Knoblock’s trial should be held outside of Coffey County, Judge I. T. Richardson is delayed when he catches a ride with his court reporter, A. H. Woodrow, who insisted on driving his new Ford slowly because he was still breaking it in.
As I wrote Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder, I found myself thinking about how cars, trains, horses, and people on foot all interacted and moved around each other on the roads. It must have been a tremendous burden to farmers in outlying areas to find their way into town to serve on juries, and there would have been tremendous expense–both to the courts and to the individuals–to transport dozens of witnesses from Coffey County to Lyon County for the sake of the 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.
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.
Sometimes a story reaches out and holds on to you, haunting your thoughts during the day and your dreams at night.
During the past five years, the story of the 1925 murder of Florence Knoblock, a farmwife and mother who lived in Coffey County, Kansas, has been front and center in my mind.
Florence had no enemies. There was no sign of a burglary. For a community that not only didn’t lock their doors, but didn’t have locks on their doors, the idea of a dangerous stranger roaming their farms and streets was terrifying.
Coffey County needed someone to pay for this crime for their own piece of mind. And that’s where the real story begins.
Four arrests. A husband who went to trial twice for his wife’s murder before being acquitted of the crime, only to lose his home, his livelihood, and the trust of many of his neighbors. A four-year-old child who no longer had a mother. Two of Kansas’ most amazing reporters covering the story. A community that needed someone–anyone–to pay for this crime for their own piece of mind. And ultimately, an unsolved crime.
I was mesmerized.
I began to research and write the story of the murder that forever changed a family and a community. 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.
I believe very strongly in the need to tell the story of Kansas and the people who lived here. Florence Knoblock’s murder impacted communities both near and far. The story is an important part of 1920s Kansas history, a snapshot of life and crime an era when the old was giving way to the modern. I believe this story should be available to all Kansans, Kansans at heart, and anyone with an interest in history and true crime. The completed manuscript is ready to move to the next stage.
Here’s how you can help preserve Kansas history by making it available for generations to come.
Today, I’ve launched a campaign at Kickstarter.com to raise the funds needed to create the kind of quality book that libraries will want for their shelves and readers will want in their personal collections and pass along to friends. All pledges will be acknowledged on my website (unless the giver prefers to remain anonymous). For pledge as small as $15, you’ll also get a copy Shadow on the Hill. And for a slightly bigger gift, you’ll receive a print of Stephan Anderson-Story’s fabulous photo of the old Knoblock house and farmstead.
Thank you so much for being such an amazing community of online friends. And if you can’t participate at this time, if you think this project might be exactly right for someone you know, I would be honored if you would pass along the link.