Tag Archives: Emporia

Transportation in 1920s Kansas

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.

Katy Line Large

The Katy Line Map from 1877 shows the extensive network of Katy trains available to travelers in Kansas and beyond. (Rand McNally and Company.. Map of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway., Map, ca. 1877; digital images, (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth2440/ : accessed March 23, 2013), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries, Denton, Texas.)

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.

By 1925, covered wagons in town were a rare enough occurrence that when several were seen, it merited a mention in Burlington's paper. (Daily Republican, December 30, 1925)

By 1925, covered wagons in town were a rare enough occurrence that when several were seen, it merited a mention in Burlington’s paper. (Daily Republican, December 30, 1925)

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.

After much frustration with drivers and jaywalkers alike, the city of Burlington installed two stop signs. (From the Daily Republican, July 7, 1925.)

After much frustration with drivers and jaywalkers alike, the city of Burlington installed two stop signs. (From the Daily Republican, July 7, 1925.)

C.J. Beatty was killed in an automobile accident. (From the Daily Republican, June 29, 1925.)

C.J. Beatty was killed in an automobile accident. (From the Daily Republican, June 29, 1925.)

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.

A Kansas driver changes a flat tire on his 1919 Model T Roadster.

A Kansas driver changes a flat tire on his 1919 Model T Roadster.

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.

Trains and automobiles caused delays during John Knoblock's preliminary hearing. (Daily Republican, November 9, 1925.)

Trains and automobiles caused delays during John Knoblock’s preliminary hearing. (Daily Republican, November 9, 1925.)

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.

The judge is delayed by his slow-driving court reporter. (Daily Republican, Decembet 22, 1925.)

The judge is delayed by his slow-driving court reporter. (Daily Republican, Decembet 22, 1925.)

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.

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

Dying to read about Kansas murders?

Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder is weeks away from being available to read. In the meanwhile, here are some famous (and not so famous) Kansas murders worth reading about.

The Bloody Benders – Labette County, Kansas – 1870-1873

Saga of the Bloody BendersThe Benders appeared to be an average family of homesteaders who ran a store and restaurant in Labette County, just a few miles away from where the town of Cherryvale would be platted. While many families would purchase goods and pass through without any trouble, the lone traveler might not be so lucky. The Benders killed at least nine people, including two young children, stole their belongings and then buried them in the garden. It was not until nearby counties began to wonder about the number of people gone missing that they made the connection to the Benders, who escaped and were never apprehended. Books about the Bloody Benders include Robert Adleman’s The Bloody Benders, and Rick Geary’s graphic novel, The Saga of the Bloody Benders. The basic story can be found at the Murder by Gaslight blog and at Legends of America. There is also a movie in the making.

The Walkup Murder – Emporia, Kansas – 1885

AdventuressWhile in New Orleans for the World’s Fair in December 1884, James Reeves Walkup fell for a 16-year-old girl named Minnie Wallace. Just a few months later, he would die of arsenic poisoning. The courtroom was packed for Minnie Walkup’s trial, but the all-male jury just couldn’t bear the idea of sending a teenaged girl to the gallows. Minnie moved on to at least two other wealthy husbands, both of whom died very shortly after marrying. Virginia McConnell documented Minnie Wallace’s life in The Adventuress: Murder, Blackmail, and Confidence Games in the Gilded Age. You can read the basics in The Vamp of New Orleans.

Ax Murders – Ellsworth, Kansas – 1911, Paola, Kansas – 1912

Rollin and Anna Hudson of Paola.

Murder victims Anna and Rollin Hudson of Paola.

A series of ax murders happened in the Midwest during the 1910s, and two of the families hit were in Kansas. Other attacks happened in Missouri, Colorado, Illinois, and it is believed that the famous murders in Villisca, Iowa, may also be connected. Although Lee Moore was convicted of the murders in Missouri, the other cases remain unsolved. The Ax Murderer Who Got Away is available online through the Smithsonian Magazine web site. Actual articles from the time period are available through the Miami County Historical Museum, Millers Paranormal Research, and the Villisca Ax Murder House website.

The Clutter Family – Holcomb, Kansas – 1959

In Cold BloodHands down, this the most famous Kansas murder story of the Twentieth Century. Hearing rumors of a safe full of money, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith carefully planned an attack on the Clutter family. Unbeknownst to them, there was no safe full of money, and they brutally murdered a respected small-town family for about $50. The story of the murder, trial, and execution of Hickock and Smith was captured in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a piece of literature that would shape the way we write about murder and think about Kansas. It was also made into a movie that was shot in Kansas. In recent years, movies about the writing of the book have come out. I recommend watching Capote, which really delves into the psychological impact the book had on its author and the people he portrayed.

The New Orleans Sniper – New Orleans, Louisiana – 1972 and 1973

Terrible ThunderAlthough the events took place in Louisiana, the man involved–Mark Essex–was from Emporia. After dropping out of Kansas State Teachers College (now Emporia State University), he joined the Navy and went AWOL. He then became involved with Black radicals in California and would later join the New York Black Panthers. On December 31, 1972, and January 7, 1973, he would became involved in a spree killing that would kill nine people and injure thirteen others. Essex was fatally wounded by police officers shooting from a helicopter. Peter Hernon wrote about Mark Essex in A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper. Read the basics online at the Crime Library.

David Harmon Murder – Olathe, Kansas – 1982

Cold Blooded BusinessIn 1982, David Harmon was bludgeoned to death while sleeping. Although his wife Melinda and friend Mark were immediately suspected, justice did not find them until two decades later. Marek Fuchs wrote the book A Cold-Blooded Business: Adultery, Murder, and a Killer’s Path from the Bible Belt to the Boardroom  in 2009.

The Bird Murders – Emporia, Kansas – 1983

Murder OrdainedAsking someone what they were doing in Emporia when they heard about the deaths of Sandy Bird or Marty Anderson is kind of like asking other people where they were during the Challenger space shuttle disaster. Murders aren’t unheard of in Emporia, but the deaths of Sandy Bird and Marty Anderson shook and divided the town, and to this day, people still feel very strongly about whether Rev. Tom Bird and his secretary, Lorna Anderson, were both involved in the deaths of their respective spouses.  This particular case caught the attention of newspapers and news stations all over the country. While there is no definitive book on the subject, you can find many articles about the subject online. The story was also made into a movie called Murder Ordained, starring John Goodman, Kathy Bates, and Keith Carradine. A few examples of articles include this one in the L. A. Times, 20 years later. If you’re in Emporia, visit the public library and ask about the binders of newspaper clippings from around the country.

BTK Murders – Wichita, Kansas – 1974-1991

Nightmare in WichitaMany books have already been written about Dennis Rader, the BTK strangler who terrorized Wichita for nearly two decades. An average family man who installed security systems for a living, Rader was a Cub Scout leader and church goer. He was also responsible for the torture and deaths of at least ten people. Books include Nightmare in Wichita: The Hunt for the BTK Strangler by Robert Beattie; Inside the Mind of BTK: The True Story Behind the Thirty-Year Hunt for the Notorious Wichita Serial Killer by John Douglas and Johnny Dodd; and Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story of BTK, the Serial Killer Next Door by Roy Wenzl, Tim Potter, Hurst Laviana, and L. Kelly. Read the basic story online at the Crime Library.

Deborah Green and the Farrar Family Murders – Prairie Village, Kansas – 1995

Bitter HarvestDeborah Green was a smart physician whose personal life was out of control. After her husband, Mark Farrar, filed for divorce, she made numerous attempts to poison him to death and finally resorted to setting her own home on fire, killing two of her three children. She would eventually plead no contest to two counts of murder, two counts of attempted murder, and one count of arson. The famous true crime writer Ann Rule told the story in Bitter Harvest: A Woman’s Fury, a Mother’s Sacrifice. Read the basic story online here.

Bobbi Jo Stinnett Murder – Skidmore, Missouri – 2004

Murder in the HeartlandMelvern, Kansas woman Lisa Montgomery desperately wanted a baby of her own. When she met pregnant Bobbi Jo Stinnett online through a forum for dog breeders, she concocted a plan to drive to Skidmore, Missouri, kill Bobbi Jo Stinnett, and steal her unborn child. This tragic story changed the way law enforcement handles Amber Alerts and made many a little more cautious about how they interact with others online. M. William Phelps chronicled the story in the book Murder in the Heartland. Read the basics online at the Crime Library.

Telling the story of the most brutal murder in Coffey County, Kansas’ history

Sometimes a story reaches out and holds on to you, haunting your thoughts during the day and your dreams at night.

Florence Knoblock’s murder and the subsequent investigation and trials stayed on the front page almost every day for an entire year.

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.

Florence Knoblock and her son, Roger.

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.

Click here to learn how you can help preserve Kansas history and get your own copy of Shadow on the Hill!

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.

Project updates will be available here on blog, on my Twitter feed, and on the official Shadow on the Hill facebook page!

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.

Sunday Snapshot: In Cold Blood in Emporia

Thirty minutes before the show, movie goers are in the lobby, swapping stories about their memories and knowledge of the Clutter family and the movie.

Even though I’m a native Kansan, my first glimpse of Emporia–a city I would call home for a dozen years–was on the big screen while on my exodus to California. I still remember sitting with a few hundred other Trojans in Norris Cinema Theatre during USC’s famous Cinema 190 class, watching In Cold Blood. We were supposed to be watching it for the brilliant cuts and montage scenes. But I was mesmerized by this new window into my home state.

Dick Hickock (played by Scott Wilson) and Perry Smith (played by Robert Blake) as they drive down Commercial Street in Emporia. You can see the marquee of the Fox Theatre (now the Emporia Granada Theatre) just over Dick’s shoulder. (Still photo courtesy of Bryan T. Williams.)

I moved to Emporia in 2000, more than 40 years after Dick Hickock and Perry Smith brutally murdered four members of the Clutter family in their Holcomb home. The murder happened long before I was born. But the scene where Hickock and Smith drive through Emporia stayed with me because it was an important part of Hickock and Smith’s journey.

Emporia was where Hickock and Smith bought the rope they would use to tie up their victims before shooting them.

In a handful of real-time minutes and even fewer cinema minutes, Emporia became part of the history of the Clutter family.

Perry Smith (played by Robert Blake) measures out the rope.

It is a strange thing to see your home through the eyes of an outsider. Truman Capote‘s poetic descriptions of Kansas and its people would go on to influence how generations of Americans–and generations of Kansans–would perceive our state. But the movie is something different altogether. If you can take your eyes off the stars of the film, you begin to realize that the movie is a time capsule of 1960s Kansas: old buildings, old cars, and younger versions of today’s older people. Behind Robert Blake and Scott Wilson pretending to be murderers are real images of our real state.

Movie goers head out into the sultry September night. The theatre is on Commercial Street, the same street traveled by Hickock and Smith and Wilson and Blake.

When we reached the scene where KBI agent Alvin Dewey and other law enforcement officials lead Hickock and Smith into the Finney County Courthouse, there is some excitement coming from a few rows behind us. “That’s me!” a woman exclaims. “There on the lawn! I was fifteen and was standing on the lawn when they filmed this part! That’s me!”

And this is the real reason why Kansans are fascinated with this story. It’s not just about a famous murder. It’s a reflection of ourselves, our history, and our state. It’s about trying to understand us.

Special thanks to Bryan T. Williams for providing art and to the Emporia Granada Theatre for bringing In Cold Blood back to the big screen for a night.