Tag Archives: John Knoblock

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.

The Men Who Told the Story: Reporters John Redmond and William L. White

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.

John Redmond (1873-1953)

John Redmond, 1940.

John Redmond, 1940. Photo courtesy of the Coffey County Historical Society and Museum.

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.”

Reporters still run the Coffey County Republican out of the same building John Redmond built in the 1920s. His face is painted on a mural on the wall. Photo courtesy of Mark A. Petterson.

Reporters still run the Coffey County Republican out of the same building John Redmond built in the 1920s. His face is painted on a mural on the wall. Photo courtesy of Mark A. Petterson.

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.”

John Redmond's humorous quip in the middle of a long list of subpoenaed witnesses in the January 8, 1926 Dialy Republican.

John Redmond’s humorous quip in the middle of a long list of subpoenaed witnesses in the January 8, 1926 Dialy Republican.

William Lindsay White (1900-1973)

William Lindsay White

William Lindsay White.

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.

The Emporia Gazette building in Emporia, Kansas.

The Emporia Gazette building in Emporia, Kansas. Photo courtesy of Cheryl Unruh.

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's description of John Mozingo ran in the January 19, 1926 Emporia Gazette.

Bill White’s description of John Mozingo ran in the January 19, 1926 Emporia Gazette.

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).

Covering the Murder, Investigation, and Trial

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.

Everyone in the courtroom was fair game. John Redmond tattles on Gazette reporter Bill White in the January 18, 1926 Daily Republican.

Everyone in the courtroom was fair game. John Redmond tattles on Gazette reporter Bill White in the January 18, 1926 Daily Republican.

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.

Read more

William Lindsay White entry at the Kansas State Historical Society

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.

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.

Listen to the recording of the Shadow on the Hill book radio interview

The call-in interview with KVOE Emporia went great this morning, despite my having to run across the house and hide in a bathroom when a parade of sirens-blaring ambulances and fire trucks roared down the street just as I was going on  the air. You can listen to the audio here.

BREAKING NEWS! Shadow on the Hill is hitting the shelves!

Imagine my joy (and surprise!) to discover that Town Crier Bookstore, my favorite hometown independent bookstore, has my book ON THE FRONT COUNTER! If you’re in Emporia, you can buy a copy right now and experience INSTANT GRATIFICATION!

Places I’ve found the paperback so far:

Town Crier Bookstore

Amazon

As for me…this is the best picture I could find to express my feelings on the matter.

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Three Courthouses

Kansas courthouses play an important role in Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder. Unfortunately, only one of the three courthouses mentioned in the book is still standing.

Franklin County Courthouse, Ottawa, Kansas

John Knoblock and Florence Mozingo traveled to Ottawa, Kansas to be married at the Franklin County Courthouse on November 8, 1916. The Franklin County Courthouse was designed by prominent Kansas architect George P. Washburn (no relation to the Washburn of Washburn University), who made his home in Ottawa, Kansas. The courthouse was constructed in 1893 and continues to serve as the county’s courthouse. It was placed on the National Historic Register in 1972. You can see a picture of the courtroom here. The Knoblock’s marriage license is included in the Vital Statistics section of the Shadow on the Hill Documents page.

Still standing, the Franklin County Courthouse was built in 1893 and designed by prominent Ottawa, Kansas architect George P. Washburn.

Still standing, the Franklin County Courthouse was built in 1893 and designed by prominent Ottawa, Kansas architect George P. Washburn.

Coffey County Courthouse, Burlington, Kansas

The courthouse that witnessed John Knoblock’s first murder trial was actually Coffey County’s second courthouse. A “Free Classic Romanesque” building designed by another prominent Kansas architect, J. C. Holland, was completed in 1901 at a cost of $38,000. According to Wanda Christy’s Coffey County: Vol. 1: A glimpse into its past, present, and future!, the contractor hired to build the courthouse complained that the plans didn’t call for enough concrete, and by 1911, the walls were already cracking under the windows and over the doors. “It was stated that this was the best constructed building in Kansas, but was constructed on a weak foundation,” Christy wrote.

By the time a new courthouse (courthouse #3) was under construction in 1963, the walls of the 1901 building were being propped up by long poles. The courthouse has been torn down. You can see some of the documents connected to the trial in the Trial Documents section of the Shadow on the Hill Documents page.

Coffey County's second courthouse was completed in 1901. John Knoblock's first trial was held here. Photo from the Kansas Collection at the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas.

Coffey County’s second courthouse was completed in 1901. John Knoblock’s first trial was held here. Photo from the Kansas Collection at the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas.

Lyon County Courthouse, Emporia, Kansas

John Knoblock’s second trial was held at the Lyon County Courthouse in Emporia. According to Laura M. French’s History of Emporia and Lyon County, this was the second courthouse. The first courthouse was built in 1866 at Third and Commercial, where the Poehler Merchantile building, which was constructed in the courthouse’s place after it was torn down, still stands today.

The second Lyon County Courthouse was completed in 1901. John Knoblock's second trial was held here. Photo from the Kansas Collection at the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas.

The second Lyon County Courthouse was completed in 1903. John Knoblock’s second trial was held here. Photo from the Kansas Collection at the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas.

A contemporary of the Coffey County building, the cornerstone was laid in 1901 and the building was completed 1903 for $55,000, a price that included the cost of the furniture and interior fixtures.  The new courthouse, which was designed by another important Kansas architect, Charles Squires, was located on the northeast corner of Fourth and Commercial. Because it was only slightly farther from the railroad tracks than the previous courthouse, court was regularly disturbed by the sound of trains and traffic coming through town. The building remained in use until a far less aesthetically appealing third courthouse was build in its place during the 1950s. The fourth–and much more stately–courthouse was completed in 2001 and uses the third courthouse as an annex building. All that remains of the beautiful second courthouse is the stone archway that once graced the entrance.

All that remains of the grand courthouse that once stood in Lyon County is the entryway arch, which is now on private property east of Emporia, Kansas.

All that remains of the grand courthouse that once stood in Lyon County is the entryway arch, which is now on private property east of Emporia, Kansas. Photograph by Roger Heineken.

Sunday Snapshot: Me, the Author

Saturday, March 16, was my first-ever public event as an author talking about my soon-to-be-published book, Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder. Fifty people–standing room only–showed up at the fabulous community library in LeRoy, Kansas to hear me talk about the history of the murder and read from my book. It was an author’s dream come true.

If you weren’t able to join me in LeRoy, more events are in the works and already scheduled for the not to distant future.

Me, reading from my book. Not one person fell asleep and started snoring during my entire presentation. Photo by Jim Deane.

Me, reading from my book. Not one person fell asleep and started snoring during my entire presentation. Photo by Jim Deane.