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Sunday, October 29, 2017

Six Victims, Same Style: A Johnson County Serial Killer?

The silence surrounding the farm was deafening, especially on that cold December day in 1910. Even in the winter, farmhouse chores kept residents in Johnson County, Ks. busy with livestock to feed and projects to tend to.

But something just wasn’t right at the Bernhardt farm near Tomahawk Creek. The rolling hills couldn’t conceal what was hidden for much longer. Earl Gray, rural mail carrier for Oxford Township, scratched his head when letters remained from his previous visits in the mailbox near the winding road to the house at current-day 119th and Roe.

As his concern mounted when the mail spilled out of its box, Earl went down the road to where two men, George Knoche and Grover Holmes were spotted earlier working on some repairs on a culvert. Earl stopped to speak to the men, his concern for the whereabouts of the family growing.

Emeline Bernhardt, a 78 year-old widow, and her bachelor son, 49 year-old George, were known in the neighborhood as being quite different than other rural farmers. Emeline was a widow herself when she married her second husband, George’s father, Joseph- and he was 17 years her senior.

Emeline and Joseph’s rocky relationship came to a head when she filed for divorce in 1904 after just shy of 50 years of marriage. She claimed that her 89 year-old husband had deserted her in 1880 and was absent for 15 years before he returned. She was left to raise her children, including George and an invalid daughter. . . until his return.

The divorce was never finalized, because Joe Bernhardt passed away before the papers could be signed. This left George and his mom with 80 acres and a successful farm. George was known in their section of the county as being a hard man to deal with, his personality being quite overbearing and brash. And Emeline? Emeline had her own quirks. J.W. Wallace, who knew the Berhardt’s for 20 years, claimed in a sworn deposition, “They were peculiar people.”

There is no doubt that Earl Gray was aware of the oddities of the Bernhardt’s. Regardless, mail remaining untouched in the outskirts of Johnson County was strange. Very strange – especially in a small community where everyone seemed to know everyone else’s business.

Earl rode up to the two men working in the culvert and described the strangeness he saw at the Bernhardt farm. “Mail’s pilin’ up over there,” Earl proclaimed as he pointed in the direction a half mile up the road.

Without much hesitation, the three approached the road leading to the two-story farm home. In the distance, the men could hear a whining in the quiet. As they approached the barn, two dogs chained tried to stand but their weakness from lack of food knocked them to the ground. They whimpered in hunger, eager for relief from their starvation.

The horse they heard from a distance whinnying continued through the walls of the locked stable nearby. It appeared as if the Bernhardt’s had just vanished into thin air, leaving the animals and farm unattended. Suspicion mounted within the three men as the crept up to the lock on the stable and broke it.

Photo courtesy of Don Wright Designs
The horse they had heard from the outside roughly hit the gates that separated it from the approaching men. The sun was setting and an eerie glow shadowed them as they cautiously entered.

They could certainly sense that something was awry. The hay thrown on the floor in a way that no farmer would bed his animals.

As the horse excited from their entrance, his hooves loosened some of the straw within the small space. The three men’s faces turned white as a ghost when they saw what was hidden beneath the hay in the stall. Earl kicked the hay a little more to reveal blood-soaked clothing and the shoulder of one very, very dead man.

Although unrecognizable to most, the assumption from the postman was that the battered and broken-in face was none other than George Bernhardt.

They didn’t need to get closer in order to know this was a murder. Shocked and full of terror, they stumbled backward, slipping on the frozen ground as they turned away. Their boots kicked more horror into full-force when the hay parted and revealed a second body next to George’s corpse.

“It must be his mother,” Earl surmised, shaken and in disbelief as they quickly backed out of the barn and down the lane away from the farm.

Oh, but there was much more terror masked beneath the ground cover.

The three men ran to the nearest telephone at a neighboring farm and called Olathe. Sheriff John S. Steed sprang into action. A murder in Johnson County? Even when the population was 3% of the population today with just over 18,000 people living in the entire county, one murder- let alone two- was extremely uncommon.

To put that into perspective. . . more people today live within the city limits of Prairie Village (6.2 square miles) than lived in all of the county (480 square miles).
Photo courtesy of Caro Wallis

45 minutes later as dusk settled into the skyline, the sheriff, County Attorney C.B. Little, and Coroner D.E. Bronson arrived at the foot of the long drive leading up to the Bernhardt farm. Word undoubtedly spread like wildfire; awe-stricken farmers were waiting on the side of the county road eager to take a peek at the horror hidden under the hay.

Unlike today’s police investigations, “securing the scene” wasn’t yet in practice in most jurisdictions. Even as the officials from Olathe arrived, the crowd of farmers followed without any hassle from them; Sheriff Steed led all the onlookers up the drive.

Sheriff Steed shoved the hay aside from the victim thought to have originally been Mrs. Emeline Bernhardt, and there was quite the surprise burrowed underneath.

“This ain’t a woman!”

The red-stained clothes were clearly those of a man, and as the shrieks of surprise subsided, the investigators leaned in for a closer look. The face was distorted; an ax had been used to mutilate the corpse well-past the death stage.

“Is that the boy, Tom Morgan!?” exclaimed one of the neighbors present.

Sure enough, the second victim of this horrifying scene was 17 year-old Rosedale, Ks. resident, Thomas H. Morgan. He recently had been hired by the Bernhardt’s.

They rummaged around the stable, and the crowd of spectators gasped when a third body of a man, also unrecognizable due to his gory injuries, was uncovered right next to the other two. The coroner reached into his saturated pocket and pulled out papers that suggested this man in his 40s was a man named Glenn Cotner.

“Hey, that’s William Graves! He was hired on by the family,” one of the farmers argued.

Three victims of an ax murder, lightly covered up with hay in the freezing temperatures, had been uncovered in a rural community unprepared for what came next.

Where was 78 year-old Emeline Bernhardt?

Even as the last light sunk into the horizon, the men continued their search of the area in haste. The party advanced on the looming two-story farmhouse. The final search on December 10th, 1910 was done by the light of lanterns.

Some searched the lower level while others descended the creaking staircase to the bedrooms above. Near a narrow stairway leading to an attic in a small closet, the decaying, bludgeoned body of Mrs. Bernhardt was found.

A clock weight was found covered in blood within close proximity to this murder, most likely the murder weapon used to continuously mutilate the elderly woman.

The body, before photos or a proper crime investigation was launched, was carried outside and laid next to the other three victims.
Olathe Mirror front page headline from Dec. 15, 1910

The 1910 quadruple murder of the Bernhardt’s and two hired hands shook the community and the nation. Several hasty arrests of possible suspects followed for months, yet no killer was ever officially charged with this heinous crime. Emeline’s daughter from her first marriage, Nancy Mason, added $500 to the reward money in hopes that someone would come forward and justice served.

She never did get her day.


24 years earlier in 1886, a baby boy named Albert “Bert” Dudley was born to parents Barnett Dudley and Alice Parish near Freeman, Cass Co., Mo. Barnett and Alice were married a year earlier and went on to have two more children, Thurman and Elise.

Something just must not have been stable on the home front with the Dudley clan; Barnett struggled to keep steady employment. After having three children, Alice passed away in 1897, leaving her children motherless. Bert, only 11 years old, was left with his siblings in the care of his maternal grandmother, Candace Parish.

Their dad, in the simplest of terms, wasn’t exactly “present.”

Little in general is known about Bert’s childhood, but he seems to leave Cass Co. as a young man. He bounced his way around farms throughout Kansas working as a hired hand. He never stayed anywhere too long- probably because he was up to no good.

By May 1907, Bert’s dad Barnett got hitched to 26 year-old Verdancia “Verdie” Sexton in Harrisonville, Mo. She was 20 years younger than Barnett, and her stepson Bert was only 5 years older than she.
Harrisonville, Missouri in the early 1900s

It’s hard to determine what would have gone wrong in Bert’s life to assist his slip into darkness. Some people are born with a twist of evil within them, while others are raised that way.

While Barnett married younger, Bert seems to have preferred the older ladies. Bert was only 21 at the time he decided to get married to Laura Huehn, a 38-year-old divorcee with two young children living in Junction City, Kansas. Bert’s new life as a husband certainly didn’t slow his lust for illegal activities.

Laura may have regretted her decision to marry Bert; in January 1909, Bert was arrested for beating his wife. We have to consider the lack of support for victims of domestic violence during this time period. In 1910, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in Thompson vs. Thompson that a wife had no cause for action on an assault and battery charge against her husband because this "would open the doors of the courts to accusations of all sorts of one spouse against the other."

Considering this court case was after this arrest of Bert, it’s probably safe to say this abuse had to have been pretty ruthless.

Junction City Daily Union, March 15, 1910
But Bert must’ve not felt so bad about his actions, because as he was locked up in the jail in Hutchinson, he asked a guard to turn on the gas in his cell. As the officer complied, organized prisoners surrounded him and Bert escaped from prison. He was later found and served a quick sentence.

A year later in March 1910, Bert was working as a delivery man for a grocery store in Junction City; he was arrested for bootlegging… and got away.

There is a theme developing here.

Bert was transient; even though he was married, he was clearly moving from place to place, working odd jobs and committing crimes right and left. He would float in and out of Freeman, Mo., picking up work here and there.

In December 1910, on the cusp of the quadruple murders of Emeline and George Bernhardt and two farm hands at current-day 119th and Roe, Bert’s location from research of documents is unknown. He isn’t listed with his wife in Junction City, and he was known to bounce around the Kansas side of the state line to pick up work as a farm hand.

Trust me, this comes into play soon.

Early Harveyville, Ks. where Bert Dudley took 16 year-old Amanda Lander
Another arrest for bootlegging followed in early 1912 in Topeka, showing that Bert, although married, was transient and moving solo from place-to-place. He had been in Emporia, Ks. just before his arrest.

By the end of December 1912, the Dudley family found themselves in a few sticky situations that were plastered across the headlines in the Midwest. Just a week before the two-year anniversary of the gruesome murders at the Bernhardt farm, good ole’ Bert was up to his hair-raising ways.

After Bert was released from jail again, he returned to Lyon Co., Ks. Laura, his wife, was left abandoned 70 miles away in Junction City. Maybe Bert was getting a little lonely, because the 26 year-old lured the na├»ve 16 year-old Amanda Lander off her father’s farm in Miller, Ks. They raced to Harveyville in a buggy and a quick affair ensued.

When Bert was finished with her a few days later, he returned to his job as a farm hand. Embarrassed and unsure of what to do, Amanda hid in shame as her family started to look for her. Once she was found, she confessed to the affair and Bert was quickly arrested on December 4th, 1912. It is said when he faced the sobbing Amanda in court, he completely denied the affair and talked negatively of her.

Meanwhile back in Kansas City, Mo. at Holmes Park, Bert’s father was up to no good. As Bert awaited his final sentence in Lyon Co., Barnett Dudley was about to wreak havoc on the small community of Holmes Park. The small railroad town was quite far south of Kansas City at the time and would have sat just south of Bannister Road in between I-49 and I-435 off Marion Park Drive. The town itself has been completely erased.

But in 1912, this small community was known to have its fair share of problems. The Kansas City Star wrote, “The district has been likened to that of the mountains of Kentucky or Tennessee. It is rough, hilly, and the roads are mere paths through the tangle of shrubbery and forests. The inhabitants are clannish, poor, and hold their grudges long. And their passions are easily aroused.”

This proved to be quite true for 51-year-old Barnett Dudley and his 31 year-old wife, Verdie. A son named Charles, a half-brother to Bert, was born to the couple in 1910. Around that time, Barnett took off and left his wife in Holmes Park with her brother, Duffy Sexton. Court records suggest that Barnett deserted her and mistreated their son. As with many small communities, the neighbors took sides and feelings became bitter.

Barnett had a jealous side to him, a fact probably spurred from their significant age difference. Barnett believed a neighborhood boy, an 18-year-old named Charlie McGhee was starting to “pay attention” to his wife.

On December 10th, most likely aware of his son, Bert’s new home at the Lyon Co. jail, Barnett suggested to his brother-in-law, Duffy a game of cards with neighbors. Meeting at Mr. Large’s house, Barnett, Duffy, young Charlie McGhee and his mother gathered for the hands to be dealt. A bottle of whiskey was passed around courtesy of Barnett and the men anxiously indulged.

An artist's sketch of Barnett Dudley, featured in the
Kansas City Star December 11, 1912
As Barnett rose to leave the table, he spotted his wife across the street. Was her presence a trigger for him? One will never know.

He hastily turned toward the table and drew the pistol hidden in his pocket. The action happened so fast that the poker party couldn’t even react quickly; he pointed the trigger first at Charlie McGhee’s mother but it misfired. As the men began to rise from the table, the trigger was aimed at young Charlie’s face. As the gun’s barrel released, a fire echoed throughout the small community and the bullet struck the young man behind the ear.

He crumbled to the floor and died an hour later.

Duffy Sexton had leaped from his chair to try to get out of the line of fire, but Barnett turned the gun on his brother-in-law and shot his left arm. His arm was shattered, but he survived.

The screams resonated throughout Holmes Park as Barnett Dudley dashed out of the home on foot. He last tried to shoot a young child playing in the front yard just five feet from his aim, but the defective cartridge failed to load. The child, thankfully, was spared of Dudley’s wrath.

Barnett ran a mile north on foot to edge of Swope Park. Standing at the San Francisco Railroad crossing near present-day 71 highway and Blue River Rd., Barnett got the attention of the flagman on duty inside of a shanty house.

His gun was concealed inside his pocket. As the man came out to see what the noise was about, Barnett asked, “Why don’t you flag me?”

A photo depicting the early job of a flagman on the railroad crossings
This was a curious question to the flagman, as he was there to flag automobiles and buggies when they rang a bell in order to guide them across the tracks when it was safe.  

“You didn’t ring your bell,” the flagman hesitatingly replied.

Barnett shuffled within his pocket and produced the pistol, swaying in delirium. “Well, I will ring it then.”

With that, Barnett Dudley shot himself in the forehead in the middle of the tracks.

This murder-suicide ironically happened two years to the day when the Bernhardt quadruple murders were discovered eight miles away in Johnson County, Ks.

And there Bert was, locked up in Lyon County, Kansas awaiting his sentence for rape. Just a few weeks later, the judge threw the book at Bert and sentenced him to five to 21 years. On Christmas Eve 1912, Bert was escorted into his new full-time residence of the Hutchinson Reformatory Prison to serve out his sentence.

Merry Christmas, Bert.

While in prison, Bert’s wife filed for divorce and it was granted.

The reformatory system of Hutchinson Prison at the time included an eight-hour workday followed by two hours of school at night. They hoped to develop upstanding citizens that could return to society and be productive.

Today's view of the Kansas State Industrial Reformatory (KSIR), founded in 1885.
Known since 1990 as Hutchinson Correctional Facility
They didn’t hold onto our buddy Bert for nearly long enough for this “reform” to soak in.

Maybe like today the prisons were crowded and they needed more room. Maybe Bert Dudley had won the guards over with good behavior.

Hutchinson Daily News headline
January  29, 1915
Maybe we will never grasp what actually happened inside that parole hearing. But in the summer of 1914 after only serving two and a half years, Bert was out on parole.

To no surprise, Bert didn’t stay free for long. After his release, Bert returned as a farmhand in Missouri, sometimes working in the Freeman, Mo. area where his grandmother still lived. He was arrested again in Missouri and was placed in the county jail. Before he could be returned to Kansas for parole violation, Bert was able to escape prison yet again.

In January 1915, he was back in jail, and the mugshot sent out by the Kansas prison confirmed to Missouri that they had Bert Dudley in their custody. And how did Bert land in the county jail this time? He was there for white slavery- a term used at the time to describe human sex trafficking of Caucasian women.


This time Bert was sent off to Lansing to serve the rest of his sentence due to his parole violation. But just over a year later, Bert filed in the office of the governor of Kansas an application for pardon or parole.
Kansas Governor Arthur Capper,
 in office at the time of
Bert Dudley's pardon

And wait for it…. Wait for it….

He was granted parole. By the governor.


In March 1916, Bert Dudley was a free man. And this free man needed work.

Harvest season was upon the farmers of Johnson County, Ks. and Bert knew work would be easy to find. 55 year-old Henry Muller, a Wisconsin-born transport to the Stillwell area was in need of labor on his rented farm. He and his 43 year-old wife, Gertrude were childless yet happy in their 13 year marriage.

Gertrude Muller with her mother (sitting)
and Henry Muller
The farm they rented at 199th and Antioch contained 160 acres of prime land and was known as the Watts Farm. When Bert rolled into town looking for some quick change to fill his pockets, the Muller’s more than welcomed the manpower. Described as an unpleasant man who kept to himself, Bert Dudley did his duties. After the crops had been harvested, the Muller’s broke employment with Bert in the heat of the summer. Bert’s fire was already lit by a girl in the Stilwell area, so he decided to stay put in a boarding house to continue this courtship.

On August 22, 1916, a young man claiming to be Henry Muller rode up with grain to a grain elevator in Bucyrus, Ks. about six miles southwest of the Muller farm. After this young man pocketed the cash from the sale of grain, the elevator operator became suspicious of the man’s actions. Isn’t the farmer Muller much older? he wondered as he watched the young man drive away.

Wary of the man’s demeanor, the grain operator telephoned P.K. Hendrix, a Stilwell banker and former sheriff of Johnson County to confess his doubts of this recent transaction. Active Johnson Co. Sheriff E.G. Carroll was then contacted. They found Bert Dudley in Stilwell at a boarding house.

Original Warrant for the arrest of Bert Dudley
Courtesy of Johnson County Archives
Bert fully admitted that he knew the Muller’s and claimed they had gone to California. Not for one minute did the sheriff believe this story; a group assembled and went straight out to the Muller farm to investigate.

Sheriff E.G. Carroll searched the farm on that hot August day. As the wind died down and the landscape stilled to silence, a sharp, pungent odor crossed in front of his senses.

It was the recognizable scent of death.

They followed the dreadful aroma to an old, unused storm cellar. The door was shut, but the aroma resonating from inside required it to be gingerly opened. As the light of day struck and shadowed the contents inside the small space, the sheriff gasped.

The mutilated bodies of Henry and Gertrude Muller rested inside, covered by hay and straw.

Covered by hay? That sounds familiar.

The face of Mr. Muller was also smashed with what was thought to be an axe, as was also Mrs. Muller. Her hair had been pulled out by the roots from the blunt trauma she had faced in her final moments.

The sheriff immediately returned to arrest Bert Dudley for the murders of the Muller’s, as he was positively identified as the man who went to Bucyrus to sell the stolen grain.

An early photo of Henry Muller
Published in the Olathe Mirror
After a lengthy interrogation, Dudley confessed to the murders. He stated in his confession that he was out hunting while Henry Muller was ploughing nearby. An argument over the use of some mules ensued and confessed, “He opened a knife and ran at me. I grabbed up the shotgun and when he whirled I shot him.”

He later states he went to the house. When Mrs. Muller asked where her husband was, he shot her. He confessed to hitching both of their bodies up to a horse and dragging them a quarter mile before leaving them in the cellar.

Old habits for Mr. Dudley.

Bert Dudley showed no emotion while giving his lengthy confession. Once his cell was locked the night of his confession, he was said to have “dropped to sleep immediately.”

Bert shacked up with prisoner Fred Sickler. He was in for hog stealing and won Dudley’s trust. While time stood still inside the dark and damp jail cell, Dudley relayed Sickler stories that would, in fact, make most of us sick.

Dudley showed a spirit of a bravado after his confession. He was talkative. . . and Sickler listened.

According to his cellmate, Bert learned some valuable lessons from earlier crimes he had committed. “I suppose this Muller affair would blow over for I kept the mail box empty. I made no mistake this time, as we did in the Bernhardt murder in letting the mail accumulate and the alarm was given by the rural carrier,” Fred Sickler recounted.
Photo courtesy of Duane Hallock

So when he went to the Muller’s farm and killed them, he was sure to remove the mail from the mail box to ensure there was no suspicion. He was said to have lived in their home for three days after this heinous crime.

The jailhouse informant also declared some more of Dudley’s thinking when he talked openly of the murder charge against the Muller’s. He boasted that he wouldn’t be put to death, as Kansas had no death penalty. Sickler stated that Dudley told him “he would be paroled by the governor for good behavior in about ten years.”

Well, Dudley had good reason to believe that his good behavior would erase his wrongdoings and set him free yet again.

Sickler stated that Dudley warned him that after he was paroled he would come back “and cut the throat out of all those who testified against him.”

The trial of Bert Dudley lasted one very short day. The jury found him guilty of the murder of both Henry Muller and his wife, Gertrude. As his life sentence was read the next day, people present at the hearing noted that he just cockily smirked and chewed his gum.

The last night that Bert Dudley would spend in the downtown Olathe jail was September 20, 1916 before he was transported- yet again- to Lansing State Penitentiary.

Just after midnight on September 21st, 1916, a mob arrived outside the Olathe jail. Sheriff E.G. Carroll lived with his wife inside the jail and was awakened by the nearing commotion caused by the 60 men assembled. The sheriff watched in horror as the mob broke down the door and entered. He fired a warning shot to try to dismantle the mob, yet they continued without much fear from his gun. As he raised his gun for his second fire, the sheriff was overtaken and held down by the men on a mission.

It was clear to the sheriff what they were after. They wanted Dudley dead.

Unable to find the keys to the cell that held Bert Dudley, the mob broke down the door. For possibly the first time, Bert cowered, terrified in the corner, completely cognizant of what their intention truly was.

This was vigilante justice.

Original coroner's report of Bert Dudley's death
Courtesy of the Johnson County Archives 
Members of the mob yanked him out of his cell and threw a noose around his neck as he shrieked in fear, “I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it!”

They threw him in the back of an automobile and left downtown Olathe and drove east on Park St. Ironically, the mob turned their motorcade down aptly-named Dudley Road (now current-day Ridgeview at approximately Wabash) a mile east of town and stopped in the dead still of the summer night. The mob marched toward the nearest electrical pole and threw the rope attached to the noose around Bert’s neck.

With a garish pull by part of the party assembled, Bert Dudley was hoisted into the air, hanging from the noose. He grabbed at the rope burning his neck as he gasped for air. His legs kicked in defiance, his body contorting in pain.

But that wasn’t enough for the mob. Several drew their guns and aimed with aid from the idled automobiles’ headlights. Gunfire crackled and engulfed the cicada’s summer night’s song. As his legs stilled and his bloodied body relaxed in death, the mob disappeared into the darkness of the country road.

Photo circa 1994 of a barn on a neighboring farm to the west
of the Bernhardt's on the north side of 119th St. to the west of Roe.
The sheriff’s office tried to find who was responsible for this lynching, but no one was ever held accountable. It was assumed enraged farmers from the Stilwell area assembled for their frontier justice and organized the murder of a murderer.

The body of Bert Dudley was found a few hours later and taken to undertakers in Olathe. They pulled 12 bullets from his body. His brother, Thurman and sister, Elise were contacted in Cass County, Mo. but both declined to come and claim the body. Thus, Bert was buried at Potter’s Field in Olathe in a fittingly unmarked and forgotten location.

The lynching of Bert Dudley was the last in the entire state of Kansas and the only one on record for Johnson County.

So, is Dudley responsible for the quadruple homicide at the Bernhardt’s?

If you take the word of the jailhouse informant, then yes. And if you noticed the similarities of the crimes, then it’s plausible. If you consider the fact that neighbors of the Bernhardt’s claim that Bert Dudley had also been employed by the Bernhardt’s months before the murders, then it’s an even higher probability. When I reason that I cannot find Bert Dudley in jail or anywhere else during the time period of December 1910 when these crimes occurred, then I reason that with the preponderance of the evidence that he was, in fact, responsible for the murders at the Bernhardt farm at 119th and Roe.

A recent article caught my attention when I was finishing up my three-month research on this peculiar and disturbing case. It is suggested that the Bernhardt's could have been murdered by a man that rode the rails.

The review by the Kansas City Star of a recent book released suggests that the Bernhardt farm stood "near 135th Street on the Kansas side of the state line. . . Their internet searches reveal the farm sat close to train tracks that still curve from Kansas into Martin City."

I am sure this book included hundreds of hours of research well past the Internet as this quote suggests.

My research doesn’t just include “internet searches” but ample time and research with my friends at the Johnson County Archives in Olathe. The good stuff is in primary documentation. And the Bernhardt farm is clearly at 119th and Roe- the house would have stood near McDonalds and their land extended both north and south of that location. It’s not on 135th St. as the article mentions.

The profile of their mass serial killer includes that he would kill near railroad tracks. The railroad tracks at Martin City are over five miles away.

Regardless, Bert Dudley’s dreadful finale on Earth as the “victim” of the final lynching in Kansas still doesn’t balance the horror of his crimes I could find that he committed. He was a wife beater, human sex trafficker, a rapist- and a murderer of many.

And he was the son of a murderer.

Bert Dudley shut the doors on the barns and cellars; he lightly covering the remains of life lost with hay. He continuously disappeared into the darkness, ran from the law and worked the system until he was brought to light by the skeptical eye of a grain elevator operator. Bert Dudley had reason to be arrogant, as his head swelled with the next chance to abscond the law.

He got away with so much. But he was never equipped for the mob that overtook him in Olathe and dealt him his final justice. The last to face terror was that of Bert Dudley; his eyes widened in fear as his hands yanked at the noose smothering him. The last thing he saw were those men as they raised their guns and fired flashes of light into that summer night.

*Want to see a really cool short video about the lynching of Bert Dudley? Watch the video here!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Tribute to a Pioneer Church on the Santa Fe Trail

Churches are the foundations of communities. When towns across the plains popped up and promoted settlement in the 19th century, one of the first buildings carved out was that of a church.

But we have to ask ourselves- what happened to these country churches in midst of the development of Kansas City- or any city for that matter?

1950s photo of the corner of State Line
and Santa Fe Trail
In the case of the Santa Fe Christian Church, a lovely country church on Santa Fe Trail just east of State Line, this question turned into a battlefield of emotions when a small fire coupled with a new congregation led to the demise of a quaint church that meant the world to so many.

To tell the whole story, we must go back to the very beginnings of the Santa Fe Christian Church.

In the earliest settlement of Washington Township in Jackson Co., Mo., small churches were pivotal to the pioneers carving out their land. New Santa Fe, stretching on State Line between the wilderness of Kansas Territory and the state of Missouri, was platted in 1851. By 1860, the town, strategically placed as the last stop in civilization on the Santa Fe Trail, had two general stores, a blacksmith shop, a post office and High Grove Presbyterian Church, established in 1856.

Oh, but the Border Wars were no match to a bustling town filled with mostly pro-slavery Southern families.  And the height of the Civil War did nothing but destroy the town and most of its contents. In 1861, Jayhawkers led by Col. Jennison set fire to the town. According to an article from 1867 in the Christian Advocate, the church in New Santa Fe was torn down during the late war and hadn’t been rebuilt.

Needless to state, money post-war was hard to come by.

The Presbyterian church in town was never reorganized. Many families would travel on Sundays to Bethlehem Church of Christ in Hickman Mills, the nearest church in the area- a journey that was six miles from the town and would have taken a half a day to reach.

Bethlehem Church of Christ in Hickman Mills was founded in 1845 and held membership of pioneers from miles and miles around it. In 1869, a group of families living on the western border between Missouri and Kansas opted to start their own church in the town of New Santa Fe. These families, many of whom came from the stock of some of the first white settlers in southern Jackson Co., were: William A. McKinney, John M. Wells, William Rippeto, Richard Kirby, Joel Lipscomb, Marcus Gill, “Widow” Manion (likely Elizabeth Sharp King Manion) and Ellen Watson.

But building a church takes time. . . and money. Country preachers passing through would have services in homes or in public meeting spaces in the town. A schoolhouse which faced east on the Santa Fe Trail where the New Santa Fe Cemetery is today first served as a gathering place for this new church congregation.

John Mercer Wells (1826-1893), charter member
original trustee
In February 1881, steps were finally made to “officially” organize this new group. John Mercer Wells (1826-1893) and his wife, Catherine Rippeto Wells, took three lots they owned in New Santa Fe, totaling just about 2/3 of an acre, and deeded it to the “Christian Church at New Santa Fe”.” A payment of $315 for these lots was made. Isaac Weeks (1833-1904), Jacob Sweaney (1824-1918) and Caleb D. Kerr (1842-1925) were listed as trustees of the church.

This may not seem important now, but it certainly comes into play later.

Before a church was built in New Santa Fe, members of the community started to sense the need for a community burial ground. As these pioneers reached their 50s and 60s, a permanent place of rest was determined to be of the utmost importance. Small burial grounds often were found on pioneers’ farms; however, as they sold off their lands- and later, when development of the area occurred, these burial grounds disappeared underneath roads, brush and the foundations of new structures.  

One of the charter members and trustees of the church was William Albertus McKinney (1826-1900), a Kentuckian transplant living just over the state line in Johnson Co., Ks.  When W.A. McKinney’s wife, Eliza Rippeto became terminally ill, he and John M. Wells took lots 31, 34 and 35 and formed what we would know today as New Santa Fe Cemetery. A lot adjacent to the deeded lots (Lot 30) was donated by John E. Watson and his wife, Lou Lipscomb Watson (daughter of charter member Joel Lipscomb). This spot- Lot 30- was where the church was to be built.

The first person buried at New Santa Fe Cemetery was Eliza Rippeto McKinney (b. 1839), who died December 29, 1885.

New Santa Fe Cemetery on the Santa Fe Trail is still looked after and preserved today.
Now for those of you who have visited the historic New Santa Fe Cemetery and saunter past the weathered headstones, you know very well that there are burials at that cemetery well before 1885.

This is actually not the case. As family burial grounds were in danger of being destroyed, some of these families proactively moved their remains, headstones and all, to larger cemeteries. That’s why some of the older burials, including Dabney Lipscomb, founder of the town, are there today. They were moved there.

Uh, not all were moved, though. . .

William Albertus McKinney (1827- 1900), charter
member and trustee of Santa Fe Christian Church
An article in the Kansas City Times from 1970 mentions all these small burial grounds across the city. It states, “The Kerby cemetery would have been in the northeast corner of present-day Minor Park. . . What became of this 75 to 100 graves and markers no one knows.”

The Kerby (also spelled “Kirby”) family was instrumental in the early settlement of southern Jackson Co., and Richard Kirby was one of the charter members of the Christian Church at New Santa Fe. Yet his grave location is unknown. Only 10 of these family members of the Kirby’s were moved to the New Santa Fe Cemetery… and Richard wasn’t one of them. “Uncle Dick,” as he was known to families of the area, died in 1890 and is buried… somewhere.

By the early 1890s after the death of Uncle Dick, plans to build the church on Lot 30 were well underway. In 1891, timber hauled up the Missouri River was carted down by wagon from Westport to New Santa Fe. The Christian Church at New Santa Fe was a simple country church, painted white with one door for men and the other for women and children. It had a chimney in the middle and potbellied stoves on each side. Pews from Westport were placed inside the church and were unvarnished. The Santa Fe Christian Church was dedicated in 1892 on the land, its bright white exterior and simplicity a shimmer of hope in a town that had seen so much strife in its day.

1933 artist's sketch of the church published
in the Kansas City Star
The railroad to the south and the creation of a town called Martin City was the sealing fate of New Santa Fe’s business district. But farmers- these pioneer families- stayed put. To keep the church alive, women would sell eggs, make butter and haul their goods to Westport to be sold every Friday. The social activities of the church, even after the buildings around it were torn down, moved or withered away, were the cornerstone of this pioneer community. It gave people a reason to return to the Santa Fe Road.

And that church was their social activity for just shy of a century.

Think of all this little church and its members saw in its existence- it became one of the only structures surviving in the community even as JC Nichols snatched up land and started their planning.

In 1925, the church got a small makeover. Members pooled their money and the original chimney in the center of the room was moved to the outside, the potbellied stoves were upgraded, the room was re-plastered, the roof was replaced and a basement was added.

Kansas City Star article from 1929 mentions how the Santa Fe Christian Church hosted a church bazaar. People present could trace their family back to the southern states when settlement was sparse in southern Jackson Co. Sarah Jane McPherson Bartlett, one of the founding members of the church, stated, “Yes, I can recollect the trouble we had with the border raiders- it was the redlegs one day and Quantrill men the next, and we couldn’t do anything but just let ‘em rob us.”

A 1951 centennial celebration in New Santa Fe had the children of the area
gathered near the Santa Fe Christian Church
Burr McGee, descendant of charter member Marcus Gill who lived on a farm encompassing all of Verona Hills subdivision, fondly remembers the simpler days of the Santa Fe Christian Church. “It was all a very country small town. It was great. There were sometimes church socials outside in the area in front and on the west side of the church. I remember the cicadas buzzing, playing with other kids and eating fried chicken and cherry pie. There was Sunday School and a lot of reading from the Bible.”

Other small children that grew up in the area can still recall the importance of the church in their quaint neighborhood. Even if they didn’t attend church services, they would take up any opportunity to meet with friends for a country dinner or church event.

One of the reverends of the church, the only one that could claim the town of New Santa Fe as his birthplace, was Charles Stewart (b.1884), grandson of Archibald Stewart and Cinderella McKinney. In an article clipped from around 1939, Mr. Stewart recalled the Sunday School attendance in the 1890s when “200 youngsters and adults crowded into the building. . . The grounds were filled with buggies and wagons, the horses tied to trees while the crowd stayed for all-day services broken by a basket dinner at noon.”

Members gather at the church for a reunion in cir. 1937
Courtesy of Marilee Ciardullo
Troy Bartlett, son of Sarah McPherson Bartlett, reminisced in a 1959 article published in the Johnson County Herald, “The church has also been a big social center. The big Christmas Eve program was something anticipated from one year to the next. There were strawberry and ice cream socials, back in those days, when all the ice cream was homemade, and strawberries grew in abundance in the patches of the community.”

By the 1960s, many of the descendants of pioneer families had moved out of the area, yet several still made the Sunday pilgrimage to Santa Fe Christian Church. As the area morphed from a farming community with dirt roads to paved and platted subdivisions, the small church on a hill with its cemetery welcomed new members of newly-settled suburban families.

And five of these people, for whatever the reason, marched down to the Jackson Co. Courthouse in 1965 and incorporated the “Santa Fe Christian Church,” most likely not discussing it with members. If you recall, the church was legally named “The Christian Church at New Santa Fe,” but over the years the name had been simply shortened by locals to the “Santa Fe Christian Church.” These pioneers saw no need of any type of a new incorporation when their organization owned the land and its sacred building for shy of 100 years.

Photo of the church, courtesy of City Planning Department, Historic Preservation
(formerly City Landmark Commission)
Clues can be unearthed through these court records; this incorporation uses a Grandview, Mo. home for their legal address, and one of the men listed uses the Santa Fe Christian Church on the Santa Fe Trail as his legal address. I consider myself pretty good at researching, and the Board of Directors listed on this document don’t seem to have any attachment to the founding families – or to the area, for that matter.

The destruction of the church, in my opinion, didn’t begin when a fire took part of the building. It began with this incorporation of “The Santa Fe Christian Church” in 1965.

I’m not going to name names.

This story isn’t about them.

It’s about that little white church on top of a hill on the Santa Fe Trail that meant the world to so many.

On November 14th, 1969 at around 7:00pm, flames and smoke could be spotted swirling on the north end of the Santa Fe Christian Church. Firefighters arrived at the location, unraveling hoses and hopping into action. In the Kansas City Times article published the next day, battalion fire chief Joseph Connor said the fire started “in a defective heater system near the altar.”

Connor stated the “structure was not severely affected, and most damage was confined to the church interior and the area around the altar.”

One can only imagine the agony that this news would have caused to the families forever entwined with this church.

Many of these pioneer families weren’t about to give up on it. They knew in their hearts and minds that it was worth saving.

As the embers were extinguished, it became exceptionally clear that the blossoming tensions were about the engulf the members, new and old, of the Santa Fe Christian Church. At first, it seemed as if things would be okay; however, the question of ownership of this organization was about to get dicey.

So many hands were about to be played.

That “new” organization, aptly named the “Santa Fe Christian Church,” incorporated in 1965, wouldn’t be located at someone’s home in Grandview for much longer.

After the frost of winter lifted and the land thawed out in the spring of 1970, the congregation gathered, allegedly not notifying all members of the church, to raze the old building bruised by the fire. People went into the church and stripped it of its pews and decorations.

These actions made many members scratch their heads and then spring into action. Hugh R. Keltner and his wife, Esther (who was the granddaughter of W.A. McKinney, charter member), opted to organize a Restoration Committee. They figured if they could raise the money to restore the church, there would be no reason to destroy it.

Bill McKinney, member of the
Restoration Committee established to
fight for the church
Boy, they were sadly mistaken.

Regardless, Hugh began an aggressive campaign and recruited many of the older members to stand up and fight. Bill McKinney, John Kernodle and Homer Klapmeyer gladly stepped on board. Between the four of them, they began to contact their friends and fellow members to generate support of restoration.

“It’s not our aim to take anything from anybody,” Hugh Keltner explained to the Kansas City Star, “We just feel we’ve got a right to have our old church restored and this cemetery undisturbed.”

In September, Hugh and Bill recruited Martin City resident and friend, Gus Broockerd, to give an estimate to fix up the Santa Fe Christian Church.

Gus, the former owner of Broockerd Construction, vividly remembers what he saw when he examined the church just over 47 years ago. “It wouldn’t have been much to repair it,” Gus recalled.

In fact, documents show that Gus Broockerd estimated the damages at $3,000 to $3,500.

And tensions in the area were growing by the minute. Gus’s neighbor was a member of the church and was completely against restoring it. “I told her, ‘You know, that church can be saved. It’s kind of historic.’”

The Restoration Committee met with the trustees of the church to try to reason with them on renovation. One balked the idea and concluded that it would always smell like smoke. Another Board Member stated the church wasn’t historic and allegedly said, “That’s the past. I’m for the future.”

In July 1970, it became clear what the future would hold. The Santa Fe Christian Church took out a permit on the land next door to begin construction of a new building.

Damage to the church from the fire
Courtesy of Martha Walton
… On land they didn’t even legally own yet.

The Restoration Committee spoke to Ray Klapmeyer, a well-known businessman that grew up in the area. He was eager to help with the finances to restore the church but said he wouldn’t help build a new one.

But a “Specialty Warranty Deed” changed everything on October 26, 1970. Three trustees of the Christian Church at New Santa Fe, the legal name of the organization given in 1881, signed pen to paper. It is alleged that some may have been misled on what they were actually signing and told it was a “release of trusteeship.” But in reality, these three men transferred ownership of the Christian Church at New Santa Fe to the “Santa Fe Christian Church.”

Yes, transferred ownership to the organization started out of a house in Grandview.

Digest that for a second.

Desperate to spawn support outside of the southern Jackson Co. area, the Keltner’s contacted the Jackson County Historical Society. Their president, Col. Slaughter wished to help but was knee-deep in restoring the Wornall House. An article was published in their Summer 1970 newsletter to generate support of restoration of the Santa Fe Christian Church.

Mel Solomon, Chairman,
City Landmark Commission
Mel Solomon (1928-2017), architect and chairman of the City Landmark Commission, answered the cry for help. He drove out to the little church and examined it. He wrote up a detailed report stating that not only was the building worthy of restoration, but it should be considered as a state landmark.

Hugh Keltner and Bill McKinney got a little wind in their sail from this news.

No one would tear down a historic landmark on the Santa Fe Trail, right?!

That Warranty Deed in October 1970 had flipped the tables quite a bit, and when the insurance money for the fire rolled in, totaling around $22,000, the money was used to purchase the land they already had a permit out on next door to the weathering Santa Fe Christian Church. In November 1970, $7,000 paid to JC Nichols set the future into motion.

The Restoration Committee could sense it was time to lawyer-up, and so they did.

I told you things got a wee bit complicated…

The Restoration Committee wasn’t willing to give up; they generated a petition in the area. Some newly transplanted Verona Hills residents signed it, stating that the church and the history of the Santa Fe Trail were “selling points” to buying their homes. 290 signatures were obtained.

Hugh Keltner and Bill McKinney met with state representatives, Nick Penna and Harold Esser at the church. They explained their case and how Mel Solomon, City Landmark Commission, believed the building should be a state landmark. The reps were excited about a landmark in the area being considered by the legislature.

The swift movement of the Restoration Committee to save their little church came to a screeching halt on December 6, 1970. A letter from the City of Kansas City was sent to the church and read aloud to the “new” organization. They had five days to tear the church down, as it was considered “dangerous.”

Hearing of this alarming news, Hugh Keltner and Bill McKinney met with their lawyer and called Mel Solomon. Both helped file the paperwork to get a 60-day extension.

For now, the church was safe from the bulldozers.

The cold temperatures outside matched the reception of the Restoration Committee as they made one last-ditch effort to plead their case to the “new” Santa Fe Christian Church on February 7th, 1971.

William and J.K. McKinney, Eliza Holmes, Mabel Lawson, Hubert and Louise Briggs, Mary, Hazel and Robert Sharp, Hugh and Esther Keltner marched into the Martin City Elementary School where the church congregation was meeting while their brand-new building was being erected. They explained- pleaded- that private funds would be used to restore their little church and they wouldn’t interrupt any of their current plans with their new brick building.

The gates on the western edge of the cemetery
are close to where the outhouse for the church
once stood.
The matter came to a vote- again. The members of the Restoration Committee were not allowed to vote, because according to the by-laws, they had been “inactive” for 90 days. It was said that substantial gifts throughout the years had been given and older members unable to travel weren’t allowed to vote.

They wouldn’t hear it and the vote was cast. 17 in favor of demolition; 3 against.

Left with no choice, Hugh Keltner and Bill McKinney met with their lawyer on February 12th to file a restraining order against the Santa Fe Christian Church to stop demolition.

The very next day, Hugh, possibly sensing the severity of the situation, drove up Santa Fe Road to the top of the hill at 8:00am and took a look at the little white church.

Judge Richard Sprinkle sauntered into his office that same morning and began to sign off on papers filed. At 10:36am, he signed the injunction laying on his desk to stop any destruction of the Santa Fe Christian Church.

If only that paper had made it to the top of his pile. . .

At approximately 9:30am, the equipment arrived in front of the quaint, historic church and demolition began.

Just 66 minutes too late to change history.
Bulldozers leveled the Santa Fe Christian Church before an injunction could be served. The new church, still under
construction, can be seen in the background. Courtesy of the Kansas City Star

To think of how these families must have felt seeing that pile of rubble next to the gravestones of some of those pioneers who fought, planned and saved for the building of the church. It’s heartbreaking.

The next day, Mel Solomon, chairman of the City Landmark Commission, made his feelings perfectly clear in the Kansas City Star. “I was shocked and dismayed to hear of the needless destruction of the Santa Fe Christian Church, which is on the Old Santa Fe Trail.”

Sometimes, it seems, progressiveness gets in the way of saving pieces of our history. “This is another example of the failure of individuals to see the importance and potential of rehabilitating a significant remnant of our historic heritage,” Solomon explained, “It is tragedy not only for the valiant people who worked so hard to save this church, but to the entire community and nation.”

My, how accurate this statement is even today.

After the dust from the bulldozers settled along the drastically-altared landscape surrounding the little burial ground in New Santa Fe, Hugh Keltner and Bill McKinney filed suit as “The Christian Church at New Santa Fe” against the Santa Fe Christian Church in April 1972. They sought monetary damages as well as control of the cemetery that stood in the shadow of their beloved church.

In May, 30 members of the original church stood Memorial Day weekend at the little cemetery, heads bowed in prayer. Just two months later in July, Hugh Keltner passed away leaving this organized fight a man down. And one month after that, Paul Kernodle died in a car accident and was buried in the New Santa Fe Cemetery.

To add insult to injury, Bill McKinney passed in December of that same year.

But the fight miraculously continued, many of these original members wishing for some type of resolution. And in 1975, it was finally granted.

Pioneer families formed the New Santa Fe Cemetery Association and the “new” Santa Fe Christian Church deeded part of the original lots 31, 34 and 35 to them for $1, protecting the burial ground of their family and friends forever.

Today, the outline of the baptismal font and part of the chimney of the original Santa Fe Christian Church can be seen inside the cemetery’s gates. Asphalt of the parking lot of the newer brick church covers the remains of most of the church today, although a deep sinking spot shows where the little white church once stood.

As the subdivisions moved in and the members of the church passed away, the memory of the church could have been lost in time.

But the church will live on forever.

Three years ago, a chance encounter at a store between my mother and the president of the Historical Society of New Santa Fe brought new light to the memory of the Santa Fe Christian Church. A project through the Little Blue River Chapter, NSDAR was in the works to, fingers crossed, erect a marker for the church.

“You should talk to my daughter,” my mom boasted, “She’s really good at researching things.”

Thus, I was “volunteered” to research and write a grant for this unfamiliar church.

What can I say? The rest is history.

This research not only led me to this church, but it opened the doors to incredible stories of perseverance, pioneer lives and back to that little cemetery I loved so much as a little girl. This gave birth to this very blog and inspired me to pursue my unusual passion for the history of Kansas City.

In March 2017, the final fight for the Santa Fe Christian Church was officially recognized by the NSDAR. The grant was approved and a permanent marker will be placed where the church once stood.

Along the way, one of the most rewarding aspects of this project was meeting, talking to and resurrecting some priceless friendships with these families so deeply impacted by this. I am humbled, honored and so lucky to have met them.

Rev. Charles Stewart recounted in the late 30s how the Santa Fe Christian Church was still strong even then. “The church of tomorrow will continue its work for good,” he predicted, “because its congregation is not the type to let its interest lapse.”

The foundation of the Santa Fe Christian Church and
part of the chimney are visible today
On October 7th at 1:00pm, we will congregate one final time at the spot of the Santa Fe Christian Church and honor the founding, the fire and the fight to save this beautiful church. Many people from out of town related to these pioneers will be traveling to Kansas City for this dedication.

It’s a moment of celebration of these brave pioneers, and I hope that the community will now not forget the little pieces of it that have remained unnoticed for just shy of 50 years.

It’s my privilege to be a part of this.

Please join the NSDAR, the Historical Society of New Santa Fe, and representatives of the families of these pioneers as we have a formal Marker Dedication on October 7th at 1:00pm. The dedication will start inside St. Gregorio’s Orthodox Church next door (940 W. Santa Fe Trail) and will proceed outside to the unveiling of the marker. Afterward, all are invited to share memories, look at artifacts from the town of New Santa Fe, and stroll the beautiful grounds of the New Santa Fe Cemetery.