June 4, 1889
On this day, “tough-looking drifter” Nat Oliphant was lynched in Topeka, Kansas. His body disappeared the next day and didn’t turn up for decades.
Oliphant, 32, had come to Topeka simply to burglarize homes, according to contemporary newspaper accounts. (Newspaper sketch, right) He was apparently practicing his craft at 4 a.m., on a June morning, entering the home of local tailor Alphonso Rodgers, through an unlocked porch door. The homeowner was awakened by a noise, made either by the intruder or by the couple’s young daughter suffering from whooping-cough at the time.
Rodgers collided with Oliphant in a dark, second-floor hallway and was immediately shot in the abdomen. Rodgers’ wife, Melvina, hearing the gunshot, rushed to help her husband and was also shot, according to one account. The commotion woke the couple’s young Swedish hired girl, Mary Klinderman, who struggled with the burglar wrestling him to the floor.
Oliphant managed to escape Klinderman and evaded capture for several hours. But a witness spotted him heading for the river and a bloody shirt and jacket were found along the bank.
Missouri River near Topeka
Mrs. Rodgers survived the attack but Rodgers, just 43 and the father of two young children, died at 10 a.m. that morning. His death enraged the citizens of Topeka.
On a hunch, two local officers boarded the train to the town of Tecumseh, several miles east. They planed to walk the route back to Topeka in hopes of encountering the murderer.
Topeka train station in the 1880s
Before the return trip, the pair spotted a shirtless man walking along the tracks. Oliphant quickly disappeared into the underbrush but the officers managed to flush him out, positively identifying him by Mary Klinderman’s tooth marks on his right hand where the girl had bitten him. Back in Topeka, he reportedly confessed to the crime and was locked up in the Shawnee County Jail.
Kansas already had a two-decades-old death penalty provision but a number of death sentences had been commuted. Fearing a commutation by the newly elected governor, Lyman Humphrey, (right) sparing Oliphant, some 1,500 angry Topekans decided to take matters into their own hands. The mob quickly overwhelmed Oliphant’s jailers and hung him from a convenient telegraph pole.
The town’s undertaker finally persuaded the reluctant cemetery superintendent to provide a grave and Oliphant was buried the following day, the same day his victim Mr. Rodgers was laid to rest nearby.
The next morning, however, Oliphant’s grave appeared to have been disturbed. Officials found the coffin full of dirt and the body missing.
No one was ever prosecuted for the lynching and apparently no official investigation of the grave robbery was ever conducted. When human remains were found along the riverbank years later officials assumed they were Oliphant’s based on the length of the bones. No further attempts at a positive ID were ever made but it was believed the long-missing murderer had been found. He was returned the Topeka Cemetery, the location of the grave never recorded.
At the time, the gruesome Oliphant affair was considered extraordinary in the otherwise quiet town of Topeka. It was nearly a half century later, however, that Kansas recorded its last lynching when accused rapist Richard Atwood was hanged in Rawlins County in 1932. In all, 206 lynchings were known to have occurred in the state between 1850 and Atwood’s death.
The award-winning Kansas History Museum, 6425 6th Ave, Topeka, features a more complete story of the people of Kansas with artifacts ranging from Carry Nation’s hammer to Kit Carson’s hatchet along with General Ike’s jacket and a moon rock. The museum grounds include the Kansas Historical Society’s headquarters in the historic 1847 Potawatomi Mission (above) and a two and a half mile nature trail and picnic area.
Open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 to 5 and Sunday 1 to 5. Closed holidays. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 2 to 17, $9 for seniors, active military and college students with ID. The Nature Trail is open daily year-round from sunrise to sundown. For information go to kshs.org, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (785) 272-8681.
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