Time Before Now, June 1889 -Former Indiana senator Benjamin Harrison was sworn in as the 23rd president, the grandson of the nation’s ninth president, William Henry Harrison, and great grandson of Benjamin Harrison V , a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Austrian Archduke Crown Prince Rudolf was found dead along with his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, at his secluded hunting lodge, Mayerling, in January. Officials termed a suicide pact. George Eastman began selling flexible roll film and the Eiffel Tower opened in Paris along with the Exposition Universelle. Detested by the French fine arts establishment, it was due to be torn down at the close of the exposition much to their relief. It was so popular with the paying public, however, it was spared. Paris has rejoiced ever since.
June 4, 1889
On this day, “tough-looking drifter” Nat Oliphant was lynched in Topeka, Kansas, And then his body disappeared.
The foot loose Oliphant, 32, had come to Topeka simply to burglarize homes, according to contemporary newspaper accounts. 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, possibly made by the intruder or by the couple’s young daughter suffering from whooping cough.
In a dark second floor hallway Rodgers collided with Oliphant and was immediately shot in the abdomen. Rodgers’ wife, Melvina, heard the gunshot. Rushing to help her husband she too was shot, according to newspaper accounts. The commotion woke the couple’s young Swedish hired girl, Mary Klinderman, who wrestled the burglar to the floor, biting his hand in the struggle. Oliphant escaped Klinderman and evaded searchers for several hours before a witness spotted him heading for the river. A bloody shirt and jacket were lying on the bank.
Missouri River near Topeka
Mrs. Rodgers survived the attack but her 43-year-old husband did not. He died at 10 a.m. that morning, leaving Melvina and two young children behind. His death enraged the citizens of Topeka.
Two local officers, acting on a hunch, suspected the clothing found on the riverbank was a ruse and caught the train to Tecumseh, several miles east. They planed to walk along the track back to Topeka hoping to encounter the fugitive.
Topeka train depot, circa 1889
The pair spotted a shirtless man even before reaching Tecumseh. Oliphant disappeared into the underbrush but the officers flushed the suspect, positively identifying him by Mary Klinderman’s tooth marks on his right hand. Back in Topeka, he reportedly confessed to the crime and was locked up in the Shawnee County Jail.
The state’s death penalty provision was already two decades old by 1889 but a number of recent governors had commuted several capital sentences. Fearing Lyman U. Humphrey, (right) a staunch member of the reform- minded Republican party of the day, might do the same, angry Topekans decided to take matters into their own hands. A mob of some 1,500 local men quickly overwhelmed Oliphant’s jailer, hanging 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. It was the same day his victim, Alphonso Rodgers was laid to rest nearby.
The following 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 was ever conducted into the grave robbery. When human remains were found along the riverbank years later, however, officials assumed they were Oliphant’s based on the length of the bones. No further attempts at a positive ID were made since it was widely believed the long-missing murderer had been found. His remains were 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 But it wasn’t all that extraordinary for Kansas. It was nearly a half century later that Kansas recorded its last lynching in 1932 when accused rapist Richard Atwood was hanged in Rawlins County. In all 206 lynchings were known to have occurred in the state between 1850 and Atwood’s death.
The death penalty in Kansas has continued to be controversial. Repealed in 1909 it was reinstated in 1935, although executions have been rare. One of the nation’s most infamous capital cases occurred there in 1959 with the murder of four members of a farm family in Holcomb. It became the subject of the 1966 best selling book, “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote (Above)
The award-winning Kansas History Museum, 6425 6th Ave, Tokepa, 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 and a two and a half mile nature trail and picnic area.
Open 10 to 4, Wednesday through Saturday, closed Sundays and 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 year-round from dawn to dusk. For information go to kshs.org, e-mail email@example.com or call (785) 272-8681.
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*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable. When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.