PITTSBURG — During the U.S. Civil War and in the run-up to it, “Bleeding Kansas” and particularly the area along the Missouri state line saw intense fighting and violence, including notable incidents in the southern part of the border region, such as the Baxter Springs Massacre.
While Pittsburg itself was not founded until after the war, and not incorporated until 1880, that happened to be the same year Kansas enacted prohibition of alcohol, which lasted longer here than in any other state. Crawford and Cherokee counties soon became a hub for bootlegging, and saw their share of violence associated with the illegal enterprises that sprang up.
A new book, however, Murder & Mayhem in Southeast Kansas by Larry E. Wood, documents some well-known and other less widely-remembered incidents of sensational violence throughout the southeastern part of the state, the causes of which were often seemingly more senseless than those linked directly to the war or to bootlegging in the area.
Wood recounts the story, for example, of the “Bloody Benders,” a family of German immigrants that used hammers and knives to murder visitors to their rural home north of Cherryvale before dropping their bodies through a trap door, and later burying them in a nearby orchard. The Bender family’s only apparent motive for these killings seems to have been to rob their victims, sometimes of quite small amounts of money. While the Benders’ crimes are fairly well-known, Wood said in a recent interview that his book is the first to offer some new details on the family’s origins before arriving in Kansas.
Other episodes detailed in Wood’s book include the botched 1892 attempted robbery of two Coffeyville banks simultaneously by the Dalton brothers Bob, Grat and Emmett and other members of their gang “just to show … it could be done.” Such a scheme was apparently easier said than done, as the Daltons would find out when Bob and Grat died trying to carry it out.
While many of the stories Wood tells are fascinating, some of these —such as that of Minnie Wallace Walkup, who may have poisoned her husband, the acting mayor of Emporia— also seem to push the definition of “Southeast Kansas” to its limits.
“Since I was trying to cover the whole southeast quadrant all the way over to Wichita, I tried to keep kind of a geographic balance,” Wood said. If he had been focused on the extreme southeast area of the state, he might have included more stories of incidents that may be better known locally, he said. Wood added, though, that having previously written in greater detail about the history of Baxter Springs and other nearby areas, he might be able to answer some readers’ questions at his book signing.
“I might not be able to answer all their questions,” he said, “but I could probably talk some history with them.”
Despite the broader focus on the entire southeast quadrant of Kansas, Pittsburg makes at least one appearance in Wood’s book. J. Ellison Scott —accused of shooting his wife Eleanor and then blaming fictional burglars— checked into a Pittsburg hotel with the niece of his late wife shortly after her death, registering under fake names as a married couple. In addition to the motive of his alleged affair with Eleanor’s niece, Wood writes, the prosecutor of the case hoped to prove that the “financially embarrassed” Scott planned to cash in on a life insurance policy he had recently taken out on his wife, but it was not to be.
“A case that had been hailed as the most sensational in Linn County history wound down with little publicity,” Wood writes, “and John Ellison Scott quietly walked away a free man.”
Wood’s previous books include Desperadoes of the Ozarks, The Two Civil War Battles of Newtonia, Ozarks Gunfights and Other Notorious Incidents, and a historical fiction novel, Showdown at Baxter Springs. He got the idea for his latest book after writing another in the same series, Murder & Mayhem in Missouri, he said.