Sunday, March 27, 2011

Wild Bill in Abilene

After the death of Abilene’s Tom Smith in 1870, the town needed a new law officer to tame the wild cattle town.  Mayor Joseph McCoy (who you may remember brought the cattle drive to Abilene) and the city council, decided to hire a new City Marshal for the 1871 cattle season.  Their choice for City Marshal was James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok.
Photograph courtesy of the Dickinson County Historical Society.
Hickok maintained order and quiet in Abilene to the best of his ability.  His eight months tenure was a stormy one though, with the end of the cattle season following an incident widely known as the Phil Coe shooting affray.

Prior to his time as Marshal in Abilene, Hickok had performed many duties including scout for the Union and constable of Monticello Township, Johnson County, Kansas.  His reputation preceded him due to an article published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in February 1867; and his many exploits which were talked about throughout the country.  One particular exploit, the McCanles affair, was well known, and involved Hickok fighting anywhere from four to fourteen men at the same time.  While Hickok was involved in several impressive gunfights, many of these stories were greatly exaggerated.  In addition to having exaggerated stories, the Harper’s article featured many falsehoods.  The author of the piece did not even get Hickok’s name correct, calling him William Haycock.

While employed as city marshal of Abilene, Hickok continued the enforcement of the city’s no fire arms ordinance.  This ordinance was still ignored by many, and shootings did occasionally occur.  Those that ignored the ordinance did not openly carry a firearm though, as Hickok would have tried to confiscate it if they did.  Hickok did not maintain a mostly ceaseless patrol of the streets as his predecessor, Tom Smith, had.  Instead he often set up his unofficial headquarters at the Alamo Saloon, where he could be found gambling while on duty.  
Photograph courtesy of the Dickinson County Historical Society.
During his time in Abilene, Hickok had several enemies and was always on his guard in case of an assassination attempt.  This would lead to an incident, known as the Phil Coe affray, which would greatly affect Hickok.  After responding to a rowdy crowd near the Alamo Saloon, Hickok shot and killed the former owner of the Bull’s Head Tavern, Phil Coe.  Hickok believed that Coe was trying to kill him, and responded in this manner to save his life.  Most reports state that Coe fired two shots at Hickok and provoked the attack, neither of Coe’s shots found their mark though.  A policeman, Mike Williams, responded to the scene after hearing the initial commotion, and was accidently shot by Hickok.  This would be the last major event to happen during Wild Bill’s time as Marshal.  Since the cattle drive season came to a close, Hickok was relieved of his position in December 1871.  After this period, crime rates dropped greatly after the Abilene city council and the Farmer’s Protective Association decided that the cattle trade should not return for another season.

In 1872, due to an increase in domestic livestock deaths related to Texas Fever, an ever growing problem with unlawful cowboys, and a local economy moving towards being agriculturally based, Abilene passed an ordinance prohibiting Texas longhorns, making it necessary for ranchers to find new railheads to ship their cattle from. The following proclamation was issued: “We the undersigned most respectively request all who have contemplated driving cattle to Abilene to seek some other point for shipment, as the inhabitants of Dickinson County will no longer submit to the evils of the trade.”  So ended the cattle town days of Abilene.
Photograph courtesy of the Dickinson County Historical Society.
Further Reading:

Joseph C. Rosa is a fantastic author and researcher of Wild Bill.  His books They Called Him Wild Bill and Wild Bill Hickok: The Man and his Myth are both great resources for more information on Wild Bill Hickok.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tragedy in 1949: The Death of the Davis Brothers

On Sunday, April 24, 1949, a tragedy occurred in the Abilene area that harkened back to the dangerous age of cowboys and cattle towns.  On this day, a man living south of Abilene, near Brown’s Park committed a multiple murder-suicide.

On this morning, Charles K. Rush, an area farmer, opened fire on three separate people before police arrived to his farmstead.  Rush , a noted eccentric, lived with his brother-in-law Mervin Franks, and a housekeeper Mae Pettriess.  Before sunrise on that fateful morning, Rush approached his brother-in-law’s bedroom with a loaded 12-gauge Remington automatic shotgun.  While still lying in bed, Franks was shot by Rush, injuring his arm and face.  Franks, afraid that Rush would fire another round, stayed motionless in the bed, pretending to be dead.  Rush began to approach Franks, but heard a noise upstairs as his housekeeper, Pettriess, rushed down the steps to see what had happened.  Rush then fired at Pettriess, greatly injuring her right shoulder.  Rush then proceeded to start a fire in his home.  Franks reported that while he was still lying in bed, pretending to be dead, he heard the splash of some liquid on the floor and the strike of a match.  Suddenly a bright light shined into his room.  Franks initially thought it was the sun coming up.  However, the light was not sunlight, but a fire in the garage and farmhouse.  Around this time, Mrs. Pettriess escaped the house and ran to a neighboring home to notify the police.

Sheriff Bill Davis and Deputy Milton Davis, brothers, reported to the scene after Mrs. Pettriess called in.  As the brothers arrived at the house, Franks made his escape while Rush was focusing on the approaching officers.  Franks hurried to a nearby neighbor’s home.  The Davis brothers approached the house.  At this point in the events, it is unclear what exactly happened, but it is clear that there was a brief shootout between the officers and Rush.  The investigation after the tragedy showed that the Sheriff had fired his pistol three times, while his Deputy had fired once.  Both officers were shot and killed by Rush while they attempted to enter the home.

A neighbor of the Rush farm, Fred Yuhl had been out doing chores when he saw a fire at Rush’s home.  Yuhl and his wife drove over to investigate and confirm that the house was indeed on fire, so that they could report it to the police (not knowing that the police had already been notified).  When Yuhl arrived, he stepped out of his car and began to walk towards the house.  He noticed that the garage was engulfed in flame, and that a body lay on the front porch.  Yuhl suddenly heard an explosion, but continued to walk towards the house.  A little while later, he realized that the explosion was actually the sound of a gunshot, and that he had been shot.  Yuhl ran back to the car and hurried off to get help. 

Eventually, the house became completely engulfed in flames.  Rush was burned to death inside the home, he had not been injured by any of the shots fired by the Davis brothers.  The house burned completely to the ground, leaving only the foundation and chimney.  The bodies were so badly burned that they could only be identified by items that were carried by each individual.

The three wounded testified in court to report what had happened.  Many items were used in court to identify each person.  The charred remains of Sheriff Davis’ billfold, watch, and pistol as well as many other items were used during the court proceedings.  Mervin Franks testified that he had been threatened by Rush with an axe a few years prior to the fire.  He said that he was not afraid of Rush though, but he was cautious around him.

The Davis brothers were buried in the Abilene cemetery.  A large granite memorial still stands today, and reads, “Erected 1950 in grateful memory of the brothers Bill and Milt Davis, Sheriff and Deputy Sheriff of Dickinson County, Kansas, who together lost their lives in the line of duty on Sunday, April 24, 1949.  They had been summoned to quell a pre-dawn disturbance at a farm house near Abilene and were shot from ambush.  Their devotion to the community in which they lived and served is recorded in history as a challenge to all future generations.  This memorial, together with a bronze tablet at the court house, was the gift of volunteer donors from all parts of Dickinson County.”

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Founders of Abilene

Timothy Hersey arrived in Kansas in July 1857.  He settled along the bank of Mud Creek in present day Dickinson County.  Timothy was an adventurous fellow, and a land surveyor.  He first constructed a dugout, a completed a log house in 1858.  After the construction of his home was finished, he sent for his family to move to the new home.  Soon, his wife Elizabeth, and their children were living together again.  Their modest home was located where the Lebold Mansion in Abilene stands today.

The Hersey family built a small store and a barn, and quickly became a common stop for travellers on the Overland and Butterfield Stage Lines.  Many travellers stopped at the Hersey home for a meal and rest.  At the time, the Herseys were known as the last place to get a good meal in the west.

After Timothy had laid out a town, more and more settlers began to come to the area.  A name for the town was needed, and in 1860, Elizabeth Hersey chose a name that she thought was suitable.  Elizabeth was a deeply Christian woman, and found a name in Luke 3:1.  She named the town Abilene, which means “city on the plains.”
Elizabeth Hersey.  Photograph courtesy of the Dickinson County Historical Society.
Over the years, Timothy found himself doing a wide arrange of work.  He operated a small grist mill on the creek bank, near where Fifth Street in Abilene is located today.  Timothy later became the first Dickinson County clerk, and was elected as a state representative for Dickinson County in 1861.  He served two terms.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Couple of Facebook Pages You Should Follow

If you have not “liked” these two pages, be sure to do it!

You can find information about upcoming events and participate in our popular trivia questions every weekday.

On this page, you can learn about current exhibits and view many photographs in our collection.  If you are from Dickinson County, be sure to check out the “Familiar Faces?” photograph album and see if you recognize anyone pictured.

Interesting Exhibit on Display at the Eisenhower Presidential Library

I paid a visit to the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum a couple of weeks ago.  It had been quite a while since I had last toured the museum, library, and boyhood home, so it was nice to see everything with a fresh perspective again.  

A new exhibit this year at the library features the 8 Wonders of Kansas in celebration of the state’s sesquicentennial.  It’s a really interesting exhibit that features several photographs and artifacts related to the Kansas Sampler’s many 8 Wonders lists.  More information can be found at the Kansas Sampler and the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum websites.  If you have not gotten a chance to see this exhibit, I highly recommend it.  It is free to see this particular exhibit and will be on display until September 5, 2011.