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.”

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