The Not-So-Gay '90s in Comanche County, Kansas Hosted by RootsWeb, 
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By Evelyn Reed

Excerpt from manuscript of Coldwater Centennial Notebook, compiled 1984.
Published in excerpts in The Western Star. Reprinted with permission of Evelyn Reed.

The Gay Nineties were not so gay in Coldwater. It was in fact a decade of much tragedy and despair, but there were some light moments.

In January, the U.S. Supreme court ruled in favor of C.E. Lewis in the matter of the fraudulent bonds. Issued in 1874 and legalized by Governor Osborn, they were held by Lewis until the actual organization of Comanche County in 1885.

The Southeast corner of Main and Central, Coldwater, Comanche County, Kansas, after 1910.
The southeast corner of Main and Central, Coldwater, Comanche County, Kansas, after 1910.

"Sunday's Tragedy" was the slaying of Wilford Dudley Murphy at the intersection of Main and Central on on January 25, 1890.

Murphy came to Coldwater in its early days, left in the fall of 1885, and returned after his marriage to Carrie Mahan in January of 1886. He was city marshall for about a year. He left his wife and daughter in Coldwater when he was in Oklahoma the summer of 1889, and had returned about three weeks before the slaying.

The paper reported that on Sunday evening, between five and six o'clock, Murphy started home from the Lockwood drug store. When he was about half way across the street, Dr. J.E. Sombart came out of his drugstore, raised a shot gun and fired both barrels at Murphy. Witnesses said that after Murphy fell, Sombart reloaded the gun and fired two more shots, then drew a revolver and shot three times.

One witness at the preliminary trial stated he heard Murphy, in Mrs. Murphy's presence, tell Sombart he would kill him. Another said he heard Murphy request money to send Mrs. Murphy back east; also that Murphy was attempting to blackmail him.

Still another told that a man named Tank Kee (alias Bailey) said Murphy was going to kill Sombart. Kee was a visiting lecturer on China. when this witness told Sombart, he said to find out where Kee got that information. About noon the witness spoke with Kee, who said it was the general talk of the town, he'd heard it from a dozen sources. The witness himself was unaware of such talk but repeated Kee's talk to Sombart, and also said he felt if Murphy said he would kill someone, he would do so.

About five or ten minutes later, Murphy lay breathing his last.

Witnesses told the wind was blowing hard from the north. Some said Sombart called to Murphy to go back and Murphy made no reply. Most witnesses agreed that Murphy had a sack in his left hand. (It is later written the sack contained rice he had just purchased.) It was also agreed that he had his right hand under his coat about hip level. (Perhaps implying it appeared he held a weapon there?) None seemed in agreement as to the number of shots, but all did agree Sombart used two guns, and used a post to aim the pistol. One said that there was a dog than ran around Murphy everytime Sombart shot.

One man, behind Sombart, said, "MY GOD, Doc, think what you are doing." Another started to go to Murphy after the first shots, but backed off.

This was Dr. G.W. Pritchard. The was the first to reach Murphy. H.G. Taggart turned Murphy over. He seemed to smile and blew, and froth and blood came from his mouth and he blew it out. Dr. Pritchard testified to the location of all wounds. Five were mortal, and there were a total of fourteen.

Judge Widaman admitted Sombart to bail of $10,000. On March 5 his attorney asked for a change of venue. The State's attorneys wanted the judge to review the case and if evidence seemed to show first degree murder they wanted the accused held in jail without bail.

The next day Judge Price said he had to power to review the case after bail had been set, accepted bail and granted the change of venue to district court in Clark County. Sarah Murphy, sister of the deceased, walked over and slapped Judge Widaman three times "with no weapon save her bare hand."

Records show this sister paid for Murphy's burial. His funeral procession was half a mile long.

On March 8, about twenty prominent ladies of Coldwater called on Mrs. Murphy and invited her to leave on the next train. She promised to leave Monday, as she needed to pack, but did not leave until Wednesday.

John Curran later wrote that the reason the women invited her to leave town was because all the men had important business to look after. But they did stop long enough to peek around the corner while the women took care of the business at hand.

Curran said the town was badly divided over the matter. Darcey Dunne wrote that a great many believed that there was some connection between this killing and the next one, which took place May 1, 1890.

About eleven o'clock that night, S.W. Miles, a lawyer, struck Dr. G.W. Pritchard "with some blunt instrument." He died the next day of a skull fracture. This killing took place about ten feet from where Murphy was slain. H. Chapman said the men had quarrelled over a point of law regarding the Sombart case. Others said Chapman was a particular friend of Miles and there was no quarrel.

Sheriff McIntire ran after Miles and got close enough to identify hiim, but Miles escaped. McIntire later arrested him at Englewood after U.S. Deputy Marshall Edwards captured him at Beaver, in No-Man's Land. Miles did not know of Pritchard's death until after his capture.

This case was tried at Meade Center. Curran said Mile's defense was given by his brother, a U.S. District Attorney for the Eastern Iowa District. He had great forensic power, and stayed up all night practicing his speech.

Both trials were long. Sombart was acquitted on Febrary 21, 1891, and Miles had also been acquitted by then. The Western Star was glad the trials were over, and hoped there would be no more of the same character. (It was just over 34 years before there was another killing on Main Street; it did not provoke the division the earlier slayings did.)

Darcey Dunne wrote that Sombart's trial divided neighbor against neighbor for years and entered into the politics of the county. It is not clear whether he meant there was some political reason for Murphy's death, or that factions set up by the death became political.

SUNDAY'S TRAGEDY: W. D. Murphy Slain on the Street by J. E. Sombart, The Western Star, 01 February 1890.

SOLOMON W. MILES KILLS DR. G. W. PRICHARD   The Western Star, May 10, 1890.

STATE vs. SOMBART   The Western Star, 21 June 1890.

Obituary of Dr. J.E. Sombart   The Western Star, 10 July 1908.

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This page was last updated 27 December 2003.