Archive for Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A glimpse of old-time justice

April 9, 2008

What started out as a simple check of two transients resulted in a kidnapping in Bonner Springs and a murder in Topeka in the spring of 1912. The chain of events are chronicled in the book, "Deadly Days in Kansas," written by Wayne C. Lee. In fact, reading the book I have been surprised at the murder and mayhem in the first 80 years of Kansas history.

As was the case in the early part of the 20th century, tramps rode the rails and often stopped in small towns. Sometimes the transients ended up being involved in robberies and thefts. Apparently, it was the custom for local law enforcement officers to check the railroads on a regular basis and then hassle the hobos. The events leading up to the Topeka murder started in Bonner Springs when Ben Milstead, city marshal, went to the Santa Fe Railroad yards to check on a pair of suspicious characters. The ensuing encounter was recorded in the May 12 issue of the Chieftain under the headline, "Close Call for Milstead."

When the men, Lewis Lagrande and Frank Miller, saw Milstead, they pulled their guns and took him prisoner. "They pulled their guns and calling on me to throw up my hands, before I could get my gun out of the belt," he told the Chieftain.

"They took my revolver and started down the road with me saying they would have some fun," he continued.

When they met a section hand, Milstead was threatened with death if he said anything, which didn't deter the marshal. He told the section hand that the two men had the drop on him and were going to kill him. After a short period, they agreed to release Milstead. They returned his weapon and told him to walk to Bonner Springs and not to look back. Shortly after returning, he recruited his brother and they attempted to find the men but had no success.

"They made no attempt to rob me, but jollied about having me as their prisoner. I took them to be desperate men and expected them to shoot me at any time," he told the newspaper.

Milstead assumed the men would head to Topeka and notified authorities, who began watching local depots.

According to the book, Topeka did not have a full-time police department at that time and appointments were based on friendship with city officials. Such was the case with Caswell Matthews, who worked at the post office in addition to part-time police duties. He was assigned to the Union Pacific station, which was apparently part of his regular beat. He saw two men who fit the description provided by Marshal Milstead, and as he approached them they pulled their weapons and the shootout was on.

Matthews was hit in the neck and lung, however one of his rounds struck Legrande in the wrist. Mattews was taken by citizens to a nearby home, where he died the next day. He was the first Topeka officer to die in the line of duty.

As might be expected, a huge manhunt started for the two assailants. The Chieftain reported that LeGrande and Miller "were taken by the chief of police and a large number of his force."

Justice was swift in those days, but certainly not as severe as in modern Kansas. Within two days of their arrest, Legrande and Miller were found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Even then, a life sentence didn't mean what it said.

Legrande was released from prison in October 1923, just 11 years after the crime. Miller served `17 years for the crime and came out of prison in 1929. Certainly, modern justice would be much more severe.

Lee's book gives a fascinating look at crime in the early days of our state. Certainly, if you read the old issues of the Chieftain you'll find that the badly staffed local law enforcement battled crime ranging from petty theft and vandalism to murder. Yet, like their modern counterparts, they put their lives and safety on the line to make sure citizens had a safe and secure community. Yes, we owe a huge debt to police officers of all generations.

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