Vigilante Justice in 1916 Olathe

Many people think of the early twentieth century in Johnson County as an innocent time, where residents worked hard and pursued a good life.  There were, however, certain incidents that may shock the casual observer of our area’s history.  One such incident was the case of Bert Dudley.  Dudley was the victim of the last known lynching in Johnson County.   Dudley’s lynching occurred during the early morning hours of September 21, 1916 at what is now Ridgeview Road and Lakeview Avenue in Olathe.  Kansas had no death penalty at the time, and a mob of masked men, infuriated by a horrendous double-murder that Dudley admitted to, took the law into their own hands.

Bert Dudley was a 28-year-old ex-convict who worked as a farmhand in the Stilwell area.  One farm he worked at was owned by Henry and Gertrude Muller, a married couple in their 50s.  In August 1916 a grain elevator operator in Bucyrus became suspicious when a young man who identified himself as Henry Muller tried to sell him wheat.  The grain elevator operator contacted Stilwell residents and inquired about the Mullers.  Henry and Gertrude Muller could not be located and Bert Dudley’s name immediately surfaced as a suspect.  Dudley was tracked down at the boarding house where he resided in Stilwell.  When questioned by police, Dudley said the Mullers had gone to California for one year and left him in charge of their farming operation. Because of Dudley’s past and his reputation, investigators dismissed his story as fabrication.

Bert Dudley's 1914 parole agreement.

Bert Dudley’s 1914 parole agreement.

Investigators and Stilwell residents searched the area and eventually found the bodies of Henry and Gertrude Muller in a storm cellar on their property.  The couple had been shot and beaten with an ax.  Bert Dudley quickly broke down and confessed to the murders.  Stilwell residents were outraged by the crime and rumors of a lynching were heard in the area.

Dudley endured a brief trial and was found guilty and given a life sentence on September 19, 1916.  On September 20, Johnson County sheriff E.G. Carroll put Dudley in his cell at the jail in downtown Olathe.  Dudley was due to be transferred to the state penitentiary in Lansing the following day.  Shortly after one o’clock in the morning, Carroll was awakened by a disturbance outside the jail’s main doors. When he opened the door, Carroll was confronted by an estimated 65 men wearing masks and brandishing weapons.  Some members of the mob subdued the sheriff as others went to work breaking down three steel doors with a sledgehammer. Eventually the men reached Dudley in his cell, looped a noose around his neck and took him outside to a waiting car.

A caravan of 15 to 20 vehicles left downtown Olathe and headed southeast to the countryside.  The men stopped their cars on a dirt road and proceeded to hang Dudley from a telephone pole.  The mob also shot Dudley 15 times while he hung from his noose.  The lynch mob then dispersed into the night.  Investigators tried to piece together information, but no one was ever charged in the murder of Bert Dudley.  The story caught on nationally and accounts of the lynching were featured in newspapers from Massachusetts to California.  The New York Times was shocked that such a crime had occurred in America’s heartland; “There is no more virtuous or moral community than Kansas, none more persistently devoted to improving and regulating human conduct.  Kansas can no longer look with indignant superiority on states where tumultuary killing is practiced.”

The Olathe Register, September 21, 1916.

The Olathe Register, September 21, 1916.

Although the Bert Dudley story is not widely known among the general public, this dark chapter in Johnson County history has resonated throughout the years.  The street where the lynching occurred ironically was called Dudley Street in 1916.  The name of the street was later changed to Ridgeview.  In 2008, the Olathe Daily News named Bert Dudley as one of Olathe’s 150 most notable people.  A short documentary was made about the crime in 2012:  http://vimeo.com/56736914

– Matt Gilligan, Johnson County Museum

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