Have you heard of the P.R. Wreuster Murder of 1911? It is a legend that has faded with time, but was once the talk of the town.
What started out to be a school assignment caused quite a stir in 1911 Olathe. William “Pug” Ferguson, a student at the School of Journalism at the University of Kansas, was assigned to come up with an actual situation for a murder for his short story writing class. Several students in this class all lived together in Lawrence. They were sitting around discussing the class, each hatching their own murder scheme. Mr. Ferguson knew his plan was so good that he claimed it would bring the large city papers running within 4 hours. He said anyone can write about an imaginary situation, but he wanted to be original.
A graduate of Olathe High School in 1909, he found the perfect place for his scheme: the old abandoned Ott’s Mill. The building was located on Cedar Street, not too far from the water works pond and Frisco Lake. During Thanksgiving break, he enlisted Jim McKay, a high school friend, to help with his plan. They took the blood from a Plymouth Rock rooster (hence the name P.R. Wreuster), and smeared it on the second floor of the structure. Mr. Ferguson had previously snatched his sister Nanette’s hairpins, barrette, breastpin and a gold beaded necklace. They placed these on the floor beside the blood, along with a blood-smeared pipe matted with hair. They also positioned bloody handprints on the wall. Upon leaving, they let the blood drip as they walked back down the steps. The boys then went to the Olathe Mirror and wove a tale about the bloody evidence. The newspaper man did not believe them and told them as much. At this point the boys admitted to their experiment. They thought the matter was over, but later at Christmas, the building’s watchman came upon the blood. He hurried to notify Deputy Sheriff E.G. Carroll (later known for the Bert Dudley lynching). In addition to the Deputy, C.B. Little, the county attorney, rushed to the mill. All Christmas Day, the deputy and a dozen assistants armed with long poles dragged lakes and ponds searching for a dead body. They waded through icy waters and, of course, came down with colds the next day. Shortly after the Sheriff’s office was notified, the big city papers, the Kansas City Post and the Kansas City Star, caught wind of the story and headed to Olathe. Speculation was that the woman road the Strang line from the city before she was lured to the room and killed. She was then dragged down the stairs and thrown into one of the ponds. There was even an eyewitness to an unidentifiable couple walking by the mill at the time of presumed murder.
Within 24 hours the murder mystery was solved. The story of a murder hoax spread throughout the state. Newspapers exploded with the story, Headlines read, “Boys Faked Mystery”, “’Murder’ At Olathe Work of U. Students” and “Planned Fake”. When it was discovered that the blood was from a Plymouth Rock Rooster, the headlines started to get clever: “P.R. Wreuster of Olathe ‘Fowlly’ Murdered” and “Olathe Murdered ‘Miss’ Turns out to be a ‘Mr.’ Rooster”. As if that wasn’t enough, there was a little newspaper rivalry going on between the local Olathe paper and the big city papers. The Star claimed that the local newspaperman was deceived also. The Olathe newspaperman was so incensed by this accusation that he printed a two-column front page story defending himself. The young men were not prosecuted, but they both experienced notoriety afterwards. Mr. Ferguson landed a job at the Atchison Champion before moving on to the Dallas Dispatch, the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angles Record and the Los Angeles Examiner. He was an early WWI pilot, and held a flying license with the army, the navy and the Marine Flying Corps. While training in Florida it is said he fell 600 feet but sustained no serious injury. Then he fell again 4000 feet in Tampa Bay, but this time spent four months in the hospital.
Professor Merle Thorpe, head of the journalism department at KU, denied there was ever such an assignment where students were expected to create an actual murder situation, they were only to create one on paper.
-Terri Bostic, Johnson County Library