This page contains the "This Month in Legal History" column as
published in the current Michael J. Malone Douglas County Law Library
E-Mail Newsletter. The column features a different event from the
history of law and jurisprudence of Douglas County, Kansas, that
occurred during the month. It is published monthly in the Michael J.
Malone Douglas County Law Library E-Mail Newsletter and on the Home
page of this website.
Archived entries from this and previous years can be accessed by visiting the This Month in Legal History Archive page on this website.
November 20, 1892 - Professor Sommers is stabbed by Ben Johnson.
George W. Sommers was born October, 30, 1861, in Ohio. Nothing else
is known of him prior to his coming to Lawrence, Kansas, which occurred
sometime before July 29, 1886(1). Sommers was a musician, "a very quiet
peaceable sort of man," and had acquired the title "Professor", by
which he was often referred to in newspaper articles. He sang and
played a number of instruments. Sommers taught music and frequently
gave public performances. From what can be determined from newspaper
articles, he was a well-respected citizen in town. Sommers had a friend
named James Seybert Tipton, known as "Seybert", who was a local barber.
Tipton had been born September 3, 1861, in Bedford County,
Pennsylvania, and had attended Lane University in Lecompton, Kansas,
before moving to Lawrence. Around 10:00 p.m. in the evening of Sunday,
November 20, 1892, Sommers was accompanying Tipton to Tipton's room(2).
The room was located above a business in downtown Lawrence, and was up
"the first stairway south of Riddle's grocery on the west side of the
street(3)." It was reported that they were going there to arrange some
music. As they were about to start up the stairs, they heard screaming
and crying coming from the next stairway south of the doorway where
they were standing. They stopped to listen. After a few minutes, a
little boy and girl came down the stairway to the south and over to
Sommers and Tipton, saying that there were three men upstairs who were
going to kill their sisters. Another man named Ed Rahskopf came up,
having been attracted by the noise. A woman came down the stairs and
asked for someone to go up and help. Rahskopf said he would go if he
had a gun, but nobody had one, so he did not go. Soon after, a man
named Ben Johnson came down the stairs from where the noise had been
coming, and walked over to where Sommers and Tipton were standing. He
came up to Sommers and asked him "if he wanted to take the matter up."
Sommers said he did not. Johnson pulled out a knife and stabbed at
Sommers, inflicting "a very ugly cut on his left side." He also struck
at Tipton but missed. Sommers was taken to the office of Dr. Charles V.
Mottram, where he was treated for his injury, and then taken to
Tipton's room. Meanwhile, the sheriff arrived on the scene and arrested
Johnson, a man named Jack Delahunty, and a young man named Hale. In
reporting on the incident, the Lawrence Daily Journal
noted that the stairway from where the cries had been coming led to the
rooms of "the notorious Dalene girls" who "are inmates of a disorderly
house(4)." They were the sisters that the boy and girl were referring
to when they came down the stairs. The woman who had come down the
stairs asking for help was the mother of the Dalene girls. The paper
continued, noting that "The place is a well known [sic] resort
and has been for some time. Last night there were some young men there
as usual. They raised a big disturbance and the noise was heard on the
street for some distance." The young men referred to by the newspaper
were presumably Johnson, Delahunty, and Hale. In commented on Johnson,
the newspaper noted that he had been "in police and justice courts a
number of times" and that he had "a quarrelsome disposition." Ben's
father, James T., known as "Watermelon Johnson"(5), had died in the
late 1880s, and left the family $100,000, which was a significant sum
of money at that time. Ben Johnson and his younger brother Will had
then "proceeded to squander" it... [i]n four years with fast horses and
every other device that men on the lookout can come across...." The two
brothers then began a life of crime. A warrant charging Ben Johnson
with intent to kill Sommers was sworn out. Delahunty and Hale were put
under a $1,000 bond on a charge of deadly assault against the Dalenes.
Town Marshal C. T. K. Prentice and a policeman named James arrested the
Dalene sisters, who were fined $26.50 in police court for disturbing
the peace. Sommers recovered from his injury and apparently suffered no
long term effects from his wounding. Johnson's bond was set at $1,400,
and his mother, Sarah E. Johnson, mortgaged her last remaining property
to pay the bond. He was released and ordered to appear in the May term
of the district court in Douglas County, Kansas, but he jumped bail and
left town. His mother lost her property and became destitute. Johnson
was eventually arrested in Missouri and returned to the Lawrence jail,
where he was held without bond until his trial in the November 1893
court term. The trial began on November 14th in a crowded courtroom.
The case went to the jury at noon on the 16th, and just before 3:00
p.m. that afternoon it came back with a verdict of guilty of
manslaughter in the third degree. Even though the assault by Johnson on
Sommers had not been fatal to Sommers, the jury determined that Johnson
had tried to kill Sommers. At the time, this amounted to manslaughter
in the third degree, which carried a sentence of not less than six
months in the county jail or more than five years in the penitentiary.
On December 12, 1893, Johnson was sentenced to two years in the
penitentiary by Judge Alfred W. Benson. In the 1895 Kansas legislative
session, two attorneys named Dail and Flint got a bill through the
Kansas Legislature to appropriate $1,400 to recompense Sarah Johnson
for the money she lost when her son jumped bail. Flint applied to the
state treasurer for the $1,400 showing a power of attorney. Dail
protested, claiming that the power of attorney had been obtained
through misrepresentation by Flint. Dail then got Sarah to admit to the
probate judge that she was of unsound mind and incompetent, and Dail
had A. N. Moyer appointed as her guardian. A jury later found that she
was not of unsound mind but was merely incompetent. In order to collect
the $500 that was owed to them, Samuel Agnew Riggs and W. W. Nevison,
the attorneys who had defended Johnson in his trial, filed suit to stop
Moyer from disposing of Sarah's $1,400. In early 1896, Judge William G.
Holt of the Wyandotte County, Kansas, Court of Common Pleas took the
case under advisement. It is not clear what Judge Holt did or how all
the legal wrangling eventually came out, or whether Sarah ever got any
of the $1,400 allocated to her by the legislature. Around the 10th of
August of 1896, Sommers' friend Tipton became ill with typhoid fever.
At 1:00 in the morning on August 20, 1896, he died in his room at the
age of 24. It was observed that he "was a popular young man liked by
all with whom he came in contact." His funeral was held in the
Methodist Church the morning of the 21st, and his remains were taken to
Westphalia, Kansas, where he was buried in the family plot in Cherry
Mound Cemetery there. Sommers continued his musical activities after
the death of his friend. A short 1898 article in the Lawrence Weekly World
reported that Johnson was "at work and has been steady since he was
released from the penitentiary" for stabbing Sommers, but this did not
last, because in 1902 he was convicted of a crime in Missouri, and sent
to the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. George Sommers
remained a well-known musician in Lawrence, participating in numerous
concerts and other musical activities over the years. He died on
October 28, 1932, and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence(6).
(1) This is the earliest date that a record associating his name with Lawrence has been found.
(2) Some reports have Sommers and Tipton sharing the room.
(3) An 1890/91 city directory for Lawrence records Riddle's grocery
at 726 Massachusetts Street, which would be on the east side of the
street, while the 1893/94 and subsequent city directories record it
being at 923 Massachusetts Street, which is on the west side of the
street. It appears that the store must have moved locations around
1892. Since the newspaper report covering the events the night of
November 20, 1896, gave the grocery's location as being on the west
side of the street, the probable location of it and the other locations
mentioned in the story were in the 900 block on the west side of the
(4) Although the term "disorderly house" can mean any place where
unlawful activities or public nuisances occur, it usually means a
(5) The elder Johnson was a farmer in Wyandotte County, Kansas, and
was known as "Watermelon" because he had made his fortune selling the
(6) The headstone in Oak Hill Cemetery spells his last name
"Sommer", while in all newspaper accounts in which his name appears it
is spelled "Sommers". Although it is not unheard of for newspapers to
misspell a person's name, their consistency over a period of over forty
years, added to the fact that misspelling names on headstones in not
unheard of either, leads to the conclusion that the stonemason who
carved Sommers headstone left the "s" off the end of his name.
From: Sommers, George W., 1900 U.S. Census, 1st Ward, Lawrence Kansas, 6/10/1900; George Sommer,
Find a Grave website; The Lawrence Gazette, v. 4, no. 210 (July 29,
1886), p. 1; Lawrence Daily Journal, v. 24, no. 279 (November 21,
1892), p. 4; Lawrence City Directory, R.L. Polk and Company,
1890/91-1895/96; Descendants of Frederick Hill,
by Marcy Lou Cook, Collectornuts website, p. 11; The Lawrence Gazette,
v. 11, no. 534 (November 24, 1892), p. 2; Lawrence Weekly World, v. 4,
no. 51 (February 13, 1896), p. 4; Kansas City Gazette, v. 39, no.
2031/v. 11, no. 141 (December 17, 1896), p. 3; Lawrence Daily Journal,
v. 24, no. 2 (November 14, 1893), p. 4; Lawrence Daily Gazette, v. 5,
no. 57 (November 16, 1893), p. 3; Johnson, J. T., 1880 U.S. Census,
Wyandotte Township, Wyandotte County, Kansas, 6/8/1880; Douglas County
Jeffersonian (The Jeffersonian Gazette), v. 12, no. 21 (December 14,
1893), p. 3; Kansas City Gazette, v. 38, no. 1965 /v. 10, no. 126
(August 15, 1895), p. 8; Lawrence Daily World, v. 4, no. 294 (February
5, 1896), p. 3; Lawrence Daily World, v. 5, no. 159 (August 20, 1896),
p. 3; Lawrence Weekly World, vol. 7, no 27 (September 1, 1898), p. 5;
Lawrence Weekly World, v. 11, no. 23 (August 7, 1902), p. 5; and,
Lawrence Daily Journal-World, v. 76, no. 259 (October 28, 1932), p. 2.
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