Michael J. Malone
Douglas County Law Library

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Lawrence, Kansas 66044
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This Month in Legal History

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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.

October 7, 1898 - John J. Kunkel is arrested and charged with murdering his wife.

John(1) J. Kunkel(2) was born in Germany around 1848, and later emigrated from there to the United States. He came to Lawrence, Kansas in 1876. On October 26, 1877, Kunkel married Ellen E. Root, daughter of Ebenezer and Sarah Root, in Lawrence. Ellen had been born in Buck's County, Pennsylvania, on November 10, 1848, but the Roots had lived in Lawrence since at least 1870. Kunkel was a tailor by trade, and eventually became what was later described as a "prominent citizen" of the town. Late in 1879, Ellen gave birth to a daughter, Ada E., around 1884 she gave birth to a son, Julius S., and around 1887, she gave birth to another daughter, B. E. In total, she gave birth to six children, four of whom were living at the end of 1894. In October of that year, Ellen became ill. Her condition worsened, and on December 10, 1894, she died of what was reported as "nervous prostration". Ellen was buried the next day in Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence. After Ellen's death, Kunkel took in a housekeeper, but aside from that he lived alone with his children. There were whispers that he had murdered Ellen for insurance money, but nothing official was done by the authorities. Eventually, he met Lydia R. Comingor(3), a woman who had a young daughter named Birdie. It is not clear if Lydia was a widow or divorced. She was a seamstress, and rented a space above Kunkel's shop. Kunkel and Lydia courted, and on July 8, 1897, the two were married in Lawrence. Lydia and Birdie moved in with Kunkel and his children. According to later reports, there was trouble in the marriage from the beginning. In late June or early July 1898, Birdie, who was 14-years-old, became ill. Her doctor diagnosed gastritis, and it was reported that he was not too concerned about her eventual recovery. Despite the doctor's optimism, Birdie's condition worsened, and she was reported to be suffering considerably. Then on July 30, 1898, Birdie died. Lydia "was prostrated with grief, and at the child's death ran to a neighbor's house, crying 'Birdie has been murdered. I shall never go back again to that house.'" She was reported to have spoken during Birdie's illness that she had suspicions that Kunkel was slowly poisoning her daughter, and that she again voiced them to the neighbors. Acute gastritis is a symptom of slow arsenic poisoning, so her suspicions about her daughter's death were not out of line. Lydia's neighbors convinced her that she was wrong, and she went back home. Around the first week of September, Lydia became ill, with symptoms similar to those of Birdie. Around midnight on September 26, 1898, Lydia died at home. Kunkel quickly had her embalmed. Old rumors about Kunkel poisoning his first wife and his father-in-law, and having burned down his house for insurance money were quickly brought up again. The authorities immediately began a coroner's inquest into the deaths of Lydia and her daughter Birdie. Although her body had been embalmed, Lydia's stomach, liver, spleen, and kidneys were removed for analysis before her burial on the 28th in Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence. On October 7, the coroner's jury brought in a finding that Lydia Kunkel had been murdered by poison, and issued a warrant for Kunkel's arrest on a charge of committing that murder. The analysis of Lydia's stomach and vomit had shown large amounts of arsenic in both, which would not have been the result of the embalming of her body. Kunkel was arrested and jailed that afternoon. The jury then turned its attention to Birdie Comingor's death, and witnessed the exhumation of her body that same afternoon. They then adjourned to await the analysis of Birdie's body. Kunkel's preliminary hearing began on October 14th, and lasted until the 17th, when he was bound over for trial in district court to be held without bond. On November 12, 1898, the coroner's jury found that Birdie Comingor "was poisoned maliciously, willfully and unlawfully by administering arsenic poisoning by some party or parties unknown to this jury." Since they failed to name a perpetrator by name, Kunkel was not charged in his step-daughter's death. Kunkel's trial for the murder of his wife Lydia began on February 21, 1899. The prosecution attempted to bring in the suspicion that Kunkel had murdered Birdie Comingor, but Judge Samuel Agnew Riggs "ruled out every mention" of her case. Judge Riggs continued to rule out much of the testimony the prosecution attempted to get in, including that from a witness who tried to testify that Lydia Kunkel had told her that Kunkel had poisoned Birdie and was poisoning her. The defense rested on March 1st and the case went to the jury. The next day, Judge Riggs instructed the jury to bring in a verdict of not guilty, which the jury did. The Lawrence Daily World pointed out that no other verdict was possible, considering that the judge had ruled out most of the prosecution's evidence, leaving them with no real case. The paper went on to observe that "it does appear to the community that the power of the court should not be used for technical purposes as against the prosecution of the community in such cases as this." Prior to delivering his charge to the jury, Judge Riggs had written a review of the case, which was printed in its entirety in the March 4, 1899, issue of the Lawrence Daily Journal. By the summer of 1901, Kunkel had supposedly not been feeling well for some time. Early in the morning of August 30, 1901, he began feeling very unwell. He sent for his daughter and a physician. Kunkel died around 7:00 a.m., with the cause of death being attributed to heart disease. His funeral was on August 31st, followed by burial in Oak Hill Cemetery next to his first wife Ellen. Cemetery records show that this second wife Lydia is also buried in the Kunkel plot, but there is no marker of any kind there with her name on it. Where is Lydia? It is just one more unsolved question in the saga of John J. Kunkel.

(1) Since he was born in Germany, his given name at birth was probably Johann or Johannes, and he anglicized it to John after coming to America.

(2) In some reports, his last name is misspelled as Kunkle.

(3) Some sources spell the name Comingore. From: Kunkel, John, 1880 U. S. Census, 1st Ward, Lawrence, Douglas County, Kansas, 6/14/1880; John J. Kunkel [1877], Family Search website; Root, Ebenezer, 1870 U. S. Census, 1st Ward, Lawrence, Douglas County, Kansas, 6/13/1870; Lawrence Daily Gazette, v. 6, no. 77 (December 10, 1894), p. 3; John J. Kunkel [1897], Family Search website; The Lawrence Gazette, v. 17, no. 841 (October 13, 1898), p. 2; Lawrence Weekly World, September 29, 1898, p. 5; Lawrence Daily World, v. 7, no. 180 (September 27, 1898), p. 3; Lawrence Daily World, v. 7, no. 182 (September 29, 1898), p. 3; Lawrence Daily World, v. 7, no. 181 (September 28, 1898), p. 3; Lawrence Daily World, v. 7, no. 189 (October 7, 1898), p. 3; Lawrence Daily Journal, v. 30, no. 249 (October 8, 1898), p. 2, 4; Lawrence Daily World v. 7, no. 195 (October 14, 1898), p. 3; Lawrence Daily World, v. 7, no. 197 (October 17, 1898), p. 3; Lawrence Daily World, v. 7, no. 220 (November 12, 1898), p. 3; Lawrence Daily World v. 7, no. 307 (February 21, 1899), p. 3; Lawrence Daily World v. 7, no. 310 (February 24, 1898) p. 3; Lawrence Daily World, v. 7, no. [313] (February 28, 1899) p. 3; Lawrence Daily World, v. 8, no. 1 (March 1, 1899), p. 3; Lawrence Daily World, v. 8, no. 2 (March 2, 1899), p. 3; Lawrence Daily Journal, v. 31, no. 54 (March 4, 1899), p. 2; and, Lawrence Daily Journal, v. 33, no. 209 (August 30, 1901), p. 1.

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Created: November 27, 2006; Revised: October 11, 2016