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Local History: Last illegal public hanging in Topeka (Part 1)

The evening of June 4, 1889, resembled many others for the A.T. Rodgers household. The home, located at 3rd and Fillmore, was a respectable brick dwelling occupied by Alphonso (“A.T.”) Rodgers, his wife and their young daughter. The Rodgers also had a live-in housekeeper, Mary Klinkerman. Rodgers' daughter was recovering from a recent illness, much to the relief of her worried parents. When the family retired to bed for the evening they knew nothing of the threat that loomed just outside their window.

Who was Alphonso T. Rodgers?

business cardBorn in Indiana in 1846, Alphonso (a.k.a. “Alphonzo,” “Alonzo”) Thomas Rodgers was a well respected Topeka businessman. In the span of two decades, he had made quite a name for himself within the community, most notably in the grocery and tailoring businesses. (Image: A.T. Roders' business card from Radges' City Directory of Topeka, 1885-1886)

A.T. married Malvina “Bertie” Geiger in approximately 1881. Interestingly, Bertie’s father, George Geiger, was noted as being one of the oldest Topeka residents at the time of their marriage. Bertie and A.T. had a daughter, Rebecca, in 1882.

A shot in the dark

illustration of criminalSometime between 3 and 4am on June 4, 1889, A.T. was awakened by a sound  across the hall. He initially suspected it was his daughter Rebecca, who was recovering from whooping cough. When he arose to check on her, he was met by a startled intruder. A.T. attempted to grab the man and was shot point blank in the stomach. (Image: Illustration of the criminal from Topeka State Journal, June 5, 1889)

When the shot rang out it woke up Bertie. She joined her husband in his efforts to restrain the burglar, who ended up firing a second shot during the scuffle. She was hit by this shot, although it’s unclear exactly where. A third and final shot struck A.T. in the arm.

The unlikely hero

During the altercation, Bertie called out to Mary Klinkerman for assistance. The housekeeper’s bedroom was directly across the hall, next to Rebecca's. Lamp in hand, Mary entered the room ready to take action.

According to Capper’s Weekly, “She set the lamp down on a chair and, noting the position of the three parties on the floor, placed both hands on the throat of the enemy and pressed down as hard as she could.”

Perhaps a direct result of Mary’s bravery, the gun was then successfully contained.

“Let me go, I won’t hurt you!” yelled the assailant as he was restrained. He then began to weep and beg for his life. In what could be called an appropriate dose of irony, A.T. Rodgers struck the perpetrator in the head with his own gun. A.T. then released him after reminding him of his undeserved mercy. A.T. fired the fourth and final gunshot in a desperate attempt to call for assistance.

From burglary to homicide

headlineSeveral neighbors, a few of which were doctors, arrived after hearing the commotion from Rodgers' home.  They attempted to stop the bleeding with no success and administered chloroform as an anesthetic. Unfortunately, A.T. succumbed to his injuries just hours after releasing his assailant. What followed was a race by law enforcement to capture a career criminal turned murderer. (Image: Headline from Topeka Capital, June 5, 1889)

While authorities hurriedly organized their pursuit, Bertie and Mary provided their description of the murderer to police headquarters. Immediately, authorities send telegrams with the description to officers throughout the city.  Sheriffs, detectives and deputies scoured Topeka and the surrounding area.

Sergeant Simonton and Patrolman Crist ultimately came face to face with the murderer. They had taken a plug train to Tecumseh and were initially unsuccessful in their attempts to locate their suspect. While walking back to Topeka, Simonton and Crist encountered a suspicious male “about a half mile” from the Tecumseh bridge. The officers separated to pursue the subject. Simonton followed the trail toward Topeka while Crist held back near the bushes where the suspect had fled.  

Crist was quietly seated on a rock when he was met by the perpetrator emerging from the wooded area. Crist confronted him, stating “I believe you are the man I am after.” Surprisingly, the suspect did not argue, and was taken into custody without incident. This, however, was just the beginning of what would result in chaos, vandalism, and ultimately, an additional death.

To be continued….


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