From When Kansas Was Young, pages 61 - 65.
The Comanche StealThe Fraudulent Organization of Comanche County, Kansas
The Fictitious Town of Smallwood, Kansas
by Thomas Allen McNeal
One day in the summer of 1872 two or three buffalo hunters were riding through the favorite grazing grounds of the then countless herds of bison in southwestern Kansas when they came upon a camp of five men. Three of the men were A. J. Mowery and James Duncan, of Doniphan County, and Alexander Mills, of Topeka; the other two were residents of Hutchinson, probably C. C. Beemis and Major Bowlus, but of that I am not certain. The five were busily engaged in working out a plan for the organization and subsequent looting of Comanche County. They had their plans about completed, but needed a county attorney and proposed to one of the buffalo hunters, J. S. Cox, that he take the position. Cox was not a lawyer, but they assured him that a total lack of legal knowledge was not an objection but rather an advantage. To have a county attorney who was a lawyer in the organization they were forming might be embarrassing. Cox seems to have fallen in with the proposition in that free and easy way of buffalo hunters, not regarding it seriously. The quintet then unfolded to him their plan, which was really charmingly simple. It was to organize the county, send Mowery to the Legislature to secure the passage of a law authorizing Comanche County to issue bonds for the building of a court house, building bridges and $20,000 or $30,000 for the payment of general expenses. The second part of the interesting program was the organization of school districts and the voting of almost unlimited school bonds.
The new county attorney listened in amazement. He knew that within the 900 square miles of territory they proposed to include in the county, there was hardly a single bona fide inhabitant and not a dollar's worth of taxable property, except some roving herds of cattle which could easily be driven out of the reach of the assessor. He was curious to know who would buy the bonds issued by such a brazenly fraudulent organization and was told that in Topeka there was just as good a market for a fraudulent bond as a genuine, the only difference being the price.
So, with no one to molest or make them afraid, the band of thieves matured their plans and put them into execution. From St. Joe hotel registers, supplied presumably by Mowery, the names of residents were gathered. A census taker was appointed, one A. Updegraff, the son of an honest father and mother who had fallen among evil companions and who was persuaded to become the handy tool of thieves, although he probably received but little share of the plunder. Within the brief period of ten days or less Updegraff, according to the record, rode or walked several hundred miles over trackless prairies of Comanche County, gathered the names of 600 bona fide inhabitants, solemnly swore to the correctness of the list, and forwarded his report to the governor's office at Topeka, and on October 28, 1873, the proclamation was issued declaring the county duly organized.
Election day was drawing near and according to program Andrew Mowery was selected by the five to represent the county in the lower house of the Legislature. It was an easy and inexpensive election. Two hundred and forty names were copied from the convenient St. Joe hotel register and voted for Mowery. Certificates of election were forwarded to the secretary of state and at the opening of the legislative session in January, 1874, Mowery appeared with his credentials and was sworn in as a member of the law-making body. Everything moved with the smoothness of well oiled machinery.
The fraudulent commissioners were authorized to issue bonds for various purposes and did issue $29,000 to C. C. Beemis to build a court house. Getting court house bonds was Beemis' specialty. It will be recalled by those who have read the section, "The Looting of a County," that the Barber county commissioners issued at different periods to this same Beemis some $65,000 in warrants, afterwards funded into bonds, to build a court house. In addition to the court house bonds the county commissioners issued $23,000 bridge bonds and $20,000 bonds to pay general expenses, in all $72,000. Then came the second part of the program, the organization of school districts and the issuing of bonds. This opened an inviting and extensive field, but it was through the school bond steal that the looters came to grief. School district No. 1 was organized about the county seat, in which there was one cabin, named in honor of the then secretary of state, Smallwood, who was also one of the board designated by law to care for and invest the school funds of the state. District No. 1 issued bonds to the extent of $2,000 and Representative Mowery came with the bonds to Topeka and offered them for sale to the permanent school fund. With the approval of Secretary Smallwood and the superintendent of public instruction, a gentleman by the name of McCarty, Mowery sold the bonds for $1,750 and either pocketed the money himself or divided his loot with his confederates.
It was planned to load the school fund with at least $40,000 more but happily the attorney general interfered with the arrangement. The secretary of state and state superintendent attempted to clear their skirts, but if they were not positively dishonest they certainly were criminally negligent of their duty.
Having apparently concluded that they had gathered about all the harvest of loot there was to gather, the organizers of Comanche abandoned it to the buffalo and the coyote, and in 1876 Mowery, who had gone back to Doniphan County, somehow persuaded his neighbors to send him to the Legislature from that county, although the record of his villainy had become generally known. The Legislature of 1876 expelled him and at the instance of the attorney general he was arrested, charged with having forged the school bonds he had sold to the state. When notified that he was to be arrested he fled the state, but was apprehended over in Missouri and brought back for trial. For want of positive evidence of the forgery, the county attorney of Shawnee County dismissed the suit and Mowery went free.
It is a shameful fact that not one of the thieves engaged in the fraudulent organization of Barber, Comanche and other counties was ever punished by law for his crime. If a citizen buys a horse in perfect good faith and afterwards finds that it was stolen he must restore it to the owner when the latter proves his title. The fact that he was an innocent purchaser does not save him from loss, but although it was common knowledge that the region in which Comanche County was located was in 1872, 1873, and 1874 an uninhabited wilderness, the purchasers of the fraudulent bonds were not required to beware of their purchase. The courts protected them, saddled the burden of the utterly fraudulent obligations on subsequent settlers, who had no part in their making, and then failed to mete out any punishment to the thieves. No wonder the man who is serving a term of years in the penitentiary for stealing a calf or a few dollars, cannot see the justice of a law which punishes him with great severity, while thieves who boldly plundered through fraudulent bond deals to the extent of hundreds of thousands of dollars are permitted to go scot free and even pose as honorable citizens.
Most of the plunderers who operated in Barber and Comanche Counties have gone to their final rewards. The last time I saw the census taker of the fraudulent organization of Comanche he was suffering from a severe bullet wound received in an impromptu duel on the streets of Dodge City with the celebrated Bat Masterson, the other party to the shooting. He revived from that to die later from smallpox and was laid away by the gamblers and demimonde of that then wild frontier town. The others, who were much more guilty than Al Updegraff, have gone, I do not know where, but if there is an old-fashioned orthodox hell they are probably meditating on their past sins as they roast in the sulphurous habitations of the damned.
The Approximate Location of Smallwood, Comanche County, Kansas
View this 15 August 1991 USGS photo on TerraServer USA
The Approximate Location of Smallwood
My childhood home was the homestead of my great grandfather Loren Ferrin. It was about 2 miles north of the supposed location of Smallwood, Comanche County, Kansas. My grandfather, Ernest Leroy Ferrin, pointed out the location to me many times when we drove past it, just as I'm sure it had been pointed out to him by my great grandfather.
The location: take the road east to Sun City from Wilmore past Wade-A-While Park, then turn north on the road which goes towards the old Valtos Richardson place which now belongs to Wendell Unruh. The road runs in a northeasterly direction before it goes through an autogate. To the north of that road I just described, over a small bluff and to the north of Spring Creek, is a fairly flat valley area. That, I was told, was the location of Smallwood.
You can also see the location of Smallwood on this map of Comanche County.
-- Jerry Ferrin, 26 July 2007.
History of Comanche County from Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, 1912.
The following RootsWeb Visitors Counter began counting on 03 Feb 2008.
This RootsWeb website is being created by Jerry Ferrin with the able assistance of many Contributors. Your comments, suggestions and contributions of historical information and photographs to this site are welcome. Please sign the Guest Book. This page was created 04 September 2007 and was last updated 03 February 2008.