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· George M. Duckworth (1867-1954)
It’s Tuesday, October 18, 1927, in Hutchinson, Kansas. Hutchinson Chief of Police George “Came” Duckworth, 60, and Mrs. Anna Kelly, 46, police matron, are at the police station, talking.
“If the citizenry knew we worked 15-hour days with hardly a day off, do you think they would recommend we receive more support from the city?” asked Anna.
“Hard to tell,” replied Chief Duckworth. “There are some who think we’re already overpaid. They would be quick to remind us that if we don’t like our job, we should quit.”
“Our greatest need is a detention home,” said Anna. “Most of my cases are not the result of depravity, but too often the wrong environment. If the girl or woman had a better environment, they could be brought back to a more normal way of living that fits within moral and civil law.”
“I appreciate you speaking to the clubs in the city, keeping them informed about why women and children need shelter,” said the chief. “People listen to you because you tell them of real experiences—young women arriving in Hutchinson without a job or a place to stay who have been hurt.”
“The Salvation Army home is always filled,” said Anna. “I had to take another helpless girl home two nights ago rather than put her in a cell and lock her up.
“Jail is not the place for girls in temporary trouble at home or out of work. They deserve better; they haven’t committed a crime.”
“I know you’re busy visiting the picture shows, looking for girls who should be in school, and watching the dance halls for immoral behavior,” said the chief. “You’ve already made a difference in many young lives.”
“When Mrs. Mettlen had this job, I didn’t realize how dedicated she was,” said Anna.
“Because of you placing girls in safe homes, they can go on with their schooling and get the education they need,” concluded Duckworth.
“Automobiles have changed everything for lawmen,” said Chief Duckworth. “Before the horseless carriage, we were chasing horse thieves, not crooks stealing automobiles. (Click to view 1908 Reward Postcard Reno County Sheriff George Duckworth)
“Before the auto, it was easier to solve crimes and catch criminals. The public needs to understand that things are not the same. Nowadays, sometimes, we aren’t as likely to locate stolen property within a day or two. A thief can travel a hundred miles in any direction before the crime is even reported.
“This increased mobility means our cooperation with other departments around the country is more important today than ever before.”
“Have you ever considered why some people follow the law while others choose to break it?” asked Anna of the chief.
“During my four years as sheriff from 1907 to 1911, I worked eight murder cases and we captured all but one,” said Duckworth. “Each time we made an arrest, and after each conviction, I asked myself that same question. I concluded that there is not one answer, but many possible reasons why people turn to crime. Certainly, a violent home environment is one reason, insanity another.
“In 1908 in Kiowa County, Samuel Bitler, 24, was convicted and sentenced to serve a life term in the state prison for raping and murdering Mrs. Susan Rosenberger, 47, a pioneer woman who lived outside Belvidere. He shot her three times in the head so she wouldn’t talk.
“To prevent mob violence during the court process, Bitler was housed here in Reno County at our jail.
“Sam had a bad reputation prior to the murder even though he had a stable family with both parents. His father was a banker at Eureka.
“Unfortunately, Sam Bitler escaped by sawing through three jail bars. We suspected that his wife, Kittie Josephine Dempsey, had given him jail-breaking tools the afternoon before his escape. She had been allowed into his cell to visit. Later, we were told by a prisoner that she had secreted a hand saw, a saw made from a knife, and a file, under her dress, next to the belt.”
“Isn’t Bitler the man who left a note behind, warning you not to hunt him, or one of you would come home in a box?” asked Anna.
“That’s right,” the chief replied as he laughed. “I figured he’d be caught sooner rather than later. He was six feet seven inches tall, 180 pounds, walked slouchy and somewhat stooped, and was a cigarette fiend. We sent out 1,000 reward postcards around the country for his capture.
“Eventually, I caught him in Memphis, Tennessee. After reading letters that were sent to his wife here in Hutchinson, I went and found him when he let his guard down. Bitler came out of hiding in order to buy cigarettes. He gave me no trouble once I threw down on him.
“I had Sam handcuffed to me the entire train ride to Hutchinson. He was his typically quiet self, but it was during our return trip that I heard him laugh for the first time in the many months he was in our bastille.
“A native of Missouri got on the train at a small town. The only vacant seat was directly across from Sam and myself. This ‘hill-billy’ came in, seated himself, and began glancing around. His eyes rested for a moment on the handcuffs, one attached to Bitler’s right wrist and the other to my left wrist.
“He looked quickly around in all directions, ‘What they got you fer, boys?’ he asked. “I explained that they had me for murder and Sam for grand larceny.
“‘Well, where’s the guy that’s guardin’ you?’ was his next question. I replied that he was in a rear coach. I gave a description which would have fit a good many men. The mountaineer, without a word, slunk back thru the several coaches to the rear. ‘Yep, he’s back there. Now if you boys want to beat it, you better jump now!’
“It was then that Sam laughed.”
“I took Sam to the state penitentiary in 1909. He escaped from there in 1919.
“Regrettably, eight months later, in Missouri, Bitler killed again. This time it was a man, Frank Elliott. Bitler was developed as a suspect after a number of Elliott’s checks were forged. When the lawmen arrived at Bitler’s home to investigate, Bitler was working on a plot of soft earth near his home. He said he was preparing a garden.
“Elliott’s body was found buried 15 inches under the ground. Just like Mrs. Rosenberger, 12 years earlier, the victim had been shot . . . three times in the head.”
“Anna,” said Duckworth, “on occasion, in my long career, I’ve met bad men who have had no moral compass to give them direction. I don’t know what caused them to become diabolic, but they used their power to manipulate others to help them escape accountability for their evil-minded actions. Bitler’s wife helped him escape from our jail; Bitler’s mother assisted him in staying hidden after escaping jail and prison. In my way of thinking, both of these women were accessories to the Missouri murder of Mr. Elliott.
“Fay Brown and I were both orphans—he at age six, me at 13. But our unfortunate circumstances didn’t cause us to turn bad. Some people, like Bitler, have it easy growing up, but they make selfish and ruinous choices. Sooner or later, most of them end up dead or in prison.
“Chief, the community appreciates both you and Sheriff Brown for choosing to wear the star,” said Anna.”
Chief Duckworth concluded, “Fay and I have both tried to do our best, to keep the bad from hurting the good.”
Until next time, happy writing and reading.