This week, we bring you a summary and round-up of stories from several Kansas newspapers concerning a murder that occurred around this time in 1915. At the time, it was considered one of the most horrifying cases in the state’s brief history since the Indian massacres.
The body of 24-year old Nellie Byers, a Grant County schoolteacher, was found the morning of Oct. 23,1915, a Saturday, touching off a murder investigation and subsequent trial that became one of the top Kansas stories for the next six months. As the story unfolds, looking at it from a modern perspective, questions arise. Did an innocent man pay the price for this murder?
It was Miss Byers first teaching job, taking her from her home town of Ulysses (at that time called New Ulysses, as the town was moved to a new location two miles west of the original town in 1909, solely to avoid paying taxes on bonds for improvements that never occurred when grafters absconded with the money) in Grant county to the little town of Satanta in neighboring Haskell county.
News of the murder reached Great Bend on Oct. 27, 1915.
Girl Assaulted and Murdered
“The body of Miss Nellie Byers, a young school teacher, near this place, was found this morning by searchers who had spent the night looking for the missing teacher. The clothes were partially torn from the body, and the girl had been strangled to death by her murderer or murderers, who used her sweater to commit the deed.
“Miss Byers left her school last night as usual and when she failed to appear at her boarding place little alarm was felt as to her safety. Later in the evening telephone calls to the neighbors failed to locate her and a general alarm was sounded, and by midnight searching parties had been formed. The body was discovered this morning about 7:30 o’clock, in a draw, about one mile from the school house, and it was covered with brush. The body was badly bruised from the assault, and showed that she had been roughly treated.”
Blood hounds were brought in from Concordia, and the murder was being described as one of the worst in the history of the state.
“Miss Byers’ home was in New Ulysses, and this is the first year she had taught. Her youth and the fact that this was her first year away from home add to the sadness of this dreadful affair.”
More details about Miss Byers came out. She was a large, strong girl, estimated to weigh about 160 pounds. She was well liked, and she carried a heavy alarm clock home with her every Friday, which she presumably used in her defense during the attack. The clock was never recovered, but pieces of glass from the face was found near where the attack was believed to have occurred.
According to the Meade County News,
“Parties who were present when the body was found say that it was not yet cold, which proves one of two facts: Miss Byers was either left unconscious by her assailant or assailants, and died from exposure, or she was not killed until early in the morning of the day the body was found.”
One person was immediately suspect, a young man named Archie Sweet. The woman Byers boarded with informed the police Byers had complained of his bothering her in the past. He admitted to authorities that he had seen her from a distance of a half-mile leaving the school that afternoon, alone. He denied having anything to do with the murder, however. He claimed to have been hunting rabbits in a field near the school, but being the last person to see her alive, he made the decision to turn himself over to the authorities for his own protection from the angry mob seeking justice.
Still, the fact he was that close and heard no screams was suspect. The young woman had put up quite a battle, it was apparent from footprints in the mud, the bruises on her head, the broken clock, and bite marks on her breast. However, the bite marks, it was determined through wax and plaster castings of suspects teeth and the marks left on Byers, could not have been Sweet’s.
He was a poor, uneducated, 34 year old man with a prior conviction for assault from an incident that happened in his teens. His choice of friends included known bootleggers with criminal records of their own. But, he maintained his innocence:
“The evidence against him is circumstantial, partially produced by the outcome by the actions of the bloodhounds yesterday and partially by admissions made by Sweet himself. Officers who have cross examined him in an attempt to writing a confession from him declare that Sweet is either telling a remarkably frank story, in spite of the fact that he must know that his admissions will be detrimental to his defense, or that he has unwittingly made some damaging statements...Sweet insists that he is innocent of the crime and that he knew nothing about it. He gave himself up, however, fearing that bloodhounds would follow his tracks, knowing that he had been near the scene hunting on the afternoon of the murder.”
Archie receives a visit
Weeks later, Archie Sweet was visited in prison, and the Nov. 12, 1915 Fort Scott Tribune ran the story, Mother of Grant County’s Suspected Murderer Hadn’t Seen Him for 26 Years Prayed With Him:
“For the first time in 26 years, Archie Sweet, suspected of the murder of Nellie Byers, in Grant county, saw his mother this week. She had not seen him since he was seven years of -age, and now he is thirty-three. Following is an interesting dispatch, from Dodge City in regard to the mother’s visit: Dodge City, Kas., Nov, 12. It takes more than the evidence of three blood hounds to shake the faith of a mother in her boy’s fidelity. Mrs. Mary Hughes today visited her son, Archie Sweet, whom she has not seen for 26 years and maintains that he is not guilty of the murder of Nellie Byers, the Grant county school teacher. The son is being held in the jail here, charged, with her murder. The father and mother separated when Archie was seven years old. The boy received rough treatment from a stepmother, he says, and took his mother’s maiden name of Sweet. The mother married again and went to Montana and lost track of her boy. Later she returned to Mulberry, in Crawford county, where her husband and oldest son are coal miners. She knelt and prayed with her boy in his cell today. “Archie is ready to meet his God,” she said at the end of her visit. “He is afraid he will be mobbed without a trial but declares he did not kill that poor girl. How I pity her mother. But it would be peace to me if Archie were dead instead of accused of this crime. We can’t help him, we can’t hire a lawyer for him, I even had to borrow money so I could buy him some fruit when I got here. I do hope they will give him a fair chance.”
The news may have influenced the decision of J. I. Sheperd, an attorney of Fort Scott, where Sweet formerly lived, who volunteered his services in the defense of Sweet.
Some of the men Sweet spent time with were also questioned as suspects.
“Clint Henson, a nephew of Jared Henson, was taken to the Ford county jail for safe keeping. An impression taken of the teeth prints on the girl’s body correspond to the plaster paris impression made of Clint Hensen’s teeth. In a statement made by Archie Sweet, also held in the Ford County jail on the same charge, Sweet says that Clint Henson told him that he (Henson) had killed Miss Byers, but that it looked bad for him (Sweet). J. D. Wilkerson, the Burns detective hired in the case, does not believe that Sweet is guilty, but says that evidence points to Henson. It was on account of this opinion that he and the Grant County officials had a disagreement and Wilkerson was discharged from the case. It appears that the people of Grant County believe Sweet to be the guilty man, even though as bit by bit new light is thrown on the case it becomes evident that more than one took part in the awful crime.”
But, Henson had an alibi, that he had been at the home of another county resident the entire day and evening when Byers went missing. Another Henson, cousin Alva, was also picked up as a suspect in Enid Oklahoma. For a brief time, he became the number one suspect, having been found with scratches, bruises, and blood on his clothes the day the murder was discovered. He had an alibi also. He had been in a bar brawl and the injuries came from that. They were part of a family that were known bootleggers. With the elimination of these suspects, Archie was the only man left.
The Nov. 18, 1915, Meade County News reported:
“There seems to be a lull in the interest of the Grant County officials to implicate any other but Archie Sweet in the Byers murder case. Their intention to see that the guilty party is punished is good, but if Sweet is guilty, he was not alone in the crime, and his punishment will not suffice for the other party or parties implicated. We are not informed of late developments in the case, if there are any, but it is our hope that no effort will be spared to locate others who are undoubtedly as guilty as Sweet and perhaps if the truth was known, more so.”
Rumors and denials
As the preliminaries were performed in February, 1916, the 17 year-old boy that provided the alibi for Clint Henson was found to be lying, but for some reason, Henson did not stand trial, despite the fact that dental records implicated him. The Meade County News quoted a traveling salesman who brought news of the happenings surrounding the trial.
“Not one half the case has been disclosed,” Blackburn told friends. “If certain Grant county people get on the stand and tell what they know the entire west half of Kansas will be surprised. Many developments may be expected shortly.”
Rumors were rampant, and one, that the county clerk of Grant county had committed the murder in conjunction with Sweet, was widely reported. It was quickly revealed the report was completely fictitious.
The case went to trial in Syracuse in May. Sweet denied ever saying that he had been near the vicinity of the murder. Again, according to the Meade County News, April 13, 1916:
“The statement in question quoted Sweet as saying that “he saw the teacher a few minutes before she was killed.” In his reply Sweet says:
“I brand this as an untruth. I have never made such a statement. It is used only to make it hard for me to get a square deal and to embitter the minds of the men who will be on the jury. This is not fair and anyone who says I have made such a statement has told a lie, an unjust lie. I have not made any such a statement to Attorney General Brewster, County Attorney H. W. Stubbs or anyone else and if they say that I did they have lied.”
The trial occurred, and as predicted, Sweet was convicted of the crime based off the circumstantial evidence. The Liberal Democrat reported on June 9, 1916:
“Sweet put up a stiff upper lip during the entire time, and it is doubtful if a man of his mentality could stick to the same story for so long a period with a crime of such proportions weighing on his conscience. If Sweet is not guilty it would be a horrible miscarriage of justice to make him spend the balance of his life in the pen and let the murderer go scot free.”
He was sent to Lansing, and later, in July, 1918, a report by the Grant County Republican was run in the Liberal Democrat:
“A short time ago while J. T. Gray and W. R. Reynolds of Moscow were at the state penitentiary at Lansing, they were told by J. K. Codding, the warden of the institution, that Archie Sweet had confessed to him his guilt of the murder of Nellie Byers in October, 1915. Sweet stoutly maintained his innocence during his trial at Syracuse in 1916, and testified in his own behalf as to his movements on the day of the murder. He was found guilty both in the district and supreme courts and has been in the penitentiary for more than two years. His confession should remove all possibility of a doubt as to his guilt.”
This third-party report was the last word on the Byers case and the fate of Archie Sweet.