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Sharp punishments, an awkward celebration, and youthful heroes in 1939
Out of the Morgue
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A crowd awaiting Eugen Weidmann’s execution gathers around the guillotine outside the Prison Saint- Pierre, June 17, 1939. It is the last public execution in France.

Each week we’ll take a step back into the history of Great Bend through the eyes of reporters past. We’ll reacquaint you with what went into creating the Great Bend of today, and do our best to update you on what “the rest of the story” turned out to be.

Public executions are, for the most part, a thing of the past in the United States and Europe. But as with all things that finally come to an end, there is a certain fascination with “the last” of any once-common-but-no-longer event. 

So it is this week, on June 17, 1939, according to, the last public guillotining in France occurred. Eugen Weidmann, a convicted murderer, was guillotined in Versailles outside the prison Saint-Pierre. We Googled it, and found the whole story (along with illustrations) at 

During the 20th Century, according to, “There were more executions in the 1930s than in any other decade in American history, an average of 167 per year.”

But, with political unrest between World War I and World War II, and perhaps with an increase in education, news and visual media, the death penalty was under increasing scrutiny, and the sensibilities of the general public as to its necessity has continued to ebb and flow. 

The last public execution we could find in the United States, according to (, was the hanging of Rainey Bethea, who was led to the gallows at around 5:20 a.m. on August 14, 1936, in Owensboro, Kentucky. 

Notably, with World War II underway in Europe, the public execution was not the last use of the guillotine in France. That event occurred with the sentencing and execution of a serial killer doctor who was found guilty of luring individuals involved with the French Resistance, Jews and Allied soldiers caught behind lines to their deaths by tricking them into believing he could help them to safety. He then injected them with cyanide, disposed of their bodies in his basement, and stole their belongings. The remains of 23 victims were found, but he was suspected of at least 60 deaths. 

Daring demand

Back in Kansas, prisoners sentenced to work in a coal mine at the Kansas State Penitentiary ended a strike without incident after about 4.5 hours. On the front page of the June 13, 1939, Great Bend Tribune, the report “Mutiny of 229 convicts in Kansas prison coal mine is ended without violence,” we learned the miners capitulated without any concessions to their demands — one of which was that they be permitted to wear silk underwear. 

Really, all the other demands were pretty laughable, especially considering they were spared harsher punishments for their crimes (see above). They included that the warden rescind his order against convicts being allowed to speculate by buying the coal production of other prisoners over and above their regular quotas; that they be permitted the freedom of the cell houses until 9 p.m. instead of being locked in their cells at 6 p.m.; and finally, that they be allowed to take sandwiches and other food from the prison tables to their cells after meals, or that the warden withdraw his order against two prisoners selling pies and sandwiches to fellow convicts. 

Naturally, the warden refused to grant any of the demands. He attributed the discontent to his efforts to tighten up prison discipline on liquor, narcotics and gambling. Also, he was convinced the silk underwear-ers (estimated to be fewer than 100) were simply “sex degenerates.” He told the owners they could wear the garments they had in their possession until they are worn out, but that they could not acquire or wear a fresh supply. (Prior to the order they could be purchased in the commissary, or provided through visiting relatives.) 

The next day, the prisoners, minus 18 ringleaders, returned to the mine. Their strike had caused prison officials to go chasing around for additional coal to supply the prison’s needs, as the mine was operated to produce 150 tons per day, which supplied the prison with the surplus going to other state institutions. There wasn’t much of a backup supply. 

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According to the original Tribune caption, “Robert Murray (left), mine superintendent of the Kansas State prison at Lansing, tells Warden M.F. Amerine about being down in the prison mine when 229 convicts rebelled and refused to work. The convicts later capitulated and were brought to the surface. Their demands — one of them was the permission to wear silk underwear — were refused. - photo by Tribune file photo
Hoisington auditorium dedicated

In 1939, Hoisington completed work on its $96,500 auditorium, and this week marked its dedication with a week of activities that included a Lieurance Concert, featuring former Oklahoma Governor Bill “Alfalfa Bill” Murray as the keynote speaker. Murray spoke about “Americanism” to a packed house.

“All the 978 seats on the auditorium floor were occupied and at least an additional 200 persons stood at the back of the big room as “Alfalfa Bill” spoke out with blunt, gruff frankness, frequently shaking the forefinger of his upraised right hand to emphasize a point.” 

Alfalfa Bill spoke out against the WPA program, and President Roosevelt’s New Deal, as well as a new trend — a failure to more deeply examine ideas presented in the media.

“At another part of his speech, Murray said people don’t study into a thing like they used to. They follow the radio and newspaper headlines now without looking into the inside of things that are happening (sounds vaguely familiar — we know).

“They had an election back in 1936,” he said. “One man had a radio voice, somebody wrote his speeches. The other man didn’t speak so well, but wrote his own speeches and did his own thinking. And Alf Landon had more good sense than the other fellow ever will have.” 

It should be pointed out that, considering the date of his visit, and the following comments made by Hoisington’s mayor at the time, the occasion of the concert itself was likely the result of the satisfactory completion of a New Deal project.

“Mayor Burgan thanked those who helped to make the program a success and said the construction of the auditorium climaxed a building program that was begun three years ago. The water plant improvement was developed in 1936 and this was followed by the electric light plant and distribution system, paving, new fire truck and the auditorium which, in addition to the big room was provision for city offices, fire department, city jail, a community room, library and mezzanine floor for children. 

Hoisington, he said, has two grade schools, junior and senior high school and another senior high school under construction that will cost $300,000 when completed, also a parochial school, seven churches and the Barton County club south of Hoisington.

“In fact we’ve got just about everything to make living comfortable,” he said. 

As Murray traveled from Hutchinson to Hoisington, the old question about our local interstate river came up, with the journalist reporting providing the local pronunciation. 

“So it’s Arkansas river here,” said Murray. “Down south, it’s the Arkan-saw river. But I suppose it’s like Cairo, Ill. and Cairo, Egypt.” He pronounced them “Karo” and “Kiro.” 

Just for fun

150 boys entered the KVGB marble tournament this week, held at the grandstand at Great Bend City Park (Brit Spaugh). The tournament would take two days to complete, with 16 of the quarter-finalists to be interviewed live on the second day, about an hour before the finals were set to start that evening. 

Two days later, the Tribune reported that Bob Sherwood and Kenneth Huston walked off with first place honors in the Class A (over 12) and Class B (under 12) finals. Referring to the radio interviews, “Some potential talent was uncovered although some of the boys were seized with a severe case of mike fright.”

“Winners in the tournament went away with an assortment of prizes by getting to the finals through the semi- and quarter-finals. Every boy in the quarter finals received a pint of Meadowgold ice cream from Hammonds; each in the semi-finals received a carton of Dr. Pepper from the Dr. Pepper Bottling Company, and a carton of Coca Cola from the Great Bend Coca Cola Bottling company. The two winners in the finals received eight tickets to the Plaza theatre from Lloyd Morris and those in second place received four tickets to the Plaza,” — making them the heroes of their families and friends, at least for the night.