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War and murder in 1898
otm vlc US naval fleet poster
This poster of the U.S. Naval fleet at the beginning of the Spanish American War was published in the April 23, 1898 edition of the Great Bend Register. - photo by file photo

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.

This week in 1898, the United States formally declared war on Spain, and so began the Spanish American War of 1898. The pages of The Great Bend Register, the area’s weekly publication at the time, carried extensive reporting of the events leading up to the war, and an entire page was devoted to President William McKinley’s declaration--something we just don’t see anymore in this age of ‘tweeting’ and posting.
On April 11, 1898, the president sent a message to Congress describing a “grave crisis that has arisen in the relations of the United States to Spain by reason of the warfare that for more than three years has raged in the neighboring island of Cuba.”
Cuba was undergoing a revolution. The U.S. was tired of having it’s interests in the area disrupted, and felt that Spain was incapable of keeping the peace. People were starving, and McKinley asked Congress to extend relief. The message was reportedly not well received and Congress referred the message to committees in the House and Senate without action.
In the April 23, 1898 Register, the headlines declared “The American Congress declares Cuba free; Demands that the Government of Spain at once withdraw the flag from Cuba -- American Army and Navy to enforce the demand if she refuses to comply to the demand”. (Yes, headlines were pretty long back then.)
Troops at Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley were deployed south right away. When the orders arrived, at Leavenworth it was reported, “A hop was in progress at Pope hall, attended by the officers and their wives when the call to arms arrived and orders to take the train as soon as possible.” Eight companies would depart from there, and two from Junction city within 48 hours of the announcement. The president was authorized to call for 50,000 to 70,000 volunteers. In other reports, the call was for 100,000 men. Kansas’ quota would be only 2,230, to be taken from the militia only.
Nearly 3,000 mules were ordered to be purchased to be used as pack animals for carrying supplies over roads in Cuba where army wagons could not be drawn. Mules would be shipped from St. Louis. Missouri would furnish 50,000 black walnut gunstocks. It was estimated 100,000 loaves of bread a day would be needed. The chief commissary officer for the Department of the Gulf visited 15 bakeries in Atlanta, Ga., to arrange for the goods. Meanwhile, reports of numerous Spanish spies in Key West were paired with reports that their communications with Spain revealed not much of a fight was to be anticipated. The Treaty of Paris was signed and Americans declared victory on August 13, 1898, just three months, three weeks and two days after it’s beginning.

Murder south of Great Bend
Local events always take center stage in the newspaper business, and on April 16, 1989. Great Bend was rocked by the senseless premeditated murder of a 15-year old girl shot to death in her mother’s arms the Friday before. The all-caps headline read “A FIENDISH CRIME, COMPLETED THE WORK WITH FIRE.”
“Probably the most atrocious, cold-blooded and unjustified murder ever committed in this part of the state occurred at the home of William Hoffmeister in South Bend Township last Friday evening.”
About 8 p.m., a man named John Cook brought word to town that John Becker, Mr. Hoffmeister’s working man, had shot and killed young Myrtle Hoffmeister. That evening, Myrtle and a friend, Emma Barstow, were preparing to attend a singing class. Becker helped them hitch up a team to a buggy, and asked to accompany them. It turns out, Becker who was in his forties had fallen in love with Myrtle and had even proposed marriage before and been turned down. The two ladies refused his accompaniment more than once, and that just angered him.
“He got angry at the girl and began to scold her for treating him so. This having no effect he thereupon drew a revolver and began shooting.”
The girls ran, Myrtle to her mother in the house, begging for her help.
“Her cries were in vain. The villain rushed in and killed her instantly with a shot thru her head.” That was just the killing shot. He’d also shot her four other times in the back, shoulder and arm with his 32-caliber revolver which the report stated he’d “recently purchased of the Great bend Implement Co.” But, that wasn’t all. He then went to the barn, turned out the horses and set it afire.
“During the day the murderer had hauled up a load of hay and a load of fodder and left them standing in the road so that with a favorable breeze, a fire could readily jump from the barn to each load and the house in succession; but the wind did not blow just right to do it quickly.”
Becker was on the run over the weekend, and all available persons from Barton and Stafford counties on the alert, trying to find him. The state offered a $200 reward for his capture, and the Barton County commissioners offered an additional $100. He was finally caught on a ranch near St. John on Tuesday evening, and taken to Hutchinson to avoid an angry mob. The report stated he had likely not eaten since the shooting that previous Friday, and had refused food when captured, and continued to in captivity. He also reportedly did not seem to know the details of his crime.
Myrtle’s funeral was held Monday afternoon, and described as “ of the largest ever held in this city.
“No less than 65 vehicles followed the remains from the residence to the M.E. Church where solemn services were conducted by Rev. A.J. Bixler.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Hoffmeister came to this country from Illinois in 1885, and by good management and hard work had built up an excellent home, which was thus broken in one short hour.”
We performed a search at , and learned the Register misspelled Myrtle’s last name. It was actually Hoffmaster. The Register reported Myrtle’s mother, Caroline, pulled Myrtle into the yard because she was concerned about the fire. She was found there with Myrtle at her feet and a baby in her arms. That baby was Myrtle’s younger brother, George. The entire family is buried in Great Bend Cemetery. Her parents, William and Caroline lived long lives, well into their 80s. George passed away in 1966, age 78.
The Find-a-Grave entry for George Hoffmaster included this obituary information:
“A resident of Great Bend since 1944, he died at the Central Kansas Medical Center Thursday night following a short illness. He was born Aug. 24, 1888 south of Great Bend and lived for many years on a farm there.
He is survived by a widow, Etta; a son, Harold of Wichita; two daughters, Mrs. William Morgan of Dundee and Mrs. Donna Crouse of Great Bend; one sister, Mrs. J. A. Jones of Glendale, Calif.; and 10 grandchildren.”