The Suspicious Death of Martin City’s Hotelkeeper
By Diane Euston
When 49-year-old George W. Lee was mysteriously killed on a road outside Martin City early in the morning of June 18, 1907, the small community was up in arms over what had happened to him. His body was found alongside the highway next to his horse and wagon, his skull fractured.
An investigation into this mystery shows that Lee, a hotelkeeper in Martin City, had a long record and possibly many enemies. His short life overflows with curious events that leave us wondering more than 100 years later what could have led this man down such a rough path.
Miami County Mayhem
Born in Kentucky, Lee came with his parents, David and Hannah, to Miami County in the late 1870s. The oldest of eight children, he was reared on a farm that his mother named “Old Kentucky Home.”
In 1888 he married Florence Walker in Johnson County, Kan., and returned to Miami County. The couple had at least one child named Earl, born in 1890. Although probably not his first offense, Lee was arrested by his neighbors when it was discovered that he tore down the Cole schoolhouse in 1896. The Miami Republican reported that Lee “decided he would build a stable and he had no lumber and little money. He tore down a schoolhouse near his home in Paola and appropriated the lumber.”
A constable in Kansas tried to arrest him, but he beat up the officer and escaped through a cane field. He was able to elude capture for over one year.
In June 1897, Kansas City officers arrested Lee, who used aliases including Fred Reed and Fred Miller, at 7th and Broadway. Constable A.J. Findlay of Paola came to pick him up so he could face charges. Before they boarded a train at Union Depot, the constable stopped with his prisoner at a saloon across the street “to quench their thirst before leaving for dry Kansas.” Inside the saloon Lee was able to slip away once again.
After four more months on the run, Lee was apprehended in an alleyway by two Kansas City officers. He tried to escape yet again, but two shots were fired by the officers in pursuit. One shot entered Lee on his right side, and they were able to capture him on 8th Street between Locust and Oak.
After his capture, the Kansas City Star reported that developments “led police to believe that he is an all-round thief and has been implicated in many robberies committed in the vicinity of Kansas City during the last four months.” A horse, buggy, harnesses and other stolen property were found in his rented garage nearby.
He was sent to the penitentiary for two and a half years before returning to the vicinity of Kansas City.
On Dec. 23, 1903, Lee’s wife, Florence, was in her room she rented at 1312 Holmes St. with her 13-year-old son, Earl, and another young child. It’s not clear if she was estranged from her husband or whether he was still in the picture, but he was working in Kansas City after his release from prison at Studd’s livery barn on Grand Avenue.
Florence had accepted help from Samuel Lee, George Lee’s younger brother. He ran a local grocery store and had recently divorced his wife. Newspapers reported that Samuel was in love with Florence but she had taken up with another man. When Samuel learned of this love affair, he allegedly confronted Florence and a fight ensued.
Near the stairway at her home, Samuel pulled a gun on Florence and fired six shots, hitting her two times in the chest. He then put two shots in his own stomach. He ran from the scene after dropping the gun and staggered into an alleyway at 13th Street. As pursuers ran toward him, he fell to the ground, pulled a knife out of his pocket and cut his own throat. He died at the hospital.
When George Lee was questioned about his brother, he said he knew of Samuel but “he was no relative of his.” He also denied at first that the slain woman was in fact his wife.
Tragedy Follows Lee to Martin City
Both tragedy and involvement with the law followed Lee when he decided to move with his son, Earl, to Martin City and open a hotel there. Martin City was known to house many illegal operations behind closed doors. In 1904 the prosecuting attorney went to the town to investigate illegal liquor sales because it was said that joints were “running openly.”
Lee was arrested several times for selling liquor without a license, but catching him was always tough. The Kansas City Star reported, “There were Germans around, though, who had a liking for beer.” Prosecuting Attorney L.B. Kimbrell reported, “It was the hardest kind of a task to catch Lee. We used to hire men to go there and buy the beer. But Lee was crafty and wise. If a man didn’t appear just right, he would not buy.”
Lee appeared to be the caretaker of his son while he ran the hotel in Martin City. But his “peaceful” life was about to run out. On July 8, 1906, his 15-year-old son went with three friends to Stark’s lake, a half-mile from Martin City, where he tragically drowned. His body was recovered later that night. Lee’s son was buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery just east of Wornall on E. 125th Place.
Murder or Accident?
Less than one year after his son’s tragic drowning, time had run out for Lee. While on a return trip from Kansas City in his horse and wagon, he was found dead on the side of the highway. It was said that Lee may have quarrelled with a motorist on his way and that could have led to his death.
Charles Shawber, deputy county marshal, believed he was murdered by a motorist and the weapon was a car wrench–there was a mysterious imprint on his chest.
Neighbors and friends weren’t convinced. Those who knew him best said that when he would return from Kansas City, he would often fall asleep because the horse knew the way home. They suggested the imprint on his chest was from his horse stepping on him.
The county marshal stated, “We hope to be able to solve the mystery. We still have leads to run down that may be productive.”
Martin City Moves On
The records on Lee’s time in Martin City are limited, but his role as a hotelkeeper when the town was just blossoming in southern Jackson County is part of its rugged early history. We still don’t know what happened to Lee, and the only remnants of his time there can be found where his name was etched on the opposite side of his son’s headstone at Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Today it is one of the only headstones from the 1840s that still remain in this graveyard.