By Diane Euston
Resting atop the highest point of Union Cemetery is an impressive stone near the paved pathway which, at first glance, looks like many of the others surrounding it. However, this one holds an ominous message – a mysterious warning set in stone for 145 years.
Although worn, the sunlight peeking through the trees aids in reading the inscription:
At Brownsville, Mo.
Oct. 6, 1876
Vengeance Is Mine, I Will
Repay, Saith the Lord
Surrounded by the graves of thousands of Kansas City pioneers in an otherwise peaceful location in the heart of Midtown, the final resting place of Frank Barnum leaves the unassuming passerby a bit stunned by the promise of punishment carefully carved in 1876. Did the mourning family get their wish, or was this murder left a cold case only memorialized in white marble?
There is, indeed, a story to be told here – and this story begins with his wife.
The Spiritualism of Martha Simmis
Born in Suffolk Co., N.Y. in 1833 to parents White and Almena Simmis, Martha (known as Mattie) moved with her parents and older twin brothers, Anson and Edson to Huron Co., Ohio when she was about four years old. There, she was well-educated in country schools and was reared on a large farm.
In 1852, 19-year-old Martha married 26-year-old James H. Welch in Ohio. After the death of her father in 1859, Martha, her husband, one brother and her mother moved to San Francisco, Calif. where James invested in real estate and became a soda manufacturer.
In 1862, the Welches welcomed a baby girl they named Emma.
Likely drawn by the expanding railroad into Kansas City, the Welches uprooted out of California and moved to our blossoming city in 1868. James used his knowledge of real estate to quickly buy up vacant land. In short order, he capitalized on his investments and erected “some fine buildings.” They settled into a large home at 515 Wyandotte.
While this elite couple seemed to quickly fit into Kansas City society, they still had whispers behind their backs when they openly admitted they were Spiritualists. Spiritualism emerged in the 19th century predominantly among the middle and upper class and centered on the belief that the dead could communicate with the living. How this was practiced inside their home remains unknown.
About 18 months after their arrival in Kansas City, the Welches made the newspapers when on Jan. 8, 1871, a tragic accident set off a chain of unfortunate events. The couple was traveling on the Westport Rd. in their buggy after a funeral. The horses were frightened, and within seconds, the buggy had turned over. James Welch’s right leg was broken above the ankle, and Martha “received severe injuries.”
After the break, James was “placed under the best surgical skill.” About a week after the accident, an ulcer developed on his ankle. He was able to slowly heal. On Jan. 31, James was “engaged in cheerful conversation with his family members.” Without any warning, James “suddenly extended his hands upward, gave a scream and fell back dead.” He was 45 years old.
Even as Martha worked to put her husband at rest at Union Cemetery, it only took a few days for the Journal of Commerce to report supposed visits to the Welch’s home from “disembodied spirits.” It became disturbing enough that a friend and fellow Spiritualist wrote into the paper and proclaimed, “The private religion of a bereaved family should not be an excuse for curious eyes and gossiping tongues.”
The estate was estimated to be worth $50,000.
Frank Barnum Busts on the Scene
Born in Syracuse, N.Y. in 1832, Frank Barnum’s childhood and early career remains, as so much of his life, shrouded in mystery. After receiving a general education, Frank moved to Chile and was “a secretary of legation” there. Later, he established the first stage route from Chile to Bolivia.
After returning to the States, Frank allegedly bought and operated a hotel in Raleigh, N.C. before he took up interest in newspapers. In 1869, he became editor of a Raleigh paper named The Life Giraffe. Unfortunately, he got into trouble with the pen after he “maliciously attacked” the management of the local railroad. As things heated up, Frank skipped town and allegedly landed in Georgia. The president of the railroad publicly wrote, “The people of Atlanta, especially gentlemen, would do well to keep an eye on this fellow Barnum.”
But, records indicate he skipped over Atlanta and headed to Kansas City.
In August 1871, Frank Barnum had successfully slid into society when he and business partners purchased printing equipment to revitalize the Evening News newspaper. Just two years later, he was in charge of the business dealings and was noted as “a live, energetic and stirring businessman.”
He had caught Kansas City’s highest praises, and he also caught the eye of an attractive widow named Martha Welch. On Oct. 5, 1873, the couple was married. The Kansas City Times noted the union of the two, proclaiming, “May their way in life be one of pleasure and unalloyed happiness.”
For a time, it was.
In 1874, one of Martha Welch-Barnum’s properties at 402 Main St. was vacant. It was for a time the St. Nicholas Hotel, and Frank decided that he’d abandon his newspaper career and become the proprietor of a hotel. He went into business with Charles Hopkins, a well-known businessman who had for many years run the Gilliss House Hotel on the levee.
In August 1875 after extensive renovations, the hotel was opened. It featured “gas in every room, water upon every floor and beds the life of which are not often seen.” The Journal of Commerce wrote, “It will rapidly become one of the most popular hotels in the New West.”
Things were going so well for them; Frank even legally adopted Martha’s daughter, Emma. Alas, the health and wealth of the happy couple was short-lived.
Frank’s health at 44 years-old was failing him. Although virtually unexplained in nature, the sickness had him gradually losing weight and seeking out treatments at Dr. Kellogg’s Turkish Baths at 5th and Walnut. In September 1876, Frank had a near-death experience where he almost drowned.
While in one of the tubs, Frank passed out and was discovered by the doctor just the nick of time.
Nine days later, Frank Barnum decided to head out of Kansas City “to reap the health benefits” of the Sweet Springs at Brownsville, Mo. Genuinely devoted to his beloved wife, Frank wrote letters to her daily – letters which would be printed in the papers after Martha received some of the worst news of her life.
The Spirits Visit Frank
Even as Frank was separated from Martha, he wrote her letters daily. On Oct. 4, he wrote his “Darling Mattie” and explained he had a terrible night’s sleep. The letter, published days later in the newspaper, reads in part, “I was continually dreaming of being overpowered by a couple of brutish demons, who would choke and beat me into an almost deathly unconsciousness, even in my dreams, and from which I would awaken thoroughly exhausted, and so real did it seem that I would have to pull my ears to see if there was any of my head left on my shoulders.”
He went on to explain he was so scared he couldn’t sleep; after daylight came, he heard his name called. “I was visited by a veritable spirit, ghost, phantom, or whatever you may choose to call it,” he wrote. He recognized the woman as someone he knew from South America. “She was dressed in black. . . In her right hand she held a large black cross, and in her left a card photograph.” The photograph, he claimed, had blood on it.
After kissing the cross, the spirit said he was in grave danger. “Some people would look upon such [fantasies] as the forebodings of some great and terrible calamity, a sign of a token, the tail end of a forerunner, or something of that kind, and perhaps it may be,” Frank wrote to his Martha.
Even with this ominous warning, Frank wrote further letters insisting he felt he wasn’t in danger and commented that his health was steadily improving.
His last letter was sent on his third wedding anniversary and closed, “Don’t worry about me. I will be all right in a day or two. . . A good kiss for you and Emma, and my undying love for you both. I am, forever, your loving Frank.”
The Mysterious Murder
On Oct. 6, Frank went out for a walk and was never seen alive again. The proprietor of the hotel where he stayed went to his room and discovered all of his luggage still remained. The following day, children playing about a mile and a half outside of town discovered a lifeless man’s body floating in a shallow pond.
It was Frank Barnum.
A telegram was sent to Frank’s business partner, Charles Hopkins who then notified Martha of her husband’s untimely death.
Further investigation, including a visit to Sweet Springs by the Kansas City’s Chief of Police, Thomas Speers revealed that Frank had nine cuts on the right side of his head from a blunt object and scratches on his face. His overcoat was found in a ditch nearby and his necktie was located under a willow tree. It was his opinion that the first blows were delivered by means of a stake found in the mud near the pond and “an old hatchet found in the pond was used to hack and mutilate the body after death.”
A towel was tied firmly around the back of Frank’s neck so tight that “it could not be untied.” His body was discarded in the pond after death. After the pond was drained, they discovered his pistol and some of his jewelry at the bottom. He had only been robbed of his watch and $12.
Even with overwhelming evidence indicating foul play, the Journal of Commerce wrote that Frank may have wanted to die and claimed he was “an ardent spiritualist” who “clearly predicted the manner of his death.”
This did not sit well with his widow. In a scathing letter, Martha vehemently denied Frank was a spiritualist and said that she was the one who practiced Spiritualism. “He saw a singular phenomenon, is true,” she wrote. “And had he had the faith I have, he would have left the place.”
To suggest he committed suicide was a low blow, “for no such reasoning could convince any reasoning mind that a man could chop his head open on the back in nine places, knock his senses out with a blow on the side of the head, tie a heavy towel over his throat to produce strangulation so tight that it could not be untied,” Martha wrote.
The matter was settled by a coroner’s inquest that found “the deceased came to his death by violence.”
The town offered a $500 reward for the capture of the murderer. Martha matched it. The governor threw in another $500. Despite the money, no one was ever arrested.
Memorialized in Stone
A year later, the newspaper claimed that Frank had visited from the grave after Martha contacted a medium. The Journal of Commerce wrote, “Mr. B. had often asserted that when he should die he would return to convince his unbelieving friends of the truth of the hereafter as viewed from the Spiritualist standpoint.”
The medium, “speaking” to Frank, said that the man who killed him was so full of grief and remorse “that he died shortly after, and was present with [Frank] in the spirit world, a penitent sinner for his misdeeds.” He then allegedly vowed for the search for his killer to stop.
Was this enough for Martha to be satisfied? We will never truly know.
Martha remarried the former mayor of Kansas City, Kan., R.W. Hilliker, in 1884. After a four-year battle with cancer, Martha passed away July 13, 1899 and was buried next to her two husbands, James Welch and Frank Barnum.
There was no mention of Frank in her obituary.
Perhaps the words “Murdered” and “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord” Martha directed to be etched for eternity on Frank Barnum’s headstone was a product of her Spiritualism- her unwavering belief that she could speak to Frank from beyond the grave.
Whether she did or not will remain yet another unsolved mystery.
Diane writes a blog about the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com