Shadow on the Hill

April 16th, 2013 at 9:47 am

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

‘SHADOW ON THE HILL’

On a sunny Saturday in May, 1925, Decoration Day, Florence Knoblock was found brutally murdered on the kitchen floor of her farmhouse near Burlington. Florence was married to John Knoblock and was the mother of a 4 year-old boy named Roger.

“For starters, there was no obvious motive,” Diana Staresinic-Deane told an audience at the LeRoy Public Library several weeks ago. “There was no sign of robbery, no known domestic disputes, no known grudges against them as far as anyone really knew.”

Diana Staresinic-Deane, of Ottawa, has just published a book about this crime called “Shadow on the Hill: the true story of a 1925 Kansas murder.”

“The Knoblock murder and the investigation and trials were front-page news almost every single day for a year – from May to May,” Diana said. “I have almost 800 pages of newspaper stories that came out of that murder and the investigation and trials.”

“The way I found this story was completely by accident,” Diana said. One day in 2007, while employed as a library assistant at the Emporia Public Library, she chased down some kids who were playing hide-and-seek in the stacks. Passing by the genealogy area, a green folder dropped itself from the stacks and landed at her feet. Inside the folder were 22 newspaper articles about the murder.

Diana started reading those articles and was intrigued by the story. She later searched for more newspaper accounts on microfilm, and eventually conducted interviews and studied court records.

Her primary and much-valued source of information was the newspaper articles that were written by John Redmond, editor of the Daily Republican in Burlington, and by William Lindsay “Bill” White in The Emporia Gazette. Those articles provided a play-by-play of the investigation and trials.

“It’s not just the story of Florence Knoblock,” Diana said. “It’s a snapshot of what was happening in Coffey County in 1925 and 1926.”

As I was reading this book, I was curious as to why Diana chose to write the story in novel form. She’s a writer friend and we correspond regularly, so I sent her a message.

Diana replied, “What appealed to me about the narrative nonfiction format (meaning, more like a novel and less like a textbook) was the fact that it let me create a timeline and express a lot of emotion, and this story is painfully full of emotion. I’m not sure I could have fully expressed how traumatized some of these people were in a more traditional nonfiction writing style.”

When John Knoblock discovered his wife dead, he called her family and he called law enforcement. Their phone was on a party line – and nothing spread information or gossip faster in those days than a party line. A crowd showed up, wandered through the house and the yard, and pretty much destroyed the crime scene. And before law enforcement had fully completed their investigation, the murder scene was cleaned up by the victim’s family, because they didn’t know any better.

The investigation certainly was not helped by the fact that the newly-elected sheriff had no law enforcement experience, and the elected coroner was not a doctor.

Every stranger became a suspect. An African-American construction worker was arrested for the crime, but there was no evidence against him and he was eventually released. The community lived in fear, thinking that a killer could be among them.

The man who was arrested and tried (twice) was John Knoblock, the husband, even though there was no hard evidence against him either. Florence’s family believed in his innocence and even put up some of the money toward his bond.

While reading the chapters set in the courtrooms, I pictured the scenes to be like those in “Perry Mason,” a black-and-white TV show from the ‘60s. On those shows, there was often gossipy and explosive testimony, usually accompanied by gasps from the audience.

The first trial against John Knoblock was held in Coffey County and resulted in a hung jury. A change of venue to Lyon County was granted in the second trial after they couldn’t find enough impartial jurors in Coffey County.

This is a fascinating and well-written book. Eighty-eight years have passed since the murder of Florence Knoblock, and this story will once again captivate readers.

“Shadow on the Hill” may be purchased at Town Crier Book Store in Emporia, and is also available in the e-book format from various online sources. For more information, visit http://dianastaresinicdeane.wordpress.com.

Copyright 2013 ~ Cheryl Unruh

columns, history, Kansans, other people's stuff, writing

  1. Roger
    April 16th, 2013 at 10:41 | #1

    I’m reading it now. Diana will be on the porch of Red Rocks Historic Site, 927 Exchange St. in Emporia, on Sunday, June 9 at 2 p.m.

  2. Kate
    April 21st, 2013 at 16:52 | #2

    I just read the column and was delighted to find the book was available for my Kindle. I am looking forward to reading it.