You’re Welcome for the Libel

By the end of one of these little historical notes, such as last time’s “Going Off On a Bender," there are always odd bits of information left over that seem insignificant by themselves and don’t appear at first glance to lead anywhere else.  However, there’s a significantly different angle to the story of White Rock’s pioneer hotelier, miller and farmer Wilhelm Jacobs, and the wife, the lawyer, and the doctor who may have conspired to rob the old man of everything he owned.

A whispering campaign about Jacobs, who was rumored to have murdered one of his hotel guests around 1872, came to a head with a libel suit in Republic County, Kansas, in 1884.  Wilhelm sued his married stepdaughter, 24-year-old Katie Robinson, for spreading gossip that he was not only responsible for the disappearance of an unnamed traveler passing through White Rock twelve years earlier, but had later murdered his own son when the boy threatened to tell.

There was a Jacobs child named Peter, 10 years old in the 1875 census, who was out of the picture by 1880, having “died under mysterious circumstances,” as the Scandia Journal reported in 1884.  While checking out the matter of the missing son, I also took a close look at family replationships in the Jacobs household, as outlined in the census returns of 1870 and 1880.  Listeners may have been more inclined to accept the story of a slain son because Peter, like his elder siblings Kate and George, was Wilhelm’s stepchild

About 1865 Wilhelm Jacobs, a prosperous Wisconsin farmer who had emigrated from Mecklenburg, Germany, took a bride less than half his age, 23-year-old Catherine Wilhelm from Pennsylvania, who was caring for three young children left over from her previous marriage.  The blended Jacobs-Wilhelm family was living at Blue Earth, Minnesota, in 1870, but  soon afterward moved to Kansas where Johnie was born in late 1871 or early ’72.

The Jacobs family was running White Rock House by November 1872, which is when a correspondent for the Atchison Daily Champion proclaimed it “a first rate hotel.”  After a traveler staying at White Rock House went missing, the man’s disappearance probably took on a more sinister complexion once settlers in southern Kansas finished digging up an orchard around the Bender place, revealing what German innkeepers were capable of doing when a guest’s back was turned.  Any suspicion cast on Wilhelm Jacobs may have resulted from a terrible accident of timing, as whispered tales about a man who forgot his luggage at White Rock House circulated at the same moment when gruesome copy concerning the “Bloody Benders” of Labette County screamed for attention from the pages of Kansas newspapers.

There was no hint of scandal about the local innkeeper when the Jewell County Monitor reported on business conditions at White Rock in January 1877.

The jolly old landlord of the White Rock Hotel is one of the characters of the country, and is, at the same time the butt of the jokes, and the special favorite of the traveling public.  ‘Uncle Jacobs,’ as he is familiarly called, goes upon the principle that man was created to enjoy this life, and believes in what you do have, to ‘have it goot.’  When you go to White Rock stop with Uncle Jacobs.

Jacobs built a spacious new house on his farm and gave up the hotel business in 1879, handing the keys to G. N. McDaniel, who remodeled and refurnished the place, but could not match the “superior accommodations” of John Tippery’s new Happy Home Hotel, which was the only hotel in town mentioned by the Atchison Daily Champion in the fall of 1880.  Wilhelm Jacobs’ White Rock House swiftly moldered into the “rookery and ruin” cited by the Scandia Journal in May 1884 when it published what was said to be Katie Robinson’s own account of her father’s murderous past, under the headline “Another Bender Case.”    

After a public hearing in June found nothing to corroborate the story, and not a single witness willing to testify that Katie had ever told it, the editor of the Journal was forced to print a mea culpa, even if it might rank with the most self-serving retractions in journalism.

A careful inquiry into the whole matter convinces us that the disappearance of the stranger will remain a mystery but that so far as the old man Jacobs is concerned he is the innocent victim of some scoundrel who has started this report every year or so since the stranger so mysteriously disappeared.

The Journal believes that, while the report as published last week is false, the publication was fortunate for M. Jacobs, as the investigation which it instigated has forever set at rest the further defamatory reports against him.  We are also glad to announce that Kate is not a daughter of the old man as reported, and the fact when generally known will be a credit to Mr. Jacobs.

It was not a case of all’s well that ends well for Wilhelm, who who must have discovered the depth of his marital and financial woes by the time the Journal printed a brief item about him at the end of May 1886.

Wm. Jacobs, of White Rock, was arrested and brought before Judge Boothe Tuesday on a charge of being insane, but on investigation it was demonstrated that he was sane, and had cause to be hot.

The rumor printed that same month by Gomer T. Davies in his Republic City News, that Jacobs and his wife had “deeded nearly all of their property over to the notorious Dr. Churchill, without the least consideration, with a strong suspicion of some very sharp practice on the part of lawyer McHutcheon,” was apparently true.  Although the charge of insanity against Wilhelm Jacobs did not stick, a sharp lawyer must have guided Catherine Jacobs to an astonishingly speedy Kansas divorce that summer, allowing her to become Mrs. Churchill by October, with full custody of the Jacobs children. 

Deprived of his family and fortune, Wilhelm retreated alone to the German community of New Ulm, Minnesota, where he died in 1897 a few weeks before he would have turned 85.  His children’s new father, the “notorious” Dr. Churchill, apparently discovered that parenthood has its ups and downs.  In 1888, after moving his recently-acquired family to Scandia, the doctor published a letter thanking the local marshal, the mayor, the town council, and the city attorney “for their action in dealing with his step-son, Johney Jacobs.”

Peter McHutcheon, still smarting over his treatment at the hands of Gomer Davies’ Republic City News, bought a competing newspaper, the Warwick Leader, but remained at the helm only about a year.  During his tenure, the paper hewed to a strict policy of never endorsing local State Representative Gomer T. Davies for re-election.

When the Belleville Telescope published the county’s delinquent tax five list years after Wilhelm Jacobs left town, nearly half the tardy taxpayers were connected to this story.  Catherine Wilhelm-Jacobs-Churchill, her daughter Katie Robinson, and sharp lawyer Peter McCutcheon all seemed ready to surrender their holdings in the nearly-defunct town of White Rock, instead of paying the five to ten dollars each one owed.

© Dale Switzer 2023