The fact that while researching J.C. Nichols and the Country Club District I tripped over the story of the Uhls Sanitarium (December 5, 2017) was a perfect example of “getting into the weeds,” one of the many ways I find I can drift from my immediate goal when doing research for my writing. Another is “the pursuit of the next great thing,” your next big writing project. You mark up the time spent on this tangent as an investment in your writing future. Most turn out to be crushing disappointments when you get to the bottom of the story. In this example, the Uhls Sanitarium building surfaced bits of a tale that did not disappoint – a tale of theft, fraud, and murder.
The body of 77-year-old William Gibbs was found in his tiny home in Hutchinson, Kansas on the morning of December 30th, 1923. He had been bludgeoned to death while looking through papers that documented the old man’s wealth. Gibbs was known in town as a miser and a hermit, but believed to have a small fortune. Initial speculation was that the old man might have been robbed, until someone noticed the attacker had failed to take one of the few things in the house worth anything – Gibbs’ watch laying in open view in the box found in the kitchen that held the stock certificates.
Three days later and half a state away, Louis Breyfogel, the dairyman that serviced the Uhls Sanitarium, was robbed while on his route. The robbers took $500 worth of bonds given to him for payment of the hospital’s outstanding bill, a payment he had only minutes before been given. It didn’t take long to find suspects because Breyfogel secretly followed the thieves and the path led straight to the sanitarium. The next day, Kenneth Uhls was arrested and jailed in Olathe, claiming the whole matter was a misunderstanding, that one of his patients had committed the crime, and that he returned the bonds when he found them.
Kenneth (Kenn) Uhls was the son of Dr. Lyman Uhls, the founder of the Uhls Sanitarium, which opened at 75th & Metcalf in 1913. Lyman Uhls had been the superintendent of the Osawatomie State Hospital (previously called the State Insane Asylum) since 1898 prior to opening his own clinic. He had an exemplary reputation, and was even a one-time candidate for the state legislature. Kenn Uhls was not a doctor, although subsequent stories would confer that title upon him. He attended Stanford University, but finished his degree at the University of Kansas, where his only apparent distinction was as a first-class tennis player. In 1917, he married a woman from British Columbia, and joined his father at the clinic. When Lyman Uhls died in 1920, the son took over the clinic. Before his death, the senior Uhls had expanded the business considerably by selling shares in the clinic and by opening up locations throughout the state, one of which was in Hutchinson. Under Kenn Uhls’ direction, the clinic went from serving the mentally ill to the drug addicted.
The documentation William Gibbs left behind confirmed that he owned more than $100,000 in Uhls Clinic stock. Within a day of Gibbs’ death, the Hutchinson paper was reporting on the murder and the robbery side by side on the front page. Sheriff Jess Langsford of Reno County (Hutchinson) contacted Olathe law enforcement, and the investigation was on. Uhls maintained he knew nothing about the robbery or the murder, and offered up “proof” that Gibbs had traded Uhls Clinic stock for other investments. The proof was quickly determined to be a forgery. Within a week, even though Sheriff Langsford had not yet said publicly that Uhls was a suspect in Gibbs’ murder, Uhls had dropped out of sight, making himself a suspect. A few days later, he resurfaced accompanied by his lawyer. By the end of January, Uhls along with two accomplices was charged with stock fraud. By the end of February Uhls and one of the two others were charged with Gibbs murder.
Based on newspaper accounts, Uhls’ attempts to make a go of the sanitarium were a failure, and the stock which Gibbs had been told was worth $100,000 might have on a good day been worth $10,000. The clinic was behind in all its accounts payable. Uhls was convincing investors to sell their shares in the clinic back, in exchange for other stocks that were overvalued. The robbery incident was evidence that Uhls desperation had led him to use bonds as payment of those bills. It’s unclear whether Uhls plan was to intentionally bilk his investors, or if he was simply trying to disguise the deep hole he had dug with the clinic’s accounts. He maintained his innocence throughout, but the testimony of neighbors who saw a man fitting his description entering Gibbs home the afternoon of the murder were too damning. By the end of the summer, Uhls was convicted and sentenced to 10 to 25 years.
He served about 12 years of his sentence. In 1938 a guard accompanied him back to Kansas City so that he could visit his dying mother. Somehow, he gave the guard the slip. He was assumed to have escaped to be with his wife and child, who had returned to British Columbia. Research doesn’t reveal what happened subsequently. Or I should say, research to this point. I may get distracted by this one again.
Source: Most of the information for this article was found in copies of the Hutchinson (Kansas) Gazette and the Kansas City (Missouri) Times, archived in the subscription website, Newspapers.com.