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Judge’s 1919 stabbing at courthouse put Ray County in national spotlight

By Linda Emley

It’s time once again to change the showcase at the Ray County Courthouse and since Halloween is just around the corner, we’re adding some old-fashioned Halloween items and a few haunted stories about Ray County. I also thought this might be a good time to tell the story of Ray County’s own judge, Frank Divelbiss, who was fatally wounded in our present day courthouse on April 7, 1919.
We’ll be adding a copy of the newspaper article about the judge to our display case that sits in the same courthouse lobby that Judge Divelbiss walked through many times on the way to his office.
Judge Frank P. Divelbiss, who was a speaker at the dedication of our courthouse, was fatally stabbed in the courthouse by Robert Lyon, editor of the Richmond Conservator. To get the rest of the story, I looked up the Richmond Missourian newspaper for April 10, 1919. Now remember, Robert Lyon was the editor of the Richmond Conservator and we are reading his competitor’s paper. Back in 1919 , the two local newspapers were very slanted to suit their own political needs.
The Richmond Missourian said, “A Deplorable Occurrence – Monday morning, at about 10 o’clock, an unwitnessed fight occurred on the third floor of the courthouse between Circuit Judge Frank P. Divelbiss and Editor Robert S. Lyon of the Richmond Conservator. Immediately following the ending of the bloody struggle, Mr. Lyons walked straight down stairs to the office of Prosecuting Attorney David A. Thompson and threw a pocket knife on the table, saying that is was the knife used in the fight with Judge Divelbiss and suggested that they send for the doctor to look after the wounded man.”
The stabbing had taken place on the steps leading into the Circuit Clerk’s office near the northeast corner of the Circuit Clerk room.
The Associated Press picked up this story and it made national news. On April 12, The Kansas City Star headline said, “Judge Divelbiss Not Out of Danger”. Acccording to the Star, “Frank P. Divelbiss, stabbed nine times Monday by Robert S. Lyon, editor of the Richmond Conservator, to show improvement is causing more concern among the attending physicians.”
This appeared in the San Diego Evening Tribune, also courtesy of the Associated Press. “Circuit Judge Frank P. Divelbiss of this city was stabbed by Robert S. Lyon, editor of the Richmond Conservator.” The Judge’s story was also in the Denver Post and various other newspapers across the country and was the most famous murder in Ray County since the Winner-Nelson murders in 1896.
The judge died a few days later on April 13. His death certificate said his cause of death was pneumonia and the contributing cause was stab wounds in his abdomen. It finally came out in the trial that the knife belonged to the judge and he had pulled it on Robert Lyon first. It was ruled as self-defense and Lyon was acquitted in a sensational trial at the very same courthouse. There were over 10 lawyers involved in the trial. The Ray County Museum has a file about this trial that is three inches thick, so come on out to the museum if you want to read all the details.
The Richmond Missourian on April 17 told about the death of Judge Divelbiss. “Death of Judge Frank. P. Divelbiss. His Death From Wounds Occurred Sunday night at 7. Funeral at M.E. Church. Great Crowd from Four Counties Paid Tribute to the Jurist’s Honored Memory. ‘Judge Divelbiss is dead’ – these words flashed from lip to lip, from wire to wire, from town to town, from city to city. Judge Divelbiss, whose unwitnessed and tragic experience on the previous Monday had left him seriously wounded, had in the opinion of most of his friends passed the crisis and was on the upgrade. However, he took worse about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and died at seven o’clock on Sunday night. About 5 o’clock or two hours before he died, Prosecuting Attorney David Thompson was called to hear a final statement, the nature of which is unknown to the public as yet.”
Judge Divelbiss left a wife and two children. His funeral was held on Tuesday afternoon at 3 at the Methodist Church. Pastor W.P. Wynn and Elder James E. Dunn conducted the service. Mrs. H.C. Feil, soloist of the Independence Boulevard Christian Church of Kansas City, sang “Sometimes We’ll Understand” and “Face to Face”.
The ladies who carried the remarkable collection of wreathes and bouquets of flowers were Misses Louise Darneal, Zelma Anderson and Elsie Harmon, Mesdames Albert. M. Clark, Jesse Dugger, Charles Chenault, Frank T. Garner, Allen Trigg, Frank Taggart and E.T. Watkins. The pall bearers were Messrs, C. A. Cavanaugh, R.D. Farris, G.A. Trigg and F.G. Taggart. The quartette of singers were Mrs. Lutie Duval, Misses Blanch Alnutt, Emma Lutz and Lillian Miller. The Judge was buried at the new cemetery in town, which we all know as Sunny Slope.
Something good did happen to Richmond because of this trial. Due to this stabbing, the town of Richmond got to claim Nelson and Howard Hill as our own. Howard Hill’s father, Dr. Nelson Hill, a Kansas City surgeon, was called to assist with the injured judge. He later came back to testify for the trial and decided to buy The Richmond News in 1919 from Allen Trigg. Nelson died in 1956 and Howard took over as publisher. These two men will always be remembered as legends in Richmond newspaper history.
While reading a July 9, 1914 Richmond newspaper, I found a story that mentioned Judge Divelbiss. There were 204 automobile owners in Ray County. Each owner was listed in alphabetical order with the license number and town where they lived. Most cars were in Richmond, but Lawson, Hardin, Orrick, Camden, Rayville, Henrietta, Norborne, Polo and Elmira had a few car owners. We can only hope the judge enjoyed the last few years of his life because he was one of the lucky ones who had a car. Judge F.P. Divelbiss was license number 35543.
Robert Simon Lyon walked this earth for another 25 years after Judge Divelbiss died. Lyon died in Richmond on Jan. 5, 1945 and is also buried at Sunny Slope Cemetery. His death certificate listed him as 64 years old and his occupation was still “newspaper editor”. His cause of death was a cerebral hemorrhage caused by hypertension.
And so ends the tale of Judge Divelbiss and Robert Lyon.

Have a story for Linda? Write her at raycohistory@aol.com.

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