A Most Callous and Dastardly Deed

By on 03/25/2019

A Most Callous and Dastardly Deed

By the beginning of the 20th Century, Wauneta, Kansas had become a prosperous little community nestled north of the Missouri Pacific Railroad and along the old Denver-Joplin Unsurfaced Roadway. With a population over 100 residents (give or take a couple of cowboys and a drifter or two), it would soon become the home of a railroad mail drop-freight depot and telegraph office, a post office housed in a grocery-general merchandise store, a notary public, both a doctor and dentist office, a drug store, a milliner shop, a jewelry store, a lumber yard and hardware store, 2 blacksmiths shops, livestock holding pens and a livery, a church, an Odd Fellows’ Lodge and a Rebecca’s Lodge, a one room school house, and a city hall. – Oh Yea! There was an ever popular and busy croquet court.

But just a mile west of Wauneta along Highway 166 on the north side of the highway lays Grant Creek Cemetery. This little unassuming last resting place of 38 graves has one unpretentious tombstone that catches the eye of all who have visited this hallowed ground.

JOEL B. BYRNES

1838 AUG. 25, 1896

MURDERED BY A DRUNKEN

ASSASSIN

Throughout the time of man, his actions and behaviors have often been influenced by astrological occurrences and the weather. And many Waunettians believed this to be the case in the untimely death of one of their flock. In 1896, early summer in southeast Kansas saw days and days of heavy rains saturating the ground only to be followed by numerous weeks of unnaturally high heat, humidity, and finally a late summer drought. Friends often argued, tempers flared and a melancholy mood affected many residents. And during the last week of August, the nights were extremely hot and accompanied by a full moon (and as we are all aware – strange happenings have taken place during the time of a Full Moon).

And so it was for James W. Walker, a man known to abide of alcohol beverages (both malt and whiskey) in access, and for his ill temper and impulsively quick anger, as well as his expertise with knife and Colt. Through his trade as a blacksmith, he had made many acquaintances with the area’s outlaw population – one such being Bill Doolin, whose life style made a lasting impression on Walker. On the morning of August 25th Walker learned of the death of Bill Doolin by the hand of Deputy U.S. Marshal Heck Thomas, giving Walker an excuse to start hitting the “jug” a little earlier than normal.

August 25th was an extraordinarily hot Tuesday and Joel B. Byrnes (well respected member of and leader within the community, as well as highly thought of as a first class blacksmith and wheelwright) had been working all day at his forge setting some wagon tires for his friend and neighbor, Pete Calvert. The forge’s embers were cooling and just about 3 P.M. Byrnes was preparing to refuel the forge from the wood pile stacked up just outside the shop – when James K. Walker (a competitor in the smithy trade) staggered in and demanded Byrnes to give him some whiskey. Byrnes explained he was not a drinker and that he kept no alcohol at his place of business.

Walker called Byrnes a liar, and without another word, plodded out of the shop.

Now Byrnes and Walker were not friends, but neither were they enemies – no problems or words had ever before came between them – they were just fiercely strong competitors in a highly competitive business world. So Byrnes paid no never mind to Walker and went about his business of refueling his forge.

As Byrnes made his way to the wood pile, he had no knowledge that Walker had made his way around the building and was waiting on Byrnes. Without a word Walker took aim at Byrnes and fired three times. The first two shot struck Byrnes in the torso (either one would have been deadly) and the third was wide of its intended target. Walker looked at Byrnes lying on the ground, and as Byrnes uttered “I’m killed!” – Walker belted his revolver and hastily retreated to his home.

Upon retrieving cartridges for his revolver and reloading – and at his wife plea for him to flee – he saddled the family horse, but because he was too drunk to ride – he forced, at gunpoint, a young lad by the name of Charley Mattocks to ride behind him, holding Walker on the saddle. And at this Walker rode off making his escape unapproached by the Wauneta townsfolks.

A few miles to the south Walker came upon a hay meadow where a crew of five mem were cutting hay. There he tried to rob them, only to shoot his own horse while brandishing his revolver. Taking one the hay crew’s wagon horses, Walker forced the work crew to saddle up the horse, and then he headed south in the direction of the Hart’s Mill Road and Indian Territory.

Walker after making his way to Hart’s Mill Road came upon a gentleman named Squire Lane, and at gun point traded for Lane’s more comfortable looking saddle – and then hastily made his way into Indian Territory.

Chautauqua County Sheriff, O. G. Kiser, out of Sedan was telegraphed, however he and his deputies were unable to apprehend Walker. It was thought that he would most likely make his way to Cushing, Oklahoma Territory – the home of Walker’s father and brothers. And at this, Sheriff Kiser issued a $50 Bounty on Walker payable to anyone who would arrest Walker and deliver him to the charge of Sheriff Kiser.

 

Joel B. Byrnes was buried at Grant Creek Cemetery on August 26th, with the services being held by members of the Odd Fellows Lodge No. 241 I.O.O.F. – of which Byrnes was an active member.

 

On September 1, 1896 – Claud Crooks a Cowley County farmer came across a man sleeping in the underbrush just outside of his neighbor’s, Bud Smith, stable, five and a half miles southeast of Winfield, Kansas. Crooks recognized the man as James K. Walker, son-in-law of Smith and the at-large murderer of J.B. Byrnes. Crooks, at gunpoint arrested Walker – who gave no resistance.

 

Walker was turned over to Sheriff Kiser immediately and Crooks collected the Sheriff’s reward, along with a State Bounty of $300. Walker went to trial at the District Court in Sedan on September 9th before Judge Jackson – he offered no defense and stated he was remorseful for his actions – knowing not what had came over him.

 

By September the 18th, Walker had been found guilty of murder in the second degree, and sentenced to hard labor at the State Penitentiary for the remainder of his natural life.

Following the trial, Joel B. Byrnes’ blacksmith shop was purchased by the Appleby and Badraun families, and opened for business immediately. There is no information available on the disposition of the Walker Blacksmith Shop.

– Jim Chase