New exhibit focuses on notorious cases

Melissa Sowers, Caitlin Matile and Director Roxanne Morgan, all of the Finney County Convention and Visitors Bureau, view the new “True Crime” Exhibit at the Finney County Historical Museum.

The Finney County Historical Museum in Garden City has created a major new exhibit featuring evidence from a 1920s crime spree and a 1950s murder case that focused unwanted national attention on southwest Kansas.

Entitled “True Crime, Solving Notorious Cases from Finney County’s History,” the 525-square foot exhibit is designed to show how the law enforcement community ended the robberies and killings perpetrated by the once-infamous Fleagle Gang, and brought Richard E. Hickock and Perry E. Smith to justice after they killed four members of the Herb and Bonnie Clutter family in Holcomb.

“The Fleagle Gang’s robberies and killings and the murder of the Clutter family three decades later were sad and shocking events, but they became and remain part of our community’s history,” said Steve Quakenbush, executive director of the Finney County Historical Society.  “We hope this exhibit helps people understand these crimes and see them in true perspective.”

Jake Fleagle mug shot

Housed in the Museum’s Temporary Gallery, the display will remain in place at least two years.  It incorporates approximately 20 historical artifacts and three dozen early-day photographs.

Those include the car window glass on which Finney County robber Jake Fleagle left his fingerprint during the commission of a murder in 1928, leading to one of the earliest convictions based on fingerprint evidence.

The exhibit also includes a boot worn by one of the killers in the 1959 Clutter case.  Borrowed from the Garden City Police Department, the boot’s print in the Clutter home helped connect Hickock and Smith to the crime.

Ribbon Cutting Jan. 25

Public viewing of the exhibit is already available. The official opening and ribbon cutting ceremony, also free to the public, is set for 4 p.m. Jan. 25.  Light refreshments will be offered and all exhibits will remain open late until 6 p.m. that day.

Perry Smith in custody.

Other pieces of history in the exhibit include two 1885 stone blocks from Finney Court’s first court house; a collection of career souvenirs from the life of Sheriff Earl Robinson, the first officer to arrive at the scene of the Clutter murders; and a gown worn at the New York ball given by author Truman Capote after the publication of his book, “In Cold Blood,” which capitalized on the Clutter case.

The exhibit offers a timeline on the development of early-day law enforcement too, traces the history of all three Finney County court houses, and covers some lesser-known cases and jailbreaks, including a fatal 19th Century shooting at Garden City’s railroad depot involving Marshal Newton Earp, half-brother of the famous Wyatt Earp.

The exhibit was created for the Finney County Historical Society by Brian Nelson, with support from the entire museum staff, and with numerous items from the museum’s artifact collection.

Additional elements being displayed range from a Winchester repeating rifle, kept by Garden City’s Fidelity State Bank to defend against robberies in the early 20th Century, to a collection of furniture and household items from the Fleagle home, to an evidence safe linked to the Clutter case.

“People may not realize it today, but the way the Fleagle and Clutter cases were solved and prosecuted had a major impact on a nationwide basis,” said Roxanne Morgan, Finney County Convention and Visitors Bureau director. “In fact, the fingerprint that nailed the Fleagle Gang was an innovative kind of forensic evidence back in the 1920s, and we can be proud of the way that law enforcement officers right here in Finney County played a major role in closing the book on the gang’s exploits.”

High Profile Crimes

While the Fleagle Gang has fallen into obscurity, they generated headlines across the nation during the Roaring Twenties.

Three members of the gang were executed after their apprehension and finger print-based conviction in a 1928 bank robbery at Lamar, Colo., which resulted in multiple killings.  A fourth member, Jake Fleagle, was later gunned down by law enforcement officers when he refused to surrender in Branson, Mo.

The Clutter case ended with the conviction of Smith and Hickock, followed by their executions in 1965, prompting Capote to write his widely-acclaimed novel, followed by a major motion picture in 1967 starring Robert Blake, Scott Wilson and John Forsythe. The case has spawned numerous subsequent books, movies and additional accounts, including a 2017 Sundance TV documentary entitled “Cold Blooded, The Clutter Family Murders.”

During the ribbon cutting on Jan. 25, Local law enforcement leaders and members of the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce Ambassadors are expected to be on hand during the brief program, and guests will be invited to record their impressions in a special visitor’s log inside the exhibit.

The museum’s displays are open 1 to 5 p.m. daily, with the exception of Martin Luther King Day on Monday.

Admission is free. The museum is located at 403 S. Fourth St.