Chapter 17 of “Vintage True Crime Stories V-1,” The Collins Case, Topeka, 1898Home | Feature Stories, New Books | Chapter 17 of “Vintage True Crime Stories V-1,” The Collins Case, Topeka, 1898
[September 7, 2018] Posted below for your consideration is Chapter 17 from the first volume of a new anthology series presented by HCD Publishing entitled, Vintage True Crime Stories: An Illustrated Anthology of Forgotten Cases of Murder & Mayhem, Volume I, 314 pages.
The book will be released on Amazon Kindle this coming Monday, September 10. A hard copy of the book is already available on Amazon for $14.99. Distribution of the digital book through other venues will continue over the next several weeks.
All the books in this series, including Volume I, will have a corresponding companion webpage where readers can browse through additional images, illustrations, maps, genealogy files, court documents, relevant excerpts from vintage magazines and books, and pdf files of old newspaper stories that were published during the many stages of each criminal case.
The link to the companion webpage for volume one is at the end of this story.
Story by Thomas Furlong, Fifty Years a Detective, 1912
NO CRIME COMMITTED IN THE West in recent years was surrounded with more mystery than was the murder of James S. Collins which occurred in Topeka, Kansas, in the spring of 1898 (May 13). Mister Collins was slain while asleep beside his wife in their home. The weapon used was a shotgun, and one or two of the shot struck the wife’s shoulder, making slight, though painful wounds.
The murdered man had been a prominent insurance and real estate man of the Kansas capitol, where he had lived for many years and was well known to most citizens of that city, as well as throughout the entire state. In fact, he was considered one of the state’s most prominent citizens. At the time of his murder, he was about fifty-five years of age, had a wife, one daughter, and a son, John.
The Collins family occupied a comfortable home in Topeka. John, the only son, was a student at the state university at Lawrence, Kansas, where he was being prepared for the ministry. He had been a student at Lawrence for two or three years before his father’s murder. He boarded at the school and occasionally visited his home in Topeka, usually on Sundays and holidays.
The Collins home, which was one of the best on the state capitol’s most prominent residential thoroughfares, was disturbed early one morning by the discharge of a gun in the sleeping room occupied by Mr. Collins and his wife, which was situated on the ground floor. Mr. Collins had been shot and died instantly, and his wife, as stated above, received one or two grains of coarse shot in her shoulder. Other occupants of the house that morning were Miss Collins, a young lady of about eighteen years of age, and John Collins Jr. Both of them occupied rooms on the second floor of the house. There was also a servant girl in the house. It was in the early part of the summer, and the windows were all screened with wire. John, apparently aroused by the shot that killed his father, dressed hastily and aroused the nearest neighbors. It was at an early hour in the morning but after daylight.
The police were sent for and, on their arrival, ascertained that the doors of the house were all intact and carefully locked; however, a window screen in the rear of the house on the second floor was found to have been cut, leaving a hole large enough for the passage of a human body. This window was directly above a one-story addition to the main building in the rear.
After the police finished their investigation of the premises, they arrived at the conclusion that the murderer must have entered the house with a key. After he shot Mr. Collins, he escaped by going up the main stairs to the second floor, down the hall to where the wire screen to the window had been cut and jumped out of the window onto the roof of the one-story addition. He then jumped down to the ground, a distance of about ten or twelve feet, and in that way made his escape.
The murder created a great sensation because of Mr. Collins’s high standing in the community. A number of the more influential citizens of Topeka, who were friends of his, formed a committee for the purpose of locating the murderer and having him brought to justice. These gentlemen wired me at my St. Louis office, asking me to come to Topeka to investigate the case. I went to Topeka at once, arriving there, if I remember right, the third day after the murder had been committed.
I reported to the gentleman who was chairman of the committee and at once began my investigation by examining the premises where the murder occurred. I interviewed the widow, who was Mr. Collins’s second wife, her stepdaughter, and her stepson, John Collins. Mrs. Collins was a woman between thirty-six and forty years of age, of the brunette type, rather above the medium height and inclined to be slender. She was very attractive and considered a good-looking woman, intelligent, and refined.
Miss Collins was also above the medium height, nice-looking, well educated, and intelligent.
John Collins had just passed his twenty-first birthday, was about five-feet-eight- or nine-inches tall, light brown hair, fair complexioned, well built, pleasing in manner and a very fine-looking young man.
After I had consumed about four days in my investigation, I became satisfied in my own mind that the murder had been committed by some person who belonged in the house and that the house had not been entered by an outsider. I had discovered that Mr. Collins had been killed with his own shotgun, a high-priced firearm, which he always kept in a leather case, usually placed on the upper shelf of a clothes closet in his bedroom. This closet was unusually large and extended from the floor to the ceiling. The ceiling being very high, an ordinary-sized man could not reach the shelf where the gun was kept without the aid of a stepladder, or possibly, it could have been reached by a tall person while standing on a high table.
Mr. Collins had not used his gun for months before the murder, and it had always been his custom after using the weapon to clean it thoroughly, take it apart, and pack it in the case. It was, therefore, necessary for the murderer to take this gun case from the shelf, put it together and load it with the ammunition, which was also kept on the high shelf. None of this could have been accomplished by any outside person without having been discovered by one of the residents of the house.
I also learned that John Collins had left his lodgings at Lawrence on the evening preceding the murder, going to Topeka and directly to his home, where, he claimed, he retired for the night at an early hour. He also claimed that he remained there until aroused by the shot that killed his father. I also learned that the young man had formed the acquaintance of a very estimable and wealthy young lady (Frances Adelaide Babcock) at Lawrence, with whom he had become infatuated. He had paid a lot of attention to her for months, and finally, she had informed him that her mother had decided to purchase or lease a cottage at Long Branch in which to spend the summer months.
I surmised that when he learned that she intended to accompany her mother to Long Branch for the summer, young Collins feared his sweetheart would meet one of the many fortune hunters who frequent the resort during the summer months, thus endangering his chances of winning her. Since that was unacceptable to him, Collins made up his mind to do all he could to spend the summer at Long Branch to guard his young lady friend from the unwanted, indecent, lecherous, salaciously sinful flirtations of other young men, who, of course, might possibly be taller, more handsome, and more clever.
The elder Mr. Collins had been considered to be wealthier than he really was at the time of his death. He had met with financial reverses and really had but little more than his home in Topeka when he was murdered, but he was carrying thirty-thousand-dollars insurance on his life, ten thousand to his wife and ten thousand to each of his children.
Having secured the above information, I sent one of my operatives, J.S. Manning, to Lawrence, Kansas, with instructions to quietly ascertain all that he could as to the habits of the young man Collins and his associates. Mr. Manning’s investigation there developed that young Collins had been spending considerable money on buying flowers, carriage hires, and entertainment. He had no means of defraying these expenses other than twenty-five dollars a month allowed him by his father for that purpose. Mr. Manning also learned there were a couple of black hack drivers (a horse and carriage taxi) in Lawrence who had been patronized by the younger Collins.
Upon receipt of this information from Mr. Manning, I sent Dell F. Harbaugh, who was then in my employ, to Lawrence. Mr. Harbaugh had lived in Lawrence, Kansas, for a number of years before he entered my service. He had been in the livery business there and had been a hack driver. He was personally acquainted with the black drivers mentioned before, but these men did not know that he was now in the secret service work. For this reason, Mr. Harbaugh saw it was easy to find out everything that the hack drivers knew about John Collins.
After renewing their acquaintance, Harbaugh learned from them that Collins had approached them and entered into a verbal contract to kill his father for a certain sum of money, part of which he had paid at the time the agreement was made, he agrees to pay the balance after the murder had been committed.
They told Harbaugh that they had no intention of attempting to murder Mr. Collins but had promised John they would do so to work him for what money they could get out of him, knowing, as they did, that he dare not expose them when they failed to carry out their agreement.
The murder was to have been committed on or before a certain date. The date passed and Mr. Collins still lived, whereupon John became anxious and admonished the hack drivers who had hustled him. They told him that they were entitled to more money than what he had agreed to pay them, and he gave them an additional one-hundred dollars, as well as a gold watch his father had presented to him on his twenty-first birthday.
This money young Collins had secured by borrowing from his friends, and through bank drafts he had drawn on his father’s account, as we later learned. There was then another date set for the murder to be committed by the hack drivers. When that day arrived and passed, young Collins again yelled at the drivers for not having carried out their agreement. They coolly informed him that they had concluded that if his father had to be killed, that he had better do the killing himself. They positively would not commit the crime and, in fact, they had never intended to do so.
Upon hearing this, young Collins became desperate and left Lawrence and went to Topeka. There, he killed his father in his sleep with his own shotgun.
When this evidence was obtained, I reported it to the gentlemen who had employed me, and they then decided to hand my report over to the prosecuting attorney at Lawrence. At the request of the prosecuting attorney, the county commissioners at Topeka employed me to complete the evidence so that Collins could be arrested and prosecuted for the murder of his father.
John Collins was immediately arrested, placed in jail without bond, and in due time the case came to trial. The trial caused a great deal of interest in the community because the elder Mr. Collins was so well known, and the killing had been done in a mysterious manner.
The trial attracted great attention throughout the entire country. All of the leading western papers had special reporters present, and all the sensational features were “played up” (as newspapermen call it) as they developed. The courtroom was crowded, and many noted lawyers were also in attendance to watch the legal battle, which at times waxed very warm as all the counsel on both sides were very able men. Prosecuting Attorney Aaron P. Jetmore was at his best, making one of the greatest fights I ever saw to get his evidence before the jury.
Among the spectators for almost the entire trial was the late Justice David Josiah Brewer of the United States Supreme Court at Washington. He was visiting his daughter, who was the wife of the prosecuting attorney, Mr. Jetmore. At the close of the case, Mr. Justice Brewer complimented me very highly for my work in solving the mystery.
During the trial, a great many people got the idea that I had been employed by the insurance companies, believing that the companies were trying to avoid payment of the thirty-thousand-dollars insurance by proving that the son had killed his father. This opinion was erroneous. The people who employed me in this case were citizens of Topeka and lodge friends of the murdered man. They were not connected with the insurance companies relevant to the case, and they were only good and law-abiding citizens seeking justice. As soon as I had satisfied them that John Collins was the murderer, they immediately turned the evidence over to the proper state authorities.
The trial lasted more than a week. Collins was defended by two of the most prominent attorneys at that bar. They labored earnestly and to the best of their ability to clear him, but he was found guilty of murder and sent to the state prison to await the governor’s action in fixing the date of his execution. However, it has always been the custom in Kansas for the governor to never set the date for execution of one found guilty of murder. The prisoners are usually kept in prison, and a sentence of death in Kansas usually means a life term in the penitentiary.
There has been an effort made by friends of young Collins and the family to obtain a pardon for him, but up to this time, I understand they have not made progress.
I will say here that the black hack drivers from Lawrence took the witness stand for the state against John Collins and produced the watch that he had given them, which had been presented to him by the elder Mr. Collins upon the 21st anniversary of John’s birthday. This watch, with the testimony of the hack drivers, in which they detailed the contract they had made with the younger Collins, all of which was corroborated by circumstances that were not, or could not be, contradicted, led to the conviction of the son for the murder of his father.
Above, a Kansas State Prison mugshot of John Henry Collins taken in 1901. Despite being sentenced to death, Collins served less than ten years for the murder of his father. Following his release, he moved to California. Photo Credit: Kansas State Historical Society, Item Number: 311265.
Epilogue: John Collins was released from prison a year or two before 1910 when the US Federal Census reports him as living on South Flower Street in a Los Angeles, California, rooming house. The census reports that the thirty-two-year-old was living alone and employed as a hotel clerk. By 1920, he had married Grace Fowler, a twenty-eight-year-old stenographer who worked in a machine shop. He also returned to his first calling, the church, where he worked for the next twenty-five years as a “Practitioner” in Santa Monica, employed on his own account. The couple had one son, William, born in 1921.
John Collins died on February 1, 1945. He was sixty-seven years old. Grace died more than eight years later, on September 6, 1953.
Click here to visit the companion webpage for Vintage True Crime Stories Volume I.
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