He faced different challenges from those of the cow town era.
By the turn of the 20th century Leavenworth, Kansas, was a Missouri River metropolis in need of a change, from the strong-armed law enforcement tactics of the Kansas cow town era to the more refined urban police work of a new era—the era of Alphonse Bertillon, of Sir Edward Henry and of Leavenworth Police Chief John Thomas Taylor. The principal adversaries of the old-time lawmen were whiskey-fueled cowboys, crooked gamblers and ex-Confederates who took out their late disgruntlement on the railroads and banks. But the railroads had since brought in a different type of criminal from the big Eastern cities, including members of organized gangs, who operated furtively, and labor radicals, who sometimes blew things up.
Forensic methods had also become more scientific. In France, starting in 1883, Bertillon had pioneered an identification system of physical measurements, combined with a record of tattoos and scars, he claimed was all but infallible in tracing perpetrators from one county, or country, to another. A decade later Henry and others introduced fingerprinting techniques to lawmen. Chinese potters had first used thumbprints to hallmark their pottery, and U.S. immigration officials proposed a similar system to register Chinese immigrants. While that practice was never adopted, law enforcement agencies soon used such systems whenever a perpetrator’s identity was in doubt.
Leavenworth County needed help. On February 19, 1901, two groups of strangers entered the Lackner Saloon. The first two men in ordered whiskey, and when one of them rapped his shot glass on the bar three times, the second group crowded in with shotguns. A scuffle broke out over the weapons, which discharged, and a full charge of buckshot struck Lackner family member Rose Hudson in the head, killing her. The shotgun blasts took out the lights, and men on both sides pulled revolvers and started shooting. William Webb, another member of the Lackner party, was wounded twice, while the strangers reportedly dragged away several wounded gunmen, one of whom later died. Nobody determined a motive for the raid. Robbery? Jealousy? Local prohibition laws? And no one was ever arrested.
Leavenworth County also needed help with forensic science. When Joseph and Michael Concannon dug up a skeleton on their farm in 1902, neighbors claimed the remains were those of a convict from the state penitentiary, left behind in what had been the prison cemetery. Scientists of the time believed the skeleton to be that of a pre-Columbian Indian who had been in the ground somewhere between 10,000 and 35,000 years. Neither guess was correct. No one was charged with murder in that case either.
The situation started to improve the following year when Mayor Daniel Read Anthony Jr. (nephew of suffragist Susan B. Anthony) appointed John Thomas Taylor city marshal, a title the lawman immediately changed to chief of police, in line with his perceived mission of bringing modern police work to a town with a population of more than 20,000. Taylor had the right background for that august role. Born in 1841, he was the maternal grandson of President William Henry Harrison, was the son of a Union colonel, and was himself a wounded veteran of the Civil War, notable for his actions at Shiloh, where he gave up his horse to Brig. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who found himself afoot thrice that day. Years after the war Sherman sent Taylor a personal letter of gratitude for his chivalry. Taylor spent most of his postwar years as a farmer, real estate developer and traveling salesman. By 1903 he was happily married, a member of the Leavenworth chapter of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion (a veterans’ group for Union officers of the Civil War), ready to stay in one place but eager to engage in civic betterment.
The force Chief Taylor built came to include a captain, a lieutenant, a detective, a dozen patrolmen, a jailer, a guard, two auto drivers and three “merchant police.” The chief’s job kept him busy. At least one officer was killed in the line of duty, and in January 1909 Taylor led the dozen men on the force in a sweeping raid on saloons selling liquor in violation of the state prohibition laws. Notwithstanding this enforcement, Taylor’s most celebrated exploit was the eviction of fervent temperance advocate Carrie Nation from his own police station.
Nation came from a family with a history of mental health problems and had lost her first husband to alcoholism. Her second husband failed at several businesses. Even before the divorce she had made a name for herself smashing up saloons that sold liquor against local prohibition laws— first with rocks and then, on advice from her husband, with a hatchet. She claimed that advice was the most sensible thing he’d ever said to her.
Nation appeared at Leavenworth police headquarters on June 4, 1909, demanding Taylor shut down a local bar where she had just illegally purchased liquor, her proof that Kansas saloonkeepers were ignoring the state’s “dry” laws.
“I just had a glass of beer up the street,” Nation told the chief.
“I think you have had several, Madam, from appearances,” the 67-year-old police chief replied. “Try a seltzer. It will be good to clear your head.”
“You’re a liar and a scoundrel and a villain and a perjurer,” Nation told the chief.
“Take it easy,” shot back Taylor. “Go slower and you can say more.”
“You……!!!!!!……!!!!” Nation replied, as quoted in The Leavenworth Times, obviously a family paper. “You better come with me and raid that joint, pretty quick.”
“Go down to the city attorney and get a complaint,” Taylor advised.
When Nation replied with more unprintables, Taylor gently took her arm and escorted her to the street. “He kicked me!” Nation shouted to spectators gathered outside.
“If I had,” he said coolly, “you would have been on the other side of the street.”
Nation was almost 6 feet tall and weighed 175 pounds, so this was no mean boast for a man his age. The chief then turned and locked the door. Nation soon left for Wichita, while Taylor returned to his paperwork.
Taylor’s father had served as state librarian of Minnesota for 18 years, and the police chief himself was familiar with
paperwork as a wartime officer and long time salesman. The same year he escorted Nation from his office, Taylor began compiling a comprehensive book of wanted posters and descriptions clipped from Eastern newspapers. The book included Bertillon statistics—physical measurements, tattoos, scars and other forensics. A segment of the PBS series
History Detectives featured Taylor’s book, which author and prison historian Kenneth LaMaster described as the largest collection of wanted posters he had ever seen and well ahead of its time for investigative purposes.
The widely respected Taylor, reappointed by three other mayors, served as chief until 1913, making him, according to Mary Anne Sachse Brown of the Leavenworth County Historical Society, the longest-serving police chief in the city’s history. Taylor was in office on June 9, 1911, when Nation died at Leavenworth’s Evergreen Place Sanitarium after a breakdown. Two hundred saloons were selling liquor in Leavenworth that year, the assistant attorney general of Kansas reported. Nobody much cared.
After retiring as chief, Taylor served as a municipal court judge in Leavenworth and as recorder of the local chapter of the Loyal Legion. On Dec. 5, 1926, a year after his wife’s death, Taylor died at 85 at Leavenworth’s Old Soldiers’ Home, one of the last officer survivors of Shiloh. Prohibition was the law of the land by that time— and organized crime had skyrocketed in response to a law most Americans didn’t want and many defied. Local historians remember Taylor as “able and fearless.” They could be referring to Shiloh or the showdown with Carrie Nation.
Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.