Four miles west of Great Bend, Kansas two Barton County farmers, Robert Essmiller and Will Weber, were harvesting wheat on the Thursday morning of July 7, 1921. At 7:00 a.m., they noticed an empty car sitting on a lonely county road and went over to investigate. The car was empty, but the dash and tail lights were still on. Next to the car, in the ditch, the farmers were stunned to find a dead man lying on his back, wearing a suit and tie, his spectacles in place, and a cigar butt lying across his face. The man had been shot six times with a .32 caliber,double action revolver. The entire contents of the revolver had been discharged at close range. Four bullets entered the arm, and two entered the man’s body, one in the neck and one in the chest. The dead man was 5 foot 9 inches, weighing 119 pounds.
Banta had been at the Elks Club in Great Bend the night before the body was found, playing a game of Hearts with friends. A Mysterious Phone Call While at the Elks Club the night before, at approximately 9:00 p.m., Banta received a phone call, and he spoke to the caller in low tones. He then finished his game of Hearts and left the Elks Club. His car was seen parked in front of the Lyric Theatre,near the Elks Club,and he was last seen alive as he drove his car leaving Great Bend, going west, with an unidentified man in the passenger seat.
For weeks, the murder went unsolved. The Great Bend Tribune called the case “one of the most baffling in the history of the state.” The murder mystery was the only thing people talked about in Great Bend for weeks. Fellow members of the Great Bend Elks Club raised $500 as a reward. Many Great Bend residents were afraid to go out at night with a vicious killer on the loose.These were Prohibition days, and the police “rounded up the usual suspects” by interviewing three Rush County boozers–Gene “The Indian” Baird, Sylvester “Big Boy” Carmak, and Joe Fiella. The investigation eventually led to Curly Wallace, a Great Bend restaurant owner with a long rap sheet. Wallace’s wife was no angel either, as she operated a house of prostitution. Curly Wallace was a client of Arthur Banta. Banta had recently defended Wallace in the Great Bend Municipal Court on the charge of illegally selling cigarettes, and they lost the case and appealed it to the Barton County District Court. (Selling cigarettes was illegal in Kansas at the time.) Was Wallace a disgruntled client because Banta lost the cigarette case in Municipal Court? Did he want revenge against his own attorney? Police soon learned that Wallace tried to pay a man from Chanute, Kansas, to make a false affidavit pinning the murder on a local hotel owner, Mr. C. V. Shepler. Wallace was arrested, and he eventually sang like a nightingale, unraveling the murder mystery of the century in Barton County. He implicated two other men–including a prominent citizen.
On August 18, 1921, the readers of the Great Bend Tribune found out the identity of that prominent citizen. Dr. W. A. Nixon, a respected local physician, was arrested for the murder of Banta, along with Roy Hayes, a local trouble maker. Dr. Nixon had a good reputation in the community, and his patients were stunned at the news. Just who was Dr. Nixon? He was born in 1867 in Canada. He was raised in Canada, and he studied veterinary medicine there, and then moved to the U.S. to practice veterinary medicine in Missouri. He then decided to attend medical school in Kansas City. After becoming a physician, he did some mission work overseas, and then practiced medicine in Oklahoma before moving to Great Bend.
Nixon was divorced four times, with Arthur Banta serving as his attorney in his fourth divorce. At the time of the murder, Nixon was married to his fifth wife,and they had four small children. Nixon had practiced medicine for eleven years in Great Bend before the murder. As the evidence unraveled, the public was stunned to learn that Dr. Nixon was possibly a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Apparently, Dr. Nixon engaged in a secret life of crime with Wallace and Hayes. They had committed three arsons, a highway robbery, and they even had plans to blow up the Shepler Hotel. Also, they wanted to kill the Barton County Sheriff and other public officials. On one memorable occasion, the threesome engaged in highway robbery by confronting some bootleggers and taking their cash. Dr. Nixon posed as the county sheriff, and Hayes posed as a revenue agent, as they “shook down” some bootleggers for their cash.
Also, it appears that Dr. Nixon was probably involved in Wallace’s illegal cigarette business, and he was angry at Banta for losing the case. Nixon had financed Wallace’s restaurant, and he had a mortgage on the restaurant building. The Wallace restaurant is where threesome would meet to plan their dastardly deeds.
On the night of Banta’s murder, the threesome were all supposed to participate in the murder, but Curly Wallace got “cold feet” and backed out at the last minute, leaving Hayes and Dr. Nixon to do the dirty deed. Nixon asked Hayes to meet him west of Great Bend on a lonely country road at a particular time and place. He planned to bring Banta to that location. On the night of the murder, the phone call to Banta at the Elks Club was from Dr. Nixon. The person who answered the phone testified that the voice sounded like Dr. Nixon’s. Nixon asked Banta to drop by his medical office. Banta drove to Dr. Nixon’s office, near the Lyric Theatre. Dr. Nixon then convinced Banta to drive west of town in Banta’s vehicle, apparently voluntarily. Nixon was Banta’s family doctor, and he rode with Banta to the country location. They were met on the road by Hayes.
Dr. Nixon fired the shots that killed Banta, with Hayes participating in the murder. The original plan was for Nixon and Hayes to bury Banta’s body in the Arkansas River near Hutchinson, and to abandon his car in Hutchinson. However, a vehicle approached Nixon and Hayes shortly after the murder, and they fled the scene, leaving the body and vehicle behind.
A possible motive was greed–an unpaid debt. Dr. Nixon knew that Banta was preparing for a trip with his family, and he thought Banta might have a wad of cash on his person in preparation for his trip. Nixon thought Banta would have $300-$400 on his person that night. Nixon apparently took Banta out to the country in hopes of voluntarily resolving the financial dispute. He wanted the cash or wanted to force Banta to sign a promissory note. However, apparently no money changed hands, no promissory note was signed, and Banta was shot six times by Dr. Nixon, with Hayes assisting in the crime. After the murder, Dr. Nixon said, “He (Banta) will not owe anybody else money.” The debt possibly regarded a personal loan from Dr. Nixon to Banta. Also, there was talk of an unpaid medical bill in the amount of $175.00. But why didn’t Dr. Nixon simply sue Banta in court to get his money? Could it be because the money was owed regarding an illegal activity—-bootlegging, abortion, etc.—-and that the only way to enforce the debt was at the barrel of a gun?
Another motivation was revenge. Dr. Nixon believed that Banta had double-crossed him and was trying to run Nixon’s crime ring out of town. A few days before the murder, Nixon told a local attorney, Coe Russell: “This man Banta is double crossing everybody. I didn’t think he would double cross me, but I am thoroughly satisfied that he is, and he is a double crossing _______ and is trying to do it again…” Nixon had also told others besides Russell that Banta had double crossed him, and that he was angry at Banta. Indeed, Banta had told a friend a few days before the murder: “I am going to double cross Curly Wallace, Shepler and Doc Nixon. I intend to run them out of town, but if they get next to how I’m double crossing, my life won’t be worth a cent.”
Banta was apparently planning to “blow the whistle” on the crime ring. Did Banta intentionally provide half- hearted legal representation to Curly Wallace in the cigarette case in the Great Bend Municipal Court in hopes of slowing down the crime ring? Dr. Nixon performed abortions, and many suggest that this was the key issue in the murder. Some say that Banta was blackmailing Nixon regarding the abortions and/or bootlegging, and that Nixon put a stop to the blackmailing with the murder. Was Banta a hero trying to rid Great Bend of a crime ring—-or a blackmailer out to cash in? Many old-timers in Great Bend describe Banta as an opportunist who was collecting “hush money” from Dr. Nixon, and Dr. Nixon decided that the situation was intolerable. Regarding Dr. Nixon, there are several schools of thought. Some believe he was guilty of murdering a heroic young lawyer out to rid the community of a crime ring. Others believe he was guilty of murder, but that Banta “had it coming” for blackmailing him and demanding “hush money.” Still others believe Dr. Nixon had nothing whatsovever to do with the murders and was framed.
The murder trial was sensational, with newspaper reporters from Hutchinson, Wichita, Kansas City, and the Associated Press. Crowds packed into the courtroom to hear the sensational testimony. Wallace and Hayes testified against Dr. Nixon in exchange for immunity. Dr. Nixon took the stand in his own defense, claiming that he was framed by Wallace and Hayes. Nixon had an alibi. He testified that he was treating patients at his medical office at the time the murder occurred. Two of those patients testified and indicated they were indeed in Nixon’s office on night in question. Nixon testified that Arthur Banta stopped by his office uninvited that night, and said that he was going to a party that night and asked for a prescription of alcohol.
Nixon testified that he had no animosity toward Banta, and that he had even saved Banta’s life during the flu epidemic. After dramatic closing arguments, the jury deliberated for five hours. The first vote was 10-2 for conviction. The second was 11-1 for conviction. Finally, the jury came to a unanimous decision. Dr. Nixon was convicted of first-degree murder. Nixon’s wife wept uncontrollably when the verdict was read.
Nixon was sent to the penitentiary, and his appeal to the Kansas Supreme Court was unsuccessful. The Controversial Pardon On January 8, 1925, Democrat lame-duck Governor Jonathan M. Davis gave an absolute pardon to Dr. W. A. Nixon, who had served only three years of his life sentence for First Degree Murder. The pardon created howls of protest by the Banta family and the trial judge, but the pardon was welcome news for Dr. Nixon’s family and his loyal supporters.
How did Nixon obtain an absolute pardon? The Lansing Prison warden, A. V. Anderson, had written a letter to the governor indicating that Nixon had maintained “a splendid conduct record as well as work record” in prison. Nixon had worked in the prison hospital for a time, but later served as an outside trustee, in charge of Lansing Prison’s hog ranch. (Nixon had been a veterinarian before he became a physician.) The warden indicated that “he has been very loyal to the officials of this institution and has always been ready and willing to do anything regardless of the nature of the work he is called upon to do.”
Numerous Kansans petitioned for Dr. Nixon’s release, including 27 doctors, the most prominent of whom was Dr. Arthur E. Hertzler, founder of the Hertzler Clinic in Halstead. Strangely, no Barton County physicians supported Dr. Nixon. In fact, the Barton County Medical Society adopted a resolution opposing the “liberation of red-handed murderer who has not yet served more than two and a half years of his life sentence.” The trial judge of the Banta murder case, Judge William C. Harris, also opposed Nixon’s release, calling the crime “one of the most cold-blooded, deliberate and diabolical acts that has ever come before me as judge.” Judge Harris argued that “his parole at this time would be an outrage against society and an outrage on justice.”
A group of Barton County citizens supported Nixon’s release, including C. R. Aldrich, a prominent banker, who stated: “I have never believed, and never shall believe, that he (Nixon) was guilty of the crime of which he was convicted.” (Camp Aldrich in Barton County is named after C.R. Aldrich, who left substantial property to charity in his will.) In making his plea to the Governor, Nixon stated he had been the family physician for Arthur Banta for many years and the he considered Banta “among his best friends.” He stated that the jury was made up of members of the Non-Partisan League and that in the past he had fought the party, and that “they were anxious to get a lick at him.” The Non-Partisan League was a populist socialism organization, mostly comprised of farmers. The Non-Partsan League opposed America’s involvement in WWI, and favored socialistic ideas to help America’s farmers, such as state-owned banks to make interest-free loans to farmers.
Also, Nixon indicated that all the lawyers in Barton County took a pledge not to take his case, so he had to rely on out-of-town legal talent, which handicapped him in picking a jury and in other ways. Nixon stated that the “witnesses against him were crooks and had been in trouble several times before.” The Barton County attorney had argued against a pardon, telling the story of Banta’s life in crime, including the allegations that Nixon had performed illegal abortions, committed arsons, highway robbery, and other crimes, which eventually led to murder. Nixon’s wife made a personal plea to the Governor, and she was represented by Col. Sam Amidon, a prominent Wichita Democrat. In pardoning Nixon, Governor Davis stated “there is a decisive doubt in my mind as to Dr. Nixon being guilty of murder in the first degree.” Also, the Governor noted that Nixon’s four minor children needed him at home. The Governor also made note of the many physicians who supported Banta. With the stroke of a pen, Nixon was a free man. Arthur Banta’s father, retired Barton County Judge Dan Banta, was livid. Judge Banta suggested that the Governor should make “the penitentiary wide open and turn all of the convicts loose.”
Many felt the pardon was largely the result of political influence by Stafford County State Senator R. C. Gates, a Democrat, and Col. Amidon, also a “heavy hitter” in Democrat circles. Governor Davis came under fire for the liberal pardons he handed out only a few days before leaving office. In fact, Governor Davis and his son stood trial for a bribe to obtain a pardon for another prisoner, Fred Pollman.
There are many arguments in favor of Dr. Nixon’s innocence. The two witnesses against him were known criminals with bad reputations. Nixon had an alibi, but the jury chose not to believe it. Nixon did not have the benefit of a Great Bend lawyer to help with jury selection. Nixon was a member of the wildly unpopular Non-Partisan League, and he felt the all-male jury wanted to punish him for his views.
Although Dr. Nixon was freed from prison in 1925, he died shortly thereafter, on November 5, 1927. He is buried in the Great Bend Municipal Cemetery, as is Arthur C. Banta, the murder victim.
Sources: Great Bend Tribune archives Kansas State Historical Society Barton County Courthouse records. Dr. W.A. Nixon was convicted of the murder, and later pardoned by Governor Davis.