Seven members of a Butler County family murdered

(Editor’s note: This is the first part of a three-part series.)  

What may have been the worst crime in Butler County’s history occurred on the night of April 20, 1928, about 16 miles north of El Dorado.

The Kansas countryside was quiet and the night was shrouded in fog, pierced only by a red glow. A farmer’s first thought was someone was burning straw in a field, but the fire seemed too bright - too intense for burning straw or grass. By the time he arrived at his neighbor’s farm he found the two-story frame home of William Oberst completely engulfed in flames.

Neighbors who attempted to put out the fire believed the family was away because the car was gone. But when the fire died out, a grizzly discovery was made. The body of William Oberst, 45, was found just outside the kitchen door and in what had been the kitchen, wife and mother Elsie Oberst, 41, was found with the burned bodies of her children, Dorothy, 16; Ralph, 14; Hugh, 10; Edith, 8; and Herbert, 6.

While deputy sheriff officers picked through the smoldering ruins of the home, Owen R. Oberst, the eldest son and now the only surviving member of the family, returned home in the family car around midnight.

Everyone was relieved Owen, 17, had been at the movies in Florence and escaped death.

Footprints behind the house leading to a clump of trees across a field and into a lane were found, and continued to where automobile tracks were found.

An exploded shotgun shell was found a short distance from the ruins of the home, and other shells were found in the vicinity.

A coroner’s jury was empanelled the next morning and the bodies taken to Newton.

A private commission committee was appointed by Judge George J. Benson of the Butler County District Court to “investigate, question and report” concerning the case. Members of the committee included; Rev. F.W. Condit, Dr. C.E. Boudreau, E.W. Grant, George Bromwell, Robert H. Hazlett, Charles W. Steiger, W.A. Schumaker, and L.J. Bond.

The postmortem examination revealed at least some of the victims had been shot before they were burned. The weapon was a .22 caliber rifle.

The confession

Newspaper headlines announced on May 4, 1928, Owen Oberst confessed he killed his family, and set fire to the house in an attempt to cover the crime.

He made his confession to Sheriff E.E. McKnight, County Attorney Stanley Taylor and J.W. McCartney, deputy state fire marshal.

The youth, considered mild-mannered, had never been in any trouble and worked on the farm when he wasn’t attending school.

Owen told officers “he just got mad at his father because he would not allow him to use the family car.”

Also in his confession, he stated after he had shot the family members he went to the cellar and got some coal oil and proceeded to pour all around the kitchen floor. He ignited it, but not before he took his father’s wallet.

Afterward, he left in the family car, picked up two friends who lived nearby, and the three went to Florence where they attended a movie. His companions reported Owen had acted “perfectly normal” that evening.

Owen confessed he had planned the killings only a few hours before they were committed.

He killed his father when he returned home from a trip to town and investigators believed the father was killed outside the house, which meant Owen dragged the body into the house and onto the kitchen floor. When he removed his father’s wallet, he took some cash and placed the wallet in the car.

There were holes in his story. He wouldn’t say what method he used to lure his brothers and sisters into the kitchen and he was vague about the shooting, saying he just closed his eyes and fired.

When authorities found the wallet the next day, it was reported as one of the strongest links in the chain of circumstantial evidence which led to questioning the youth.

(Editor’s note: The see-saw state of affairs was far from over. Find out in Thursday’s Part 2 what happened at the arraignment.)

Sources: El Dorado Times, Augusta Daily Gazette, The New York Times, St. Petersburg Times, Lawrence Journal-World, Woodville Republican, Butler County Genealogy Trails,, Southeastern Missiourian, San Antonio Light, The Lincoln Daily News, The Abilene Morning Reporter, The Bee of Danville, Va., The Chicago Tribune, and the Dunkirk Evening Observer.