Mysterious case from 1923

Editor’s note: This is part one of a three part series.  Part two will be published in Thursday’s edition and part three in Saturday’s.

It has been almost 91 years since the death of young man in Butler County, north of El Dorado.
A Santa Fe crewman found the body of a teenage boy on the main line south of DeGraff early in the morning of Sept. 19, 1923. It was believed the young man slipped and fell beneath the train somtime during the night. His right leg and arm were severed and he was lying face down.
He wore a green coat and a Salvation Army pin was attached to it.  Found on the collar band of his blue shirt were dimly printed letters, about half an inch high, believed to be H.E.R. or W.E.R.
The body of the youth, believed to be around 17 years old, was lying unidentified at the Byrd Brothers Funeral Home, 200 S. Star St. in El Dorado.
Telegrams and telephone calls were pouring in from all parts of the country to the police department inquiring about the death of the boy.  The telegrams were from frantic parents searching for their own missing sons.
Since the publication of the report in local newspapers, hundreds of people visited the funeral home hoping to view the body.
Frank Byrd, funeral director, was reported to say, “I never realized until now the large number of persons unaccounted for.”
Despite efforts to identify the boy, Mr. Byrd was preparing to hold the body indefinitely.
The latest hope for officers to attempt an identification was finding the letter H scrawled on a belt buckle taken from the boy’s clothing.
There were several desperate attempts to link the boy to someone’s story.
A frantic El Dorado woman  told Mr. Byrd her son had a small scar on the bridge of his nose and another under his chin, along with a birth mark on his back. The unidentified youth had similar scars, but no birth mark.
Mr. and Mrs. Jess Earl of El Dorado told Mr. Byrd they had seen two boys that evening hop a ride on a northbound Santa Fe freight train at the alley behind the Kansas State Bank. One was dressed similar.
Many who viewed the body surmised the boy had been killed when he fell, as there were no marks on the body. One rumor was perhaps the boy had been robbed and his body placed on the tracks, but police did not believe the story, as his pockets had not been turned and there were no signs of any sort of struggle.
The only items found in his pockets were some matches, cigarette papers and tobacco.
Another anxious woman from Wichita called Mr. Byrd, gave a description of her missing son and went so far as to say her boy wore a green coat with a Salvation Army pin attached. She would come immediately to view the body.
Fathers from Oklahoma seeking lost sons arrived by train and cars.  Parents,   from Kansas City, Kingman, Wichita and other places had arrived. Telephone calls kept coming in and scores of telegrams poured in. Mr. Byrd and Butler County Coroner W.E. Turner were staying busy answering them.
Several times it was believed the body would be identified, but each time  chances vanished. A constant stream of people had viewed the body in a mere 48-hour time span.
Mr. Byrd was attempting to identify the youth by sending a description of the body to the Fleeman National Identification Bureau of St. Joseph, Mo., a predecessor of today’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a part of the U.S. Department of Justice.
The hopeful parents of missing sons had descended on El Dorado and were viewing the body.  They would leave happy because it wasn’t their child and yet, sad, because the fate of their son remained unknown.
A man from Kingman advised the body of the boy resembled his son in some ways, but it wasn’t his missing 16 year old.  Before the man left, he told the newspaper he would give $100 to anyone who could help locate his son.
Butler County Sheriff Newt Purcell discounted a theory about connections between finding the body of the boy and the killing of a team of mules by a railroad train at Ramsey, near DeGraff, on the same night. Sheriff Purcell had visited the camp from where the mules were missing and he was advised the mules had simply escaped from a corral and were not stolen.
Find out in Thursday’s issue if anyone stepped forward to claim the unknown boy.

Sources: The El Dorado Times, September 1923, The Augusta Daily Gazette, September 1923.
Belinda Larsen can be reached at