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The Garner story: Century old murder mystery haunts Laddonia part 2

Posted on Thursday, February 16, 2023 at 1:34 am

By Woodrow Polston

In January of 1934, newspapers as far away as the Weekly Kansas City Star shared the details of a shocking discovery in Laddonia. As mentioned in part one, a prominent family of four were found in the middle of the night in their burned home after the fire had been put out. Stewart Garner, who was the postmaster of Laddonia, along with his wife and two children, were all recovered from the ashes of the burned-out home. Evidence found, including a bloodstained ax and corn knife, missing limbs of the bodies, and a bullet wound in one of the children’s skulls, prompted a murder theory that gave way to a brief and questionable investigation. From the Jan. 25, 1934, issue of the Vandalia Leader, we discover additional details of the tragic event.
“No family stood higher and had a larger list of friends than Mr. and Mrs. Garner and their interesting children. They were known far and wide over the county and nearby counties. The motive for this act was possibly predicated on the fact that he had signed a confession of his shortage in the accounts of the post office, which he said had been used in paying bills for the McCubbin-Garner Drug firm, paying personal accounts and high living. He made the statement that he would stop the prosecution, whether he meant by that he would use his influences with the government officials who were higher up or that he intended to take the route he did was a matter of grave conjecture to the inspectors and his many friends after the testimony was released.”
Theory of Mrs. Garner’s murder: After it became evident that Mrs. Garner was missing for an entire day prior to the fire, according to the testimony of the family laundress Mrs. Harry Smith, speculation of a murder plot was shared on the cover of the Vandalia Leader.
“Mrs. Garner was last seen on Wednesday morning, the day previous to the fire. From this point the tragic end began. It was doubtless about the time that he killed his wife and went back to the city, parked his car as usual and followed Mrs. Smith into Ferguson’s store where the following conversation took place. When he met her here, he said, ‘you can come to do the ironing tomorrow.’ Mrs. Smith stated that she could not do that as she had to iron at another home. He told her that he would call her and that he thought his wife would be away from the home. At 1:30 p.m. he was seen to have gone home again by some of the neighbors, who saw him pass in his car and never thought anything of this. Knowing what a predicament that he was in, he doubtless attempted to burn her body in the furnace and found that the stench and smell would be too easily detected and after this attempt he delayed any further effort to do away with her remains until night should fall. Developments showed after an investigation that portions of her bones and grease from her body had trinkled through the fire box into the ashes of the furnace. Her ring and hand were found on the opposite side from the furnace the following day. A blood stained hand print can be seen on the basement wall.”
Theory of children’s murder: Witnesses reported that Garner had been seen taking the children to lunch and dinner at a restaurant and then to Mexico, before returning home on the night of the fire.
“They were given their evening meal at the restaurant after which he and the two children went to Mexico where they went to the Liberty Theater, returning home that night about midnight when they were put to bed. The children lay asleep, never realizing the impending disaster that would follow. At about midnight, Garner was seen, or rather it was thought to have been his car come to the drug store without any lights, where it stopped and he entered the building without making any light and his stay at this point was not longer than two minutes as the testimony of the night watch would show. This car without any lights returned down Main Street and went down the other street as was his custom to return home. At 3 a.m. Thursday morning one of the near neighbors testified that a light was seen in the front part of the house for a short while and nothing more was ever seen of his activities from this point. He doubtless killed the children and lay them on the basement floor by their mother, as all were found together and each of their faces were heavenward. The top of the skull of the son was found to have a bullet hole in it. Any manner of killing the remainder of the family was obliterated as their bodies were too badly burned to find any further trace of foul play.”
Garner’s body: Details regarding the body of Stewart Garner were also disclosed in the Vandalia Leader. According to the report, there was speculation about whether or not it was his body or someone else altogether.
“His remains were last to be found and separate and apart from the remainder of the family. Identifications of his remains and those of his family were made by the key rings of his to the post office, the drug store and what little change he had in his pocket and also by what clothing he had that were not completely destroyed by the fire. Speculation was rife about whether or not he had not escaped and had brought another body there in his place. This was allayed by the testimony and the identifications and there is no doubt about this point. The motive for this rash act was, as his friends have conjectured afterwards, was that he was jealous of his family, dearly loved them and did not want any of them to have to suffer the disgrace of his defalcation and possible prison term.”
A swift investigation and funeral: Speculation from witness testimony suggested that Mrs. Garner had been murdered on Wednesday, Jan. 17, and that the children were murdered shortly before the early morning fire on Jan. 18. According to the report, there was less than 48 hours between the time that the fire was started and the close of the investigation and funeral.
“The evening sun shone out in golden splendor as the funeral was held in Laddonia Friday afternoon and the entire part of town was taken up with parked automobiles and the lawn was covered with friends of the departed. When the funeral was over men and women would be standing in clusters dumbfounded over the results which were released in rapid circulation. After the deliberation of the coroner’s jury which was in session practically all day Friday, the following verdict was handed down: ‘That the family of Stewart L. Garner was found in the smoldering embers of their home Thursday morning and had come to their death by causes unknown to the jury.’ Funeral services for the family were held at the home of Mr. and Mrs. J.W. McCubbin, conducted by Rev. S.V. Harshbarger, with Masonic Committal service at the cemetery. The family was laid to rest in two adult caskets, in a single grave.”
Observations: There seem to be minor inconsistencies between different newspapers concerning the evidence surrounding the investigation. For example, the Weekly Kansas City Star reported that the dollar amount of Garner’s account discrepancy was slightly different from the Vandalia Leader report. Also, there are important pieces of information missing from the reports, such as, where exactly Garner’s body was found, whether or not bones were discovered from the missing limbs of the bodies, and whether or not there existed a life insurance policy on the Garner family.
After part one of this story was printed in the Feb. 2 issue of the Vandalia Leader, the reporter was made aware of a gentleman who grew up in Laddonia that may have important information regarding the facts of the story. However, an attempt to make contact with him has been thus far unsuccessful. Another reader stated that there were rumors going around in the 1930s that Garner had been seen after the fire, prompting theories that he may have placed another body in the home before starting the fire, for the purpose of faking his own death. If you have information about the Garner Story, reach out to us and let us know.