Know Your KC History: In the Line of Duty
All Library locations will close at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, November 25, and remain closed all day on Thursday, November 26, for Thanksgiving.
Each month, John Horner digs into the Missouri Valley Special Collections to unearth a story from local history and look at it in new light. This month, John looks at how an officer killed in the line of duty in 1923 is remembered in today's KC Police Mounted Patrol unit.
Allie Wyatt loved her house. It was at 2626 East Ninth Street, and it was brand new. Well, it was new to Allie, and on February 3, 1923, she was taking great pleasure in arranging the furniture while her husband Herschel was at work.
Allie and Hershel had moved into the house the day before, February 2, 1923. Three years earlier, after their marriage on December 13, they had rented a house in Kansas City, Kansas, sharing it with Herschel’s grandmother, Bettie Gore, his aunt (though barely older than Herschel himself), Mable, and two male boarders.
Herschel Wyatt worked as a police officer for the Kansas City, Missouri, police department. He held the rank of class A patrolman.
He had served in the Army, with the Missouri National Guard at the Mexican border. It’s possible that this was where he first became known for his bravery and daring.
There may not have been any opportunities for him to be brave or daring when he first got back to the Kansas City area after his time in the Army and worked as a streetcar conductor. But when he became a member of the police department on April 6, 1921, Officer Wyatt established that reputation fairly quickly. (At this time the police department was under the sway of the Pendergast machine, so it’s possible that Wyatt’s hiring was OK’d by Tom Pendergast himself.)
A Hair-Splitting Incident
On November 17, 1922, Herschel Wyatt and his partner, O.B. Flaherty (who also had a reputation for daring) had quite a day.
If you look through any of the Kansas City area newspapers for that time, you will see story after story about robberies and thefts. The metro area was awash with them. After-hours break-ins at businesses, daylight armed robberies, muggings — it seems like every edition of any of the papers had at least one front page story about this type of crime.
That day the two officers arrested two robbers, Lyle Hughes and Harry Davis. Upon being questioned, Hughes and Davis admitted to having committed a lot of hold-ups in both Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas. Three men had been killed in the robberies that Hughes and Davis admitted to, so the department’s detectives were able to close those cases.
For catching the thieves, Wyatt and Flaherty received a commendation from the police commissioners, and the two also split nearly $1000 in reward money, which Wyatt used primarily to purchase the East Ninth Street house.
As I said, Flaherty also had a reputation for daring.
A little over three years later, in the first week of January 1926, yet another bank robbery took place at the northeast corner of 12th and McGee, where Connie’s Restaurant was located when the Main Branch of the library was located across the street in the Board of Education building.
Three robbers had forced the clerks into the vault and locked it after having stolen $20,000. Flaherty entered the bank and captured all three before they could escape. If that weren’t enough, as he had come into the bank, one of the robbers had taken a shot at his head and just barely missed killing him.
How much is “barely”?
A badge was attached to the front of his police cap, just above the center of the bill. The bullet from the robber’s gun left a hole just above the edge of the badge. Reports say that the bullet parted Flaherty’s hair.
Flaherty, however, was the lucky one.
Requiem for an Officer
Within two or three weeks of his promotion, Wyatt had been assigned to guard payrolls that were being transferred between locations. Because of the many robberies that were taking place, the police department assigned officers on motorcycles to accompany the vehicles that were carrying the money.
Wyatt had just finished the trip guarding the H.P. Wright Investment Company payroll, and headed his motorcycle to his next assignment for the Continental National Bank, riding south on Prospect, probably trying to relax a bit from the tension of the responsibility, but, as we know from a witness’s statement, riding at an “ordinary speed.” (He may have been thinking of the enjoyment Allie must have been having as she set things in order, luxuriating as folks do in the feel of their new house.)
Herschel started through the intersection at 12th Street, when suddenly a streetcar was moving through from the side, right across his path. He swerved his motorcycle to the left, trying to head east down 12th Street until he could re-establish control, but the angle was too sharp for the suddenness of the turn, and the momentum of the skid as the motorcycle slid away from him threw Wyatt against the streetcar itself. Still, his agility and quick reflexes enabled him to grab hold of the beams that stretched along the underside of the streetcar, which dragged him along the street while he clung to the beams.
Even his strength, though, did not allow him to maintain his hold on the beams long enough for the streetcar to stop, and the wheels crushed him when his grip broke.
Strangely, an ambulance owned by Newcomer’s was passing at that very moment, and the momentum of the screeching stop was still on the rebound when the driver and attendant were already out of the vehicle and running to help Wyatt.
But he was already dead.
The streetcar conductor and motorman were taken to police headquarters to make statements about the accident.
A delegation of fellow officers went to Wyatt’s home to tell Allie about the horrible accident.
Herschel’s funeral was held at the house of his parents, Milton and Mary Wyatt. Thirty-three officers were delegated to the funeral as an honor guard. O.B. Flaherty and served as one of his partner’s pallbearers.
Today, Herschel Wyatt carries a form of honor that very few others have received.
Nine years ago last month, a not-for-profit corporation was formed to support a full-time mounted patrol for the Kansas City Police Department. In 2004, they began soliciting donations from the public, and in 2006 the Mounted Patrol Section was organized as part of the Special Operations Division of the KCPD. Currently the MPS has a sergeant, eight officers, and eleven horses.
All the horses are donated to the MPS. After going through its training, each of the horses is renamed, given the name of an officer of the KCPD who has died in the line of duty.
Currently three horses bear this distinction—“Faulkner,” named for Officer Stephen Faulkner, killed in the line of duty December 1, 1992; “O’Sullivan,” named for Officer John J. O’Sullivan, killed in the line of duty December 12, 1978; and “Wyatt,” named for Officer Herschel Wyatt, killed in the line of duty February 3, 1923.
I’ve exchanged emails and talked with Sgt. Joey Roberts, who leads the Mounted Patrol Section. I asked if there is some sort of process the Section uses to choose which of those officers who have died in the line of duty will lend their names to the horses. He told me that no, there is no methodology that they follow to make that decision, rather they simply “identify a name off the list of fallen by what we feel best suits the individual horse.”
I asked what qualities in the horse “Wyatt” caused them to give him Herschel Wyatt’s name.
He told me that the horse named Wyatt is an Arabian-Percheron cross, that he is large, beautiful, and majestic. He said that name “Wyatt” feels majestic.
The Missouri Valley Room has recently received a major donation of materials from the Kansas City Police Historical Society to be added to our Special Collections as the Kansas City Police Historical Society Collection, SC122. This collection is currently in the midst of being processed, and will be available for use in research sometime in the fall.
Some people have asked how I pick the subject matter for these history blogs. Sometimes I have actively gone in search for something to write about that will fit with the month I’m writing in. Sometimes I stumble onto an intriguing fact that makes me want to dig deeper to discover the story. This month’s story has something in common with November’s account of William T. Carnes and January’s exploration of the murder at the Hotel President — all three started when I received a question from a patron who wanted information about a particular subject.
About the Author
Dr. John Arthur Horner of the Missouri Valley Room has a Ph.D. in Dramatic Art from UC-Santa Barbara, as well as a deep love of history. He is an award-winning playwright and member of the Dramatists Guild of America. He lives in Independence with his wife, two pianos, and their multitude of books.