"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, November 9, 2015

Kansas Gothic: The Strange Murder of Viola Ard

"Do you not weep?
Other sins only speak; murder shrieks out:
The element of water moistens the earth,
But blood flies upward and bedews the heavens."
~John Webster, "The Duchess of Malfi"

Although the murder of Viola Ard is forgotten today, it not only has a fair claim to be one of Kansas' most unusual unsolved killings, it was merely the climax to a chain of sordid events that often resembled a Jacobean melodrama set on the American prairie.

At the time of her death, Viola Ard was only 20 years old. She had been married for about a year to Roy Ard, a well-to-do farmer in Elsmore township, near Iola, Kansas. The brief married life of the Ards had been fraught with unusual peril. They told friends and neighbors that someone was trying to kill them. In October 1914, Viola became very ill after drinking a glass of water that turned out to contain poison. Later, a can of fruit that had been sitting on a back porch was also found to be poisoned. A week after these incidents, the Ards had been fired upon with a rifle as they returned home from church. Shortly after that, Roy Ard was struck on the head from behind as he entered his hay mow, knocking him unconscious. His attacker fled before he came to. The family seemed to be besieged by a venomous phantom.

On the night of November 10, 1914, the Ards, along with Viola's sister, 15-year-old Katie Latimer, went to visit Roy's cousin, Charles Ard. The purpose of the call was so that Roy could submit a request to join the Anti-Horse Thief League--sort of a rural Neighborhood Watch.  He said membership might aid him in capturing his family's mysterious foe.  After an uneventful evening, the trio set out for home, with Viola driving their automobile. Katie sat next to her, with Roy in the back seat.

About a quarter of a mile away from the Ard farm, their car passed over a small bridge. As soon as they hit the road again, someone fired a rifle at the car. A bullet went through Mrs. Ard's heart, killing her almost instantly. The other occupants of the car were not injured, and they later claimed they had not seen or heard anyone, but they said the shot must have been fired by someone hiding in the hedges alongside the bridge. The autopsy confirmed that the fatal shot could indeed have been fired from that position. The autopsy failed to locate the bullet, but it was believed to have been of a .32 calibre. There were no powder burns on the corpse, and no scorching around the bullet hole in her dress. This led investigators to presume that she had not been shot at close range--her assailant must have been at least several feet away.

The site where Viola was killed, via Kansas Historical Society


The police were stumped. So, it seems, was everyone else. On the day after the murder, the "Iola Register" commented that "There is absolutely at this time no 'finger of suspicion' which usually is the first thing that crops out. Gossip usually wags one way or another in volume sufficient for officers to pick up a thread and attempt to work out something tangible.

"In this instance, every circumstance points but to the one plain fact, cold blooded murder, deliberately planned. But by whom? There the officers halt, completely baffled.

"So far as Roy Ard is personally concerned, there is not a single word of gossip. No one even suggests it. The comment of his neighbors is that his married life has been entirely happy."

Viola's mother described Roy as a "model husband." A local constable called the new widower "a man of peace, of even temperament, of friendliness and would be the last to be drawn into a controversy of any kind." The dead woman's uncle called Viola "one of the sweetest women I ever knew...You can't say too many kind things about Viola for that is impossible."

The survivors of the shooting could not give any clue about who might have wanted to harm them. It was not even clear who the intended victim might have been. Just Viola? Or her husband? Katie Latimer? Or did the assassin intend to kill all three of them, but lost his/her nerve after the first fatal shot?

The mystery disappeared from the papers until May 1915, when Roy Ard came forward with a startling story. One night, as he and a friend, Fred Donaho, were walking home from visiting a neighbor, someone shot at them. The two men fled without catching any sight of their attacker.

Ard said that while he naturally connected this shooting with the murder of his wife, he again professed to have no idea who this enemy might be, or why anyone in the world would carry such a deadly grudge against him. This latest crime also seemed fated to remain an unsolved puzzle.

Life got even stranger for the Ard family. About a month after this second shooting, Elbert Ard, Roy's 20-year-old cousin, was judged insane and sent to an asylum. A few days after that, Roy's uncle Jacob Ard was found dead on a high bank near a local river. It was ruled that he died of "apoplexy." In October, Roy's brother Ora was fired at as he was doing chores near his barn. Again, the shooter appeared to be invisible. It was beginning to look like the entire Ard family was under a curse.

Months went by without any further developments, and the Ard case, while never forgotten, naturally receded from people's minds. Then, early in March 1917, came a twist that may surprise you: Roy Ard was arrested and charged with the murder of his wife.

Ard was curiously nonchalant about his arrest. He showed no surprise when he was taken into custody, commenting that he had expected that "someone would rib this up on him." He then went sullenly quiet, refusing to make any statement.

At Ard's preliminary hearing, the star witness was the only other known observer of Viola's murder, Katie Latimer. A reporter in the courtroom described her as "peculiarly handsome and attractive, apparently of the cuddling, nesting disposition, if action is indication of disposition...She was a picture of health, happiness, and hilarity"--odd words to describe a girl whose brother-in-law was standing trial for the murder of her sister. In the months since Viola's death, Katie had given birth to an illegitimate child.

Katie said nothing about the murder that she had not told to investigators before. She testified that Roy had been sitting in the middle of the back seat of the car, with his hands folded and resting on the back of the front seats. When the shot was fired, Viola fell forward and collapsed on Katie. Roy asked Viola if she was shot, and receiving no reply, he pulled her over the back seat. "The engine kept running. We did not get out of the car." Katie said they saw no one either before or after the shooting.

Roy took the wheel of the car. He was silent until they arrived home, when his only comment on his wife's murder was "This beats hell." He added, "Here is a woman who was always true to me." Katie stated that on the day before Viola's funeral, he told her not to tell anyone anything, and to answer no questions. He said he expected to go to jail.

An Elsmore hardware dealer testified that about two weeks before Viola's death, he had sold Roy Ard a .32 calibre revolver. The local sheriff stated that on the night of the murder, he had confiscated this revolver, and found that its bullets perfectly fit the wound in Viola's back. Ard had admitted that he had carried his revolver in his pocket on the night his wife was shot.

At Ard's request, his attorneys waived further evidence and asked that he be bound over to the district court where "he can get a fair hearing before a jury of twelve men."

No one could guess how that "fair hearing" might end. At the close of the hearing, the "Elsmore Leader" commented that "There has never at any time since the night that Viola Ard met her death been any evidence produced to show any reason whatever why Roy Ard would want to get rid of his wife. On the contrary, it has been shown that they were very much attached to each other and no one ever heard them utter a cross word to each other. The case promises to be one of the hardest fought legal battles ever waged in the county."

Ard's trial was held in mid-May. The prosecution alleged that Roy murdered his wife for one of the oldest reasons in the book: another woman, in this case, his beautiful young sister-in-law. They dealt with the absence of powder burns on Viola by suggesting that the powder "went in with the bullet on account of the close range." The presumption was that the other attacks on the family were all hoaxes. The defense scoffed at these theories, asserting that numerous tests showed that the fatal shot had to have been fired no closer than two feet or so. They broadly hinted that perhaps Roy's brother-in-law Charles Dietrich--who had never been friendly to him and who owned a .32 calibre rifle--was the real killer. The major point at issue was whether or not it was possible for a bullet traveling in the direction in which that one did to have been fired inside the car. The prosecution alleged that if the fatal shot had been fired outside of the car, it would have had to have hit Roy, as well. The defense, naturally, said just the opposite. There was also conflicting testimony about the bloodhound that had been brought to the murder scene. Some witnesses claimed the hound failed to pick up any trail. The dog's owner, however, stated that the animal did pick up a scent, starting at a hedge by the bridge, but was unable to follow it very far. The defense called up a parade of character witnesses, all of whom--including Viola's parents--testified to the excellent reputation of the defendant and the deep affection between husband and wife.

The exception to all this sweetness-and-light testimony came from a former Ard employee named Pete Anderson. He related a conversation he had witnessed between Viola and Roy's father, David Ard. Viola commented, "I'll be an angel someday." David snapped back, "You'll be a damned old buzzard out in a hollow tree some day. It would have been all right if you had done what we told you to do." This made Viola burst into tears, after which Roy called her a "cry baby." The meaning behind this sinister-sounding and decidedly enigmatic exchange was never revealed.

When Ard himself took the stand, he was described as "the coolest witness at the trial," answering all questions calmly and promptly. He told essentially the same story as Katie Latimer, although he denied ever telling her that he expected to be arrested. He added the information that the Ards had long been victimized by a mysterious prowler. When they were away from home, they would often return to find someone had broken in and caused complete disorder: furniture overturned, beds upset, their belongings scattered about. Nothing was ever stolen, however. On one occasion, their telephone wires had been disconnected.

He firmly denied killing his wife or having the slightest interest in any other woman. "I loved my wife and she loved me, and I did all I could to make her happy."

The case against Ard rested entirely on circumstantial evidence--and, judging by what was reported in the newspapers, extraordinarily flimsy circumstantial evidence. It is not very surprising that after deliberating less than an hour, the jury returned a verdict of "not guilty."

So that was that. Police, unable to find any other even remotely plausible suspect, inevitably found their investigation of the crime coming to an end. It was never determined who shot Viola and why--let alone who was responsible for the weird events before and after her murder--and it's safe to say it never will be.

There was one peculiar footnote to the Ard murder. In 1917, Viola's mother, Permelia Latimer, brought a slander suit against one of the prosecuting attorneys in Roy Ard's trial, F.J. Oyler. Shortly before Roy Ard's arrest, Katie Latimer brought charges of statutory rape against one Eldon Hawley, who was, she said, the father of her baby. During Hawley's trial, (which ended in an acquittal,) Oyler, who represented Hawley in court, told the jury that Mrs. Latimer knew that Roy Ard had killed Viola, and she that she and Katie were conspiring to falsely state that Hawley had fathered a child who in actuality was sired by Ard!

Oyler was found not guilty.  Mrs. Latimer appealed the verdict.  The lawsuit went through the state's court system for no less than four years. Finally, in 1921, the Supreme Court of Kansas ruled that "slander uttered by an attorney in the trial of a case is not actionable if it have reference to the cause under consideration, although false and malicious." They upheld the defendant's previous acquittal, leaving forever unanswered the question of whether or not Oyler had spoken the truth.

4 comments:

  1. It seems unlikely that Roy Ard would concoct so much to with the mystery - the phantom persecution, the shootings, etc - just to kill his wife. And why do it in a car with his sister-in-law right there? Surely rural people in Kansas would know whether a bullet went into a body at some point or came out. Another puzzler, no matter how you look at it.

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  2. A strange but fascinating case. Based on what forensic scientists know about powder burns today, I'd also venture to say that the shot didn't come from a close range. But where was the bullet? That's a mystery too.

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  3. What about this former employee who gave evidence at the trial? Did he have a grievance against the whole family?

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  4. No idea. This was all I found about him in the newspapers..

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