One hundred years ago, St. Joseph experienced one of its most sensational murders and trials.
On July 15, 1916, Sarah Harriet Moss McDaniel lay dying in her bedroom on South 20th Street. Her skull had been crushed by some type of blunt instrument which never was found. Two of her three children slept like angels on the other side of the wall.
Just after midnight, Harriet’s husband, Oscar Daniel McDaniel, returned home and called up Central Police Station to report the crime. In distress he pleaded, “My wife has been assaulted and I have been shot at. Send the police surgeon and the ambulance.”
Authorities in St. Joseph felt the gravity and danger of the situation. Oscar McDaniel was the prosecuting attorney of Buchanan County. The assault on his wife seemed to be more than a personal vendetta. The crime was deemed an attack upon the law, the courts and the police department.
Every resource of the police force was called upon. Almost every patrolman and detective was put on the lookout to catch the assassin or assassins and bring them to justice.
On the night of the murder, Oscar McDaniel told police that just after 11 he was summoned from home by a fake call. A man claiming to be a bartender said that his brother was causing a drunken disturbance and needed to be picked up. McDaniel drove to the saloon and checked a few other bars nearby. He could not find his brother or the bartender.
McDaniel stated that when he returned to his house, he was fired on as he stepped out of his car. Shots came from behind a tree and he returned fire with the gun he kept on his person.
Once his gun was empty, he ran into his house to retrieve another revolver. He rushed upstairs to his bedroom where he found his wife unconscious. She died later that morning.
Testimony at the coroner’s inquest corroborated McDaniel’s story but turned up no clues as to the weapon or assassin.
After the evening of July 14, many cruel rumors circulated about McDaniel. Eventually some of those rumors would become accusations and ultimately lead to his arrest. His every movement would be scrutinized from the time he returned home from work at the courthouse to the moment he called up the switchboard operators to report his wife’s emergency.
Some of the high points in the case:
— Harriet McDaniel’s body was exhumed within a week of her burial. The acting coroner made a report of his examination, but it was hoped another examination could be made by a group of doctors to find new evidence. No new evidence was found.
Bart M. Lockwood was the special prosecuting attorney who charged Oscar McDaniel with murder in the first degree. He had been one of McDaniel’s coworkers just two years previous. He also had run against McDaniel for the position of prosecuting attorney in the 1912 election.
McDaniel spent 16 days in the Buchanan County jail without the freedom of bond. During his incarceration he continued to operate in his official capacity as prosecuting attorney. He advised his assistants on criminal cases from a room inside the jail. The keys to the jail were entrusted to McDaniel and he greeted patrons who stopped in for business.
Members of the public were outraged McDaniel was allowed privileges during his stay in jail. He was escorted to dinner and was allowed to go home to tend the flowers in his front yard. He also was able to see an airplane show.
A bomb threat was sent anonymously to the jail and warned that privileges should no longer be allowed to the prosecutor.
A grand jury indicted McDaniel and bond was set at $50,000.
The jury's verdict
McDaniel was running for re-election as prosecuting attorney on the November ballot. He requested a speedy trial so he could prove his innocence before Election Day. Missouri Attorney General John T. Barker was assigned to assist Lockwood in the state’s case against McDaniel.
During the selection of a jury, Barker told a news reporter he believed the jury was “jobbed.” This upset the trial and a new trial date was set after the election.
An investigation later showed the jury was selected in an appropriate manner and there had been no tampering.
On Nov. 1, just before Election Day, McDaniel made a plea to the public at the Lyceum Theater. He was a gifted orator and asked for vindication and re-election. More than 2,000 people were in attendance. Many of the women were moved to tears.
Although McDaniel held the most successful record of any prosecuting attorney at that time, his Republican opponent, Lawrence Bothwell, beat him at the polls by more than 3,000 votes. This was almost the same margin by which McDaniel had beaten Bothwell two years previous.
McDaniel was tried in the same courtroom in which he prosecuted criminals and by the same judge with whom he worked. Judge Thomas F. Ryan was said to have been fair and impartial.
During the trial, McDaniel was accused of having an affair with his wife’s best friend, Dagmar Krucker. Dagmar and her ex-husband both testified on McDaniel’s behalf. They were adamant their divorce had nothing to do with him.
McDaniel and his father offered a $1,000 toward a reward for the arrest and conviction of Harriet’s assassin. If proven guilty, McDaniel would have been required to pay for his own confinement.
On Dec. 5, 1916, McDaniel was found “not guilty” by a jury of his peers.
At the finish of his term in office, McDaniel opened a private business across the hall from Lockwood, who had prosecuted him.
On Feb. 18, 1917, John E. Krucker shot and killed his ex-wife, Dagmar, and then put a bullet through his own head. This occurred in front of their 6-year-old daughter, Ruth Margaret Krucker. Rumors circulated that John had killed Dagmar because he found out she was in fact having an affair with McDaniel.
The bullet from Krucker’s suicide attempt went through one side of his head and out the other. He survived from his wound. He could talk, but his vision was affected. He claimed he would “tell all” eventually.
But Krucker’s wound became infected and he died on May 26, 1917. His statement was never published.
The young daughter was asked to explain what she witnessed. She said her father stood at her mother’s knees and he asked her to kiss him. When she refused, he got angry. He circled her chair and took out his gun. Once he returned to the front of the chair, little Margaret stated her papa shot her mama and then he shot himself.
The McDaniel children were teased ruthlessly at school and an article was published in the paper, threatening expulsion to anyone who bullied them further.
On July 28, 1917, almost a year to the day following Harriet’s death, Oscar McDaniel married Zora Lee Cook. Headlines around the country read, “Murder Room Now Bridal Chamber.” Cook and her father both had testified in McDaniel’s behalf during the trial.
The morning of Valentine’s Day in 1919, the McDaniel residence caught fire and almost burned to the ground. Oscar McDaniel was considered a hero for making a rope out of bed sheets and lowering his family to safety from a second-story window.
Toward the end of 1919, the McDaniel family vanished from St. Joseph. It was rumored Oscar had confessed to killing his wife and was committed to an asylum. It also was said he moved to Kansas to take up farming. Neither statement was true.
Visiting in secret
On occasion, Oscar McDaniel returned to St. Joseph to visit family and friends, but it was done incognito. Those who knew where the McDaniels lived kept their lips sealed tight.
St. Joseph did not learn of what became of Oscar until after his death on May 1, 1936. A cab driver tipped the newspapers about a secret burial in town. McDaniel’s last request was to be buried next to Harriet at Mount Mora Cemetery.
McDaniel had left St. Joseph for the benefit of his children. They had returned home from school with tears in their eyes on too many occasions. He may have been acquitted, but there were still many that looked through accusing eyes.
Oscar changed his name to Russell McDrew and was buried with the name Oscar Mack – perhaps a nod to a nickname. The names of his children and wife also were changed. They made a fresh start in California and the dark cloud that hung over them lifted.
Although the crime never was solved, it was referred to in the News-Press 60 years later as “the most sensational murder in the history of this city.” (Harold M. Slater, “McDaniel murder – still an enigma after 60 years,” July 19, 1976).
From July 15, 1916, to early December 1916, articles could be found almost daily in the St. Joseph newspapers. Numerous columns were published through all 50 states and eventually the reports went worldwide.
One hundred years later, the murder of Harriet still remains an intriguing mystery.