From Madness to Murder – The Uhls Sanitarium: Part II

(originally published 1/17/19)

The last post recounted discovering a hidden history in Johnson County – the Uhls Sanitarium, now the site of the Kansas Christian College near 74th and Metcalf. I learned a little about the Uhls Sanitarium, its founder and how it operated. I could have stopped there, but researching newspapers of the period revealed a wonderfully salacious story attached to that sanitarium – a tale of theft, fraud, and murder.

The body of 77-year-old William Gibbs was found in his tiny home in Hutchinson, Kansas on the morning of December 30th, 1923. He had been bludgeoned to death while looking through papers related to his financial assets which included some now missing Uhls clinic stock certificates. Gibbs was known in town as a miser and a hermit, but was believed to have a small fortune. Initial speculation was that the old man might have been robbed, until someone noticed the attacker had failed to take one of the few things in the house worth anything – the old man’s watch in open view in the box found that had held the stock certificates.

Three days later and 200 miles away, Louis Breyfogel, the dairyman that serviced the Uhls Sanitarium was robbed while on his route. Among the valuables stolen were $500 worth of bonds given to him for payment of the hospital’s outstanding bill. It didn’t take long to find suspects, since Breyfogel followed the thieves when they left. The trail led straight back to the sanitarium. The next day, Kenneth Uhls was arrested, claiming the whole matter was a misunderstanding, that one of his patients had committed the crime, and that he had returned the bonds when he found them.

Kenneth (Kenn) Uhls was the son of Dr. Lyman Uhls, the founder of the Uhls Sanitarium. Unlike his father, who had a professional pedigree and a sterling career in the field of mental health, Kenn knew nothing about mental health, having only served as a manager at the clinic. Kenn Uhls was not a doctor, although subsequent stories would confer that title upon him. He attended Stanford University, but finished his degree at the University of Kansas, where his only apparent distinction was as a first-class tennis player. In 1917, he married a woman from British Columbia, and joined his father at the clinic. Upon his father’s death in 1920, Kenn Uhls took over the management of the clinic. Under Kenn Uhls’ direction, the clinic went from serving the mentally ill to the drug addicted. He also managed the ongoing sale of clinic shares which had allowed his late father to expand the clinic to cities throughout Kansas. One of those was in Hutchinson, Kansas.

The documentation William Gibbs left behind confirmed that he owned more than $100,000 in Uhls Clinic stock. Within a day of Gibbs death, the local Hutchinson paper was reporting on the two separate crimes, but it was Reno County (Hutchinson) Sheriff Jess Langsford that started connecting the dots between them. Uhls maintained he knew nothing about the dairyman’s robbery, and offered up “proof” that Gibbs had traded Uhls Clinic stock for other investments. It did not take long to connect Gibbs’ missing stock certificates and the dairyman robbery. While initially no one believed that Uhls was responsible for the murder, within a week Uhls had dropped out of sight, which only focused attention on him as a suspect. By the end of January 1924, Uhls along with two accomplices was charged with stock fraud. By the end of February, Uhls and one of the two others were charged with Gibbs murder.

The truth emerged. Kenn Uhls’ attempts to make a go of the sanitarium were a failure. The clinic was behind in all its bills. Uhls was convincing investors to sell back their shares in the clinic, in exchange for other stocks that were overvalued. The stock which Gibbs had been told was worth $100,000 might have, on a good day, been worth ten percent of that. Uhls maintained his innocence throughout, but the testimony of neighbors who saw a man who looked like him entering Gibbs’ home  on the day of the murder were too damning. By the end of the summer, Uhls was convicted and sentenced to 10 to 25 years. He served about 12 years of his sentence. In 1938 a guard accompanied him back to Kansas City so that he could visit his dying mother. Somehow, he gave the guard the slip. He was assumed to have escaped to be with his wife and child, who had returned to British Columbia. “Dr.” Kenneth Uhls was never heard from again.

(Photo Credit: The sole surviving building of the Uhls Sanitarium when the Kansas College and Bible School occupied the property in the 1960s. Image courtesy the State Historical Society of Missouri, Nichols Company Manuscript Collection.)

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