Memorial to Early Efforts: Themian Park

by Kristine Schmucker, Archivist/Curator

The First Woman’s Group in Town: Themian Club

The day was ideal, “autumn sun, soft and yellow and the late rain making the air fresh and invigorating.” The event meticulously planned and presented. It was a fine October morning in 1919, to celebrate the silver anniversary of the Themian Club, the oldest woman’s group in Newton. The celebration was held in the lovely home of Mrs. H.L. Hart,  “just west of town.” Upon arriving the women found “four spacious rooms opening together, set with quartet tables and one long table, beautiful snowy linen, silver and crystal and basket vases of pink carnations and greenery – the club colors.” Present at the event were fifteen of seventeen of the past presidents of the club.

“The Club That Gets Things Done”

After a four-course dinner was served, the first president and charter member, Amelia C. (Mrs. S.R.) Peters, recalled the early years of the club.

“She remembered clearly about the earlier efforts of the woman suffrage society in Newton. How the sentiment grew after the war and the outgrowth was suffrage societies.” 

In Kansas, after municipal suffrage was granted in 1887, these societies disbanded in Newton.  In the absence of these societies, the women of Newton organized the Themian Club. Named after the Greek goddess of Divine Justice, Themis, they adopted for their motto a quote from Lincoln, “”do the best you can if not, the best possible.”  Among their early accomplishments was the establishment of a curfew bell to ring at nine o’clock every evening. They had a keen interest in civic projects and became known as “the club that gets things done.” At one point the club had 150 members.

The Themian Club was the first woman’s club established in Newton and throughout the years they promoted projects of public interest and welfare. Some of the projects included the Public Library, the Music Talent Audition to support young musicians, Penny Art Fund and Gifts to the War Veterans of War 1 including the Cancer Control project of the Field Army. The Themian Club supports worthwhile causes both locally and nationally.  (“History of the Themian Club,” von der Heiden)

Themian Park

One of the club’s biggest contributions to the Newton community was Themian Park. In 1875, two city parks were established one in Block 24 (West Park) at N Poplar & 7th, and in Block 30 (East Park) Broadway & Oak.

Over time the upkeep of the parks left something to be desired. The ladies of the Themian Club had a proposal for the City Council.

Amelia C. Doane Peters (Mrs. S. R.)

“The Question of Parks”

In the February 16, 1898 issue of the Evening Kansan Republican it was reported that the Themian Club and the Commercial Club met with the city council for the purpose of improving the city parks. The president of the Themian club, Mrs. S.R. Peters reported that the club “is ready to prosecute the work it commenced last summer. The park fund now has $109 to its credit . . .to be used in beautifying the parks.” If the city council and Commercial Club would match the funds “the two parks will indeed look metropolitan by next summer.” The ladies had already secured J.P. Rogers of Topeka to submit plans for the two parks when he submitted plans for Athletic Park.

July 1, 1898, the Themian Club held a formal opening of the refreshed West Park. Plans included musical entertainment with refreshments of ice cream and cake. The reporter noted that “the place presents a remarkably different appearance from that of last summer.”

Evening Kansan Republican, 1 July 1898

For several years the actual upkeep of Themian Park was the responsibility of the club members. After several years, the city took over the upkeep of the park.

Evening Kansan Republican, 21 March 1899.

Later Mrs. Amelia Peters, Themian Club’s first president, would recall that the club,

“agitated the question of parks. Secured Themian Park and had it named for the club. Hired a landscape gardener and planted the park to trees and flowers. Later the city council took over the parks, not showing favor toward flower beds and women pottering around.” (Newton Journal, 17 October 1919)

Newton. May 9, 1930. Young women wind a May Pole in Themian Park during May Fete.

The ladies of the Themian Club also worked on Military Plaza Park. However, in September 1898 they decided that it would “take a good sum to beautify the East park according to the plans, and the east siders are willing to wait till enough money can be raised to do the work properly.  The club will . . . give its attention to maintaining Themian park.” (Evening Kansan Republican, 7 September 1898)

This fall, get out and enjoy the two oldest parks in Newton, Themian and Military Parks.

Newton City Parks Quick Facts

  • April 1875 East (Block 30) and West Parks (Block 24) established.
  • In 1898, the Commercial Club had the honor of renaming the park in Block 30 Military Park and a year later in May 1899, the Themian Club was asked to rename West Park. They decided on Themian Park.
  • Military Park was also known as Military Plaza. The Themian Club worked on improving this park.
  • Nov 2, 1909 Athletic Park vote carried to purchase 30-acre tract of land from the Newton Driving & Athletic Association.


  • History of the Themian Club: 1894-1945 by Mrs. W.H. von der Heiden, Clubs & Organizations, Box 3A, Harvey County Historical Museum & Archives, Newton, Ks.
  • Themian Club, Clubs & Organizations, Harvey County Historical Museum & Archives, Newton, Ks.
  • “Three Beautiful Parks” 22 August 1922, 50th Anniversary Edition, Newton Kansan.
  • Newton Journal 19 October 1919.
  • Evening Kansan Republican: 30 July 1897, 1 February 1898, 8 April 1898, 15 June 1898, 1 July 1898, 7 September 1898, 21 March 1899, 4 May 1900.

Man of Mystery: Isaac van Brunt

by Kristine Schmucker, Archivist/Curator

“Man of Mystery at the Rooming House at 7th & Shawnee”

In the early morning of October 31, 1915 a man collapsed on the street near Seventh and Shawnee in Leavenworth, Ks. He was rushed to the county hospital, but he died shortly before 6:00 in the evening that same day.  At that time the cause of death was thought to be a result of complicated stomach trouble.  The man, known as Frank Thompson, was a stranger in town. No one knew when he arrived in Leavenworth, but he rented rooms at a boarding house at 7th & Shawnee.  His age was thought to be around 47 and he was often seen with John Orman, a native of Leavenworth and a retired Kansas City police officer.  (Leavenworth Times 1 September 1915)

Two days later, Thompson’s roommate, John Orman died “after an acute illness of a few hours.”  Because of the similar nature of the illness that struck both men down, the coroner ordered an inquest.

Both men lived at 7th & Shawnee and were “engaged in the making and peddling of chili.” Orman made the chili. The cause of death was declared to be from ptomaine poisoning as a result of eating chili and no foul play was suspected.

“Chili caused a second mysterious death. John Orman died in great agony in his room at 7th and Shawnee streets.”

Unclaimed Body

Who was Frank Thompson? The paper reported that “no trace of the man’s relatives has been found.” One promising lead came from a family in Nebraska, however after viewing the body they knew it was not their relative. The editor noted that “it is probable that the body will be buried in a local cemetery tomorrow.”

However, there were a few clues. Contact information for Orman’s sister, Mrs. Julia Webber, was found in Thompson’s room with the name Isaac van Brunt. The mystery was finally solved a few days later. Mike Aaron, former guard at the state penitentiary, recognized the body of a former inmate, Isaac van Brunt.

The strangeness of Isaac van Brunt’s death is an interesting story by itself, but his whole life is cloaked in mystery and tragedy with Harvey County connections.

The Orphan Train

In 1879 or 1880, Isaac van Brunt, a 6-8-year-old boy, stepped off the train in Newton, Ks. He was a long way from where he started as an orphan in Brooklyn, New York. His actual birth date is unknown with a range of 1867 – 1872.  Born in Brooklyn, he was possibly the youngest of at least five children born to Albert Isaac and Sarah van Brunt.

In October 1870, his mother Sarah, died and Albert remarried a woman named Hulda. In July 1876, Albert died leaving 8-year-old Isaac with Hulda who did not have interest in raising the child. Isaac was taken to the Children’s Aid Society and placed on a train with 19 other children going west with a stop in Newton, Kansas with the hope of a better life. ***

He was taken to the home of John S. Hackney where he lived until 1884. Later newspaper accounts describe a young boy with “an everlasting propensity for lying and stealing. Mr. Hackney did everything possible to break the boy of his erring way, but to no avail.”

Isaac left the Hackney family only to return after a few years to say that he had reformed. It was not to last. “His was a wandering disposition and he soon left his pleasant home never to return.”

He seemed to shuffle to a number of different places in Harvey and Marion Counties. At one-point, young Isaac met a woman named Mrs. Owens. He boldly asked Mrs. Owens if he could live with her. She no doubt saw a little boy in need and with her husband decided to take him in. Isaac became a close playmate with their daughter Alice. When he was old enough, he began to work as a laborer. Due to moves out of the area by both the Owens family and Isaac, they lost contact with each other.

In 1885, at the age of 15 Isaac was living with Harry Thomas working as a laborer.

Dark Years

Two years later, Isaac’s life began to go in a bad direction.  He was arrested for stealing a watch in August 1887. He spent time in jail charged with burglarizing the home of Harry Turner. He then spent a year for burglary and larceny at Lansing after which he returned to Harvey County.

“Found Murdered!

A Harvey County Farmer Meets with Foul Play!”

On Wednesday morning, May 14, 1890, people in Harvey and Sedgwick Counties woke up to a sensational headline.

George Broer, a 68 year old farmer in Richland Township, section 26, was discovered dead in his bed. The coroner called for an inquest and the verdict was “that the deceased me his death at the hands of some persons and in some manner unknown to the jury.”

The manner of death was difficult to determine due to decomposition. Strangulation was the prevailing theory. A team of horses, wagon and harness were missing, and a small cupboard where he kept valuables had been “chiseled open and the contents removed.” Broer lived alone and had not been seen since Monday. Clues were scarce.

“Denies Murder”

Law enforcement soon zeroed in on Isaac van Brunt. A reward of $300 was offered by the county, $200 by the Broer estate and $300 by the State for the capture of van Brunt. Sheriff Pollard followed leads from across Kansas from late May to July 4 when he was arrested in Peabody, Ks.

“Marshall W.K. Palmer of Peabody capture Isaac van Brunt who is suspected of having murdered George Broer of Richland township early in May. The officers have been on the track of Van Brunt for a long time.” (Newton Daily Republican 5 July 1890)

On July 4, Van Brunt had been spotted riding through Peabody. Upon his arrest “Van Brunt acknowledged having driven the Broer team away, but denies the murder.”

“Suspected Mischief”

While awaiting trial, van Brunt spent his time in the Harvey County jail where he attempted to escape.

“Sheriff Pollard suspected mischief and yesterday made an examination of Van Brunt’s cell which resulted in his finding the in the bedding a rude saw made from a case knife, a piece from a pair of shears and several burrs which had been removed from the bolts in the jail. . . the county commissioners have now had all the fastenings secured so no more iron can be removed by prisoners.” (Newton Daily Republican, 21 July 1890)

Harvey County Jail, 1880-1917.

“Trial for the Murder of George Broer – An Interesting Case”

The December 2, 1980 issue of the Newton Daily Republican noted that there was “unusual interest” in this session of the district court “because of the trial of Isaac van Brunt, who is charged with the murder of George Broer.”

All evidence seemed to point to murder with Isaac van Brunt as the culprit.  County Attorney Bowman was the prosecutor and he called forty witnesses.

Several testified that they had heard van Brunt confess and that it essentially matched the confession van Brunt had made to the Republican, published in the July 14, 1890 issue. In addition to the confession, much of the evidence against van Brunt centered around his possession of Broer’s missing team and wagon as well as traces of powder found in van Brunt’s case.

The theory put forth, based on van Brunt’s “confession” was that in December 1889, he had supper with Broer. It was then he conceived the idea to murder the man because he had been told Broer had money.

On May 12, he stopped by the Broer farm again and “while Broer was preparing supper Van Brunt stealthily put strychnine in the food. He then fled with his victim’s team and a little money” which was about $4.50. Van Brunt made this confession to the reporter of the Republican.

R.W. Berry and C.E. Branine did their best for the defense suggesting that his confession was influenced by others and that he wa mentally impaired. Two Newton doctors testified on van Brunt’s behalf.

“Drs Axtell and Newhall testified that Van Brunt was of a very low order mentally, and that his disposition was such that he could easily be induced to make statements which would lead to his own crimination.” (Newton Journal 5 December 1890)

Throughout his life, van Brunt was often described as being mentally impaired in some way.  One reporter observed that while “van Brunt evidences little anxiety about the result of his trial his health is becoming impaired.”

Another reporter for the Newton Journal describe van Brunt as a

 “man of weak mental make-up, not naturally of a vicious disposition, and his guilt of the crime charged against him is doubted by many. He is perhaps 22 years of age, of slight build and thin, sharp features and shows indication of rapid physical decay. Every few minutes . . . he was noticed to cough like one does in the early states of consumption, his sallow, consumptive complexion, leading one to believe him afflicted with that dread disease.” (Newton Journal 5 December 1890)

Even the reporters, sheriff and county attorney questioned the confession and van Brunt’s mental abilities.

“Sheriff Pollard and County Attorney Bowman are disposed to take Van Brunt’s statement with several grains of allowance. Why since he confesses at all, he should tell any but a straight story it is hard to understand. However he experiences difficulty in traveling the same route twice.”

“Guilty of Murder”

After an hour of deliberation, the jury returned with a verdict “guilty of murder in the first degree” (Newton Journal, December 5, 1890)

Once again Count Attorney Bowman was praised by the newspaper, “he conducted the case of the state with rare tact and skill and applied the law with his characteristic gravity and acumen.” 

The defense “made as strong a fight as can be made by men without a toothold. Mr. Berry’s address to the jury was very comprehensive and frequently eloquent and pathetic. Mr. Branine, who has a reputation as a good talker, kept up his end.”

“Not Satisfied”

At the sentencing, Judge Houk remarked, ” that he was not satisfied with the evidence produced by the state; that the body should have been exhumed and examined.” Regardless Houk gave the sentence of “a year in the penitentiary and then death by hanging.” (Newton Daily Republican, 29 December 1890)

Pardon for a Forgotten Man”

Isaac van Brant’s story did not end in a hanging. For seventeen years, served his sentence at Lansing as a model prisoner. He received no visitors or mail. He was very much a man alone in the world.

One person remembered him, a long-ago foster sister named Alice. For fifteen years, Alice Owens Bertenshaw had been looking for information on her childhood friend. Completely by chance, she learned of his imprisonment at Lansing for murder. Alice wasted no time in visiting Isaac. She shared the distressing story with Kansas Gov. Edward Hoch. The story of this friendless man “touched the chief executive’s heart” along with lingering questions about van Brunt’s guilt.

Newton Journal, 21 February 1908.

In addition to pardoning Isaac van Brunt, the governor made several visits to the penitentiary “to see prisoners who are alone, friendless- for whom no hand reaches out in help.”

The reporter for the Leavenworth Post described van Brunt’s release.

“The man who had spent so many years in prison seemed more like a child and had no dependence upon himself. When he was given his money for his years of servitude he turned and passed it to Mrs. Bertenshaw, remarking, ‘You take it. I don’t know what to do with it.”

Following the pardon, with Alice’s help, van Brunt moved to a farm near Independence, MO. Eventually he made his way to Leavenworth, Ks. He died alone on October 31, 1915.

Even with the pieces of his story put together, Isaac van Brunt remains a solitary man of mystery.


Primary Sources

  • Newton Kansan: 11 August 1887, 14 May 1890
  • Newton Daily Republican: 21 January 1890, 21 June 1890, 5 July 1890, 9 July 1890,14 July 1890, 5 2 December 1890, December 1890, 29 December 1890.
  • Newton Journal: 21 February 1908.
  • Sedgwick Pantagraph: 10 July 1890, 24 July 1890, 27 February 1908.
  • Wichita Daily Eagle: 14 May 1890, 16 July 1890, 6 December 1890,
  • Evening Kansan Republican:  3 September 1915; 31 December 1915.
  • Leavenworth Times: 12 February 1908, 9 September 1915.
  • Leavenworth Post: 31 August 1915, 1 September 1915, 2 September 1915, 3 September 1915.
  • St Louis Globe: 5 February 1908.

Secondary Sources

  • ***Halfide, Lori, “Revisiting Isaac” Head of Research, National Orphan Train Complex, Concordia Ks, 2023.  The information for Isaac’s early life comes from research completed by Lori Halfide.

A Gentleman and a No. 1 Artist: Pioneer Photographers Part 2

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

For Part 1 of this two-part series on Newton’s earliest photographers click here.

“A Gentleman and a No. 1 Artist”

The first photographer to advertise in the Newton Kansan was Charles Gillingham.  Gillingham was married in Leavenworth County, Ks on March 8, 1871.  By 1880 Gillingham is in Newton working as a photographer at the corner of Main St and Broadway.  His regular advertisements in the Newton Kansan guarantee satisfaction with the photographs or there will be no charge.  According to one ad, Gillingham had “more than four years of experience taking photographs in Washington City, D.C.”  His specialty was groups and baby pictures.
On August 12, 1880 disaster struck Gillingham.  At around twelve o’clock in the night, a coal oil lamp exploded in the adjacent Golden Gate newspaper office in Newton.  The resulting fire destroyed the building. Sadly, the photograph gallery belonging to C.L. Gillingham,
which stood at the southwest corner of the Gate office was, with its glassy contents, entirely demolished. . . . The loss to Mr. Gillingham is a rather serious one.  A large number of valuable negatives were entirely demolished which can never be replaced.” (Newton Kansan 12 August 1880, p.2)
Probably a great deal of Newton early history was destroyed that night.

Ready for Business Again

Gillingham did attempt to recover from the fire.  A week later, the Newton Kansan reported that he was erecting a 12 x 26 brick building at the corner of Main and Broadway.  The editor encouraged people to be supportive of “Charley, a gentleman and a No. 1 artist.” By August 26, he was “ready for business again in better shape than ever.”
Newton Kansan, 16 September 1880

After September 1880, the advertisements for Gillingham, “the shadow catcher”, no longer appear in the Kansan. Gillingham does not appear in the 1885 City Directory.  Only two photos in our collection have Gillingham’s mark on the back. Other than the Summer of 1871 photo, these are the earliest photos of Newton in the museum’s collection.

Identified as South Main Street. Looking north from the corner of 1st and Main, Newton Ks, pre-1875


North Main, Newton, Ks
Taken from just north of Broadway looking south. Old Masonic Temple along northeast corner of east Broadway & Main. pre-1880.


Although there are no definitive answers to ‘who’ took the “Summer of 1871” photo of Newton’s Main St., one possibility is Charles Gillingham, a photographer who was in Kansas in 1871. When he left Newton sometime in the fall of 1880, he may have left fellow photographer, F.D. Tripp, the negative.  Tripp then reprinted the photo, mounted it using his logo and in doing so, preserved this brief glimpse at Newton’s very beginnings.

Research Notes:
F.D. Tripp was quite hard to pin down. If we knew for certain his age in the summer of 1871, a clearer idea of who actually took the photo could be determined. Depending on which document is correct, his birth year is given as:

  • 1856 (1887 Harvey County Tax Rolls & 1947 Obituary); 1857 (1886 Harvey County Tax Rolls); 1858 (1870 Census);1859 (1880 Census); 1866 (1900 Census).

For the purposes of this blog post, a time span of roughly 1856-1858 was assumed for the birth year of F.D. Tripp.


  • Newton Kansan, 1872-1881.
  • Newton Kansan, 8 January 1880, p. 1
  • Newton Kansan, 12 August 1880, p. 2.
  • Newton Kansan, 19 August 1880, p. 2.
  • Newton Kansan, 26 August 1880, p. 3.
  • Newton Kansan, 16 September 1880, p. 2..
  • Evening Kansan-Republican, September 6, 1947, p.1.
  • Newton City Directories, 1885, 1887, 1902, HCHM Archives.
  • United States Census, 1870, 1880, 1900.
  • Newton Voter Registration Index 1882-1902, HCHM Archives.
  • Harvey County Marriage License Index, 1882, HCHM Archives.
  • Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin, Vol. 27, Google Books, p. 382.