We all know the awful stories of Nebraska murderers Charles Starkweather and John Joubert, but long before these men committed their heinous acts, Nebraska played unwilling host to its first documented serial killer.
Stephen D. Richards murdered at least six people in 1878.
(Please note that, with the exception of the jail, the below photos do not depict any actual places involved in the story. They are included here for illustrative purposes only.)
Richards was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, in the 1850s. He moved around several times, but perhaps the most significant move came around 1875 when he relocated to Iowa and took a job at the Iowa Lunatic Asylum in Mount Pleasant. During his one year at the asylum, his job was to bury the bodies of deceased patients. He would later recount to a reporter that this is where he lost his humanity - doing this gruesome job dulled his senses. After that year, Richards said that he could watch a person die and not feel anything.
After leaving Iowa, Richards traveled around the Great Plains states for a while, supporting himself on both honest work and criminal activity. His first documented murder took place near Kearney in March of 1878. (There is some conflicting information about the location and dates; we are using the information that appeared in the Omaha World-Herald in December, 1878.)
The murder was due to a disagreement over some minor matter that Richards could not later recall. He had been traveling for a few weeks with the 20-year-old son of an Iowa farmer; one morning, as soon as they woke, the companion became annoyed with a remark Richards made. The companion pulled out a revolver and pointed it at Richards. Without much thought, Richards drew his own gun and shot the man in the head, leaving his body where it lay.
Richards rolled into Kearney in early 1878 and was quickly jailed for some minor offense. It was around this time that he met a Mrs. Harelson; according to Richards, her husband had escaped from jail and she believed that Richards was responsible for the jailbreak. She invited him and several others to visit her at her homestead in Buffalo County. Richards began corresponding with her and she promised to sell her homestead to him.
Mrs. Harelson and her three children planned to leave the homestead on October 1, 1878, to stay in Illinois with friends over the winter. She planned to return to the homestead, according to Richards, and he suggested that they were living together in some sort of romantic arrangement.
One early morning in the first week of November, on the day the mother and three children were prepared to leave for Illinois, Richards murdered the entire family with an axe as they slept. He later said that he had no more feeling while murdering the family than he would have when killing jackrabbits. He buried their bodies on their homestead, sold their belongings in Hastings, and took up residence in their single-room sod house.
Richards soon befriended a Swedish immigrant neighbor, Peter Anderson. Anderson became ill one day after eating a meal that Richards had prepared, and he confided in another neighbor that he believed Richards had poisoned him. (Richards later denied this claim to reporters, stating that poison was not his style.) Richards was angry about the allegation and went to Anderson's house to confront him. An argument followed, and Richards stated that the other man pulled out a knife. Richards grabbed a hammer that was nearby and - in his own words - "brained him." When later recounting his crimes, he would claim that the murder was in self-defense.
A group of concerned neighbors came to Anderson's house to check on his well-being not long after and found Richards outside, hitching up the dead man's horses. Richards told them to go inside to confirm that Anderson was safe; when they did, he stole one of the horses and escaped.
The murderer rode off to the east, traveling by horse, by train, and on foot, ending up in Mount Pleasant, Ohio. Little did he know that Sheriff Anderson of Buffalo County and Sheriff Martin of Kearney County were right on his heels. Just two weeks after running from the homestead in Nebraska, Richards was arrested and brought back to Kearney, where he was executed by hanging on April 26, 1879.
Chillingly, Richards displayed just as much concern for his own life as he had for those of his victims. He was not afraid to die; he said that he would have to die someday and it didn't matter how or when.
At the time and for many years after his crimes, Stephen Richards was the worst serial killer to have ever plagued Nebraska. He admitted to the murders of his traveling companion, the Harelson family, and his neighbor, but law enforcement at the time thought that he may have killed as many as three more people. Although it was a huge news story when the horrific murders occurred, many Nebraskans have never heard the story…until now.