BY ANDY TAYLOR
W.J. Aldrich thought something was awry when his cutting knife tore into the already bludgeoned body of Esther O’Dare Nidiffer on a late-summer night in 1930.
Aldrich was the Montgomery County coroner, who was summoned to investigate the death of a late-teenage Coffeyville woman who, according to her physician, had died in an emergency surgery to remove a ruptured appendix.
At the start of his autopsy, Aldrich was expecting to find the tell-tale signs of an attempted appendectomy: the three-inch incision on the lower right side of the abdomen, an intestinal tract that been pushed aside to remove the tube-like appendix, and the appearance of the nasty, foul poison that had claimed the lives of millions of people whenever that organ burst.
Imagine W.J. Aldrich’s surprise when the investigation into the death of Esther O’Dare Nidiffer, a healthy and beautiful young woman at the age of 18, revealed no incision, a perfectly intact appendix, and no infection. Imagine his shock when he found the ends of an intestinal tract that had been crudely tied together, and a portion of an intestine that was entirely missing.
The initial story told to Aldrich did not make a lot of sense. But, Aldrich had a hunch he knew exactly how Nidiffer died.
Lying on that mortuary room table on Sept. 14, 1930, the body of Esther O’Dare Nidiffer gave up evidence to something very bad — an illegal operation that ultimately was covered up to appear like a failed emergency surgery.
Thus began a chain of tragic events, as if the cruel butchering of an 18-year-old woman isn’t tragic enough, that would result in a scandal that shook the medical community across the nation, the cold-blooded murder of the state’s star witness, and the imprisonment of three people, including a Coffeyville doctor whose respect and influence rang with pride across the community.
Sadly, the life and memory of Esther O’Dare Nidiffer would be lost to the world as the scandal unfolded and became front-page news across the country.
* * * *
In the age of the Roaring Twenties, hot jazz and illegal booze fueled America’s appetite for even hotter sex.
The age of homemade brew and jazz allowed America to shed its Victorian clothing and revel in a new era of promiscuous behavior.
However, America still held a puritanical-view toward birth control.
A pregnant woman who wanted an abortion had little, if any, choice. Those were the pre-Roe vs. Wade days, when abortions, which the news media at that time described as “illegal operations,” were against the law.
The same was true for tubal ligation — the procedure of tying a female’s fallopian tubes, thereby sterilizing the female from further pregnancy.
However, for the right price (and all of it pushed under the table), a doctor could be “bought” to perform either procedure — far away from his own medical office to prevent any hint of it.
And, that’s what allegedly happened when Esther O’Dare Nidiffer, a sexually active 18-year-old woman who already had a child several years earlier, approached Maude Martin, the owner of boarding house and now a personal confidant.
No one knows for sure (for media coverage of that era largely barred the words “abortion” or “birth control” in its news stories), but Nidiffer needed to go under the knife to avoid a pregnancy . . . or to rid herself of an unwanted one.
Martin confronted her physician, Dr. S.A. Brainard, a well-respected town doctor who also was a member of the Coffeyville school board and served in various capacities in the Methodist Church. Brainard consented to performing the procedure, provided it occurred in Martin’s boarding house and not in the doctor’s office.
The operation was set for Sept. 13, 1930. Martin served as Brainard’s impromptu assistant.
And, that’s where details of this story start to get more mired in blood.
Something went horribly wrong in that dimly-lit boarding room. In the performance of stopping Nidiffer of her child bearing capability, Dr. Brainard’s scalpel somehow severed Nidiffer’s intestine, causing an immediate hemorrhage which he could not repair.
To use a simple medical phrase, Nidiffer “bled out” and died.
Standing back at seeing the dead patient on a blood-soaked bed, a nervous S.A. Brainard realized that his career could come to an end — and likely put him behind bars — if news got out of his sloppy operation.
So, he nervously concocted a story . . . then grabbed his already bloody scalpel. To provide cover for a botched surgery, Brainard began cutting and hacking away at Nidiffer’s intestines, tying the ends together to give the appearance that he was attempting, at Nidiffer’s urgent request, an emergency appendectomy.
Or, maybe that’s not what really happened.
Here’s another perspective: perhaps Nidiffer actually died on the makeshift operating table — far from any hospital or doctor’s office — as a result of an emergency surgery where a quick and brave effort to infuse medicine failed and the mystery of the mortality gained the upper hand.
Regardless of the story, W.J. Aldrich didn’t buy Brainard’s story when he examined Nidiffer’s body. He persuaded the county prosecutor to issue murder charges against Brainard and Martin. The two were arrested. Only in the court of law would the truth about Nidiffer’s demise come out, Aldrich believed.
The doctor immediately put up a rigorous defense in the media.
“I have never heard of such a ridiculous charge,” Brainard told the Associated Press about the murder charge. “I am a reputable practitioner. Mrs. Nidiffer died as a I have said she died, as a result of a perfectly legal operation performed in an effort to save her life.”
Newspaper coverage of Brainard’s arrest stretched to the far reaches of the region.
Maude Martin kept her mouth shut the entire time. However, she had an incredible story to tell.
It would come after having taken the oath to tell the truth . . . the whole truth . . . and nothing but the truth.
* * * *
In November 1930, Martin and Brainard were scheduled for separate trials in Montgomery County District Court. Martin turned state’s evidence in exchange for a dropped murder charge.
When a confident Maude Martin sat in that witness chair in the Coffeyville courtroom, she unleashed a story that would shake the foundations of modern medicine and deliver a brutal blow to the reputation of Dr. S.A. Brainard.
Here’s how Martin described the incident that occurred in her boarding house:
Brainard was performing an illegal operation on Nidiffer at her request, but Brainard accidentally severed her intestine during the procedure, causing Nidiffer to hemorrhage uncontrollably. She died within minutes. In an attempt to save his own skin, Dr. Brainard had turned Nidiffer into a product in a butcher’s shop, Martin testified. She admitted that she was in on the cover-up, help Brainard make sure Nidiffer’s body gave the appearance of an emergency appendectomy.
Martin even explained the made-up story that Brainard had concocted: Nidiffer complained of feeling sick. She asked her boarding room owner to fetch the town doctor to examine her. Upon his home visit, the doctor found she was dying of a ruptured appendix and needed to remove it immediately to save her life. However, despite the physician’s heroic efforts, the young woman succumbed to the fatal poison that spewed from her ruptured appendix. End of story.
After a full day of hearing Martin’s testimony, the court adjourned until the next day.
However, the real drama was just brewing . . . literally.
On the next day, Judge J.W. Holdren noticed Brainard’s chief defense counsel, Charles Bucher, was drunk. Holdren quickly declared Bucher of contempt of court, fined him $50 and declared the whole case a mistrial as a result of the lawyer’s inebriated condition. Martin’s testimony the previous day would be stricken from the record . . . and she would have to return to the witness stand to tell every sordid detail once more.
She would have time to brush up on her story. The second trial against Dr. S.A. Brainard would be held in January 1931.
That meant Brainard, the upstanding civic leader and town doctor, would have to wait two more months in an attempt to clear his name.
Unless, of course, his name could be cleared automatically with the star witness muffled and silenced . . . forever.
* * * *
On the night of Jan. 5, 1931, Maude Martin was found dead in her home.
She died from a single gunshot to the head.
Her body was found near a phonograph player. A stack of wax records were sitting next to her slumped body.
A poorly-written suicide note full of misspellings and even worse grammar was found on the desk. It read, “Judge Holdren: I am guilty of Ester’s death. Brainard is inocent. l don’t feel too hard at me. I aide to help her I cant stand this any longer. I am too nervous to live. Good by. — Maude Martin.”
If that suicide note was true, then Martin cleared Dr. Brainard of the murder of Nidiffer.
However, Coffeyville police didn’t have to see the pitiful grammar and failed spellings to realize Martin didn’t write it. They only had to look at the bullet wound.
That’s because the bullet entered from the lower back portion of the skull and exited the right front jaw. What human, even in a state of despair, could end his or her life by firing a gun at an odd angle from the lower rear area of the skull?
A strangely-written suicide note. An even more odd gunshot wound fired from a difficult angle. The evidence didn’t add up.
Local police quickly believed that Martin died of a cold-blooded murder, not suicide.
The local cops went on the detective trail to find anything that could piece together Martin’s untimely and mysterious end.
Local police did know that Martin had befriended Mauriel Sullivan, a former waitress from Seminole, Okla., who, in the last weeks of December, had been staying at Coffeyville’s Beldorf Hotel and had been spotted on many occasions in Martin’s company. On the morning after Martin’s murder, police noticed Sullivan had checked out of the hotel and returned to Oklahoma.
On the night of Jan. 11, 1931, Seminole police, acting on a tip from their cohorts in Coffeyville, arrested Mauriel Sullivan. The gum-chomping Sullivan started to spill her guts before the handcuffs were fastened around her wrists.
“Well, I guess you have the goods on me . . . but it was Brainard who got me to do it,” she told Seminole authorities.
Sullivan told police that she was hired directly by a man named Paul Jones, a convicted bootlegger who ran a taxi service in Coffeyville. She said Jones acted as the doctor’s agent in the arrangement to permanently silence Martin.
She got $85 to pull the trigger.
“They’re a bunch of cheap skates,” Sullivan told the press. “They told me they’d give me $100 for the job, but all I ever got was $85. Believe me, If I had it to do over again, I’d sure insist on getting the cash in advance!”
* * * *
With Sullivan’s confession in hand, prosecutors in Montgomery County now had more charges to file against Brainard, including conspiracy to commit murder. Jones, the local taxi driver, was also charged with conspiracy as was Dale “Slim” Orrison. Orrison ultimately was cleared of his involvement with the case.
Upon his arrest, Jones’ tongue moved rapidly. He also confessed to have been a primary party in the murder of Maude Martin in an effort to protect his friend, Dr. S.A. Brainard, who, Jones, claimed, had asked him to put the hit on Martin.
Brainard strenuously denied the stories, claiming he was a victim of a larger frame-up by Martin and Jones.
At Brainard’s trial in February 1931, the evidence and testimony from Jones and Sullivan against Brainard were strong. The prosecution also got charges to be filed against a Coffeyville lawyer, “Bun” Hanlon, for serving as another conspirator in the case. Jones testified that he had met Hanlon in a previous trial for embezzlement and that he knew Hanlon could be the type of guy who would come through in a murder-for-hire scheme. They admitted to receiving money — between $400 and $500 — from Brainard to do the unthinkable.
There also was some tangible evidence, including the charred remains of Brainard’s automobile, which was found in a city dump near Seminole. Jones and Sullivan both testified that they took the good doctor’s vehicle, burned it at the doctor’s request, and left it in the Seminole city trash heap. The doctor collected the insurance proceeds, which, they claimed, were used to pay for Martin’s murder.
Sullivan also testified that she never fired the .32-caliber revolver that killed Martin, that she had the gun in hand while Martin was browsing through a stack of phonograph albums but turned cold and went into another room where Jones awaited for Sullivan to do the evil deed. Only upon Sullivan’s nervous condition did Jones agree to be the hit man.
Martin apparently did not notice Jones from behind as she knelt over that stack of jazz records. The one bullet discharged from the gun entered Martin’s head from the rear of the skull and came out her jaw. She died instantly.
Jones, who was a junior high school dropout, quickly scrawled a suicide note to make it look like Martin had ended her own life. They put the revolver in Martin’s dead hands and then fled the boarding house. A professional handwriting expert was called to the stand to give expert claims that the suicide note was, in fact, written by an undereducated male.
When Brainard finally reached the witness chair, he profusely admitted ignorance to the entire story. He said he had never given any money to Jones, had never met Mauriel Sullivan, nor had any connection in a murder-for-hire scheme.
Instead, Brainard pointed the finger squarely at Jones, who, Brainard claimed, had asked the doctor after the November 1930 mistrial about “doing something” to silence Martin. When Jones told Brainard he could “take care of Martin” permanently, Brainard said he was horrified at Jones’ murderous suggestion and quickly dispelled it.
To even prove his story that he had nothing to do with Maude Martin’s death, Brainard testified that on the night of Martin’s murder, he was — where else — but at a school board meeting.
Would the jury buy his story?
Newspapers across the nation were filled with sensational headlines about the trial, and news reporters played upon Coffeyville’s connection with the Dalton gang’s demise in 1892 as a historical angle in their accounts.
Would Dr. S.A. Brainard go down in infamy in the same way as the Daltons? And, would Brainard be shown as having blood on his hands the entire time?
* * * *
For an entire week, the jury in the Dr. S.A. Brainard case had been sequestered.
Their movements were confined to the courtroom and an ante room in Coffeyville City Hall were cots were placed for their nightly slumber. Their meals were eaten together . . . but away from the public. They slept under the watchful eyes of a guard, who refused to let conversation take place.
Radios were not allowed.
Newspapers were banned from the jury.
However, jury members who heard days of testimony were swift to render justice. It only took 53 minutes for the jury to determine that Dr. S.A. Brainard was guilty of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.
For their confession, both Jones and Sullivan were sentenced to life imprisonment, but the sentence was reduced to 20-30 years behind bars as part of the agreement with prosecutors. Their sentences were later commuted by order of Gov. Walter Huxman.
When Jones was admitted to the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, Kan., he, like all other inmates, was given a questionnaire to fill out with details about his background and life. One of the questions asked “What is the cause of downfall?”
Jones replied, “Influence of other people.”
With his sentence commuted twice by Gov. Walter Huxman, Jones served nine and a half years of prison before being released on July 3, 1940.
Sullivan was sentenced to the Kansas Women’s Reformatory where prison records are largely non-existent. She was later sent to the women’s wing of the state prison in Lansing.
However, it is chronicled in newspaper archives that Sullivan escaped from prison in May 1939 and was found three months later in Excelsior Springs, Mo., under the name Marjorie Donovan Reeves. Aiding in her escape was Albert Reeves, a prisoner had been captured by police in Kansas City, Mo.
When shown a photo of Sullivan, Reeves admitted to helping her escape.
“Yeah, that’s her,” he said, “but you didn’t expect me to squeal on her, did you?”
What about “Bun” Hanlon, the Coffeyville attorney who was charged with being a conspirator? He was acquitted in a separate trial in 1931.
As for Brainard, the state saved its harshest punishment for the Coffeyville physician: life imprisonment under hard labor.
According to prison records, Brainard was assigned to the prison rock pile for four years before health ailments prevented him from busting rocks. He ultimately found a position where he could apply his trade — as a prison physician. It was a title he held with some degree of pride during his years in confinement.
In his entry questionnaire, Brainard attributed his downfall to being “a victim of circumstance.” Even in that questionnaire, Brainard steadfastly professed his innocence.
While Jones and Sullivan each had their sentences commuted by Kansas governors, Brainard’s requests for executive clemency were denied — 13 times.
He died in prison on April 2, 1949, at the age of 64, having spent 18 years behind bars.
(Editor’s note: information for this story came from multiple newspaper accounts, however the bulk of it came from the Vancouver (Canada) Sun on Aug. 31, 1931. The Sun had sent a reporter to Coffeyville to cover the Dr. S.A. Brainard trial)