Route 66 News

Doubts arise over history of Galena’s Murder Bordello

Numerous media outlets — including Route 66 News — have reported that Galena’s Murder Bordello in Galena, Kan., served as the headquarters of a murderous madam, Ma Staffleback, during the 1890s when she and other accomplices may have killed dozens of clients.

However, records unearthed by two members of an area historical society have cast doubts whether Staffleback owned or operated in that house at all.

What’s not in dispute is the Staffleback case itself. During the 1890s, Staffleback and three accomplices killed and robbed up to 50 clients at a house of prostitution in Galena. She, two sons, and her husband were charged in 1897 with murdering Frank Galbraith, a miner, and dumping his body into a nearby mine shaft. All were convicted of various charges stemming from the killing. Staffleback, who became known as “Galena’s Bloody Madam,” died in a Kansas prison in 1909.

The purported bordello in Galena, Kan., before renovation work began this year.

The house at Front and Main streets in Galena had sat vacant when, several years ago, a local group acquired a nearby Kan-O-Tex gas station, renovated it, and rechristened it into a popular Route 66 destination, 4 Women on the Route. At the time, the principals wanted to acquire the house across the road and turn it into a bed-and-breakfast.

Apparently the home was rumored to have been where Staffleback and her clan committed the murders. The first reference to that in the media surfaced in August, when Galena Mayor Dale Oglesby said he wanted to save the decaying house from the wrecking ball. Citing a book titled “Bedside Book of Bad Girls,” the Joplin Globe newspaper referred to the home’s alleged link with Staffleback. In later stories, the Cherokee County News-Advocate in nearby Baxter Springs and other outlets told about the house’s purportedly sordid past.

In January, Russ Keeler of After Midnight Paranormal Investigations in Siloam Springs, Ark., persuaded the home’s co-owners to spend thousands of dollars to shore up the structure and install period furniture. The allegedly haunted home opened for tours a few weeks ago and, with a nod to the Galena’s notorious murders more than a century ago, was dubbed Galena’s Murder Bordello.

But in recent weeks two members of the Cherokee County Genealogical-Historical Society have refuted the link between the house and Staffleback. Marilyn Schmitt, president of the group, wrote a letter to the Cherokee County newspaper, saying Oglesby wrote her he was “convinced” the home was not the original Staffleback house.

Also, Schmitt wrote:

We have a notebook in our genealogy library of all the newspaper articles that appeared in the Galena and Columbus newspapers from 1897-1901, that includes information the Stafflebacks lived in a three room shanty on the west edge of Galena on Owl Creek. That shanty was burned down after the Stafflebacks were sent to prison and anything left was carted off as souvenirs.

Also, another historical society member, Carolyn McLean, wrote to the Joplin Globe to refute the home’s alleged link to Staffleback and urged a retraction of the story.

An independent online search also bolsters McLean’s and Schmitt’s findings:

  • An archived newspaper clipping from 1897 reports the Staffleback house was burned to the ground.
  • An 1897 Chicago Tribune article said the Staffleback crimes were committed in “a four-room log cabin” — not close to the description of the ornate home that stands.
  • An online scan of the book “Missouri’s Wicked 66: Gangsters and Outlaws on the Mother Road” says the Staffleback crimes occurred in a “long-abandoned shanty.”

Other 1890s newspaper reports of the Staffleback crimes also have been posted online, and support the notion the murders didn’t take place at the house at Front and Main streets.

Contacted by email, Keeler said:

I personally have not claimed at any time that this is for a fact the Staffelbacks house, we know where that is, the house is being restored for the benefit of bringing more tourism to Galena. could the Staffelbacks ran a bordello in here, possibly. There is no clear history on this house, we know it is old enough to have been, and it is haunted.

Indeed, much of Keeler’s copy on the house’s website and Facebook page is careful to not make a direct claim to Staffleback. In a Facebook message, Keeler said the property is being restored as “a historical location to comemorate (sic) the Staffelbacks”.

However, an online description of the property for a recent event there seemed less ambiguous:

“Galenas Murder Bordello” Built in 1890 this old Bordello was ran by a family of murders, The Staffelbacks,  said to have murdered more than 30 miners that were seeking a night of entertainment then dumping their bodies in the area mines, one of which is located on the property.

Also, the house being called Galena’s Murder Bordello — and its logo — imply that homicides were committed there.

Keeler also produced the copy of an email purportedly from a distant great-grandson of Staffleback. It said, in part:

I recall somewhere in my early research that the cabin where they lived was expanded by Ed, George and Mike. That was where they lived. The bordello was a short distance  away, and I don’t believe it was destroyed. It was their house that was destroyed. I cannot find the article or source offhand, but when you said you were working on the bordello, that really had me thinking. […] The good news is that the bordello very well might still exist.

So it’s possible, if the recollection is correct, the Staffleback clan lived in the cabin but operated the bordello at another location.

Even so, it seems the two women from the historical society hold a lot more data supporting their arguments.

Personally, I’m glad Keeler took an interest in the house and restored it. Had the long-neglected property sat for a few more years, it probably wouldn’t have been salvageable  Now, it’s a tourist attraction that can work in tandem with the nearby Cars on the Route, formerly 4 Women on the Route.

The house had been rumored a bordello long before Keeler arrived on the scene. So this is yet another case on Route 66 where a site had become more legend than fact. Yet this episode should serve as a cautionary tale to those who play fast and loose with history — especially during an Internet era where facts are a lot more easily verifiable.