In 1841 Thomas Benton Murdock was born in the mountains of Virginia. He was one of the five children who lived to maturity of Thomas Murdock and Katherine Pierrepont. On the mother’s side came the pride of the Pierrepont; from the father’s the insurgent instincts of the Irish Murdocks who left Ireland after the Irish rebellion failed in 1798. Though reared in the mountains among the most simple people and most primitive surroundings, the Murdocks who have been known in Kansas for half a century have proved soldiers of the militant democracy. They have been fighters who led naturally, by instinct and training, but never fighters for the old order. They always were pioneers, always moving out into new territory of thought and action, looking forward. Thomas and Katherine Murdock could not endure the iniquity of slavery, so in 1849 they freed their slaves and left the slave country for Ohio. They settled near Ironton, along the Ohio River, but lost everything they had in the panic of 1855. Loading their household goods upon a boat, they went down the Ohio to the Mississippi and journeyed as far west as Mount Pleasant, Iowa. There the family spent the winter, and the father went to Kansas and found a location. He brought his family to Topeka in the winter of 1856-57. They rented a little hotel and kept tavern, among others having for guests Jim Lane and A. D. Stevens, famous as a border fighter under Montgomery and afterward killed at Harper’s Ferry under old John Brown. Going and coming in the little Kansas town of the Virginia abolitionist were the men who made Kansas famous in the great conflict that began at Lawrence and ended at Appomattox.
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In this atmosphere of strife and patriotism young Benton Murdock, a youth in his late ‘teens, grew up. In 1860 the family homesteaded at Forest Hill, near Emporia, and the father and mother spent the remainder of their lives there. The former died in 1896 and the latter 1887.
When the Civil war broke out Thomas Benton Murdock enlisted with his father and brother Roland in the Ninth Kansas Cavalry and served until the end of the war. He served in the Rocky Mountains in 1863, and there met J. H. Betts, afterward an honored citizen of El Dorado. Seven or eight years later these two men again met in El Dorado. John Betts kept looking at Murdock and finally said: “Say, aren’t you the chap that relieved me of that army overcoat out west?” Murdock’s company was engaged in confiscating Government property wherever found. Murdock looked at Betts and replied: “Well, I guess I am. But I’m here to start a newspaper. What’s the chance?” “Bully,” returned Mr. Betts, willing to let bygones be bygones, and they remained friends for forty years.
Returning from the army where he had gone “snow blind” on the plains–a calamity that hung over him all his later days–young Murdock, who had been a hod carrier and general workman as a youth around Topeka, learned the printing trade. He worked in the office of the Emporia News, then owned by P. B. Plumb and Jacob Stotler. Mr. Stotler had married Leverah Murdock during the war. His brother Marshall, who had worked at the printer’s trade during the war, was running the Burlingame Chronicle at the end of the struggle. Young Benton went back to Ironton, Ohio, married the sweetheart of his boyhood, Frances Crawford, and came to El Dorado March 4, 1870.
Here he founded the Walnut Valley Times, with J. S. Danford. His wife lived only a few years, leaving at her death a daughter, Mary Alice, now editor of the El Dorado Republican.
From the first Mr. Murdock became a leader of politics in Kansas. He stood for the Walnut Valley and the kingdom of Butler. In 1876 he was elected a member of the State Senate. He served with such men as E. N. Morrill, Charles Robinson, J. M. Hadley, father of the former governor of Missouri, Benjamin F. Simpson, J. R. Hallowell, D. W. Finney, W. A. Johnston, chief justice of Kansas, all members of the Senate; while in the House were Lyman U. Humphrey, John Gilmore, A. W. Smith, L. B. Kellogg, and P. P. Elder.
His political career was fostered and guided by Mrs. Antoinette Culbreth-Murdock, who for a generation was wife, friend, comrade, guide and inspiration, and who bore him five children, of whom Ellina Culbreth is the only one now living. Mrs. Murdock survives him with his two children.
In 1880 he ran for the Senate again, but was defeated, unfairly he thought. He sold the Times and moved to Topeka and became connected with the Topeka Daily Commonwealth, then controlled by the Baker family. But his heart was in El Dorado, and he returned in 1883 and founded the El Dorado Weekly Republican. A daily followed the weekly in 1884, and the paper at once took a prominent place in the affairs of Kansas.
Mr. Murdock was a stanch friend and ally of P. B. Plumb throughout the latter’s career. In 1888 Mr. Murdock was again elected to the State Senate. He served until 1892, and was on the committee that tried Theodosius Botkin and went over the old county seat troubles of Kansas. He was defeated for re-election by the populist wave, and until appointed game warden by Governor Stubbs held no other public office. However, he was a public man all the time. His influence on the state had been more rather than less because of the fact that he was not in office. In every republican state convention for forty years Mr. Murdock was a power of the first class. Yet he sacrificed that power and worked for the primaries which put convention politicians out of power. He was never selfish, never little, never mean, and so it happened that he was large enough to retain his influence in the state and multiply it through the primary.
Gradually he grew in strength with the people of Kansas, and after 1902–his last alignment with the old political machine–he was easily the leader of the forward movement in Kansas republicanism. Others have had the honor; but he made them. He had expressed as no other man had been able to express it, the sentiment of popular protest against the wrongs of government by ring rule. He was the voice of the people–an indignant people clamoring for a larger part in their state government.
He fought with arms for freedom in his youth; he offered his body them; he gave his life to freedom in this latest struggle, and fought with his spirit–a brave, successful fight. As an editor he was equipped as few men are equipped–with an individual style. He expressed something more than an idea. He reflected an ideal plus a strong unique personality. He therefore in a way dramatized whatever he wrote–made it the spoken word of a combatant in the conflict, the defiance of a partisan in the contest. So thousands of people knew him as a voice who did not know him as a man.
Here in his home town was his real life, his real friends, his real success. For before he was a Kansan he was a Butler County man, an El Dorado man. He always stood by the home folks. Of course he took part in local matters, and having taken part had to take sides. He was never neutral in any important contest here at home. But he always fought in the open and he always fought fair. He never abused a man, he attacked causes, movements, orders, administrations, organizations and principles of his opponents–but the personal character of the men he opposed–there was the limit. He never returned abuse for abuse. He had no newspaper fights. He never made his personal enemies objects for newspaper ridicule. He had no office blacklist. Every man or woman in Butler County received exactly the same treatment from the Republican under Mr. Murdock that every other man or woman received, no matter whether he or she was friend or enemy. He strove to be fair. Many is the politician in this county in the old days who fought Mr. Murdock knowing he could always depend on Mr. Murdock to be fair, to keep the issue, to be silent on old scores, to leave personal matters out of the question. Men have risen to power in this community opposing Mr. Murdock who have capitalized his innate decency and have risen more by reason of his charity and humanity than by their own ability.
He was a gentleman of the old school, was Thomas Benton Murdock, and that fact gave more power to those who opposed him often than their own works should have given to them. As his best qualities grew intenser, as people grew nearer to him, as they who knew him best here in his home community thought more of him than those who knew him in the state, so even better than they knew and loved him in the town did they know and love him in his home. Mr. Murdock was a home man clear to the core. He was best known there and best beloved, for there he showed always his best side. He kept the finest part of his heart and mind and soul for those who met him in his home. There he was in his kindest, his gentlest, his most human aspect. Home was his Heaven. There he brought all his joys. There he left the world behind. When blindness threatened him, as it did for a quarter of a century, off and on, it was in his home that he found his only solace. When enemies pursued him, when cares overcame him, when troubles encompassed him about, he turned always up the hill–always homeward. There he drank the elixir of life and returned full armed, new and strong, to the contest.
His old home, now occupied by his widow, is at 1000 Walnut Hill and had been the family homestead for the past twenty-eight years. Mr. Murdock died in a hospital at Kansas City November 4, 1909, but was buried in the West Cemetery at El Dorado.
The Murdock memorial fountain in the courthouse grounds was erected to his memory by friends from Maine to California, a committee of El Dorado men fostering it. The contributions made up in small amounts of $1 or more.
When his soul went out into the greater soul that gave it, how lovingly he must have followed the last ride of his shattered clay tenement as it journeyed through the Kansas that he loved, down the west branch into the Walnut Valley that loved him, up the hill and through the gloaming into the home that was his first Heaven. For it was a journey with a climax in love, and when those whom he knew best and loved best gathered about his wasted body of death, his soul triumphant in the new life must have glowed even through the dark veil the warmth of an affection too deep for words or fear.
So his last wish was granted. And after “taps” had sounded, we left all that was mortal, only a withered hut of the exalted and risen soul of Thomas Benton Murdock, under the prairie grass out in the sunshine. Sunshine and prairie grass–and the end.