Galena A Main Street building in southeast Kansas with loads of history and notoriety — and maybe even some ghosts — has been spared from demolition.
An online petition, “Save the Steffleback Bordello,” has gathered 230 signatures. It initially was directed at Galena Mayor Dale Oglesby, but it turns out that Oglesby is fully on board with the plan to save it, and in fact is part of a group trying to buy it and stabilize it.
“It’s an important part of the town’s history,” said David Hinkle, who goes by the name “Diego” with the group MoSo Ghost Hunters, of which he is vice president. It is the group heading up the petition.
“It gives you a glimpse into the past of what this town and this area were like.
“The building is in pretty bad shape, and it’s going to take a lot to save it, but I think the city will benefit from having it restored,” Hinkle added.
Details about what happened in the Steffleback Bordello are contained in the “Bedside Book of Bad Girls,” written by Michael Rutter and published earlier this year by Farcountry Press, as well as newspaper accounts provided by Laura Phillipi, site supervisor of the Lansing (Kan.) Historical Museum.
According to Rutter, Ma Steffleback was known as “Galena’s Bloody Madam.”
The madam’s name was Nancy Wilson, after marrying her second husband, Charles Wilson. But news stories often referred to her by her previous married name.
Newspapers compared her family to the “Bloody Benders,” a family of alleged serial killers who ran an inn in Labette County in the early 1870s.
According to those accounts:
Ma Steffleback, Staffleback or Stiffleback — the name is spelled many different ways — her sons Ed and George, and her husband, Charles Wilson, were all linked to the October 1897 death of Frank Galbraith. He is variously referred to as a miner, peddler and client of the bordello.
The Stefflebacks were accused of taking Galbraith’s belongings after killing him and before dumping his body in a mine shaft. In a subsequent legend, that haul included gold coins, which were never found.
During the trial, the family also was identified as suspects in earlier unexplained miner deaths and the disappearance of two teenage girls who had been recruited to the bordello a year before. Mine shafts were pumped and searched, but nothing more was found.
From the Sept. 17, 1897, Kansas Semi-Weekly Capital: “There are yet other parties unaccounted for which Mrs. Stevens, the prosecutor, says will be enrolled among the Stiffleback dead. In fact, there is no telling where the list will end.”
The trial got the town so whipped up that there are even reports of vigilante groups forming. From the Topeka Weekly Capital on Sept. 17, 1897: “The people of Galena are thoroughly aroused. A number of murders have been committed here lately and many disreputable characters have come here from other places. There is likely to be a determined effort to clear the moral atmosphere by making the town too hot to hold those not wanted.”
The sons, Ed and George Steffleback, were eventually convicted of first-degree murder and received life sentences, while their mother was convicted as an accomplice. Charles Wilson, Nancy’s second husband, was sentenced to 25 years for his role in the murder. Another son, Mike Staffleback, was convicted of larceny and sentenced to seven years.
Nancy Wilson died of pneumonia at age 79 on March 9, 1909, in the Kansas Penitentiary at Leavenworth, according to the Leavenworth Public Library.
The Leavenworth Times of March 10, 1909, reported that her appeal to die outside of prison wasn’t granted. Her son George and husband, Charles Wilson, were allowed to join her. Mike already had been released and Ed had died in prison four years earlier.
“The death of Mrs. Staffleback was intensely pathetic and caused much commotion in the female ward of the penitentiary,” reads the newspaper account. “It is seldom that a woman dies in the female ward, and when it was announced this morning that she could not live, the other 33 female prisoners acted as though they were about to sustain the loss of a near relative.”
Lauren Woodall, with MoSo Ghost Hunters, started the online petition “Save the Steffleback Bordello” on Aug. 6. While it initially targeted Oglesby, now the group is gathering signatures to thank him.
“The mayor has decided not to demolish it!” reads a post on the site. “Thank you all for your support. It really means a lot! Until we decide what to do with the petition, any more signatures we receive will show support for the Steffleback Bordello getting another chance!”
The ghost hunter groups have an interest in the building because they think it may be haunted.
Hinkle, vice president of MoSo Ghost Hunters, said his members believe the building is a hot spot for paranormal activity, and ghost hunters who have gone into the building have reported voices, bumps and other unexplained activity.
Hinkle described the building as “very unwelcoming.”
“It just feels like you are not supposed to be there,” he added.
Although he was initially identified in the petition, Oglesby said he wants to protect the building.
“They’re not trying to convince me, because I’m trying to save it,” he said. “The petition is the preacher preaching to the choir.”
Oglesby said the city’s code enforcement officer had put it on a list for condemnation because the structure is leaning and the roof is not intact.
“I had the city attorney take it back off the condemnation list,” he said.
Oglesby said he is one of a group of people trying to buy the building from local businessman Larry Courtney. He said the plan is to try to stabilize and eventually restore it, but the task won’t be easy, or inexpensive.
“I think it’s got potential to be saved,” the mayor said. “It’s going to fall over if we don’t intervene.”
The mayor also agreed that the building and what happened there make Galena more interesting.
“Those murders are part of Galena’s wild and woolly past,” he said.