On Thanksgiving morning on 1926, the Dunhams set out from their home in Topeka, traveling south down U.S. Route 75 on a forty-five-mile ride through the autumn countryside. Five people were in the car: the parents, Ralph and Ruth Armour Dunham; their two young sons, Ralph Jr. and Stanley; and Ralph Sr.’s brother, Earl, who worked with him at an auto garage. They were on their way to the town of Melvern to spend the holiday with the Whitneys. Mabel Whitney was Ralph and Earl’s sister. The Dunham brothers and their brother-in-law, Hugh Whitney, had made plans to go hunting while the women prepared a holiday meal and the children played. The morning broke clean and bright, an Indian summer reprieve with temperatures climbing to sixty-eight degrees, the warmest in weeks. Most Kansans had the day off and were outside enjoying the balmy weather. Ruth’s younger sister, Doris Armour, who lived in El Dorado with their parents, rode up to Emporia with two friend to attend a football game between the College of Emporia and her old school, Kansas State Teachers College, one of dozens of college and high school football rivalries schedule around the state that afternoon.
Ruth might have preferred going to Emporia with her sister. She and Ralph were quarreling again, a common occurrence. Only twenty-six, she has been married for eleven years already, since she was fifteen, when she had dropped out of high school in the second month of her junior year. The wedding, held at nine at night at her sister-in-law’s house in Wichita, had been a tightly held secret, with friends and parents “kept in the dark” until a week later, according to a belated announcement in the Wichita Eagle. Married life had been difficult from the start, as Ruth endured the serial philandering of her husband, who was seven years older. Their latest argument ender that afternoon, when Ralph departed with his hunting party. Ruth, distraught, waited until he was gone, then left for home, leaving her boys with Mabel and the other children.
Sometime that evening, back in Topeka, she emerged from their house at 703 Buchanan and walked in the darkness two blocks toward Sixth Avenue. Seasons had changed at sundown, from summery day to wintery night. There was a lashing wind and the temperature was in free fall, plummeting to an overnight low of twenty-four. Most of the shops along the avenue—Fritton Grocery, Golden Gate Coffee Shop, Home Bakery and Lunch—were closed, but lights were on at the Lawrence Drug Store next to the Palace Garage, Ralph’s place. The pharmacist, George W. Lawrence, was working inside. Ruth entered and told Lawrence that a dog had been hit by a car and she needed something to put the poor critter out of its misery. Lawrence, amenable to the idea, suggested chloroform. Ruth said that would not do; the smell of chloroform made her sick. She asked for strychnine, and Lawrence relented, selling her ten grams. For whatever pain the dog was in, Ruth seemed in no hurry. Lawrence later recalled that she lingered in the pharmacy and talked to him for several minutes “seemingly in the best of spirits, joking and visiting.”
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