The Nebraska Fiend – Serial Killer Stephen Richards Haunts the Heartland
Long before Charles Starkweather became the most notorious serial killer in Nebraska history, Stephen Dee Richards took the lives of at least nine people in the late 1800s.
Stephen Dee Richards was born on March 18, 1856, in Wheeling, West Virginia. Around age 11, his family moved and settled in the Quaker village of Mount Pleasant, Ohio. After a failed engagement in 1876, he left his hometown and moved west.
While living in Mount Pleasant, Iowa he was hired as an attendant at the Iowa Lunatic Asylum. His main job was to bury deceased patients. In an interview years later, Richards stated that his views of humanity were changed while working with the dead. Disposing of bodies day after day led him to disregard human life. The loss of empathy and compassion he felt for people would later lead to his ability to commit heinous crimes without feeling.
After quitting his position at the asylum, Richards moved to Nebraska. Only two weeks after arriving in Kearney County, Richards committed his first murder. While in Dobytown, Richards met a young man who joined him as he traveled in search of work. One night, they decided to play a game of cards. Richards won most of the young man’s money. The next day, while riding to Kearney, the young man accused Richards of cheating and demanded his money back. When Richards refused, the man supposedly became belligerent. Richards shot him in the eye and disposed of the body in the Platte River.
Over the next two years, Richards killed at least four other men before he was arrested in Kearney and jailed for larceny. While in jail, he spoke with a woman named Mary Harelson. During the conversation, Mary agreed to sell the deed of her property to Richards. After his release, Richards visited the Harelson family homestead on October 18, 1878. Upon his arrival, she transferred the property to Richards. On November 3, 1878, Richards murdered Mary and her three children. Using an ax, he killed the family while they slept. After cleaning up the blood, he ate breakfast. Afterward, he buried all four victims on the land. When Richards was asked about the whereabouts of Mary and her children, he told several people they had left and he did not know when they would return.
During the month of December 1878, Richards agreed to work for a neighbor, Peter Anderson. On December 9, Anderson became ill after eating a meal Richards prepared. Believing he had been poisoned, he confronted Richards the next day. Angry at the accusation, Richards used a hammer to beat him to death. Richards then fled back to his hometown of Mount Pleasant, Ohio. The bodies of Mary and her children were discovered on December 11 and Anderson's body was later discovered in the cellar of his house underneath a pile of coal. Nebraska Governor Silas Garber issued an arrest warrant for Richards on December 16. Wanted posters circulated his hometown and he was arrested on December 20.
While jailed in Steubenville, Ohio, Richards confessed to killing nine people over three years. He was relocated to a jail in Omaha on December 28 before being transferred to Kearney by train.
At trial, Richards pled not guilty. He admitted to murdering Anderson but claimed he did so in self-defense. A jury found Richards guilty of the murders of the Harelson family and Anderson. He was sentenced to death by hanging with an execution date set for April 26, 1879. Shortly after his conviction, his execution in Minden was announced to be public. Anticipating a large number of spectators, an enclosure was constructed around the gallows. Tickets were sold to anyone who wanted to witness the execution.
Richards was hanged at 1:17 p.m. and according to at least one newspaper article, it took him fifteen minutes to die. He was the first person to be executed in Nebraska.
Before his execution, several local doctors begged Richards to donate his body so they could perform an autopsy. He refused all requests. Although his gravesite in Minden was guarded, his corpse was stolen but returned shortly thereafter. Later his body was dug up again and his bones were scattered around Kearney. A staff member of the Kearney County Gazette found Richards’ skull and displayed it in the newspaper’s front office window.
Since Richards' execution in April of 1879, ghost stories have circulated about his ghostly presence haunting Kearney County.
One night, a man was on his way home after working late in Minden, Nebraska. While walking past the post office he saw a dark wispy figure with a prominent mustache and clothing from a much earlier time. Frightened by the specter, the man ran to his car. When he looked back, the figure was gone.
Several local residents have seen the ghostly figure of a man with a noose hanging around his neck. Occasionally, the man is seen with a girl. The man and the girl are said to be Stephen Richards and one of the daughters of Mary Harelson who he murdered in 1878.
The most infamous haunting took place between 2012 and 2014 on a farm just outside of Norman. A family was tormented by several spirits. The voice of a little girl was heard throughout the home saying "mama." They heard footsteps at night, knocking sounds, children giggling in the hallway, and a lullaby being played on a flute. They also saw the figure of a man in the barn and a woman in the basement.
When a paranormal team was called to investigate the farmhouse, they recorded voices saying, "Stephen" and then "Richard." After conducting research related to the location of the property, they concluded the evidence suggested that Stephen Richards was haunting the farm. After cleansing the home, the presence of spirits seemed to disappear.
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