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Long forgotten headline story about a family who lost everything in the Great Kansas flood of 1951. Yet, all was not as it seemed… 

Useless Information Podcast Script
Original Podcast Air Date: October 20, 2018

The school district that I teach in recently asked me present a teacher training seminar on the best health and wellness apps that are out there. I spoke to a number of colleagues and installed the best of them on my phone.

So, two weekends ago, my wife and I were up in Warrensburg, NY, which is just a bit north of Lake George, for their annual town-wide garage sale, which they bill as the world’s largest. We go every year, mainly for the exercise, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to give these various apps a test. I turned each one of them on as soon as I exited our car and we then proceeded to walk up and down the various side streets for hours.

When we were done for the day, I stopped each of the apps. At least that was what I had thought I had done. When we returned home, I realized that one of the apps kept running and recorded a walk in excess of 50 miles, 46 of which were done while seated in a car…

Well, today I have for you another story about walking that begins with someone riding in a car. During the morning of December 28, 1951, Mr. and Mrs. J. Warren Poley, Jr. and their daughter Donna, who resided at 1525 College Avenue in Trappe, Pennsylvania, decided to hop in the car and drive to nearby Norristown. The total distance is approximately a 12-mile (19.3 km) drive southeast along Route 422. As they left their home, they would first pass through the towns of Collegeville and then Tropper before reaching Norristown. So, basically, they drove from Trappe, through Collegeville, through Trooper and finally ended in Norristown.

It was in Trooper at 9:30 AM that Mrs. Poley first took notice of a family walking in the opposite direction of their travel. The family, which consisted of a father, mother, and two small children, appeared to be down on their luck. Later, as they drove home, the Poleys once again passed the family, who were now walking through Collegeville. A short time later, Mrs. Poley went for a short drive and again passed the plodding family. Seeing these poor people three times in such a short period of time just tore at Mrs. Poley’s heart.

Upon returning to her residence, she told her husband that they needed to do something. “Those people are in trouble. I think they need help and I think we should do something about it.”

Next thing you know, Mr. Poley is driving in his car searching for the family of strangers. He didn’t have to go very far. He found them walking in front of the nearby grade school. Mr. Poley invited the family to dinner and they graciously accepted.

It was during that turkey meal that the sad story of this wandering family – that’s dad Robert Murphy, his wife Jean, three-year old daughter Jean, and two-year old son Robert, Jr. – began to be told.

Mr. Murphy explained that they had lived in Topeka, Kansas for the past six years and that their home had been destroyed by the raging floods that had recently swept through the region. They lost everything including their home and nearly all of their worldly belongings.

With no place to live, they made the decision to make their way to the home of Jean Murphy’s mom in Philadelphia. Without any money or modern mode of transportation, they were forced to make the approximately 1,200-mile (1,930 km) trek on foot. It took them 44 days to make the journey, arriving at her mom’s house on Christmas Eve. Call her Scrooge or whatever choice words you may have, but for some unknown reason she refused to let her daughter’s family stay with her.

Although he was a veteran of World War II and an electrician by trade, Robert Murphy was unable to secure work or find suitable lodging in Philadelphia. As a result, the Murphys became discouraged and began the long walk back to Kansas. It was while they were on this return trip that the Poleys saw the Murphys and invited them to dinner.

For a family that had suffered so much, they were in surprisingly good shape. They certainly had weather-beaten complexions, but they were well-dressed for the weather. Supposedly a wealthy man in Ohio had been very generous and provided each with warm clothes, gloves and boots. After bundling themselves back up, the Murphys said goodbye to the Poleys and continued on their journey back to Kansas.

Clearly, Mrs. Poley was a kind and warm-hearted person who generously opened her home up to strangers in need. But she felt the need to do more. After they left, she contacted the police and then local radio station WPAZ in Pottstown learned of their hardship and broadcast an appeal to the community for assistance. It wasn’t long before furniture, food, clothing, and money began to pour in.

None, however, were more generous than Raymond F. Kulp, an employee of the East Greenville Sanitary Company. Mr. Kulp owned a 72-acre farm nearby on Route 663 between New Hanover and Pennsburg. When he learned of the family’s plight, he immediately called the Pottstown Mercury newspaper and offered Robert Murphy a job on his farm. Not only that, but since his eight room farmhouse only housed his family of four – that’s Mr Kulp, his wife and their two sons – the Murphys were welcome to occupy four of the rooms.

Mr. Kulp stated, “We know what it is to have troubles.” He added, “When they arrive here, there will be a lot of surprises. People have been very good to them. They are donating household furnishings and food. One woman is sending a lot of canned goods. We had some furniture that we were going to leave in their part of the house. But guess they’ll have almost enough now. People have been so kind and offering them furnishings and help of any kind.”

Through the airing of their plight, Mrs. Poley learned that others had previously offered the Murphy family assistance.

Two days earlier – Wednesday night – the Murphys had been provided with a place to sleep by the Salvation Army in Philadelphia. By Thursday night they were staying at another Salvation Army facility in Norristown. They left that shelter right after breakfast.

By Friday morning, shortly before they were to be sighted by the Poleys, the Murphys were treated to breakfast by Ralph K. Harner, who was the chief of police in nearby West Norriton.

Harner told the press, “They weren’t hitch hiking when I saw them. They were just walking pathetically along the pavement. I took them to the state public assistance office in Norristown, and left them there while I went to court. When I returned, they had gone. The girl who interviewed them told me that aid wouldn’t be available for several days until they proved their identity – so they started out again on foot.”

He continued, “Mr. Murphy told the girl that he lost all his identification papers in the flood – including his service records. I wanted to give them $10 on my return from, but they were gone. It’s a strange heart-tuggin’ sight to see them trudging along. I think they’ll get plenty of rides along the way.”

It seemed like everyone was offering some sort of assistance, but there was one big problem. The Walking Murphys, as the press was now referring to them as, were long gone. Police were asked to watch for the family.

Calling all cars. Calling all cars. Be on the lookout for:

Robert Murphy – the father. He is described as being a tall, slender man with thick, dark hair highlighted with greying streaks. He is dressed in a faded suit, a dark sports shirt, a blue woolen mackinaw jacket, and black buckle galoshes.

Jean Murphy, the mother. Short in stature, heavyset, with a round face. She is dressed in a cotton dress and plain coat. A vari-colored bandana covers her head.

Their son Robert, Jr. is dressed in a woolen coat and a knit woolen cap, while their daughter Jean is kept warm by a woolen snow suit and a bandana.

Where were the Murphy’s?

Luckily, it didn’t take long to find them. On Sunday, December 30th a passing motorist was listened to radio station WHLM and heard the appeal to help locate the family. He spotted the Murphys walking in Williamsport, which is about 150-miles (240 kilometers) northwest of Mrs. Poley’s home, and he let them know about Mr. Kulp’s generous job/home offer. With everything that they owned being carried in two beat up suitcases and just 30-cents to their name, this news couldn’t have come at a better time.

This was the perfect feel-good story and, as you can imagine, it quickly broke nationwide. In an interview with the United Press, Robert Murphy said, “I’m so happy I can’t talk. We just had another disappointment last night. Someone told me I might get a job here, but it didn’t go through, and it took hours to get shelter for the night.”

Jean Murphy added, “It’s wonderful news. We were beginning to think no one cared what happened to us. Does someone really want us?” She continued, “That’s the way it was on our trip East. Only the people who had a lot of trouble themselves understood and helped us. I guess that’s how it always is.”

Of course, one has to wonder how the Murphys ended up in such dire straits. As the story broke nationally, members of the local press started doing some digging. As the reporters poked around into the Murphys’ past, they were left with far more questions than they had answers.

For example, they learned from Captain Newton McClements at the Salvation Army in Norristown that he had given Robert Murphy $2.50 (approximately $25.00 today) to cover train fare to Philadelphia.

Huh? What? They supposedly had just traveled from Philadelphia so why would they need train fare to go back?

Next, Murphy said that he had applied for Red Cross aid shortly after the flood had destroyed their nine-room home in Kansas. A check with the director of the midwestern office of the Red Cross, Robert Edson, could find no record of a Robert Murphy ever applying for aid either during or after the flood.

Then, during a radio interview on December 31, 1951, Mr. Murphy mentioned that he had studied to be an electrical engineer at the University of Kansas. Under re-questioning he changed his alma mater to Kansas State. Maybe that was just an error on his part, but local reporters were starting to think that the details of his story just didn’t add up.

During an interview with the Murphy’s at the Kulp farmhouse, WPAZ news director Sidney Omarr decided that it was time to ask the Murphys about the inconsistencies in their story and find out what was really true.

It turns out that none of it was. It was all one big lie.

The Murphys with WPAZ news director Sidney Omarr.
The Murphys with WPAZ news director Sidney Omarr.  That’s daughter Jean on his lap,  dad Robert on the left and mom Jean holding Robert, Jr. on the left.  (Image appeared on page 2 of the Akron Beacon Journal on January 2, 1952,)

They had never lost everything that they had owned in the Kansas floods. In fact, they had never lived there at all. The family started telling the Kansas flood story the previous August, but had received no public attention until Mrs. Poley befriended them. They would simply move from town to town telling their fictitious tale, maybe get a meal, some lodging, and a few bucks before moving on to the next town.

Not only had they not been in Kansas, they weren’t the Murphys. They were the Lillibridges. Dad was Robert Roy Lillibridge, who was born on December 9, 1911 in Baltimore, Maryland. Mom was Philadelphia native Jean McGlinchey. They had been married during the war and it was the second marriage for both. Why the name Murphy? It was Jean’s last name from her first marriage.

Nearly all of what Robert Lillibridge initially told the press proved to be fictitious. He was not a decorated World War II veteran. Instead, he had served in the Merchant Marine assisting with the war effort.

And what about his electrical engineering studies at the University of Kansas or Kansas State? His education ended in the eighth grade.

Once the hoax had been exposed, both Lillibridge and his wife admitted that they had been in prison one time each, but never elaborated on what the charges were.

Lillibridge said, “I am sorry about the whole thing. We intended to settle down here. Pottstown was the only place where people were really concerned about us.” He added, “I’ll tell the kids that we just forgot to take the stuff with us.”

Since there was no crime committed, after questioning, the Lillibridges were released by authorities and were once again back on the road. Behind them they left all of the money, clothing, food, and gifts that the people of Pottstown and the rest of the nation had donated to help them.

Mr. Kulp, whose offer of his home and a job went above and beyond what most people would do, offered up the following words: “We tried to do the right thing.” He added, “We feel awful. We opened our hearts and home to them and we thought they were good people. A lot of other people believed their story too. I don’t know what to say except that I pity their little children who are innocent.”

Letters written by readers to the Pottstown Mercury weren’t as kind:

“That so-called Murphy family should never have been brought back to Pottstown. It is such irresponsibility which weakens public faith in our community leaders.” (Mrs. Anne R.)

“It is hard to believe that residents in and around Pottstown would go so far out of their way to help the “Walking Murphys” when they don’t adequately take care of their own.” (Harold B. P.)

“It is unfortunate that people with so much charity in their hearts should be ‘taken in.’ I would like to say to them: Don’t be disillusioned, for every four deceitful people in this world there are four thousand honest ones. The Misfortune you have suffered should not deter you from lending a helping hand again.” (Mrs. Ruth S. W.)

“I think Fred Selby and the others of The Mercury should be congratulated for the wonderful job they have done with the so-called “Walking Murphys”. The two children are to be pitied. But as for him and her, walking is too good for them.” (Mrs. H. M.)

By the time that these and other letters had been published, the Lillibridge family had disappeared from the scene. Where they came from and to where they went is difficult to piece together, but here is what I learned, particularly regarding Robert Lillibridge:

On Tuesday, July 13, 1937, a then 25-year-old Lillibridge was found by a plant watchman in North Camden, New Jersey after he claimed to have leaped from a bridge into the Delaware River in an attempt to end his life. He was sentenced to thirty days in jail and given a suspended sentence. When asked by the prosecutor as to why he jumped, he replied, “I had an argument with my girlfriend.” He added, “As soon as I touched the water I knew I had made a mistake and prayed that I might have the strength to get to shore.”

On November 29th Lillibridge jumped off that same bridge a second time. While no one was witness to the jump, police found his sweater with three notes pinned to it hanging from the bridge railing. One of the notes said that he had “played the game of love twice with the same girl and he lost both times.” Another, addressed to a cousin in Baltimore, stated that when he received “this note he would be at the bottom of the river.” After a thorough search of the water by harbor police, no body was found.

His girlfriend was identified as Dorothy Huntingdon who was living at 2046 Martha Street in Philadelphia at the time. When questioned, she said that the two had a bit of an argument over her seeing another male friend. When Lillibridge left her home he seemed a bit down but never mentioned anything about committing suicide.

Four days later Lillibridge walked into a newspaper office in Philadelphia and surrendered. Once again, he claimed to have changed his mind as fell toward the water surface, swam to shore, and then hitchhiked to New York City.

These two jumps were treated as the real deal when they happened, but the lies that he told many years later as one of the Walking Murphys questions whether he ever really hit the water or was simply making it all up to draw attention to himself.

He may not have been wanted by his girlfriend Dorothy, but the Secret Service certainly did. After reading about his two suicide attempts, they issued a warrant that charged him with stealing and cashing in a WPA check that had been stolen from his roommate Alec Wood the previous February.

On September 17, 1943, he was in trouble with the law again on . This time the now 31-year-old Lillibridge was picked up for impersonating a member of the armed forces. Dressed in the same military garb that he had been arrested in, he testified that he had purchased the uniform so that he could re-enlist in the Army.

Wait! Didn’t he claim years later that he was in the Merchant Marine?

Just what is the truth and what are lies here? It really is hard to know because Lillibridge seemed to blur the lines between the two all of the time.

As for their Kansas flood hoax, it wasn’t the first time that they had attempted this.

The March 11, 1950 issue of the New York Daily News features a photograph of Robert Lillibridge, his wife Jean, 20-month old daughter Jean, and six-week old Robert, Jr. sitting in the Newark, New Jersey police headquarters. They may have used their real names this time, but the rest of their story has a familiar ring to it:

38-year-old Robert Lillibridge was an Air Force veteran who flew fifty-seven missions in the South Pacific which earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross. The text said that on March 4th, the six-family apartment house that they lived in down in Baltimore had burned to the ground. They lost everything including $150 that they had saved up in cash. All their belongings fit into two small bags.

Robert and Jean Lillibridge with their children.
Photograph of Robert and Jean Lillibridge with their children Jean and Robert, Jr.  Image appeared on page 4 of the New York Daily News on March 11, 1950.

Robert Lillibridge said that his brother James invited them to come stay with him at his home in Newark, but supposedly Jim never gave him the address. They walked all the way to New Jersey and had just 5-cents in their pocket when they made their way to the Newark police department for help. Police searched for the missing brother, but – this should come as no surprise – they could not locate him.

Two weeks later they were in the newspaper again. They had somehow found their way approximately 350-miles (560 km) northwest to Bradford, Pennsylvania and told the same hard luck story. The Salvation Army there fed the family, provided them with lodging, and paid for them to take a bus to Union City, Pennsylvania. There they hoped to hook up with an uncle named Lyle Lillibridge.

In November, 1951, the Murphy-Lillibridges walked into a restaurant in Everett, Pennsylvania that was owned by Mrs. Carma Winck. They told the same sad story about how the floods in Kansas had wiped away all that they owned. Mrs. Winck felt sorry for the fairly and provided them with a place to stay for several days. As they departed, the Everett Ministerial Association purchased bus tickets to Raleigh, North Carolina because they had relatives there who could help them.

Once they arrived in Raleigh, they headed about 40-miles (about 65 km) northwest to Efland, North Carolina. In a letter published by the Pottstown Mercury a couple of months after the hoax was revealed, Reverend James Johnson wrote the following:

“A month or two ago my wife and myself picked up four people and brought them to our house and gave them their dinner. They said that they had lost everything that they had in a flood in Topeka, Kansas and was going to Mobile, Alabama to his brother’s home.”

“He said that he was an electrician and his story seemed to be true. So after dinner I carried them in my car to a church 15 miles from here and told the story to the pastor of the church. He made up an offering of $36.00 and I carried them to the bus station and bought them two tickets to Mobile, Alabama.”

“I am almost sure that the people described in the newspaper clipping which I have enclosed are the same ones that we picked up. I now know why he did not want their picture taken. I have a friend in Norfolk, Virginia that picked them up and helped them too.”

Okay. So they had pulled this hoax or something similar to it many times before. But surely they wouldn’t do it again now they had been caught and the story was in the press nationwide.

They clearly didn’t learn their lesson.

On the evening of Monday, December 20, 1954, which is nearly three years after Mrs. Poley invited the so-called Murphys to dinner, it was reported that police in Youngstown, Ohio had picked up the Lillibridge family after they had been caught trying to thumb a ride on the outskirts of town.

The Lillibridges had quite the story to tell. They had been hitchhiking because their home in San Diego, California had burned to the ground. The family had been on the road for the past 105 days and were headed to Van Buren, Maine where wife Jean had an uncle.

The kindly policemen reached in their pockets and provided the Lillibridges with money and arranged for food to be brought into the station for the hungry family. The Salvation Army provided them with a place to stay for the evening. The next morning the police provided them with a road map and the Lillibridges were once again back on the road.

When the story of their generosity hit the local newspapers, the police realized that they had been had. One man said that he had picked up a family of the same description in nearby Hubbard, Ohio three days prior and provided them with assistance. The father, who can be presumed to Robert Lillibridge, told the kind gentleman that their home in Maine had burned and that they were headed to California. Another man said he had provided the family with a place to stay and $100. And finally, a woman said that she had seen the family in Canfield, Ohio two-years earlier. That time the Lillibridges claimed that their home in Florida had burned and that they were making their way to Kansas.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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