When John Kensler turned up missing from his ranch near Glenns Ferry on the morning of Oct. 27, 1896, suspicion quickly turned to his wife, Josie, and Alfred Freel, the hired man. Neighbors who knew Mrs. Kensler considered her to have been careless of her marriage vows in the past and thought she and Freel were having an illicit romance.
Authorities thought there was something strange in the stories the two told about Kensler’s last night at the ranch, both claiming he had started out for town near midnight with a large sum of money and “a skin full of whisky.” Someone recalled that Freel had purchased strychnine a few days before at a Glenns Ferry drugstore, and he and Josie Kensler were soon charged with poisoning Kensler. Without his body, however, murder would be hard to prove.
Search parties combed the countryside looking for any trace of John Kensler. Then a neighboring farm hand discovered the missing man’s wrecked wagon and remembered that he had seen water flowing over a field near the Kensler place where there shouldn’t have been any. The irrigation ditch that supplied Kensler’s ranch was now full of water where none had been the night before, and it became the center of the search.
Using a long iron rod, deputies probed the muddy bottom of the ditch every few feet until they came to a spot where they struck what felt like “a roll of blankets.” When they dug further they found the body of John Kensler, with a gunshot wound in the head, and the indictment was changed from murder by poison to murder by gunshot.
Both Josie Kensler and Alfred Freel now wrote out “confessions”; not surprisingly, each of them placed all the blame on the other. Josie maintained Freel had killed her husband and forced her at gunpoint to help dispose of the body. Freel claimed Josie and a mysterious “masked man” had forced him at gunpoint to aid in concealing the crime. He also said Mrs. Kensler had told him she herself had shot her husband. Witnesses at the trial testified that both Josie and Freel had been heard to say they were in love and would soon have Kensler’s place to themselves.
Freel was convicted of murder in the first degree and Mrs. Kensler of murder in the second degree, but due to an error in procedure the two were granted a retrial. This time, both were convicted of murder in the second degree and sentenced to life in prison at the Idaho State Penitentiary in Boise.
Josie Kensler continued in the limelight, even at the penitentiary. On Friday, July 16, 1897, the Idaho Statesman reported, “The first child ever born in the Idaho State Penitentiary opened its eyes to the somber surroundings of the institution yesterday. Its mother is Mrs. Josie Kensler, who is serving out a life sentence for the murder of her husband at Glenns Ferry, which occurred several months ago.” The child was a girl, but whether fathered by Kensler or Freel was not known or suggested.
In July 1902, Josie’s application for a pardon was rejected, and a month later she made headlines again by signing an affidavit accusing Warden Charles E. Arney and prison physician J.K. Dubois of having forced her to submit to an illegal abortion. Warrants for their arrest were issued. Mrs. Kensler said she was five months pregnant at the time but refused to name the father. A convict known to be enamored of Josie was suspected, but it turned out he had been in solitary confinement when the alleged conception took place. Mrs. Kensler then repudiated the first affidavit, clearing Dubois and Arney, saying she had made the accusation on the promise of a pardon, from whom she didn’t say. She later insisted again that her first charges were true and suggested that her lover had been “a penitentiary official” who had visited her regularly. She never revealed his name. She was released in 1909 after serving 12 years of her life sentence.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email email@example.com.