Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of the Ozarks region and surrounding area.

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Location: Missouri

I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written fourteen nonfiction books, two novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are A Concise Encyclopedia of the Ozarks, Bushwhacker Belles, and Wicked Women of Missouri.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Summer of 1954

The temperatures in the Ozarks have been pretty hot this summer but probably not much more so, if any, than normal. In fact, July has so far, as of the 22nd, probably not been quite as hot as usual. At least, I know that in Springfield the month of June had more really hot days than July has so far, and that is the opposite of what we normally expect in the region. The high temperature thus far in Springfield this year has been 96 degrees recorded on June 22, again on June 23, and finally matched yesterday (July 21). June also had two other days with a high temperature of 95 degrees and one day with a high temperature of 94 degrees. By contrast, the hottest Springfield temperature in July before yesterday was 93 recorded on the 18th. The high temperature so far this year in both Rolla and Joplin, 96 and 98 respectively, also occurred in June, on the 22nd. I should add, however, that the forecast for the next couple of days calls for rising temperatures; so we’re not out of the woods yet as far as extremely hot July temperatures are concerned.
My overall point, though, is that so far the summer of 2016 has not been an extremely hot one. At least not when you compare it to the hottest summer on record, which was 1954. During that summer, Springfield had thirteen days on which the thermometer reached triple digits. Joplin, located seventy miles to the west and nearer the Great Plains, where temperatures are almost always somewhat hotter than they are in the Ozarks, recorded an astounding thirty-nine days on which the temperature topped 100. Eighteen of those days happened in July, including twelve straight days from July 11 through July 21. During that span, the temperature reached 114 on July 14, the hottest temperature on record for Joplin. Springfield had an all-time record high of 113 the same day. Rolla topped out on July 14 at 109 or 113 (depending on the source), and the mercury there reached triple digits a total of ten times during the summer of 1954.
I vaguely recall the intense heat of the summer of 1954, when I would have been seven years old. Actually, I don't recall the specific year. I only recall that during a couple of the summers of my childhood, when I was growing up in the Springfield area, it was extremely hot. It has been only during my adulthood, after I read or was told that 1953 and 1954 were unusually hot summers, that I've concluded those must have been the years I remember as being very hot. We didn't have air conditioning, either, back in those days, but somehow the heat didn't bother me much. I'd hate to be without air conditioning this summer, even though it hasn’t been one of the hottest summers on record thus far. I think it would bother me a lot, but, of course, I'm not seven anymore. Temperature extremes don't seem to bother kids the way they do adults, especially older adults like me. At least they didn't bother me and my childhood friends when we had important things to do like playing baseball or going fishing.
I should probably add that, by pointing out that the hottest summer in the Ozarks occurred over sixty years ago, I am not trying to deny that the earth is getting warmer overall. The trend of year-round temperatures for the whole globe is definitely upward. Of the sixteen hottest years on record for worldwide average temperature, all but one of them have occurred since 2001. So, global warming is definitely real.
It’s just that the summer of 1954 happened to be abnormally hot in this little part of the world.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

A Would-Be Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde's notorious reputation had become so ubiquitous by the spring of 1934, shortly before their deaths, that false sightings of the desperate duo were not unusual. One example occurred in Texas County, Missouri, in early May, just weeks before the real Bonnie and Clyde were killed in Louisiana.
On the night of May 2, an automobile with two young men and a young woman pulled into a filling station at Cabool, and something about them aroused the station attendant's suspicion. The older of the young men and the woman appeared to be a couple, and the other young man seemed to be along for the ride. The attendant concluded that the threesome might be Bonnie and Clyde and a male sidekick, and he notified authorities.
Highway patrolmen Nathan Massie and Ben Graham answered the call. They caught up with the suspect vehicle just north of Cabool, and a brief exchange of fire ensued. Breaking contact once again, the fugitives abandoned their vehicle, and the two men took to the woods, leaving the young woman behind.
Coming upon the abandoned car, the officers placed the young woman under arrest. She gave her name as Florence Iseley and said she didn't even know who the two young men were, because she had simply hitched a ride with them near Charleston, Missouri.
Bloodhounds were called in to help track down the two young men. The dogs located the fugitives' hiding place late the next day, May 3, and another exchange of gunfire ensued. The older young man was killed, and the other one was shot in the arm and surrendered. The wounded man gave his name as Walter Allen and said he thought the other man was Harry Williams of Evansville, Indiana, although Allen, too, claimed at first just to be a hitchhiker. He soon changed his story, however, admitting that the dead man was his older brother, Edgar Allen, and that the woman was his brother's wife.
Young Allen said he was from Quincy, Illinois, was 18 years old, and had been released from the Algoa Reformatory near Jefferson City only four months earlier, having originally been sent there from Hannibal, Missouri.
A shotgun, some burglary tools, some ammunition, and some merchandise thought to have been stolen was found inside the abandoned vehicle. Notified of the shootout, officers in Quincy said the brothers were wanted there for theft of an automobile from a showroom on March 29 and that they had tried unsuccessfully to sell the car in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Both Walter Allen and his sister-in-law were lodged in the Texas County jail at Houston, but I'm not sure what happened to them after that.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Kidnapping and Murder of Dr. J.C.B. Davis

On Tuesday, January 26, 1937, as Dr. J.C.B. Davis of Willow Springs, Missouri, was leaving his office, he was approached by a young man who introduced himself as "Mr. James" and said his wife was ill and needed the doctor's help at their home in rural Willow Springs. Davis left with the stranger and did not return in a timely manner. The next day, he was reported to authorities as missing, and Missouri State Highway Patrol began an investigation.
A ransom letter, mailed from West Plains and postmarked January 28, was received the following day, Friday the 29th, and FBI agents were sent to Willow Springs to join the investigation. Opening with the salutation "Dear friend," the letter was written in the doctor's handwriting, meaning the kidnapper had forced Davis to write his own ransom letter. It demanded that $5,000 be paid in four $1,000 bills, nine $100 bills, and five $20 bills. It threatened the doctor with death if the family did not comply, and it contained instructions for delivering the money.
The same day, January 29, Davis's medical kit was found about thirteen miles southwest of Willow Springs in the North Fork River. This no doubt raised fears that the doctor had already been foully dealt with, but nevertheless Davis's son-in-law, following the letter's instructions, drove along the road between Willow Springs and Ava after dark looking for a white flag that the letter said would mark the spot where the ransom money was to be dropped, but the son-in-law, his vision obscured by heavy fog, failed to find a white flag.
On Monday, February 2, Davis's wife received a second note, written in unfamiliar handwriting, renewing the demand for $5,000 in ransom and directing that it should be delivered by 9:00 p.m. February 4th.
Meanwhile, acting on a tip from a person who had seen the doctor and the young man in an automobile together on the day of the doctor's disappearance, highway patrol officers located, early on the morning of February 3, an automobile matching the witness's description at the home of Samuel Kenyon in Grimmet, a small community northwest of West Plains about halfway between West Plains and the North Fork River where the medical bag was found. Officers identified Kenyon's twenty-one-year-old son, Robert, as a suspect in the kidnaping, and during a search of the residence, they found a notebook pad with the top sheet containing barely legible indentations that matched the words and handwriting of the second ransom note. Young Kenyon was also in possession of a .25 caliber automatic pistol, and it was determined that the suspect automobile found on the premises had been stolen from Rolla a few months earlier.
Robert Kenyon confessed to kidnapping and killing Davis, and he led officers to the doctor's body in a brushy area just off Highway 63 near Olden, Missouri. Davis was found face down clutching a pair of gloves in one hand and a checkbook in the other. It was concluded upon close inspection and further investigation that the doctor had been killed shortly after he was kidnapped, having been shot while in the act of trying to write a check to pay his own ransom. The only explanation Kenyon could offer for his desperate deed was that he wanted money so that he and his girlfriend could get married.
Kenyon was arrested and taken back to Willow Springs but quickly whisked away to Kansas City early the same morning (Feb. 3) to avert feared vigilantism. Kidnapping and first-degree murder charges were filed against him later the same day. His trial was held in July at the Oregon County seat of Alton on a change of venue. He was convicted and sentenced to death. Kenyon's lawyers appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, but the verdict was upheld. Kenyon was executed in the gas chamber at Jefferson City on April 28, 1939. He was the first person to be put to death in Missouri by gas, as execution by hanging had recently been abolished.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Murder of Minnie Grimes and Swift Retribution

In the spring of 1886, a young man in his mid to late twenties named Francis "Frank" Lyle, who lived with his brother north of Hume, Missouri, near the state line, was courting a seventeen-year-old girl named Minnie Grimes, who lived just across the border in Linn County, Kansas. At some point, the courtship developed into a serious romance, or so Lyle thought, but by May, as Frank pressed her to marry him, Minnie started trying to extricate herself from the relationship. Her parents reportedly opposed the match, partly because of the age difference.
Minnie had also developed an interest in another young man, William Scott, and on Sunday evening, May 9th, she went out with her new beau, infuriating Lyle. The next day, he left his brother's house, packing a .22 revolver, and trekked into Hume to buy cartridges and a pint of whiskey. He then hiked across the border to Minnie's house, drinking the whiskey along the way to steel his nerves. At the Grimes residence, Lyle was told Minnie was at the nearby home of Henry Spencer. He then struck out across the field toward the Spencer place.
Minnie was walking along the road near the Spencer residence with Mrs. Spencer when the girl saw Lyle coming toward them a little after four o'clock in the afternoon. Minnie told her companion that the young man probably wanted to see her, and she walked out to meet him. Lyle demanded to know once again whether Minnie would marry him, and when she still refused, he promptly pulled out his revolver and started firing. Minnie fell at the second shot but recovered and ran toward the Spencer house. Lyle then unloaded his pistol, firing the rest of his cartridges into her back. Meanwhile, Mrs. Spencer, at the first fire, ran toward a nearby field to alert her husband.
Minnie fell again as she neared the Spencer home, and Lyle walked up, calmly reloaded his revolver, and again emptied it into Minnie's now-lifeless body. All told, he reportedly fired from ten to fourteen shots. For good measure, he slashed her throat with his pocket knife after firing out all his cartridges and then picked up a fence board and clubbed her face "to a jelly."
Henry Spencer and a neighbor named Howard, whose aid he had enlisted, reached the scene shortly afterward and found Lyle still there, supposedly guarding the body, as he said, to keep predatory animals away. He offered little resistance, freely admitting that he had done the bloody deed and was "d----d glad of it." He said he would "learn these western girls that when they promised to marry a man, they would keep their word."
Spencer tied the villain up while Howard guarded him with a shotgun, and they then summoned authorities. One or more law officers arrived to take charge of the criminal, but, in the meantime, a mob formed and promptly took Lyle into custody themselves. A man who was passing the scene in a buggy stopped to inquire what was going on. Informed of the situation, he asked one of the mob whether they expected to wait until dark before stringing the desperado up. The vigilante replied that they "didn't expect to wait a minute," and the passerby got back in his buggy and drove away so as not to be a part of the grisly incident. At least one report, however, said the lynching did not take place until about nine or ten o'clock that evening (May 10), when the vigilantes strung the murderer up to a tree at the head of Walnut Creek just inside Kansas, about a mile north and three and one-half miles west of Hume.
Lyle was left hanging all night, and his body was not cut down until about 11:00 a.m. the next morning, when an inquest was held at the scene. Afterward, Lyle's body was turned over to his brother, G.T. Lyle. Meanwhile, Minnie was buried in the Littell Cemetery at Pleasanton, Kansas.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Zeo Zoe Wilkins: Gold Digger Extraordinaire

In 1903, Zeo Zoe Wilkins lied about her age and got herself admitted to the American School of Osteopathy at Kirksville, Missouri, when she was just seventeen. She made decent grades, but what she really had her sights set on was meeting a wealthy man.
In 1904, she wed Charles Garring, a recent graduate of the Kirksville institution, when she was just half his age. After Zeo graduated, she joined her husband’s practice in Durant, Indian Territory, but she ended up shooting Dr. Garring a few months later as he returned home late one night. She said she mistook him for an intruder, but Garring claimed she tried to kill him for his insurance.
Zeo next hung out her shingle in Sapulpa, Indian Territory, where she became the mistress of a banker, who was accused of embezzling funds for her use. Moving on to her next target, Dr. Wilkins set up shop in Tulsa. The “brunette of dazzling beauty,” as a local newspaper called her, had many male friends in Tulsa and reportedly entered into another short-lived marriage.
About 1911, Zeo moved to Claremore, where another young man fell into her clutches. He reportedly lavished her with gifts, and she repaid him with counterfeit love, driving him to suicide.
In 1912, Thomas Cunningham, a wealthy, sixty-eight-year-old banker from Joplin, Missouri, came to Claremore to take the cure at Zeo’s medical clinic. The elderly Cunningham was an easy mark for the beautiful twenty-six-year-old doctor, and she could hardly wait to get her hands on him—and on his money.
Not long after they met, Zeo used Cunningham’s money to set up a practice in Kansas City. Meanwhile, Cunningham maintained his home in Joplin, but the two secretly wed in 1914. Shortly afterward, Zeo moved to Colorado Springs, where Cunningham occasionally visited her. None of his friends in Joplin suspected anything out of the ordinary, until he left for Colorado in October 1916 and did not return promptly.
The banker’s friends were right to be concerned. In December, Zeo coaxed Cunningham into signing all his stock in the Cunningham National Bank over to her. She then promptly sold the stock to a rival banker for over $300,000.
The sensational news that Cunningham’s young wife, whom no one in Joplin even knew about, had sold his bank reached Missouri in January 1917. Cunningham’s live-in housekeeper and common-law wife, Tabitha Taylor, immediately filed for divorce. Stories about the scandal of Zeo’s marriage to a wealthy man old enough to be her grandfather appeared in newspapers across the country.
Cunningham’s Joplin friends tracked him down in Chicago and persuaded him to return to Missouri. He was met with a subpoena to appear for an inquiry into his sanity. Tabitha Taylor visited him in Carthage, and two seemed pleased to see each other.
Interviewed back in Chicago in her fancy hotel suite, Zeo laughed off Tabitha Taylor’s attempt to claim part of Cunningham’s fortune, saying the old woman would “never get a cent.”
In mid-February, the insanity hearing against Cunningham was canceled, and he moved back in with Mrs. Taylor.
About the same time, he sued Zeo, alleging that her sale of the Cunningham Bank had been transacted without his approval, and he sought to recover the money she had paid the other banker. On February 24, Cunningham also filed for divorce, claiming Zeo defrauded him and humiliated him by stating publicly that she only married him for his money.
The divorce was granted in early April, but Zeo kept most of the funds from the sale of the Cunningham Bank. Less than a month later, she married Albert Marksheffel in Colorado. She and her new husband spent money extravagantly and hosted wild parties, and Zeo developed a drinking problem. She and Albert split about 1919.
After the breakup, Zeo returned to Kansas City and launched into an affair with wealthy saloonkeeper John McNamara, which only ended after McNamara’s wife filed an alienation of affection suit against Zeo and McNamara promised to “cease his affections” for the vampish doctor.
Zeo’s divorce from Marksheffel became final in 1921, and she moved permanently to Kansas City, renting a house near downtown, where she practiced osteopathy. However, her life continued spiraling downward as she became increasingly addicted to alcohol and drugs. Although not the stunning beauty she had been, Zeo still drew men like moths to a flame, and she entertained a whole series of lovers.
In mid-March 1924, Zeo was found stabbed to death inside her home. Several suspects were interrogated, and some people even intimated that her lawyer, Jesse James, Jr. (son of the infamous outlaw) might be involved in the crime.
As details of Zeo’s personal life emerged during the investigation, detectives despaired that her killer would ever be found. A Kansas City newspaper said, “So many stories of intrigue and adventuring have been woven around Dr. Wilkins’s name in the last eight years, police are left groping in a maze of innumerable hypothetical clews.” Almost one hundred years later, the mystery has still never been solved.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Sextraordinary Sally Rand

I've briefly mentioned Sally Rand on this blog previously (several years ago), but below is a more extensive telling of her story, condensed from a chapter in my latest book, Wicked Women of Missouri. Not that Sally was actually wicked--just a little naughty, you might say.
Burlesque dancer Sally Rand was born Helen Gould Beck in 1904 in Elkton, Hickory County, Missouri. When Sally was a toddler, the family moved to Kansas City, where she got her first job in show business at age thirteen as a chorus girl. She later joined a juvenile vaudeville troupe and studied dance, voice, and drama.
Sally enrolled in Christian College in Columbia but dropped out in 1922 and went to Hollywood, where she found work as a Mack Sennett “bathing beauty.” Using the stage name Billie Bett, she progressed to more serious roles, and Cecil B. DeMille signed her to his stock company. DeMille suggested she change her name to Sally Rand, supposedly picking the name after glancing at a Rand-McNally map.
She went on to have starring roles in several silent films, but her prominent lisp prevented her from transitioning to talkies in the late 1920s. With the coming of the Depression, Sally found herself facing hard times. In 1932, she arrived in Chicago as part of a traveling burlesque show, but she gave up vaudeville later the same year to appear in legitimate theater. The play was a critical success but a financial failure.
After its closure, Sally took a job at a Chicago speakeasy, the Paramount Club, despite her initial uneasiness. It was here that she first started doing the fan dance, which would soon make her a household name.
She found two large pink ostrich feathers at a costume shop and choreographed her dance to the strains of classical music. Moving rhythmically to the music, she danced nude, or nearly so, behind the feathers she manipulated in front of her, occasionally showing audiences a bare leg or a glimpse of derriere.
Although biographies of Sally Rand routinely assert that she “danced nude,” she was actually covered by white body powder or a sheer body suit during most of her performances. Sally’s act was all about illusion, and its success lay in her ability to make audiences think they had seen something, even if they hadn’t. “The Rand is quicker than the eye,” Sally told reporters.
When the World’s Fair came to Chicago in the spring of 1933, Sally tried to get a job dancing at the fair’s “Streets of Paris” concession but was turned down. The next night, she galloped through the streets of Chicago wearing nothing but a very long blonde wig and tried to crash one of the fair’s inaugural balls. She was not admitted, but her Lady Godiva act caused a sensation and got her hired as the lead performer in the “Streets of Paris” sideshow. Although Sally’s act was tame by modern standards, she soon found herself in court answering charges of lewdness. The publicity surrounding her arrest only heightened the interest in her act, and when she was released, spectators flocked to see her fan dance by the thousands. “Sally Rand dancing nude on the Streets of Paris has been jamming the place nightly,” said one contemporaneous report.
By the end of the summer Sally had rocketed to international fame, and when the World’s Fair reopened in 1934, Sally’s bubble dance was almost as big a hit as her fan dance had been the previous year. After the fair closed, she was sought as an exotic dancer all across the country. However, she didn’t like the term “exotic,” because she considered her dancing artistic. “Exotic means strange and foreign,” she reportedly told a reporter. “I’m not strange, I like boys; and I’m not foreign, I was born in Hickory County, Missouri.”
Despite some success in serious roles over the next several years, Sally kept going back to her hide-and-peek dances, and she continued appearing at expositions throughout the forties and fifties. In 1941, she came back to Missouri to appear at the Ozark Empire Fair in Springfield. Her appearance helped attract a record attendance and was credited with saving the financially struggling fair.
In 1951, Sally came back to her home state again, this time for the Missouri State Fair at Sedalia. Sally was a hit, and the fair’s gate receipts surged.
Standing only five feet tall, the petite Miss Rand maintained her girlish figure and was still strutting her stuff into the 1960s and 1970s. On April 7, 1972, sixty-eight-year-old Sally stepped off an airplane in Kansas City dressed in spike heel sandals and a miniskirt in advance of her scheduled performance at Union Station, where she wowed audiences the next night with her fan dance.
Even becoming a grandmother in 1974 didn’t slow Sally down. “What in heaven’s name is so strange about a grandmother dancing nude?” she asked.
Sally Rand died on August 31, 1979, at the age of 75, in Glendora, California.

Sunday, June 12, 2016


Last time I wrote about the Back to the Soil movement that occurred about 1909-1910 in the United States. As a product of that movement, the National Farm Homes Association was organized in St. Louis in May 1910, with Missouri governor Herbert Hadley as its president. The goal was to establish farm colonies, particularly in Missouri and other Midwest states, populated by families who would relocate from the cities and support themselves in communities under the supervision of an expert agriculturalist who would live on a central farm surrounded by the smaller family farms.
One of the first colonies was established at Kinderpost in northern Texas County, Missouri. Kinderpost itself was a post office/general store established about 1902 or 1903 by Texas County resident Columbus Bradford, a Methodist minister. Bradford's original vision for Kinderpost was that it would be a place where orphans and other needy children could live surrounded by nature and away from the corrupting influence of the cities. To that end, he started Ozark Kinderfarm, and in 1904 he published a pamphlet entitled The Kinderfarm Journal outlining his objectives for the place. The experiment lasted only a few years, and Kinderfarm had ceased to exist by about 1908.
In 1910, however, Bradford embraced the "back to the farm" movement, and Kinderpost was selected about the first of August as the site of the second colony of the National Farm Homes Association. (I'm not sure where the first was.) A newspaper report later in the month described the progress of the project. The Kinderpost colony contained about 2,000 acres with Bradford, who was described as "an expert farmer," living on a central farm of about 160 acres surrounded by forty small, family farms of about forty acres each. At the time of the mid-August report, five families had thus far been put on the land, "and the association is ready to receive applications for the other thirty-five homes."
Plans called for the forty-acre homesteads to be cleared to the extent each settler desired, and all buildings, cisterns, wells, fencing, and other improvements were to be constructed at cost (with no profit to Bradford or the association) and added to the price of the land. The base price for uncleared land was $10 an acre. Ten percent of the total cost was required as a down payment, and purchasers would have up to ten years to pay off the rest of the purchase price with no payment due the second year. In other words, the second payment would not be required until two years after the down payment.
The newspaper account further reported, "A limited number of colonists, who may need to do so, can find employment from Bradford in the work of improving the colony, at reasonable wages, and may thus use their wages to help pay for their lands. The colony is already equipped with a sawmill, planing mill, corn mill, sheller and crusher, store and postoffice.
An Immigration Board of the homes association had previously examined the property and found it to be "upland of a good grade, reasonably rolling, but not too bad to wash in heavy rains." The location was "almost exactly in the center of the Ozark region" with "natural and perfect drainage, pure water and ozone-laden atmosphere." Although the report lamented the fact that no railroad ran nearer to the colony than twenty miles, it noted that a new railroad from Rolla to Licking was currently under construction that would run much nearer to the colony.
Alas, the promised railroad was never completed, which has been cited as part of the reason why the National Farm Homes Association colony, like the Kinderfarm that preceded it, was short-lived. Other reasons for the colony's failure included a lack of agricultural experience on the part of many of the settlers and a curtailment in state aid and private donations for the project.
Bradford ran unsuccessfully for U.S. congressman on the Progressive Party ticket in 1914. He died in 1949 and is buried at Licking. Kinderpost is still listed on many maps today, but it is little more than a wide place in the road.

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