Missouri and Ozarks History

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

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written seventeen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History, Murder and Mayhem in Southeast Kansas, and Bigamy and Bloodshed: The Scandal of Emma Molloy and the Murder of Sarah Graham.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Murder of Sheriff John K. Polk

           Late Thursday afternoon, May 25, 1905, a young man named William Spaugh entered Robert Rasche's restaurant in Ironton, Missouri, and started bedeviling some of the customers by throwing peanut shells at them. He then caught one of the customers, William Edgar, by the leg, pulled him from his seat, and started dancing around the floor taunting Edgar and trying to get him to dance, too. After Edgar reclaimed his seat, Spaugh told him (Edgar) that the more he looked at his face, the more he hated it and struck him in the eye, inflicting a cut. He again jerked Edgar by the foot, pulling him to the floor. Here Rasche interceded and put Spaugh out of the restaurant. 
            Spaugh went to his home in Ironton, and the Iron County sheriff, John W. Polk, informed of the outrages on Edgar, went to the Spaugh home to arrest the assailant. William Spaugh was sitting on the front porch with his younger brother, Arthur, and another young man, William Brown, when Polk arrived. William Spaugh, according to Brown's later testimony, announced to the other two young men that the sheriff was there to arrest him, and Arthur got up and went inside the house. At the gate leading into the front yard, Polk hollered to William Spaugh that he needed to see him and for Spaugh to come to the fence. Spaugh demanded to know whether the sheriff had a warrant, and when Polk admitted he didn't, Spaugh got up and followed his brother inside.
            Sheriff Polk then went inside the gate, stepped onto the front porch, opened the door to the house, and started to walk across the threshold when four or five shots rang out. One of them was a shotgun blast that reportedly blew a hole in Polk's side big enough to stick a fist in. Polk was also shot with a ball to the heart and one to the head, and he was given yet another wound with some sort of sharp instrument, apparently after he had already fallen dead to the floor.          
           The Spaugh brothers left the premises immediately after the shooting, and search parties sent out in pursuit of them finally brought them to bay, with the help of bloodhounds, at an isolated cabin in Madison County about five days later. After a gun battle that lasted several minutes, the two fugitives finally surrendered and were arrested and charged with murder. Their mother had previously been arrested, and she also was charged with murder for allegedly urging her sons to resist Sheriff Polk.    
         In early July, a mob broke into the Iron County jail where the brothers were being held, tied up the newly appointed sheriff, and shot the brothers several times in their legs. By order of the Missouri governor, the Spaughs were then transferred to St. Louis for safekeeping while awaiting trial.
            The three Spaughs were scheduled for trial in late 1905 in Reynolds County on a change of venue from Iron County. William Spaugh was tried, convicted of first degree murder, and sentenced to hang. Arthur's trial and his mother's trial were postponed until the following summer. In mid-1906 Arthur was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 55 years in prison, and the mother was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to ten years in prison.
            All three convictions were appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, but the verdicts were upheld in each case. However, the mother was later granted a new trial and was acquitted upon retrial. Also, William Spaugh's death sentence was later commuted to life in prison.
            In 1913, when William Spaugh was dying of tuberculosis, Arthur tried to take the blame for the killings in order to secure a parole for William so that he might die at home, but the request was denied and William Spaugh died in prison at Jefferson City in mid-1913. Later, Arthur also died in prison of tuberculosis after serving just a few years.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Great Blizzard of 1899

The Great Blizzard of 1899, sometimes called the Great Arctic Outbreak of 1899, was a winter-weather event that affected the entire United States, especially east of the Rockies. It occurred during the first half of February, with the peak cold weather happening between February 10 and February 14, and it set all kinds of records for lowest all-time temperatures. Until the mid-1930s, it was the coldest February on record for the United States, and for several individual states, including Kansas and Missouri, February 1899 still stands as the coldest February on record.
All of Missouri and the Ozarks, like much of the rest of the country, suffered during the cold wave of February 1899. A report from Joplin on February 8 said that southwest Missouri was experiencing its coldest weather since 1863. The cold weather brought the lead and zinc mines around Joplin to a virtual standstill. The Joplin report said that the output of ore the previous week had been only about half as much as normal, and the output was expected to drop even more dramatically during the coming week.
The next day, February 9, Webb City recorded a low temperature of 12 below, and a report from Golden City said it was 13 below there, with even the ripples in streams frozen solid. Various towns in north Missouri recorded temperatures as low as 28 below. On the same day, February 9, Galena, Kansas, reported, just as Joplin had on the 8th, that the mines were virtually at a standstill. Spring River was frozen twelve inches thick, whereas as ice even as thick as six inches was unusual.
The Kansas City Journal reported on February 12 that the previous day's low was -19 degrees. The 12th promised to be considerably colder, because February 11th's low mark of -19 had already been matched at 3 a.m. on the 12th when the newspaper went to press.
On February 12, 1899, Springfield, Missouri, recorded a temperature of -29 degrees Fahrenheit, paralyzing the town. I believe that mark still stands as the lowest temperature ever recorded in Springfield.
Temperatures in the Potosi, Missouri, area dipped to as low as thirty degrees below zero around February 12. By the 15th, the cold temperatures were starting to moderate, and the Potosi Journal summed up the weather phenomenon that the area had just endured: "The weather the past week has been the severest felt in this section for many winters. In fact, even the oldest inhabitant cannot recall anything like it.... Such intense cold is unusual in these latitudes and caused much discomfort and some suffering in the community. Business was practically suspended and people devoted themselves chiefly to attending fires and staying warm."

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Birdie McCarty: Another Female Horse Thief

           The past two weeks, I've written about two different female horse thieves who made their appearance in southwest Missouri around 1890. After a decade's hiatus, another woman horse thief, Birdie McCarty, came on the scene, but most of her exploits took place just across the Kansas line. When Birdie made her criminal debut in the Kansas-Missouri border region in early 1902, one area newspaper waxed nostalgic, observing that law officers were “now dealing with the first female horse thief since the palmy days of the reign of May Colvin, the notorious woman desperado, who invaded this section of the country about ten years ago.” Sensationalized in the press over the next few weeks, Birdie made fewer headlines than her predecessor only because her career in crime proved briefer than May’s. 
            Birdie’s saga began when she accompanied a young man from Butler, Missouri, to Fort Scott, Kansas, about the 20th of February, 1902. After a few days in Fort Scott, her male companion proposed that she go to a livery and get a horse and buggy, which she did. The couple started south but got into an argument at Pittsburg over who owned the rig. The quarrel ended, according to the Joplin Globe, with the man telling Birdie to “go to hell.” Instead, “she concluded to go to a better place” and came to Baxter Springs, where she arrived on the evening of February 25 and turned herself in to the city marshal, confessing that she had a horse and buggy that belonged to a liveryman in Fort Scott.
   
            After she was placed in jail at Baxter Springs, “some little dispute” arose, according to the Globe, among the town’s officials over the auburn-haired prisoner’s attractiveness. The marshal claimed the woman was “beautiful to look upon,” while the mayor declared that “her face would stop a Frisco freight.”
            The next day an officer from Fort Scott arrived to escort the prisoner back to Fort Scott to face criminal charges. Confined with three other women in a basement room of the Bourbon County courthouse, Birdie was described as “a daring little woman about 22 years old.” The close quarters of the basement room didn’t hold Birdie for long. On Sunday, March 23, she “opened up a sensational Sabbath” by making what the Fort Scott Monitor called “a dash for liberty that even the professional crooks of the stronger sex might well envy…. Birdie McCarty had flown, and the other birds had soared away in her wake.”
            The four women parted ways after they escaped, with Birdie going in the company of a male accomplice named Red Taylor, while the other three fugitives headed north. Taylor took Birdie to meet Pete Sheflet, reputed to be her lover, and she and Sheflet “rode like the wind” on the same horse, according to Birdie’s later testimony, to the camp of two brothers named Ryder. Sheflet induced the Ryder boys to take Birdie on as a cook, and she started south with the brothers, riding in the back of their wagon.
            Birdie’s three fellow escapees were recaptured about two miles north of Fort Scott shortly after the jail break. The three women swore they had nothing to do with plotting the escape but that it was all the work of Birdie McCarty, who had been boasting for several days that her captivity would be brief. The women claimed to know nothing about the escapade until Birdie awakened them about five o’clock Sunday morning and told them the door was open.
            Meanwhile, the Bourbon County sheriff overtook the Ryder brothers about twelve miles south of Fort Scott, crawled into the back of their wagon, and found Birdie hidden beneath a pile of gunny sacks. He placed the fugitive under arrest and brought her back to Fort Scott. Taylor and Sheflet were also arrested. They were suspected not only of aiding Birdie in her flight but also of having helped her escape to begin with, although Birdie claimed she opened the door herself with a piece of wire.
            A few days after being recaptured, Birdie made headlines because of her scandalous predilection for tobacco. “Birdie McCarty, besides being an acknowledged horse thief,” read a brief story in the Monitor, “is quite a tobacco fiend.”
            Birdie’s trial for horse stealing came up during the May term of court. She was convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to five years in the Kansas Penitentiary. The judge, who’d heard the defendant mention that she was raised to go to church and knew the Lord’s prayer, offered to take a year off the sentence if she could recite the prayer by heart. Birdie reportedly hung her head and could not repeat even the first line, and the five-year sentence stood.
            Birdie was sent to the state prison at Lansing, where she was received on May 14, 1902.


Saturday, September 28, 2019

May Calvin, Another Female Horse Thief

Last week I wrote about Della Oxley, a female horse thief who made headlines in Southwest Missouri in the early 1890s. Shortly after Della was sent to prison, May Calvin appeared on the scene to take up the work of horse thievery. May’s exploits were sensationalized in the press even more than Della’s, and she eventually joined her predecessor at the big house in Jefferson City.  
May came to Webb City around 1890, when she was about fifteen years old. Shortly afterward, she dropped out of school and joined Robinson’s Circus in St. Louis as a rider. Before long, she came back to southwest Missouri and drifted across the state line into Kansas, where she went on a criminal spree.
About the middle of October, 1892, May stole a horse and buggy at Fort Scott and immediately started south. She was captured at Weir City, brought back to Fort Scott, and placed in the Bourbon County jail. However, her youth and good looks won her the sympathy of the prosecutors, and the case against her was dismissed on January 21, 1893.
Less than twelve hours after gaining her freedom, a May appropriated a horse and buggy from a barn near Hepler, Kansas, and drove back to Fort Scott. She then “drove furiously” to Nevada, Missouri. There she left the stolen rig at a livery as security for another horse and buggy and resumed her mad dash. The day after she passed through Nevada, a posse captured her, and she was turned over to Crawford County authorities for the Hepler heist.
Placed in the county jail at Girard, May escaped or was again released in March or April, and she soon turned up in Joplin. Calling at the livery stable of W. V. White, she hired a horse and buggy for the stated purpose of driving to East Joplin, but she conveniently forgot to return the rig. Around the first of June, White recovered his stolen horse, but there was no sign of his buggy, nor of May Calvin. Then, on June 5, May was arrested in Columbus, Kansas, for disturbing the peace. The local officers held her until a Joplin constable arrived on June 7 to take her back to Jasper County. Unable to post bond, she was taken to Carthage and placed in the same jail cell where Della Oxley had been housed in 1891.
May was charged with grand larceny, but before she could be tried, she and a fellow female inmate made a daring escape from the county jail on June 16, 1893. According to the Carthage Press, they escaped through the same opening “commenced two years ago by Della Oxley.”
May was recaptured a day or two after her escape and taken back to Carthage. On June 22, she pled guilty to horse stealing and was assessed two years in the state penitentiary. Unabashed by the punishment, May greeted reporters cheerily as she was being escorted back to jail and asked them to “write her up right.”

A Press reporter proceeded to oblige her with an embellished account of her misadventures. “She…now goes to the penitentiary for the first time,” the newspaperman concluded, “though she has stolen dozens of horses and vehicles.”
The Carthage newspaperman’s account was tame compared to some of the incredible stories about May that appeared elsewhere. May made headlines across the country and even internationally. One story, first published in the US and later picked up by a New Zealand newspaper, called May “the phenomenal girl horse-thief,” whose career “surpassed anything of the kind before known.”
The stories about May continued long after she had been sent to the state prison. In 1894, a St. Louis Republic reporter visited May at the Jefferson City facility and wrote a fantastic story entitled “A Beautiful Horse Thief.” The newspaperman’s description of May bordered on the titillating, calling her “pretty as a picture” and “a rustic beauty,” with “great blue eyes and a mass of tousled hair of Titian hint. Her form is luscious…. Her mouth is one that an impressionable artist would go wild over, with its cherry red lips of sensuous curve.”
Admitting that she was guilty as charged, May told the Republic reporter, “I have no hard luck story to tell.”
May said she didn’t know why she’d turned out so bad because her mother and father had treated her well. She added, “I’m not like other women, either, in blaming my downfall on any man.”
After serving eighteen months of her two-year sentence, May was released from prison on December 22, 1894. What happened to her after her discharge remains a mystery.
This story, like the one last week about Della Oxley, is condensed from my book Wicked Women of Missouri.

                                                                                                     

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Della Oxley: Female Horse Thief

During the puritanical Victorian era of the late 1800s and early 1900s, a woman who stepped out of her expected domestic role as wife, mother, or obedient daughter stirred gossip. If she ventured out too far, she created scandal and sensational newspaper stories.
An unusual outbreak of horse stealing by young women in the southwest Missouri area during a twelve-year period from the early 1890s to the early 1900s provided just the kind shocking material that journalists of the time thrived on. Della Oxley was the first of three female horse thieves from the region who made headlines across the country.
Twenty-year-old Della first ran afoul of the law in 1890 when she and her husband, Perry Oxley, were charged with prostitution in Kansas. Then she wrote her name in the annals of horse thievery in 1891 after she and Perry drifted into southwest Missouri, where she got arrested in Jasper County for stealing a horse on the Fourth of July near Medoc.
Tried at Carthage on October 24, Della was convicted and sentenced to five years in the state prison at Jefferson City. When officers went to take her breakfast the next morning, she had escaped by sawing one of the cell bars in two and dropping to the ground below. It was thought someone from the outside had supplied her with the saw.
A note in which Della appeared to contemplate suicide was found in her cell after her escape, but a Carthage newspaper dismissed the letter as a ruse.
After her escape, Della made her way to Baxter Springs, Kansas. Arriving on Monday morning, October 26, she “proceeded to take in the town,” according to the Baxter Springs News. Among other activities, Della reportedly had her picture taken and mailed to a friend. She had cut her hair short before her escape, and when she arrived in Baxter, she was dressed in men’s clothes and “presented the appearance of a smart, smooth-faced young man,” according to the News.
An effort to upgrade her wardrobe led to Della’s recapture. She went to a clothing store and bought a pair of trousers and a cowboy hat, but in changing trousers she left a letter that was addressed to her in the old pair of trousers. The letter aroused the suspicions of the storekeeper, and he notified Baxter Springs law officers, who arrested Della about 11:00 o’clock that night. She admitted she was the escapee from Carthage, and Jasper County authorities came to Kansas and took charge of the prisoner. Bidding adieu to Mrs. Oxley, the News claimed she was a notorious burglar and thief who had “broken out of several different jails” and a Joplin paper dubbed her “the female horse thief.”
Upon her return to Carthage, Della was assigned to her old quarters, but she was securely chained to the floor. On November 4th, officers discovered her shackles had been filed almost in two. A threat from the sheriff to put her in a dungeon induced her to give away the two accomplices who had helped her escape the first time and had supplied the file for her latest jailbreak attempt. Both young men were arrested and lodged in jail at Carthage.
On November 11, Della was shipped to Jefferson City to serve the five-year term she had been previously assessed. A correspondent to the Fort Worth Gazette gave readers an exaggerated and inaccurate description of Della at the time, starting with the fiction that she was thirty-six years old and was born “in a New England village.” In addition, Della had supposedly become “a hardened criminal” when she was only twelve years old. The Gazette correspondent continued his extravagant account: “She drifted to the West and organized a band of horse thieves and burglars, which had for its range the states of Kansas and Western Missouri. For the past ten years these robbers have been living off of the farmers of this section, and all the raids and burglaries were planned by the woman, Della Oxley.”
Della was, in truth, only twenty-one years old, not thirty-six, and ten years earlier she was not organizing a gang of horse thieves in Kansas and Missouri, since she was an eleven-year-old girl living in Indiana with her parents at the time.
Della was released from the Missouri State Penitentiary on August 13, 1895, under the state’s three-fourths law. The following January, Perry Oxley filed for a divorce, and later in 1896, Della was remarried in Illinois. She died in Taylorville, Illinois, in 1898 at the age of 28.
This story is condensed from my book Wicked Women of Missouri.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Ben Davis Apples

Growing apples was a big industry in Missouri during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Missouri was one of the top two or three states in the country for apple production during this time, and the Ben Davis variety was king in Missouri.
According to the Kansas Farmer, the Ben Davis apple was brought from North Carolina to Kentucky with other seedling apples by the Davis family. Later the Davis family moved to Butler County, Missouri, and planted the state's first Ben Davis orchard. Some years later, as the new apple variety gained popularity, the question arose as to what to call it, and the name Ben Davis was settled on, because he was the person who first brought the seedling sprouts from North Carolina.
Almost from the very beginning, the Ben Davis apple had its detractors, because it was not very flavorful and its color was not very good when grown in northern climates. However, for many years, these deficiencies were more than offset by the variety's good qualities, at least in the eyes of many growers. In southern Missouri and other temperate climates where the seasons were long enough, the Ben Davis grew to be a large, colorful fruit, and Missouri became known as "the land of the big red apple." As one observer commented in 1906, "People will buy fruit on its looks, even if they know its quality is not as great as the quality of some other fruit." Also, the Ben Davis was very productive, making a good crop every year, whereas some varieties produced no or very little fruit in alternate years. Growers of Ben Davis apples could count on having a steady income year after year, even if the apples sold for up to $2 a bushel less than other varieties like the Jonathan, as was sometimes the case. The Ben Davis apple was a good keeper and could be stored for long periods of time without rotting. When it was bruised, it merely dried up at the point of the bruise and formed a hard crust, which could later be cut off, whereas most other apples would immediately start rotting if bruised. In addition, the Ben Davis apple tree was said not to be as susceptible to infection and disease as certain other varieties. Finally, the Ben Davis was known for its soil adaptability. It could be grown almost anywhere. Thus its popularity spread to growers in other states.
The popularity of the Ben Davis variety began to wane, however, by the early 1910s. 
There were a number of factors that led to the decline of the Ben Davis and to the apple industry in general in Missouri. Some growers began to neglect their trees, and insect and disease spread to neighboring orchards. Drought has also been cited as a factor, but the main reason for the demise of the apple industry in Missouri was its growing reputation for shipping inferior fruit, particularly the Ben Davis. The Pacific Northwest soon supplanted Missouri as the apple-growing capital of the US.
Commenting on the decline of the apple industry in Missouri in 1920, a columnist for a Jefferson City newspaper remarked, "Missouri, in the zenith of its apple-growing fame, never was especially noted for its fancy 'eating' apples. The Ben Davis has been the great product of the state. Those who have ridden down Missouri lanes flanked with great orchards of Ben Davis apples just about the time of year when the first breath of winter is in the air, will never forget the sight. A Ben Davis apple orchard with the big red apples backed by the green leaves of the trees is a pastoral picture ever to be remembered. To the uninitiated, it creates a desire to eat, a most unfortunate urge because Ben Davis apples, for eating purposes, don't live up to their beauty. Take them home, however, fry them and dish them up with strips of broiled bacon, plenty of hot biscuits and great glasses of foamy milk and you have a real Missouri supper worth the name."
One of the curiosities left over from the boom days of the apple industry in the Ozarks is the small community of Bendavis, located on Highway 38 in Texas County, Missouri. It was platted about 1910 by James J. Burns, who hoped to build a town at the site, and he named it Ben Davis or Bendavis, because he planned to grow Ben Davis apples in his large orchards there. However, by 1910, Ben Davis apples were already in decline, and the town never amounted to more than a general store and a post office. Today, it is just a wide place in the road.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Crystal Cave, Crystal Cave, and Crystal Caverns

Having grown up in the Springfield area, I've known about Crystal Cave, located seven or eight miles north of Springfield, for most of my life. For many years, it was a pretty successful show cave, but it closed to tours twelve years ago or so, and, as far as I know, has still not re-opened. In fact, it was recently up for sale, but I don't know whether it still is.
As a longtime resident of Joplin, I am also fairly familiar with the old Crystal Cave that was located on West 4th Street in Joplin. It, too, was a tour cave during the early 1900s, but it closed in the early 1930s because of slackening attendance, high humidity inside the cave, and other problems. About that time or shortly afterward, mining in the Joplin area began tapering off and the cave began to fill with water, since the surrounding shafts were not being pumped out as they had been. An attempt was made in the 1940s to de-water the cave so that it might be opened back up, but the effort was unsuccessful and the cave was sealed back up. Today, a historical marker stands at the northwest corner of Fourth and Gray in Joplin as the only visible reminder of the cave's location.
However, I was not familiar with Crystal Caverns at Cassville until just a day or two ago. I think I might have vaguely been aware that such a place existed, but that was about all I knew until I started doing some research for this blog.
Crystal Caverns, located less than a mile north of Cassville just off Business Highway 37, was discovered in the mid-1800s, but it remained a private cave for almost eighty years. The website of the Barry County Museum says the cave was first opened as a show cave in 1924, but the Missouri Cave and Karst Conservancy says that 1994 marked Crystal Caverns's 65th and final year as a show cave. The latter statement seems to jibe with my own research, because, as best I've been able to determine, the cave was first opened for tours on July 19, 1930. A notice in the July 17, 1930, issue of the Cassville Republican announced that the cave would open on the 19th. Follow-up articles in the same paper make it clear that the cave did indeed open on or very near the 19th, and they also make it pretty clear that this was not a re-opening for the season but rather a first-time opening.
In the summer of 1930, the cave was being developed by Philip Eidson and John McFarlin. (McFarlin was married to Eidson's sister, and her and Eidson's father had previously owned the property.) It's clear from issues of the Republican in the summer of 1930 that the cave enterprise was a new or recent undertaking. For instance, the owners were still in the process of naming the formations in the cave. In addition, an article published in the Republican in early July of 1931 mentions that the cave "was first opened" less than a year ago. So, if the cave opened in 1924, as the county museum says, it must have been on a very limited basis and must not have been very well promoted.
When the cave opened in 1930, guided tours costs fifty cents, and they were conducted by flashlight and Coleman lanterns. The tour took visitors to six different rooms. At this early stage, the cave was sometimes called Crystal Cave. The fact that there were two other caves in the region by the same name may have been partly why the Cassville cave soon came to be called Crystal Caverns instead of Crystal Cave.
In the spring of 1931, McFarlin and his family went to Kentucky to tour several show caves in that state to get a better idea how to operate their own cave back in Cassville.
The McFarlin family or relatives of the family continued to operate Crystal Caverns, with a brief interruption, until Gary and Linda Sartin leased the property in 1977. The Sartins kept the cave open until 1994. It then sat vacant for about five years until the Missouri Cave and Karst Conservancy took it over. The group spent the next ten years or so surveying, mapping, and restoring the cave. The cave is now primarily an educational resource and is open by appointment only. In 2015, someone broke into the cave and vandalized it, destroying many rock formations.

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