Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, 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 sixteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Wicked Women of Missouri, Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, and Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History.

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.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Back to the Farm

As someone who came of age during the hippie era of the 1960s and 1970s, I am well aware of the Back to the Land movement of the 1970s. It was led mostly by young people, often hippies or erstwhile hippies, who valued self sufficiency and wanted to commune with nature.
At the time, I thought it was unusual, if not unprecedented, but I have since learned that the Back to the Land movement of my generation was not the only such movement this country has experienced. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, a Back to the Farm movement, or Back to the Soil movement as it was sometimes called, gained traction in this country, and Missouri's own Governor Hadley was one of its leaders.
The Back to the Farm movement was more organized than the spontaneous, hippie-inspired Back to the Land movement that came later, as the fact that prominent politicians like Hadley were among its leaders would attest. Hadley and other leaders of the Back to the Farm movement had watched as millions of Americans left their farms for work in the cities during the Industrial Revolution, and they feared that, as fewer and fewer people were being called upon to feed the rest of the country, food shortages and hunger would result. They also felt that getting people, particularly young people, out of the urbans areas and back to the farm would spare them the corrupting influence of the cities. In this respect, they were similar to the Back to the Land crowd of the 1970s, but they targeted whole families, not just youth.
Meeting in St. Louis in May 1910, leaders of the Back to the Farm movement formed the National Farm Homes Association, with Hadley as the group's president. They began acquiring cheap land with the idea of establishing farm colonies, primarily in the Midwest, under the supervision of an expert agriculturist. The colonies would consist of 32 families living on forty acres each surrounding a 160-acre central farm where the supervising farmer lived and taught agricultural techniques.
In my next post, I'll write about one of the first colonies formed by the National Farm Homes Association, in south central Missouri, just a few months after the May meeting in St. Louis.

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