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 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.


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