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, February 12, 2017

The Story of Lizzie Bobbitt

Joplin had more than its share of “sinful sirens” during its early days, but the story of one of them stands out as particularly interesting. Elizabeth “Lizzie” Hall married Henry Sanford in Indiana in 1871. The couple moved west, but Sanford deserted Lizzie in early 1873. After her abandonment, Lizzie spent time in Jefferson City, where she reportedly “kept a boarding house for the accommodation of members of the Legislature, from which occupation she made enough money to purchase some fine furniture.” Later, Lizzie lived in Atchison County, Missouri, where she met J. F. Bobbitt, and he started trying to win her affections. In late 1874, he told Lizzie that the mere fact her husband had left her and stayed away for almost two years constituted a legal divorce. Following Lizzie to Joplin, he convinced her to marry him in December, and the couple set up housekeeping at Lone Elm on the north edge of Joplin.
Lizzie, though, was unhappy in the relationship, and when she learned in March of 1875 that Bobbitt had deceived her in telling her that her first marriage was void in the eyes of the law, she threatened to leave him. Even though Henry Sanford had since died, he was alive at the time of her marriage to Bobbitt, and Lizzie, therefore, considered the second marriage fraudulent. Bobbitt responded to her threat by selling some of her furniture, and she then carried through on the threat. On May 3, using the name “Lizzie Sanford,” she filed a replevin suit declaring that she and Bobbitt had been living together in a “pretended marriage” and that certain property that Bobbitt had sold belonged to her. She was granted an “order of delivery,” and a Jasper County deputy sheriff gathered approximately eighty dollars’ worth of goods that Lizzie claimed were hers. When it was discovered, however, that Bobbitt and Lizzie were, in fact, legal husband and wife and that “Lizzie Sanford” was a “fictitious name,” Lizzie was charged with forgery and fraud for obtaining goods under false pretenses. When her case came up in September, she paid court costs and was let go.
About the same time, Lizzie moved to Neosho and took up residence in a “house of ill-fame” near the train depot. On December 23, a seventeen-year-old lad named Lane Britton was lolling away the evening at Lizzie’s house when a young man named Huffaker and two drunken companions called at the brothel and asked admittance. Lizzie turned them away, and when they kept trying to gain entrance anyway, Britton shot Huffaker through the door, killing him almost instantly. Lizzie Sanford, whom the Neosho Times called an “abandoned strumpet,” was arrested as an accessory to murder but was discharged when the prosecution failed to appear at her hearing, and Britton was eventually acquitted of the murder charge.
Lizzie lingered in Neosho only a few days after the shooting. By January of 1876, she was back in Joplin, where she set up residence in East Joplin. Her house, like the one she'd kept in Neosho, quickly gained a reputation as a resort for lewd women.
A teenager named Kissie West came to live with her as a housekeeper. The girl left after a couple of weeks but soon returned and asked to stay at the house as a prostitute. Lizzie turned her away, but within a month, Kissie came back begging to stay at the house and work as a prostitute. Lizzie warned the girl of the shame that would come to her if she went into prostitution, but Kissie said her life was already worse than that of a prostitute. She said she’d been seduced by her stepfather and could not live at home. She’d tried to earn a living on her own but could not make enough money to provide for herself. She said she’d been having sex with men continually and “getting nothing for it” and she’d rather be at Lizzie’s where she could make some money instead of “slinging pots and shagging for nothing” like the girls at the hotels.
Lizzie relented “out of sympathy for the girl” and let her join the other sporting women at her establishment. A few days later, Kissie’s mother, Permelia West, visited her daughter at Lizzie’s house and, according to Lizzie, seemed well satisfied with the arrangement.
Mrs. West, though, had a change of heart, because in September of 1876, at the mother’s insistence, Lizzie Bobbitt was charged with enticing a girl under the age of eighteen into prostitution. Lizzie gave bond in October and was released to appear in court the following spring.
At her trial in mid-March 1877, Lizzie was surprised when Permelia West testified that her daughter had been under parental care at the time she went to live in the bawdy house and that Kissie had moved in with Mrs. Bobbitt against the mother’s wishes. Lizzie was also surprised to hear Kissie swear she’d gone to live at the house only because Lizzie had told her she’d be better off. After hearing the testimony of the mother and daughter, the jury found Lizzie guilty and sentenced her to three years in the state penitentiary.
In late March, having gained new information, Lizzie filed a motion for a new trial. Two of her witnesses said they’d heard Permelia admit she'd driven her daughter away from home because Kissie “made trouble” between Mrs. West and her husband and that she “would not let the nasty little heifer come home anymore.” Another potential witness said he’d heard Mrs. West say she’d driven her daughter away because the stepfather was “after her (Kissie) all the time” and that she “thought it better that Kissie had gone into a whorehouse where she could make some money.” Several witnesses were also ready to testify that Kissie had not been enticed into prostitution but instead had “been living in an open state of lewdness and adultery with certain men in Joplin” long before she came to Lizzie’s house and that she came there of her own accord.
Lizzie was granted a new trial on appeal and was released on bond until October. Temporarily free, she went back to her sporting ways. In July, she was charged with “keeping a bawdy house.”
The disposition of the case against Lizzie for keeping a bawdy house is not known, although she probably paid a fine and was released. On the more serious charge of “kidnapping” Kissie West, Lizzie was acquitted at her new trial in early October. She apparently left Joplin shortly afterwards, but where she went and what happened to her after 1877 is unknown.

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