Sunday, April 14, 2024

An Age-Gap Romance Turns Deadly

About 6:30 Friday evening, November 20, 1942, 50-year-old Cliff Moore got into an argument with his "very attractive" 22-year-old wife, Sylvia, at Kidd's Place, a combination service station/tavern and dance hall about four miles west of Rolla on Route 66, which the couple had been operating for a few weeks. Initial reports said only that the two were struggling for possession of 12-guage shotgun when the gun went off, gravely wounding Cliff Moore. He died at a hospital a couple of hours later. 

Investigators apparently did not consider it purely an accident, however, because they promptly arrested Sylvia at her parents' home in Vichy. Lodged in the Phelps County Jail at Rolla, she was charged with second-degree murder.

At Sylvia's trial a month or two later, the state contended that she grabbed the gun first. Testifying in her own defense, Sylvia told a different story. She said the quarrel began when she returned to Kidd's Place after visiting her parents in Vichy and her husband accused her of having been drinking with another man.

Moore ordered her out of the tavern, and, when the argument continued outside the building, he went to a telephone to call the state patrol. She convinced him not to call, saying that they could settle their dispute without the intervention of the officers. She followed him back to the tavern's front door, where, she said, Moore threatened to kill her. Nevertheless, she followed him inside, and they walked behind the bar to the kitchen, where a shotgun was kept.

Sylvia said Cliff picked up the gun and pointed it toward her. When she pushed the barrel out of the way, he grabbed her around the waist and shoved her onto a back porch. Opening the back door to the screened-in porch, he tried to throw her outside. He had his right arm around her, and his left arm was holding the gun. Sylvia said she used her right hand to prevent being thrown out, and when she bent over, the gun discharged. 

The trial ended in a hung jury. Sylvia then asked for and was granted a change of venue for her next trial. It was held in neighboring Texas County in July of 1943. At the end of testimony and closing arguments on July 13, the jury deliberated for only 25 minutes before coming back with a verdict of not guilty.


Saturday, April 6, 2024

A Bloody Salvation Army Affair

I use a lot of short direct quotations taken from original documents when I write about historical events, but I tend not to use a lot of extended quotes.  Usually, I want to add important background details, rearrange the sequence of events, or try to improve the narrative flow. Sometimes, though, it's hard to improve upon the original. So, I'm going to start this story with a long quotation from the Sunday, October 6, 1895, edition of the Springfield (MO) Daily Republican:
   The Salvation Army meeting Friday evening was the scene of a bloody affray which may yet result in the death of one woman and the hanging of another.
   Wm. Winters, who is well known in police circles, had been making love to Mary Grimes, a well known woman of the time. He had been spending his time luxuriantly upon her, much to the disgust of Grace Clark, another woman of questionable habits. Grace thought that she was entitled to all the affections that Winters had concealed about his person and did not propose to divide these winsome looks and tender glances with anybody. She had been casting a jealous eye for several days upon the Grimes woman and had warned her not to do so anymore. But Mary Grimes was not to be bluffed in any such manner. She held a very warm place in her heart for Winters, and she did not care who knew it, not even Grace Clark. 
   Just about the time the Salvation Army meeting was getting interesting, Grace stepped up to Mary and, with murder in her heart and a knife in her hand, she proceeded to cut calico in a manner that would have been startling even to the most fastidious cow boy or the savage Sioux Indians. She plunged the knife through the calico and cut the side of Mary Grimes.

Mary started running with Grace in pursuit. According to the Republican, Grace would have stabbed Mary a second time except that the women were interrupted by a policeman, who immediately placed the Clark woman under arrest and summoned medical help for Mary. Her wound was first thought not to be serious, but she was soon pronounced to be in a "very critical" condition.
On October 9, Grace, appearing in Springfield Police Court, applied for and was granted a change of venue, not to a different county but to a different judge and jurisdiction. No doubt she had appeared too many times in the police court on morals and other charges and doubted whether she could get a fair trial there. She and Winters had been charged jointly at least a time or two earlier in 1895 for cohabitating and/or for "resorting to rooms for immoral purposes." During the past couple of years, Grace had faced several additional charges of "lewd conduct" and at least one charge of stealing. 
Mary Grimes also had a history of minor offenses in Springfield prior to the cutting affray, although her record was not as extensive as Grace's. Mary married G. L. Mahan in Springfield near the end of October 1893, but a month later Mahan deserted her when he stole items from the hotel where he was employed and skedaddled out of Springfield. Mary then reverted to using her maiden name, although her legal name was still Mahan.
The preliminary hearing for Grace Clark was held on October 12. The Springfield Leader-Democrat gave some background on the woman at the time. Her maiden name was Grace Ramsey, and ten years earlier she had been "the prettiest, black-eyed, plump little beauty" in her southwest Missouri school. She was the daughter of wealthy parents, was liked by her teachers, and was "beyond her years in intelligence." She finished her education with "high honors," but somewhere along the line, she took a "false step" that led her down the road to ruin. Grace was now haggard and unkempt with sunken cheeks, and the newspaper said it would "require a vivid stretch of the imagination to see any beauty" in her face now. She had been a "woman of the town for a long time" and was "perfectly familiar with jail walls and calaboose bars." 
Mary Grimes had recovered sufficiently to testify against the defendant at her hearing, and the judge bound Grace Clark over to await the action of a grand jury. 
Unable to post a $500 bond, she was taken back to jail. 
However, I have found no record of what happened to Grace after this; so, perhaps the grand jury chose not to indict her.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

The Murder of Hiram Holladay

In the late afternoon of Sunday, May 14, 1899, Monroe A. Johnson of Greenville, Missouri, told his wife, Nancy, that he was going to St. Louis. He started off but doubled back and took up a hiding place behind a stack of wood in his back yard. 

Johnson suspected that "an undue intimacy" existed between his wife, who was "a very handsome woman," and her brother-in-law Hiram N. Holladay. Holladay, the richest man in the territory, owned a lumber mill where Johnson worked and where the 40-year-old Nancy was employed in the office. Holladay's first wife was Nancy's sister Ellen, and when Ellen died after a few years, he'd married Ellen and Nancy's older sister. He was still married to Mary, but now he'd seemingly turned his attention to the youngest sister, Nancy.  

Sure enough, about one o'clock in the morning of May 15, Johnson, watching from his hideout, saw the 50-year-old Holladay approach his house and tap on the door. The door opened, and Holladay went inside. Johnson waited a few minutes and then entered his house by a side door. He broke down the door to his wife's bedroom and found Holladay in the room with her. Not bothering about preliminaries, Johnson immediately opened fire with his six-shooter, striking Holladay four times and killing him instantly.

After the shooting, Johnson went downtown, awoke a saloonkeeper/hotel keeper, and told what he'd done. The saloonkeeper accompanied him to the sheriff's home, where Johnson turned himself in. 

Public opinion was about evenly divided between those who thought Johnson was justified in his action and those who felt he'd committed first-degree murder. His defenders said he had to resort to sneaky methods in order to "protect his home against the power of wealth." According to his detractors, however, Johnson had known about the affair between his wife and Holladay for some time, had lain in wait for his victim, and had committed a coldblooded murder.  

At his arraignment in early June, Johnson was bound over without bond to await the action of a grand jury. Later in June, Johnson was admitted to bail on $3,000 bond. 

At his trial in August of 1900, Johnson was the only witness for the defense. Taking the stand to tell his story, he admitted killing Holladay but said he not only acted according to "the unwritten rules of honor" but also acted in self-defense, since he knew that Holladay was armed when he went into his house on that fateful night. 

After 23 hours of deliberation, the jury came back with a verdict finding Johnson guilty of manslaughter and assessing punishment at a $500 fine.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

The Story of Ada Lee Biggs

After 20-year-old Ada Lee Biggs was convicted of second-degree murder in November of 1928 in Ste. Francois County (MO) for killing her stepfather, William Simpson, newspapers speculated that the jury must have doubted her story that Simpson had sexually assaulted her on numerous occasions because what she said at trial was supposedly different from the story she'd told when first arrested. In fact, Ada's story that Simpson had repeatedly molested her was pretty consistent from the very beginning. 

Ada's father died when she was young, and her mother, Gertie, married William Simpson when Ada was 11 or 12 years of age. According to Ada's later story, Simpson's inappropriate behavior began shortly afterwards, as he first tried to kiss her when she was only 12 years old.

On December 15, 1926, when Ada was 18, Simpson, who was then about 50 years old, took Ada out into a car when her mother was not home. Forcing her to succumb to his will at the point of a gun, he raped her. Ada later told her mother about the attack, but Gertie, who had four younger children with Simpson, did not believe her daughter, and Ada was sent to St. Louis to stay with Simpson's sister. Before long, however, her mother sent word that Ada should come back home or else Simpson was going to have her committed to a home for delinquent girls. 

When Ada returned, Simpson's abuse resumed. He took her to the car and raped her about once or twice each month. He was so infatuated with her and so jealous of her that he would not let her go out with friends her own age. Simpson was given to "spells" during which he was mean to Bertie and other family members, too, and somewhere along the line Bertie realized that Ada had been telling the truth about her husband. 

In the latter part of 1927, Bertie invited her brother, Oscar Greenwalt, to come and live with the family at their home in Bismarck to help protect her and Ada from Simpson. Simpson's spells worsened after Greenwalt arrived, and he, Bertie, and Ada soon began plotting to kill Simpson.  

Simpson, who stayed drunk much of the time and was considered by neighbors to be about half insane, went on a day-long spree on July 14, 1928. Bertie decided that this was the day, and she and her brother appointed Ada, against her wishes at first, to carry out the murder. 

Simpson suffered from ataxia and took regular steam baths to try to combat its effects. So, that night, Bertie loaded a shotgun for Ada, and then Bertie and Greenwalt positioned Simpson's homemade sauna next to an outdoor window. While Simpson was taking a steam bath, Ada, 19 years old at the time and a recent graduate of Bismark High School, slipped up outside the window and shot the man, almost blowing his head off. Bertie and Simpson's four young children were asleep in the house at the time, and Simpson's aged and blind mother was in an upstairs room.

Ada, Bertie, and Greenwalt denied involvement in the crime when authorities first arrived to investigate. However, Greenwalt soon confessed his part in the crime, and Ada and Bertie quickly followed suit. All three were taken to the county jail at Farmington. When first interrogated on July 15, the three said they were in on the crime together, but Ada, no doubt in an effort to protect her mother and uncle, quickly changed her story to say that she had acted alone. She said the reason she killed Simpson was that he would not allow her to have friends and was otherwise mean to her, but she did not specifically mention any sexual attacks. She said she committed the crime "for the peace of the family." 

By July 16, though, Ada had already begun to reveal more details of why she killed her stepfather. He not only had first tried to kiss her when she was just 12 years old and refused to let her have friends, but he had made life hell for the whole family for many years. Even Simpson's own mother, according to Ada and her co-defendants, cried out, after learning that he was dead, "He's in hell right now. He was so evil." 

Ada said that, when she killed Simpson, she was thinking of "all the things Simpson had done to her" during the past eight years and that she did not regret her actions. "I admit shooting him," she told a St. Louis reporter, "but it was self-defense. I did it to free my family and myself, and I did it for the good of the community. I haven't anything to hide. I'll tell my whole story when I face the judge." 

And Ada did tell her whole story at trial in November of 1928. Taking the stand in her own defense, she told about the various times Simpson had assaulted her, and then her lawyer asked how that made her feel. She faced the jury box and calmly addressed the members of the jury, "Gentlemen of the jury, after I'd been driven to do this, after my honor, my virtue, had been taken, I realized I could never marry. My social standing, my character, were ruined. That is what drove me to the insanity that I did. If there had been any way out of the hell I was living, I would have taken it. He said he would follow me wherever I went and kill me." 

The prosecution pointed out that Simpson was missing all four fingers from his right hand and suggested that he could not, therefore, have held a gun in his right hand and threatened Ada with it the way she said. Still on the stand, Ada pointed to her knuckles and said vehemently, "He had stubs as long as that." The defense also pointed out that, despite, missing the four fingers, Simpson, who ran a garage, was considered one of the best mechanics for miles around.

Although Ada had been charged with first-degree murder, the jury came back with a verdict finding her guilty of second-degree murder. So, it's not clear, as the newspapers suggested, that the jury did not believe her story. It might well be that they did believe her story but still felt obligated by the law to find her guilty of the lesser offense.  

Ada was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Her mother and uncle both pleaded guilty to second-degree murder a couple of weeks after Ada's trial, and they, too, received sentences of 10 years behind bars. Ada, though, was paroled in mid-1933, after serving less than 5 years. She got married later the same year, and the couple had two children. She died in 1979 and is buried at Cape Girardeau.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Bloody Benders Again

I've written on this blog about the Bloody Benders of southeast Kansas at least once before, maybe more than once, but I recently finished reading a new book about the Benders called Hell Comes to Play by Lee Ralph. It's very well researched and contains a lot of previously unknown information about the Benders, especially about their origins.

Anyway, reading the book got me to thinking again about the Benders. I believe I first wrote about the Benders in my book Ozarks Gunfights and Other Notorious Incidents, which was released in 2010. Looking back now at the Bender chapter in that book, I'm almost ashamed of it, because it contains some false information.

Specifically, in discussing the topic of what ultimately happened to the Benders, I suggested that it was likely they were overtaken and killed by posse members who went in pursuit of them following their heinous murders. I reached this conclusion based on the numerous stories to that effect that were told by supposed members of the posse in the years after the Bender killings. I kept reading stories, some of them deathbed confessions, from men who claimed to have been with the posse that overtook the Benders and dispatched them to hell south of the Kansas border in what was then Indian Territory. And I fell for the canard.

I guess everybody is entitled to a mistake now and then; mistakes find their way into print on a somewhat regular basis. But to someone who prides himself on being as accurate as possible, almost any mistake is a cause for embarrassment, and this one was especially embarrassing, because it's a fairly glaring error about a pretty important aspect of the Bender story. I corrected the error in my 2019 book entitled Murder and Mayhem in Southeast Kansas, but that doesn't erase the previous mistake, because the Gunfights book is still out there, too.

For the record, it is virtually certain that the Benders escaped unscathed after their heinous murders. Logic alone argues for this conclusion, since the murders were not discovered until a month after the Benders had flown the coop. By this time, they were long gone, not wandering around south of the Kansas border waiting to be overtaken by a vengeful posse. Very likely, they made their way back to Europe, where they had come from. Another reason the stories of the Benders being killed are almost certainly fabricated tales is that authorities who were in the best position to know the circumstances of the case dismissed the stories as falsehoods.

Speaking of where the Benders came from, I already knew, based on my research for Murder and Mayhem in SE KS, that the Benders came to Kansas from Illinois, that they had lived in France just prior to coming to America, and that they were originally from Germany. However, Mr. Ralph's book has added a lot of additional information about the family's origins that I did not previously know. 

And speaking of lies that surround the story of the Benders, the idea that they were overtaken and killed by a posse is just one of many. It's not even the most outlandish. 

For instance, the stories about Kate Bender being the leading spirit of the family and the stories about her and her older brother supposedly living together in an incestuous relationship, or else not being siblings at all, are sensationalist nonsense. Kate was only 13 or 14 years old when the Benders came to Kansas and was still just 16 when the last of the murders were committed. It's very unlikely a 16-year-old girl was the leading spirit of a family of cold-blooded killers. Kate was almost certainly the most fluent speaker of English in the family, which might have given people who had dealings with the Benders the idea that she was the leading spirit in the family, but just being able to communicate well with her neighbors doesn't make her the driving force behind a mass murder, as some of the more far-fetched stories about the Benders imply.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Joplin's Morals Scandal of 1952

What one Joplin (MO) newspaper called "an amazing morals case" began on February 15, 1952, when the mother of a juvenile boy called authorities to register a complaint against Joplin physician Guy I. Meredith. After a brief investigation, Dr. Meredith was arrested at his office later that same day and taken to jail to await arraignment on charges of abusing and molesting as many as 31 Joplin High School boys between the ages of 15 and 17. 

Twelve of the boys were questioned, and all told similar stories. They said they had visited Meredith in his office, taken night trips with him in his car, and been offered money by him to engage in "immoral conduct." Nearly all the boys described being taken to "The Spot," a secluded roadside parking place near some abandoned mines north of Chitwood. Several of the boys said that they resisted Meredith's advances but that they had been attracted to him because he was liberal in buying them food and other items. They said Meredith's abuse had been going on since the start of the school term the previous fall.

As more students were questioned the next day, a pattern of "shocking" immorality among Joplin High School students was uncovered, and school administrators, in conjunction with local law enforcement, launched a thorough investigation. The probe also expanded to Carthage.

Under intense questioning, Dr. Meredith admitted that he knew the boys who'd accused him of immoral conduct and that he had indeed met with many of them and even taken several of them to his "spot" at the northwest edge of town. He denied, however, that he had engaged in immoral behavior. Instead, he had merely listened to the boys and counseled them concerning their own immoral behavior. He said all the boys were members of what was known as the "dirty club" at the high school and that his association with the boys stemmed from the fact that he had once been a member of the same fraternity that many of the boys now belonged to. 

Meredith, who had been a physician in Joplin for 25 years, was released on $16,000 bond on February 16, and on the afternoon of February 18, he shot himself in the head at his office in the Frisco Building in downtown Joplin. He died a few hours later at a local hospital. 

The next day, February 19, eleven students, nine boys and two girls, were suspended from Joplin High School for unspecified immoral conduct. Ten other students who had not been attending lately were barred from coming back to school. Meanwhile, the investigation continued.

On February 22, the Joplin Southwestern ran an editorial on what it called the "sex perversion ring" at the high school. The newspaper said that, while 31 students were directly involved in the "sex cult," at least 300 others knew of its existence. Supposedly, members of the cult wore green on certain days to signify their membership in the group. At least one girl was selling contraceptives at the high school, and at least one boy was selling whiskey. Rumor had it that information about the so-called sex cult was known a year earlier but it was hushed up because several of students involved came from prominent families. 

The Carthage side of the investigation led to the arrest on February 22 of H. Tiffin Teters, the town's mayor, and he was charged with five counts of molesting minors. Also arrested on similar charges were Max Potter, who was well known in Joplin in amateur theatrical circles; and Morris Shaffer, a Carthage beauty salon operator.  At least one other Carthage man was charged in the case but could not be immediately located. Teters, who was released on bond, claimed he was completely innocent of the charges against him, but he asked for a leave of absence from his job as mayor. A hearing to determine whether Shaffer was a "homosexual psychopath" was ordered.

A mass meeting was held on February 27 at Joplin's Memorial Hall to organize the Citizens' Moral League of Jasper County. Over the next week or so, however, most of the suspended students were reinstated on probation after they and their parents met with board members and administrators, the morals investigation began to wind down, and the sex scandal of 1952 gradually faded into memory.


Sunday, March 3, 2024

The Attempted "Rape" of Mrs. Brake

The September 7, 1904, Springfield (MO) Daily Republican reported that two nights earlier a black man named Jack McCracken had tried to rape Mrs. J. R. (Anna) Brake while her husband, a Springfield policeman, was on duty. Supposedly, McCracken broke into the Brake home late on the night of the 7th while Mrs. Brake was asleep in bed with her baby. She was awakened when the "brute" grabbed her and dragged her out of bed to the floor. However, Anna screamed and fought, frightening McCracken away, as several neighbors rushed to the woman's assistance.

Anna recognized McCracken because he had worked at her house on several occasions, and she picked him out as her attacker the next day when he and several other black men were brought before her in a quasi-lineup. McCracken was whisked away to jail and charged with burglary and attempted rape.

The supposed attack on Anna Brake "stirred up the people of Springfield," and a mob formed on the night of the 6th and went to the jail, intent of taking McCracken out and lynching him. However, the mob spirit had been building throughout the day, giving officers time to whisk McCracken out of town for safekeeping. "Their appetite for human blood unsatisfied," the mob reluctantly broke up in the wee hours of the morning on the 7th. 

A month or so later, J. A. "Jesse" Brake began circulating a treatise on the so-called "race problem." The thrust of the virulently racist pamphlet was that black men were responsible for most of the lawlessness in the country. Brake especially decried the "unmentionable crime" of black men attacking white women, which, according to Brake, was unheard of during the days of slavery but had shot up in recent years. If something wasn't done to curb the "fiendish lust" of black men and to reverse the rising tide of crime in general, the people of the United States would have to decide what was the best and quickest way to dispose of all of its citizens "who may be unfortunate enough to have even a taint of African blood in their veins." 

On the last day November 1904, McCracken, through his lawyer, applied for a change of venue on the grounds that he had not been able to prepare his defense because he was in constant fear for his life and always having to be moved to prevent mob action. He had been taken to Christian County shortly after his arrest because of the threat from a mob that included Jesse Brake dressed in his police uniform. After his return to Greene County, he was still in danger from the mob and removed again. He had recently been brought back again, but now he was in danger from Anna Brake, who was carrying a pistol and had been encouraged by her husband to kill McCracken on sight. The defendant was assigned a new judge to hear his case, but otherwise the request for a change of venue was not granted.

McCracken pleaded guilty to both charges against him when his trial came up a few days later. He insisted that he was not guilty of what Mrs. Brake had accused him of, but he knew he would not get a fair trial and that he stood no chance of acquittal on the charge of attacking a white woman. He feared mob violence and figured he was safer in jail than walking the streets of Springfield. He was sentenced to 30 years in the state pen, and he was hauled away to Jefferson City in early February 1905. 

That's where the case stood until mid-1908 when Mrs. Brake came forward to recant the story she had told at the time of the supposed crime. She and her husband had recently separated, and Brake had resigned from the police force over three years earlier. Mrs. Brake said that McCracken was "no more at fault" than she was. Not only was McCracken not guilty of attacking her, but he was also "a good friend" of hers. She said that for the sake of "the little one" she thought McCracken should be released. She began advocating for his pardon, urging others to do the same, and circulating a petition on his behalf. The "little one" was a reference to her four-year-old mixed-race child, whose father was, in fact, Jack McCracken.

Mrs. Brake said she had lied at the time of her and McCracken's so-called crime because she feared for her life if she told the truth. In making her admission, she asked that it be kept secret until she had time to get out of town, because she feared violence even now.  

Shortly after making her confession, Mrs. Brake left Springfield. A few days after that, J. R. Brake turned "a four-year-old negro boy" over to the county court, and the child was taken to the county farm. In September 1908, Brake was granted a divorce from his wife. 

In May 1909, Jack McCracken was released from the state prison by order of the governor after two Springfield lawyers working on his behalf were able to prove beyond doubt that he was not guilty of the charge for which he was serving time. McCracken had not broken into the Brake home and tried to rape Anna at all but had merely called at the home seeking to see his little son. 

After his release, McCracken came back to Springfield and worked as a chauffeur, but what happened to Mrs. Brake has not been traced. 

Sources: Various Springfield newspapers, White Man's Heaven by Kimberly Harper.

An Age-Gap Romance Turns Deadly

About 6:30 Friday evening, November 20, 1942, 50-year-old Cliff Moore got into an argument with his "very attractive" 22-year-old ...