Fifty Days of Sunday: The Fireworks Begin

Fifty Days of Sunday:

The Fireworks Begin

The dedication of the Sunday tabernacle began with five hundred strong choir voices shaking the rafters of the structure with “Wake the Song” and “Crown Him King of Kings.”  On Sunday night, November 21st, the tabernacle was filled with six thousand “earnest, enthusiastic listeners,” who were eager to touch upon the excitement of the impending revival.  After an invocation by Rev. J.R. Blunt of the South Joplin Christian church, and a few other introductory speakers, the guest-speaker of the night, Judge H.E. Burgess, of Aledo, Illinois, took to the podium that stood before the vast assemblage with the choir to his back.

Judge Burgess addressed the Joplinites as a man redeemed by a previous Sunday Revival four years earlier and rose to speak to them of what to expect from imminent arrival of the Reverend Sunday.  He began with a tantalizing disclaimer, “I will attempt to tell you something of Mr. Sunday and his wonderful meetings.  But it is impossible ever to attempt describing a real Sunday meeting.  The only way such a meeting can be comprehended is for it to be seen…”

Burgess described the opinion of the evangelist by the citizens of Aledo, prior to Sunday’s arrival.  They had “the same idea of Mr. Sunday – that those of any other city had – ideas merely gotten from rumor and hearsay that Mr. Sunday was simply an erratic grafter, who had discovered his wonderful gift of eloquence and personal magnetism, and was using this gift in a religious way merely because of the money he might thus gain.”  It was an idea that was likely shared in Joplin by those less eager for Sunday’s presence, and a skepticism that had originally painted others like Burgess in Aledo.  But, Aledo stated that as Sunday began to preach and he witnessed the effect on others, “…we unregenerated people began to sit up and notice.”  For the power that Burgess ascribed to Sunday was one of indifference to appearance of proper church membership and an unflinching readiness to call out anyone that “a sinner is a sinner, no matter what kind of a front” the individual might put up.

Billy Sunday

Rev. Billy Sunday

The challenge that hypocrites would be spotlighted by Sunday undoubtedly was an exciting one for those who believed themselves immune and a nerve wracking one for those who feared public humiliation at the hands of the Evangelist.  However, a desire to call out hypocrites was not limited to Sunday nor reserved for his arrival.  The Democratic newspaper, the Joplin Daily Globe, opted to beat Reverend Sunday to the punch with a front page column in its morning edition, published the day of Sunday’s expected arrival, which repeated the findings of a Grand Jury on the recent crackdown of prostitution.  The report stated that contrary to published reports, the crackdown that netted two madams and their ‘sinful sirens’ had been the order of the police judge, Fred W. Kelsey, not Mayor Guy Humes, and in fact the arrest had “astonished the mayor, chief of police, city attorney and other city officials…”  The report concluded that prior to the arrests and thereafter [Editor’s emphasis] that “..bawdy houses, have been, and are now, running wide open to the public.”  Finally, the Globe alleged that the same women were now hidden away in the countryside by the actions of the Republican city officials, as part of an attempt to create an appearance of cutting down on crime.  Of note, the Grand Jury Report declared it had found no appearance of an agreement or contract between the city officials and the criminal offenders.

At the same time as the Globe pointed fingers at Mayor Humes, police chief John A. McManamy continued the civic crusade against crime with a crackdown on turkey raffles (the day before Thanksgiving).  Described as a dice involved ‘wheel and paddle’ method to turkey distribution, and a corruption of a more charitable means of giving, the police chief declared that the turkey raffle was too close to real gambling for his liking.  As a result, the fowl affair was shut down.  It was only a few hours later in the afternoon, when a train pulled into Joplin and the Reverend Billy Sunday disembarked.

Around 6:30 pm, the excited crowds filled the tabernacle located on Virginia Avenue between Fifth and Sixth Streets and took whatever seats they found open and not reserved.  The reserved sections were set aside for boys and girls, families of the ushers, and the deaf and hard of hearing.  In addition, a telephone-like apparatus was setup with a microphone by the podium to handsets in the back, for those who failed to reach the hard of hearing section to hold to their ears.

“Billy Sunday Starts Fireworks…” was the headline the next day of Sunday’s first sermon.  True to the words of Judge Burgess, the papers offered little to describe how the reverend began his sermon, instead relying on his words to convey the explosion of fervor and energy that the former ball player brought to the stage in front of likely more than 6,000 spectators.  What was noted was that Sunday was “small and wiry and as active as a cat.  He is constantly on the move and his every gesture indicates the vast reserve endurance which has helped to make him conspicuous…”   Additionally, Sunday, was described as being, “…no bigger than the proverbial cake of soap after a hards day’s washing…” Sunday, as he began, “…dramatically hooked his clinched fist through the ozone and declared he was in position to defend himself and his policies.”  Like Mayor Humes, against whom the paper compared Sunday, Sunday was a fast talker who said, “…as much in an hour as would an ordinary speaker in two hours.”  Before he began in earnest, Sunday admonished the young people to silence, requested that mothers leave their newborns with caretakers by the doors, and then started his challenge to the people of Joplin.  “There are liars everywhere…and no doubt there are plenty of them here.”

Sunday launched into a session of brutal honesty, at least from his perspective, “You must remember we did not beg the privilege of coming to Joplin; we were sought.  We turned down one hundred other cities in order to come here.  I presume I will say a whole lot that you won’t like.  I’m not like the local ministers.  They couldn’t be like me.  If they said some of the things I will they wouldn’t hold their jobs three weeks.”  The reverend then explained his plans, “My aim is to create a kind of evangelism that will reform drunkards and prostitutes; to restore happiness to the homes.  Those who have friends they want to see led away from hell will give me their support.  Those who don’t care where they or their friends go or what they do are opposed to me.”

The reverend also addressed the issue of collections.  “In one day a circus will take $20,000 out of the city and it won’t leave one incentive for anyone to lead a better life.  We surely ought to be able to get one-third as much in three weeks as the circus does in one day.  God’s hardest job is to convert a stingy man.”  The money, Sunday explained, went purely to the operation of the meeting and saving souls.

More to the point, Sunday fearlessly scolded the crowd, “We need more people right with God, in almost every church there are two classes; the ruts and the anti-ruts.  A revival comes naturally in its proper place.  A revival of religious interest is a necessity.  It is a predominance of the material over the spiritual that is facing us.  This is the busy age; It is the age of ‘isms and ‘cisms; there is more today to turn people away from God than ever before.   When I see the street loafer standing on the corner discussing the greatest questions of the day and propounding a solution for everything, when I see him arguing and chewing, spitting and cursing, I k now it won’t be long before  the sheriff gets him; and there are too many of his class, his type is seen in other forms…”  Sunday continued that in the present day, everyone shifted the blame from themselves to something else, but the reverend refuted this fiercely decrying, “When things go wrong, the people, not God, are to blame.  Citizens of Joplin, you are to blame. Citizens of Joplin you are to blame.”

Sunday asked the question, was a revival worth it?  Was even an improvement of six months’ work worth it? The reverend answered in the affirmative, “It is worth all a person owns to have peace and contentment brought to the home for six months.  It is worth much to a woman to have her home made bright and to have her husband come home sober instead of having him brought  in drunk to curse and damn her.” Even if the husband fell off the wagon, Sunday proclaimed, “It will be appreciated, you can’t tell me it won’t.”

Billy Sunday

Sunday, as he began, “…dramatically hooked his clinched fist through the ozone and declared he was in position to defend himself and his policies.”

The reverend then directly addressed the work ahead for the city, “Joplin has an enviable reputation throughout the country.  It is recognized as a hustling, bustling city.  It is looked upon as a place of money.  But there are knockers here as elsewhere.  They are always busy with their hammers and they don’t observe union hours.  When our lives are pure and there are those who are interested in the moral betterment of the municipality, a city takes to a revival just as water seeks its own level.  There are experts in all lines, in medicine, in law.  This is the day of specialists, and the evangelist is one of them; his work is different from that of a minister.”  Sunday then explained that, “…a revival is the conviction of sin.  Inside the church there must be a spiritual revival before it gets outside.”  The problem, Sunday continued was that,”…the average church worker’s faith is almost ready to snap; the average citizen spends too much of his time in his commercial interests.  In Joplin there are many people devoting all their time to zinc mines and zinc mining stocks and letting their kids go to hell.”  Sunday then condemned, “You can walk down the street with a basket of nickels and lead four-fifths of the people to hell.”

Sunday also addressed the subject of the local minister.  He accused preachers of being unforgiving and so caught up in factionalism with other reverends that they were just as quickly find themselves on the way to hell as any other sinner.  Some of the biggest devils, Sunday growled, were baptized.  For Sunday, salvation was found through faith in Jesus Christ, not in organized religion. Churches were fine so far as they were “in the world, but all wrong when the world is in [them]…”  Sunday then proclaimed, “You can go to hell just as fast from the church door as from the grog shop or bawdy house.”

As the clock neared 9:30 pm, Sunday concluded with a catalog of those who would fight against the revival.  They were the blackleg gamblers, the bartenders and saloon proprietors, and prostitutes, as well nefarious and slinking politicians.  None the less, Sunday declared, “But I’ll give the devil and his gang the best run for their money they have ever had.”

Thus, Sunday had established the battleground upon which he intended to fight.  Like many of the pre-Prohibition evangelist of the day, alcohol existed as one of the chief evils of society.  Remove it and those who supported its distribution and a society would be down the path to peace and happiness.  It was one of the chief pillars of vice that Sunday fought against and would become an even wider electoral battleground in only a number of weeks.

Joplin’s Gallant Irishman: Daniel Sheehan

One journalist described the early days of Joplin as nothing more than, “lead, whisky, and gambling.” He went on to elaborate that it was a time when “the faro table was the best piece of furniture and needed legs like a billiard table to stand up under the coin; when the ‘bad man’ was numerous and had a retinue; when the Indian gave daily street exhibitions or archery, and a shooting gallery was a better business proposition than a skating rink today.”

The citizens of Joplin depended upon a small contingent of law enforcement officials who relied upon their knowledge of the community, their instincts, and brute force when necessary to keep the peace. Among those who walked the muddy streets corralling prostitutes and breaking up drunken fights was Officer Daniel Sheehan.

Born in 1830 in Killarney, County Kerry, Ireland, Sheehan was a “very Irish Irishman” who spoke with the characteristic thick brogue of his home country. He had long served the city of Joplin as a night watchman and police officer. Commonly known as “Dad” to everyone who knew him, Sheehan was said to be “inoffensive as a child [and] always had a mirthful Hibernian salutation.” Despite his inoffensive manner, he allegedly never overlooked a dog that needed taxing at a time when residents still paid a dog tax.

During bad weather, Sheehan would stop by the offices of the Joplin Daily Herald and sit by the stove to keep warm. The paper’s founder, A.W. Carson, was fond of the old Irishman and the two men became good friends. It was said that “Carson got many a juicy morsel of ‘inside’ information that pleased in print – and much that was never printed.”

Carson made sure the Joplin’s gallant Irishman played a prominent role in the stories that he printed in the Joplin Daily Herald. Several of the stories cast Sheehan in a comical light, but provide insight into his daily duties, many of which would be familiar to a modern day police officer: Fights, rowdy prisoners, domestic violence calls, and careless and imprudent drivers.

Sheehan was once greatly offended when an “unruly prisoner” called him a “damned Dutchman.” The editor of the State Line Herald lightheartedly proclaimed, Sheehan was “the only Irish scholar in Joplin who thoroughly understands the language. He is also remarkably well drilled in English military tactics, and can handle a company of men as well as a West Pointer.”

In 1883, a young boy ran up to Sheehan and reported a fight taking place between four or five women. As Sheehan approached the residence, he heard “wailing [and the] gnashing of teeth.” Forcing the door open, he sprang inside, but found the house empty. Perplexed, Sheehan searched the house and stopped when he found “three pairs of plump legs” sticking out from underneath a bed. The newspaper reporter cheekily remarked: “A less courageous heart would have quailed confronted by such an array of hosiery, but faithful Dan proceeded to march them off” to police court. Other calls were, unfortunately, much more serious.

On another occasion, an individual’s “obnoxious” and “bellicose” behavior led to the Sheehan searching him. The officer confiscated: a billy club, two dirks, a self-cocking revolver, two flasks of whiskey, a bottle of sulphate of zinc, a vial of balsam copaiba, and a “toy India rubber shot-gun.” The veteran officer “is in a dilemma whether to start a gun shop or a drug store.”

Like veteran officers of the era who had to rely on their instincts and experience, Sheehan was often in the right place at the right time. When a “gilly from Arkansaw fired off a pistol in the alley near Botkins livery stable” Sergeant Sheehan was “as usual around and welcomed the artilleryman with open arms as he emerged from Fourth Street.” The Arkansawyer was promptly escorted to police court.

On a fall day, Sheehan arrested a visitor from Cherokee, Kansas, who was driving his buggy too fast through the streets of Joplin. The Kansan had come over from “his persecuted state for a little recreation on free soil, and very naturally tarried too long at the bowl wand was soon under the influence of ‘corn juice.’” He decided to hop in his buggy for a jaunt down Main Street. He had almost completed his circuit through town when Sheehan arrested him. The newspaper noted that while the man’s lodging cost him nothing, the city received a fine of $16.25 from him.

On other occasions, he found himself taking care of domestic matters: In the spring of 1881, Sheehan shot and killed a rabid dog on Pearl Street that had attempted to attack a family, and on another call, he arrested a man for beating his wife.

The Irishman spent much of his time arresting Joplin’s sirens of sin as this story illustrates:

“The affable gallant Sergeant Sheehan created quite a sensation yesterday in back alley circles of society by escorting a flashily dressed woman along the somewhat contracted thoroughfare lying immediately west of Main Street,. The old veteran had far more opportunity to show his gallantry on this many scented alley than on Main Street. There were ash-heaps to circumnavigate, slop barrels to evade, and a devious way to as to be threated amongst beer bottles, empty oyster cans, and cast-away cat corpses that strew that delectable Golgotha. The Chesterfield of the force performed this difficult act of courtesy in the most satisfactory manner, although his handsome charge seemed faint and leaned heavily on his strong arm. At one or two difficult passages she even pressed heavily on his larboard quarter is as the wont of the gushing miss in her first overpowering attack of puppy love. The veteran officer was marble and evinced none of the weaknesses of frail flesh and blood. With the placid face of devotion to duty he made the passage and ushered his charge, silk-dress, perfumery, six button kids, and all, into the cooler. It was California Kate on her regular drunk.”

Many of the women were under the influence of drugs and alcohol. On a fall day, he “encountered a lewd woman in a beastly state of intoxication in the alley west of Main Street yesterday. She resisted arrested, fought, scratched, and shouted foul epithets known only to her ilk. In her struggle, she tore off the skirt of her dress, but was finally landed in the calaboose.”

Woe to any lawbreaker who angered the old copper after Pat Wynne of Columbus, Kansas, presented Sheehan with a “new official cane. It is of the substantial order of architecture and will be found of full regulation weight when it comes in contact with an obstreperous law breaker.” Sheehan may have well been carrying this cane when, in 1885, he made his final collar.

Over the years, the city newspapers carried varying accounts of what happened on that hot July afternoon in Joplin. The details, provided by eyewitnesses, fellow officers, and citizens who remembered the tragic events, have been gathered here and distilled into a narrative account that provides the reader with an overview of the events of that day, choosing to instead focus on his life, rather than his untimely death.

In the summer of 1884, Joe Thornton began selling whisky in a two room building that sat on the state line of Missouri and Kansas. Because it was illegal to sell liquor in Kansas, he reportedly sold his illicit liquor on the Missouri side of the line, and because gambling was prohibited in Missouri, he set up gaming tables on the Kansas side of his establishment to the annoyance of local officers.

Although he engaged in nefarious activities, Thornton had allegedly never killed anyone, though he had tried. Thornton had once stuck a .45 pistol into the stomach of Lewis Cass Hamilton, one of Joplin’s toughest law enforcement officers, and pulled the trigger twice. The gun fortunately misfired.

On the fateful day of July 18, 1885, Thornton was wanted on five warrants, and although officers had tried to arrest him for months, he had eluded capture. He generally only left his building once a day at noon to get water. Previously, officers had asked a nearby home owner, A.B. Carlin, if they could hide in his blackberry patch and ambush Thornton. Carlin gave his permission, but later changed his mind, fearing that Thornton would take revenge if the officers failed to arrest him. Thornton, unafraid, occasionally visited Joplin on business.

On July 18, 1885, Jasper County Julius C. Miller stepped out of the Joplin post office on the northeast corner at Second and Main and saw Deputy City Marshal Daniel Sheehan standing on the opposite corner. Sheehan alerted Miller that Thornton was in town and said if Miller wanted to arrest him, Sheehan and “Big George” McMurtry would help.

Miller was in a difficult position. He knew that Joplin City Marshal Cass Hamilton had ordered Sheehan to never attempt to apprehend Thornton because Thornton had threatened to kill Sheehan, claiming the old Irishman had once mistreated him. Miller, Sheehan, and McMurtry met at the northwest corner of Second and Main to discuss the matter. Sheehan was insistent that they arrest Thornton and added, “an’ sure all we’s have to do is kape him from gettin’ to his weapon.” The men noticed Thornton’s buggy tied up outside of Simon Schwartz’s dry goods store, Famous 144. The three officers headed toward to the store. Once inside, Sheehan pointed Thornton out to Miller, who had never seen Thornton before. Miller began advancing toward Thornton who had his back turned to the door. Miller tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he was Thornton. Thornton replied that he was. When notified that Miller had a warrant for his arrest, Thornton remained calm, but when Miller said, “Sheehan, take hold of his other arm,” Thornton pulled out his gun and shot Sheehan.

Miller, who was described as six foot tall and “no invalid,” jumped on Thornton and tried to wrestle the gun away from him. Unfortunately, Miller’s hands were near Thornton’s mouth, and bootlegger began savagely biting Miller’s fingers and wrists. Miller could “feel the membrane begin torn from the bone” by Thornton. One of his hands was caught up in the action of the gun and Thornton kept “snapping away and every fall of the hammer was cutting into shreds the skin and flesh between Miller’s thumb and forefinger.” Miller’s tattered hand was the only thing keeping the gun from firing. As one account put it, “Miller had to stand it or leave a widow at home.”

Sheehan, who had been caught up in the fight, realized he had been shot. He cried out, “Oh, I’m shot! Take me out! Take me out!” before he fell to the floor. Deputy City Marshal McMurtry was ordered by Miller to “do something and do it quick. He’s eating me up.” Sheehan, lying helplessly nearby, called out, “Take my club!” McMurtry grabbed the Irishman’s club and began beating Thornton as hard as he could over the head, but accidentally hit Miller with the second blow. Miller yelped, “Don’t kill me, Mac!”

Contractor Sol Wallace and coal dealer W.E. Johnson rushed into the fray and pulled the store’s twin merchandise counters apart so that they more easily help separate the two men. McMurtry continued to strike Thornton in the head which was a bloodied mess. Thornton bit Wallace, but Wallace managed to get a grip on the pistol. When Thornton would not let go, Wallace kicked him in the throat, but the blow did not seem to register. Finally, his adrenaline exhausted, Thornton surrendered.

The four men started Thornton to the door on the way to the jail and were followed by a weakened Daniel Sheehan. The Irishman collapsed in the doorway and was taken to Dr. Kelso’s office. An examination showed that the bullet had entered a little below to the left of the navel and ranged downward and presumably lodged in tissue near Sheehan’s spine. When it became clear that Sheehan had but a short time to live, he was taken to his home. Miller’s hands and wrists were “in ribbons” and he carried the scars of his encounter with Thornton for the rest of his life.

After Thornton was put in jail, a crowd gathered, trying to catch a glimpse of the man who had shot Daniel Sheehan. He talked freely, telling one questioner that he was raised in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and that “I am too lazy to work and too ornery to live. If you want to send me over the road, I’m ready.” When someone mentioned lynching, Thornton reportedly replied, “I deserve to die and if they will bring on the rope, I’ll march out and die game. I don’t want to be mutilated and abused. I’d rather die now than go to the pen.”

News of the shooting spread quickly and a mob began to gather. Shouts of “Hang him!” and “Joe Thornton must die!” could be heard on the streets of Joplin. At two o’clock in the morning, a group of men approached the city jail with a battering ram. With just a few blows, the door was forced open, and the men found Thornton sitting in the first cell. The mob threw a rope over his head and marched to the “Kennedy property” at Second and Main where there were several maple trees. A crowd gathered to watch, but the mob kept the curious onlookers from getting close until they had lynched Thornton. Only then could spectators approach and look at Thornton’s body. He was pronounced dead and the coroner declared he had died at the hands of parties unknown. The Joplin Daily Herald remarked, “Thornton has paid the penalty of crime with his life. A dozen such lives would be feeble atonement for his crimes. Mob law is to be deplored, but great emergencies require desperate remedies.”

Thornton’s mistress, May Ulery, arrived to claim his body. She dressed him in a new suit of clothes before a hearse from Galena arrived to transport his corpse to the residence of his brother in Galena. Thornton was then buried in the Galena City Cemetery. A few weeks later, the building that housed Thornton’s dive was moved from the state line to Galena, Kansas.

Daniel Sheehan died a short time later on July 19, 1885. The fifty-five year old Irishman left behind a widow, Kate, and five children at home, including the youngest, Cecilia, who was one. His family received a free plot from the city in Fairview Cemetery for his burial. The vacancy on the police force was not filled for a month after his death so that his family could receive a full month’s salary by the “kindly arrangement of his brother officers.” Fellow officer McMurtry kept the shell casing from the round that killed Sheehan. The remaining five shells were removed from pistol, a .38 Colt, and distributed as mementos.

The citizens of Joplin were grateful for Sheehan’s service. A subscription fund was started by Joplin Daily Herald editor A.W. Carson to pay for a handsome stone monument from True Brothers & Sansom. Among the more prominent names on the list were Thomas Connor (.50 cents), Thomas W. Cunningham ($1.00), Clark Claycroft (.25 cents), Charles Schifferdecker ($2.00), W.H. Picher ($1.00), and Edward Zelleken ($1.00). Fellow officer Lewis Cass Hamilton gave the most money with a $5.00 donation and Simon Schwartz, owner of the store where Sheehan was killed, donated $3.00.

The handsome marble monument still stands as a testament to an immigrant who made a new life for himself in the rough and tumble mining town of the old Southwest.

A History Nugget: The Sinful Siren of Joplin

Who says reading old newspapers is a bore? Here’s an interesting quote from a 1882 Joplin paper:

“The first name on the register of the new calaboose was Jennie Hanford, a savagerous siren of sin, who in winding up a night’s debauch made a raid on the News office early Wednesday morning, having taken it for a saloon, and was about to jerk the hind sight off the [printer’s] devil because he was unable to furnish a whisky straight on order. There is no telling what would have been the fate of the innocent young rooster had not Officer Sackett interposed and placed the wandering wanton under lock and key.”

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Joplin’s early Chinese community, although small, was tenacious despite being frequent targets of crime and racism. On a Saturday night in late January, 1916, a free-for-all erupted at the Low Shanghai restaurant after a patron refused to pay for his dinner. When confronted by Jung Toy, the owner of the restaurant, the man put on a pair of brass knuckles and hit Toy. Members of the Chinese wait staff rushed to the assistance of Toy which then induced a number of other diners to join the fray. Brass knuckles, a knife, and several chairs were used in the ensuing melee. Sixty year old Jung Ginn, who was also known as John Lee, was seriously injured when someone hit him over the right eye with a pair of brass knuckles. The attackers fled the restaurant, but G.H. Ritter, Thomas Hildreth, and Harvey B. Young were arrested a short time later.

Jung Toy had immigrated from Canton, China, possibly in 1882, and likely named his restaurant after the region’s greatest city. The attack did not dissuade Jung Toy from remaining in the restaurant business. A glance at the 1920 census reveals that Jung Toy remained in the business at least four more years. However, by 1930, Jung Toy’s life had taken a turn for the worse. If the same Jung Toy, he reappears in the census in Rexford, Montana, a widower (he had been married in Joplin) and reduced to a simple cook at a railroad restaurant.

To Cure Evils: The Joplin Automobile Club

The founding members of the Joplin Auto Club met at the meeting room of the Joplin Commercial Club located at the Club Theatre.


“To cure evils,” was the purpose of the establishment of the Joplin Automobile Club, a branch of the Southwest Missouri Association. In the February of 1911, the city of Joplin was faced with the new problems and dangers of a populace that increasingly turned toward motorized travel in the streets. In response, the city attorney, W.M. Andrews, oversaw a crack down on motor vehicle violations with a veritable flood of arrests and fines. Outrage was immediate. In the quarters of the city’s Commercial Club “bankers, doctors, lawyers and businessmen,” the elite who could afford automobile ownership, demanded answers from Andrews. Andrews, in turn, was blunt. Fourth Street, the city prosecutor decried, had turned into a race track and “only miracles have prevented deaths as a result of fast and reckless driving.”

At issue was a city ordinance which required illuminated numbers on cars to help Joplin’s police department identify and arrest offenders. A number of owners complained that the length of their car identification numbers made adherence an impracticality. Andrews, however, was undeterred and argued of the dangerous driving, “This must be stopped. If there are no numbers on the machines how can an office detect the guilty parties? Within the past two weeks there have been several people injured by autos, and in one instance a woman and two children were thrown from a buggy.” In compromise, Andrews stated that adherence within ten days would result in a dismissal of charges and fines. Unsurprisingly, this was well received.

Taken sometime after 1908, this photo reveals that at least 3 years before the creation of the Joplin Automobile Club, Main Street was still mainly a place of horse and buggy.


The car owners were not without a sense of responsibility for their machines of a new century. The Joplin Automobile Club was only part of a series of clubs created throughout Jasper County, with additional clubs associated with the other towns of the county. Approximately 100 men joined that February with the expectation that membership would grow as word and knowledge of its existence spread.

Two weeks later, the men gathered again to elect officers. Taylor Snapp was voted president, Fred Basom and Victor Young, vice-presidents, A.H. Waite treasurer and W.M. Pye, secretary. At the same meeting, the club voted to create reward money for the arrest and conviction of individuals who sought to ruin the enjoyment and lives of car owners. $100 for a car thief, $25 for someone stealing a part of a car, $10 for anyone who cut a tire or threw rocks at a car or its occupants. Interestingly, the club also voted to encourage a crack down on teamsters, who “persist in taking the entire road and who refuse to permit automobiles to pass” in violation of state law. It was Snapp, in this capacity as president who later spoke for the club after a car accident resulted in the creation of Joplin’s first motorcycle police officer. In short, however, the Joplin Automobile Club came into existence as a means for mostly wealthy men to protect their interests in the new and expensive world of car ownership. The distinction of car ownership would fade eventually with the production of cars affordable by all, such as the Ford Model T.

A Car Accident

A sketch of one of Joplin's early car accidents.


“Great Excitement prevailed for a time, but this soon subsided…” In 1906, automobiles were still a new and intriguing sight on the streets of Joplin. The motorized fire engines were still a dream and the road mainly belonged to horse drawn buggies, wagons and trolleys. Thus, it was still quite a newsworthy event when one of the new machines accidentally plowed through the front of A.C. Webb’s automobile establishment at 2nd and Joplin street. A Joplin paper described the event:

“The automobile has always been noted for its liability to do things, but this characteristic was fully demonstrated yesterday afternoon when a runabout of this make crashed…tearing down a large portion of the building, breaking the glass in both windows and doors and not injuring the machine in the least.”

The unfortunate driver was Gus Mattes who had attempted to drive the vehicle into Webb’s shop but instead failed to slow down and completely missed the entrance, but did not miss the brick wall (“with great force.”) Surprisingly, despite the fact that Webb’s shop had suffered damage described alternatively as “demolished” and “splintered” the actual automobile received only a “crack in the glass of one of the lamps.” Before the day was done, the shop was already under repair, and undoubtedly, Mr. Mattes’ vehicle as well.

Incidentally, A.C. Webb’s shop was only a few blocks away from the Joplin Fire Department. When Joplin firemen responded to a fire a couple years later behind a steering wheel, its creator was Webb.

Who Killed “Joplin’s Poor Little Rich Girl”?

On May 28, 1950, Joplin’s swanky Roanoke neighborhood was the scene of a vicious crime that remains unsolved to this day. The body of forty-nine-year-old Gwendolyn Creekmore was found brutally bludgeoned and burned in the home she shared with her mother, Hallie Creekmore, at 915 North Sergeant. She had been beaten repeatedly in the head with a meat hammer. Mercurochrome, a poison, was also found at the crime scene. An autopsy later revealed the poison was present in her stomach and kidneys, but it was unclear if she had willingly ingested it. It was, as one press account declared, “The strangest death case in the modern history of Jasper County.”

Gwendolyn Creekmore, dubbed “Joplin’s Poor Little Rich Girl,” by the Joplin press, was born Elizabeth Gwendolyn McCarthy. When her mother Hallie married businessman William J. Creekmore in 1901, he adopted the young girl, and she became Gwendolyn Creekmore. When she was an infant, she contracted an unknown illness that impaired her mobility and ability to speak. Despite her physical ailments, Gwendolyn grew up in relative comfort in a protective household.

Her adoptive father, William J. Creekmore, was a successful businessman. He owned cattle ranches in Missouri, Kansas, and Texas; successfully speculated on large amounts of real estate at Tulsa, Oklahoma; and purchased Joplin’s Milwaukee Beer Company, a large wholesale liquor distributor.

During Oklahoma’s oil boom, Creekmore capitalized on his wholesale liquor business in Joplin, selling spirits to thirsty wildcatters across the state line. He soon branched out and, according to one account, his “illicit distribution network expanded into nearly every county in Oklahoma.” Creekmore was dubbed the “King of the Oklahoma Bootleggers.” He funneled his wealth into real estate at Jay, Oklahoma, and in 1912, built a handsome residence in Joplin’s exclusive Roanoke neighborhood at 915 North Sergeant.

Success came at a price: Creekmore caught the unwanted attention of the federal government. He spent time in an Oklahoma jail, and, later, two years in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary for jury tampering. Although he swore that he was “out of the liquor business,” Creekmore was suspected of financially backing the region’s illicit liquor industry throughout Prohibition. In 1934, he died from complications from diabetes. Creekmore left his estate, estimated to be worth roughly $5 million in today’s money, to his wife. He was buried in the family plot in Lamar, Missouri.

Creekmore’s widow, Hallie, and adopted daughter, Gwendolyn, continued to live in the family’s Joplin residence after his death. By some accounts, Creekmore was overly protective of his adopted child, and reportedly did not allow Gwendolyn to date while he was alive. Shortly after his death, however, she married C.B. Farnahan. Farnahan stole the family’s sedan and left town, never to be seen again. Gwendolyn received a divorce in 1936 and subsequently married area resident Cliff Polston. The marriage lasted a year before the couple divorced. She was reportedly engaged to yet another suitor, but the relationship ended before the two married. Creekmore then began seeing Joplin resident Lee Moxley.

After Creekmore’s body was discovered, Moxley was brought in for questioning. Police also questioned her former husband Cliff Polston and the Creekmore family’s former yardman. Moxley claimed to have an alibi; insisting he had went to a family reunion, and then returned home. He later willingly went with Joplin detectives to Jefferson City to take a polygraph exam. Hallie Creekmore, who had been in ill health, insisted from her hospital bed at St. John’s Hospital that Moxley was supposed to bring her daughter by to see her at the hospital that evening. Moxley denied her statement.

Coroner Dr. W.W. Hurst stated that Gwendolyn Creekmore had been brutally murdered; that it was impossible she could have committed suicide. Police admitted that they were perplexed by the murder. They could not explain why a cocked .38 revolver belonging to the Creekmore family was found next to the telephone in the living room, why there was an old lamp cord in the middle of Creekmore’s bed, or why the basement door, generally kept locked, was found unlocked. Detectives were also puzzled that her expensive diamond jewelry was left undisturbed in the home. Despite a second polygraph, Lee Moxley continued to protest his innocence. A cab driver told the coroner’s jury that after he had picked Creekmore up from the hospital after she had finished visiting her mother, she had asked to stop by a pharmacy to buy poison. He refused and drove her home.

On June 5, as Joplin police officials continued to investigate Gwendolyn Creekmore’s murder, Mayor H. Chris Oltman ordered a departmental shake-up. Both Chief of Police Roy Isgrigg and the Detective Chief Luther Laster were demoted. Isgrigg, Laster, and special representative Everett Patrick were ordered to investigate Creekmore’s murder full-time. Mayor Oltman declared, “The Creekmore case is not going to be dropped.” He voiced his disgust that the police had failed to secure the crime scene, failed to take fingerprints, and had failed to prevent trespassers from entering the Creekmore residence. A month later, the police investigation failed to uncover any further leads, with authorities trying to decide whether or not it was a murder or a bizarre suicide. The case remains unsolved.

Murder in the Bottoms

Former location of part of the Kansas City Bottoms, after its leveling for the construction of the Union Depot.

Since Joplin first began as a rough mining town on the edge of the Ozarks, it has seen its share of violence, though many of the crimes have long since been forgotten. In the spring of 1899, the Joplin Daily News trumpeted, “The most startling discovery in crime ever known in the annals of Joplin was made about noon today at a tent in the Kansas City Bottom[s] near the mouth of St. Joe Hollow. Five persons were found dead and their bodies are in a horrible state of decomposition.”

According the news account, two young boys, Mack Hutchinson and Walter Towsley, were in the area when they noticed swarms of flies and a strong stench in the air. They followed the smell to a tent 8×12 in size. What they found was horrifying: “the headless body of a baby on the outside, and on peering inside they discovered the dead bodies of two more children, a man and a woman.” After alerting authorities, a large crowd gathered around the tent, where further investigation showed that the man, James Moss, had bludgeoned his wife and two of his children to death before beheading a third child. He then shot himself with a .38 revolver.

Interviews with neighbors revealed the family had been in the Joplin area for around two months and that the father, James Moss, had worked “scrapping ore.” No one the News reporter spoke to had heard the gunshot or any sounds of a struggle even though their closest neighbor lived only 150 feet away from the Moss family tent. The reporter later encountered two women who claimed that they had heard a single gunshot on a Tuesday evening, but thought nothing of it. The scene, it later was learned, was “within a stone’s throw of the old pump shaft where Lewis Channell was killed by Charley Seaton a number of years ago.” The bodies were claimed by the coroner and taken from the scene.

Examination of the Moss’ belongings revealed a few details about the family. The Moss’ originally hailed from Independence, Missouri. James E. Moss was 35 years old and was a former stagecoach driver between Deadwood and Bismarck, North Dakota, up to 1881. He also worked as a driver for the Emery, Bird, & Thayer department store in Kansas City. It later appeared that Moss, his wife Ida, and his children had lived for a brief time in Los Angeles, California, before heading back east to Missouri. The News reporter remarked James’ possessions showed that he “was somewhat of a misanthropist, judging from some of his writings, and was a reader of Tom Paine.” Moss owned copies of Paine’s Age of Reason and Rights of Man that “appeared to have been read considerably.” The reporter mused, “He probably became despondent and sore on the world, and while in that mood murdered his family and then ended his own life.” The only money found was $1.25.

The Kansas City Journal observed, “Moss was an ardent admirer of Robert G. Ingersoll, especially of his views on suicide, and being a man of intense convictions relative to this and other religious views, it is believed here that he was crazy.” A single note was discovered at the scene of the crime, written in Moss’ hand, which read, “There was no truer wife nor lovelier children than mine. J.E. Moss.”

A few days after the murders occurred, Ida Moss’ brother and half -sister arrived to collect the family’s belongings and shipped them to Independence. The tent, bedding, and other items that remained were then burned. The bodies of the family were to be sent back to Independence within the year for burial. The murders were eventually forgotten over time, but remain one of the grisliest to occur in Joplin’s history.

Proud to Visit Joplin’s Jail

In early Joplin, there was no shortage of Joplinites who were escorted to the city’s hoosegow. Surprisingly, some of these individuals were quite proud of their predicament. A Joplin Globe reporter interviewed Joplin Constable Arch McDonald about the phenomenon,

“You may not believe that it actually makes some people proud to be arrested. There’s all the difference in the world the way various people take the situation when the officer is compelled to duty. Some men readily appreciate the officer’s difficulties and prepare to go right along just like attending to any other business engagement; while others blame the officer who is called upon to serve the warrant and think its his fault, much the same as some people hold it against the postman when they fail to get a letter.”

Another Joplin police officer, Will Gibson, offered his own experience,

“Proud? Why yes, it’s the event of some fellows’ lives to get arrested, and some of them think it a real honor to be shown the distinction of being singled out of a crowd and marched down the street to jail. I arrested a young miner from Chitwood the other night for being drunk and disorderly on Main Street between Fourth and Fifth, and he didn’t seem half so drunk after I took hold of him. He wasn’t scared sober, either, but was just swelled up over having the strong arm of the law take notice of his antics, I guess. He braced up at once and told me that was all right, that he could walk straight, and then stepped off down Main street like a ham-strung thoroughbred, looking first to the right, then to the left, and making it a point to say something to every acquaintance he saw. He was plainly the cock of the walk.”

Deputy Sheriff Clarence Kier had this for the reporter,

“Nor are the drunks the only ones who feel the honor of being taken into custody. I’ve seen men arrested for some petty offenses of a more or less serious nature who got right chesty over it and swaggered down the street. One man in particular from over in East Joplin put the thing plainly when I started for the car line with him and his wife called to know where he was going. ‘Can’t you see,’ responded the fellow with a sort of self-important air,’ that I’m being arrested!”

Finally, United States Deputy Marshall, Henry Platt, offered his own experience,

“There’s another phase to the seeming willingness of some men to go along with the officer. I’ve seen federal prisoners puff all up when thrown into jail, and hold themselves aloof from common state felons and petty criminals, but that isn’t the secret of it. You’ll find that it isn’t only the novice nor the best citizen who goes along willingly with the officer, but that the very worst criminal of all is a good dissembler and very frequently scores a point by the apparent acquiescence and good nature with which he submits to arrest. The quiet man is often worse because he is shrewdest and most slippery of all evil doers.

He is not the murderer nor the criminal of passion, but the criminal of property, the thief, the forger, the embezzler, the counterfeiter, the one who works along original and stealthy lines. He’s just smart enough to know when he’s cornered, and if he sees that the chances for escape are all against him he quietly submits and goes along with the hope of affecting escape later, or by getting the minimum penalty by arousing the least suspicion. When the time comes for his break for liberty, the seemingly well behaved and tractable prisoner shows himself to be the most desperate of the bunch. He’s the criminal exemplification of the man with the ax to grind.”

An interesting aside to be picked up from the answer is the fact that Joplin police would use the trolley line to take prisoners back to the city jail. The equivalent today having a police officer get on a city bus with a prisoner in handcuffs.

Joplin’s One-Armed Bandits

Gambling has been endemic to Joplin since the city’s foundation in the 1870s. However, it legally came to an end, at least in the form of slot machines, in 1952. Slot machines had been part of Joplin’s gambling past not that long before, when they formed part of the focus of a grand jury investigation into Joplin’s police chief and mayor in the 1930′s (based on officials “overlooking” their presence in Joplin businesses). After a state law came into effect, simply possessing the gambling devices became illegal. As a result, “approximately 3,000 pounds of “junk”" was collected by one local company. The Joplin Eagle Club, likewise, surrendered eleven machines to the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office, the total value of the machines estimated at $3,000. An article about the end of the slot-machines implied that at the time they were also familiar devices in Joplin’s other private fraternities and organizations, as well.

A Joplin slot machine on its way to be destroyed.