Kansas City Bottoms: Part III

Sunshine Mission in Joplin Missouri
In 1915, a young girl made a simple, but momentous decision that affected the lives of her fellow residents in the Kansas City Bottoms. The girl, name unknown, decided to attend church. Surely the sight of a bedraggled, impoverished child from the Bottoms must have caused a stir in the pews of the church she attended, but if it did, the child did not notice. Instead, she asked her Sunday school teacher, Miss Minnie McKenna, for help.

With Christmas looming ahead, McKenna turned to the Women’s Civic Club for assistance. Eager to help those in need, the Women’s Civic Club leapt into action, and helped establish a mission to the poor. Members initially contributed $90 to start a building fund and formed a committee to bring in more funds. Howard Murphy offered land for the mission and Mayor Jesse F. Osborne, P.A. Christman, and James McConnell agreed to create a building committee.

Within a few days, a small single story structure was completed, and was named “Sunshine Mission.” The humble building served as the site of the first Christmas tree and Christmas services held in the Kansas City Bottoms. The Women’s Civic Club received assistance from numerous other religious and civic organizations eager to show their support for the project. Christmas presents and candy were distributed to the children.

It was at this time that a young boy who lived in the Kansas City Bottoms told McKenna he was “tired of being called a ‘coke bottomer’ and a ‘bottomite’” and asked that the name “be changed to something ‘pretty and bright.’” McKenna renamed the area “Sunshine Hollow.”

Residents of Sunshine Hollow could attend Sunday school services at the mission, take sewing and crocheting classes, and join a mother’s club. The Sunday school services were taught by young men and women from across Joplin’s religious community. Their efforts persisted until 1918 when, due to World War One, their efforts were redirected to the war effort.

In 1919, members of the First Christian Church rallied to reopen the mission, but their work was halted when a ban was placed on public meetings due to the threat of Spanish influenza. A year later, the mission was once again reopened, and the number of attendees grew. It was during this time that the building was moved from the site of the Union Depot to an area further north “just east and north of the viaduct on the North Main Street road.” The building was the enlarged and painted white with paint donated by Eagle-Picher.

The first full-time minister at Sunshine Mission was the Rev. Mr. Ashworth. After three years he left and was replaced by the Rev. William Kelley. Kelley’s tenure at the Sunshine Mission will be continued in the next post.

Stay tuned for Part IV of the history of the Kansas City Bottoms!

Copyright Historic Joplin, 2012.

Kansas City Bottoms: Part II

A portion of the Kansas City Bottoms was leveled to make way for the new Union Depot station (left side of photo).

As time passed and mining operations relocated across the area, the Kansas City Bottoms was transformed as “a few factories and mills” dotted the valley and its hillsides. Although there was talk that the Kansas City Southern Railway would build rail shops in the bottoms, the project never came to fruition.

This led to an effort to “more or less isolate the city’s riff-raff of humanity there. It became a sort of ‘red-light’ district, and flourished with gayety, containing gambling houses, saloons, dance halls, and rooming houses.” As Joplin continued to grow, the area grew more desolate, and “buildings were moved, burned, or fell in ruins.” The Kansas City Bottoms soon became a sprawling slum that doubled as a dumping ground. At the turn of the century, an angry mob descended upon the Bottoms and chased out a number of prostitutes who had taken up residence there. Soon the area became populated with African Americans, some of whom had been chased out of Pierce City in 1901, after a brutal race riot ended in the expulsion of Pierce City’s black residents.

A lifelong Joplin resident shared her memories of the Bottoms in a letter to the Joplin Globe:

“Where the [Union Depot] station is now and scattered throughout the valley were shanties occupied mostly by colored folk. This place was known as the Kansas City Bottoms. There was a footbridge over Joplin Creek near where the Union Station is now. Rather than walk around to Broadway, for four years I walked through the Bottoms and came onto Main Street at about A Street on my way to high school.”

“A girl or woman did not dare to cross the Bottoms without an escort. It was not even safe for a man,” the woman continued, “My boyfriend who later became my husband lived on the West side and he never crossed without a weapon. There were often holdups and sometimes murder in the Bottoms. There was no Broadway viaduct then.”

One former Joplin police officer claimed that “policemen were virtually given orders ‘not to bring any of the ‘bottomites’ out.’” This reportedly meant that a police officer should “shoot at the least provocation and shoot to kill.”

Burt Brannon, Joplin Police Officer

Officer Bert Brannon

Charles Sweeney, Joplin Police Officer

Charles Sweeney

These reputed orders presumably came after the death of Officers James Sweeney and Bert Brannon in 1901 after they were shot and mortally wounded after arresting a gang of vagrants in the Kansas City Southern rail yard and the death of Officer Theodore Leslie who was killed in 1903 while searching the rail yard for a burglary suspect. In 1909, work began on the Third Street viaduct, which spanned the Bottoms to connect East and West Joplin. (To Learn more about the Third Street Viaduct – click here) A year later, work began on the Joplin Union Depot, and a portion of the Kansas City Bottoms was leveled to make way for the expanded railyards and station. (To learn more about the leveling of the Bottoms for the Depot, click here)

By 1915, the condition of the Kansas City Bottoms was as close to a living hell as one could find in Joplin. One account painted a bleak picture of life in the bottoms: “Squatters, trash and garbage haulers, tramps and other transients” moved into the bottoms, living in shacks, shanties, broken down wagons, and tents. Men, women, and children lived in abject poverty. Few outsiders dared enter the bottoms as it had a reputation as, “a most dangerous place. It hardly was safe for a person to enter in daylight. After dark, entry into the hollow by an outsider was practically synonymous with suicide.”

That same year, however, the Kansas City Bottoms would experience a significant transformation for the first time since Sergeant first struck lead.

Joplin Halloween Customs circa 1930s

A Works Progress Administration (WPA) worker in the 1930s observed:

“Some peculiar Halloween customs are annually practiced in Joplin and so long have they been a custom that they are tolerated. Men, women, and children, clad in unique costumes and masked, parade up and down the main business streets until a late hour on the night of October 31. They are always good natured and well behaved, seeming just out for fun. But in the residential parts of town gangs of tough boys and girls, hoodlums, go from house to house, soaping windows, ringing door bells and carrying off or breaking whatever they can get their hands upon, including automobiles, porch furniture and anything left outside. Extra police are always employed for Halloween night, but now enough are on duty on stop the depredations of the hoodlums.”

The Tri-State Terror

Missouri State Penitentiary - One time home to the Tri-State Terror, Wilber Underhill

Although many a Joplin resident will tell you that Al Capone and other infamous gangsters visited the city in the 1920s and 1930s, there is little, if nothing, in the historical record to suggest that the nation’s most “accomplished” career criminals came to town. We do know, however, that lesser historical figures did live in and visit Joplin, not counting Bonnie and Clyde’s short-lived stay in 1933. Although not a Capone, Wilber Underhill

Henry Wilber Underhill (his name was originally spelled Wilber but he felt that Wilbur was more masculine) was born in 1897 in Newton County, Missouri, to Henry and Nancy Almira (Hutchison) Underhill. The family had a small farm, but perpetual poverty convinced them to move to Joplin, where it was thought they could make a better life for themselves. In 1912, Henry Underhill, Sr. died suddenly and left the family without a steady stream of income. Almira moved her family from the house they were renting at 1218 Sergeant Avenue to the Blendville section of Joplin. Life continued to be one struggle after another. The Underhill children quickly became delinquents and became mixed up in petty crime. Wilber’s older brother Ernest was sentenced to the Missouri State Penitentiary for robbing and murdering a Joplin street vendor. At some point, Wilber was struck in the head by heavy glass bottles while rooting through a garbage pit, and was reportedly never the same.

Although he tried to make a living working odd jobs in Neosho, Wilber returned to Joplin and fell into a life of crime. In 1919, he was arrested for burglary. By 1920, Wilber had become more brazen. He began robbing couples on Joplin’s Lover’s Lane which was then located somewhere in Tanyard Hollow. A sting operation by Joplin detectives led to his capture and subsequent conviction. He was sentenced to two years at the Missouri State Penitentiary and joined his older brother Ernest who was still serving time.

After his release, Wilber headed for Picher, Oklahoma, but eventually drifted back to Joplin. On December 14, 1922, he robbed the Wilhoit Filling Station at 19th and Main streets. He was rounded up by the Joplin police, pled guilty to first degree robbery, and went back to the Missouri State Penitentiary. Underhill participated in a failed escape attempt, but was out by the winter of 1926.

Underhill immediately went back to a life of crime. During a robbery in Baxter Springs, Kansas, he shot a sixteen year old boy as he fled from Underhill and his accomplices. He continued to carry out a crime spree that led to the nickname the “Tri-State Terror.” Underhill was eventually captured, tried, and sentenced to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. He eventually escaped from a work detail and made his way to Kansas where he robbed and murdered a gas station owner. Authorities quickly caught on and when Wichita police officer Merle Colver attempted to question Underhill and his nephew, Frank Vance Underhill, Underhill shot and killed Colver. Wilber was later apprehended after a shoot-out in which he was shot in the neck. Apparently hell-bent on staying in every state penitentiary in the Midwest, Wilber was sentenced to life in the Kansas State Pentitentiary.

Ever the escape artist, Underhill and a group of other inmates managed to escape on May 30, 1933, and headed for Oklahoma. The men embarked on a crime spree that sent shivers up the spines of residents across the Four State region. The “Bradshaw-Underhill Gang,” as the group became known, ran riot despite the best efforts of area law enforcement officials. The FBI soon took notice and launched an effort to apprehend Underhill and his fellow gang members.

The FBI quickly located the gang in Shawnee, Oklahoma, and together with local law enforcement authorities, set out to capture them. A vicious gun battle ensued. Underhill was wounded in the fusillade of bullets. Despite having a number of submachine gun bullets strike him, Underhill was able to flee the scene. Despite having been shot multiple times, Underhill traveled sixteen blocks before breaking into a furniture store, where he collapsed. Authorities swooped in and arrested him. Taken to the hospital, Underhill was not expected to live. Still, most natives of Southwest Missouri are tough characters, and Wilber was no exception. Within a short period of time, he was taken back to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Shortly after his arrival, Underhill died in the prison hospital, bringing an end to a reign of terror.

On January 8, 1936, Underhill’s body arrived in Joplin and was taken to the Frank Sievers Undertaking Company. His funeral service, held at the Byers Avenue Methodist Church, was well attended. An estimated 1600 people crammed into the church to view Underhill’s corpse. He was then buried at Ozark Memorial Cemetery.

Although lesser known and certainly not as infamous as Capone, Wilber Underhill led a violent and bloody life, and his early years in Joplin may have inspired the long told tales of gangsters in Joplin.

For a more in-depth look at Wilber Underhill’s career, see R.D. Morgan’s book The Tri-State Terror. Regrettably it is not footnoted or sourced, but provides a detailed account of Underhill and his crimes, including his time in Joplin.

The Joplin Funeral of the Villainous Young Brothers

If you are from Joplin or have lived in Joplin, then you have undoubtedly heard of Bonnie and Clyde’s infamous visit in 1933. You may have even visited Peace Church Cemetery to view the grave of Joplin native William “Billy” Cook who committed six murders before he was apprehended, tried, and executed at San Quentin. But you may not be aware that the two men responsible for one of the deadliest days in law enforcement history are buried in Joplin.

On the morning of January 13, 1932, the bodies of Harry and Jennings Young were brought to Joplin for burial in Fairview Cemetery. Watching the caskets being removed from the hearse, one onlooker remarked, “I wish I were the devil. If I were I’d be getting my pitchfork sharpened up for those two.” One reporter recounted that there was a “slight undercurrent of jeering” as the Young family filed toward the grave.

Harry and Jennings Young were career criminals. In 1929, after Marshal Mark Noe pulled Harry Young over for drunk driving in Republic, Missouri, Young shot and killed Noe. Harry and his brother Jennings went on the run, but returned to the Springfield area to visit family. Their presence became known when Springfield police were contacted by a car dealer who claimed that Young’s sisters had tried to sell him a couple of stolen cars. When questioned by police, the sisters admitted their brothers were holed up on a farm outside of Springfield. Greene County Sheriff Marcel Hendrix, two deputies, three Springfield city police officers , and others, headed out to apprehend the Young brothers. In the gun battle that ensued, six of the officers were killed, including Sheriff Hendrix. Some of the surviving officers were able to return to Springfield and brought back reinforcements only to find the Young brothers had escaped.

During a national manhunt, the brothers were eventually located in Texas were they engaged in another shootout with law enforcement authorities. This time, however, they did not survive. Instead, the two brothers shot each other in order to avoid capture. Their bodies were brought back to Missouri on the insistence of their mother, who, according to one reporter, could not leave the state of Missouri due to her status as a prisoner. The bodies were sent from Texas to Vinita, Oklahoma, before being embalmed at the J.J. Gees Undertaking Parlor in Pittsburg, Kansas. From there the bodies were reportedly driven to the Greene County, Missouri, line, were the hearse was met by Greene County officials who then returned it and its cargo to Joplin.

It was reported that “Joplin police protection was not afforded the funeral. [Joplin] Police Chief Harrington was opposed to holding the funeral in Joplin, and said this morning, ‘I wasn’t going to have any of my boys hurt, for no good reason.’”

Before the caskets were lowered into the ground, the lids were taken off so that the bodies of the Young brothers were visible. A Greene County deputy sheriff formally identified both corpses as that of Harry and Jennings Young and then took fingerprints. This was done so that if someone filed for a reward claim, law enforcement officials could provide the reward money without hesitation over the identity of the two men.

Dirt was then shoveled onto the caskets and the family members under arrest were taken back to the Joplin city jail for holding.

If you do plan on visiting the graves of any of the aforementioned individuals, please be respectful of each respective cemetery’s rules, and do not disturb any grave sites.

For a more detailed glimpse, including photographs of the men involved and the house,  into what became known as the Young Brothers Massacre, here’s a link to a book published shortly after about the shoot out (note of warning: the book describes the bullet wounds received in graphic terms and photographs of the deceased brothers, as well there may be some creative embellishments).

What the Train Brings In

Any town with a railroad was bound to have its share of characters. Joplin certainly had its share. In 1897, Arthur Harrold, an eighteen year old tramp, arrived in town with a curious collection of artifacts. Harrold told a Globe reporter that he hailed from New York City and had left the Big Apple eight years and ten months earlier to see the country. With him he carried a sack full of relics that rivaled the collection of the Smithsonian: fragments of rope used to hang Cherokee Bill; a petrified potato; spectacles given to him by the first settler of Texas; the bullet that killed General James McPherson; cartridges owned by Cherokee Bill and one of the Dalton boys; saws used by Noble Shepherd when he cut his way out of the St. Louis city jail; and letters from officials from all over the country certifying his presence in their cities.

Harrold’s journey was sparked by a wager that he could not travel 65,000 miles in a ten year period and save up $6,000. At the time of his arrival in Joplin, he had reportedly saved $5,382 that was deposited in a New York bank. As part of the wager, he was not allowed to beg, steal, or borrow on his journey. Should he fulfill his mission, Harrold was to receive $5,000 from the Police Gazette magazine plus $5,000 from New York World and Associated Press.

At around the same time, another character drifted into Joplin, but not one that the police wanted to see. “Kansas City Jack” was described as a “bum” who was not “meek.” Upon arriving in Joplin, Jack immediately raised a disturbance at one of the train depots. Officer Jack Winters was called and quickly collared Kansas City Jack. But the bum was not one to go quietly as it was a “continual fight all the way from the depot to the station house.” In the course of their journey, the officer knocked Jack down “about twenty times and was about tuckered out when he reached the jail.” His neat, clean police uniform was reduced to shreds as the officer arrived at the police station wearing “only a pair of shoes and a tired looking countenance.” This, according to the Globe, was “the sort of struggle every officer is reported to have who arrests Kansas City Jack.”

After he was processed and released, Jack did not stay out of trouble. At two o’clock in the afternoon, Deputy Marshal Fones discovered some bums were passing liquor through the jail window to prisoners inside the jail. Upon going outside, Fones found that Kansas City Jack was one of the main culprits. After a struggle, and Deputy Marshal Fone’s pants being destroyed in the process, Jack was back in jail.

If Fones expected the rest of the day to go smoothly, he was wrong. At five o’clock that afternoon, while Fones was talking to a friend on Main Street between Second and Third streets, a little boy named Ira Chubb ran up and told him that prisoners were escaping from the city jail. Fones, together with Officer Winters and Deputy Constable Hopkins, took off in hot pursuit. Their chase was made all the easier by a group of young boys who were following the escapees. The prisoners were captured at Third and Byers. Upon inspecting the jail, it was discovered that one of the prisoners was a “mechanical genius” who had managed to unlock the jail door using only a simple wire.

There was never a dull moment in early Joplin!

Death Escaped, But Not Avoided

Jesse Laster, circa 1910.

On a May day in 1910, Joplin nearly lost a councilman.  Jesse Laster, not a stranger to the zinc and lead fields of Southwest Missouri, listed zinc mining as his profession in the 1910 Federal Census.  It was that same year that Laster had been elected on the Democratic ticket to represent the Seventh Ward of Joplin.  A father to three, later to add one more son to the son and two daughters he already had, Laster had ventured out with a mine superintendent, Harry Williams, to a mine in Duenweg.

The afternoon sun high above, the 28 year old councilman and Williams made the decision to board a tub to descend to the mine 200 feet below.  Both had years of mining experience and undoubtedly the act of being lowered in the metal container into the dark depths of the mine shaft was a familiar one.  Inside the tub, one or both of the men likely signaled the mine’s hoisterman to lower them down.

The hoisterman was new at his job and the equipment purported to be in good shape.  However, as the tub with the councilman and the superintendent began to lower, the hoisterman released the brake and to his horror, watched the tub with the two men plummet to the bottom of the shaft.  Nothing the hoisterman did slowed or stopped the tumbling tub.  In a sickening sight and loud crash, it smashed into a bucket full of dirt.  Laster and Williams were thrown out and into an adjacent drift, both men knocked unconscious.

It was not uncommon for miners to die in such accidents, but both Laster and Williams survived that day.  When astonished and fearful miners reached the men, they found Williams with severe wounds to the head and a broken arm.  The councilman suffered a cut to the face, an injured shoulder, and a broken right femur.  Williams was taken to his home to recover, Laster was rushed to St. John’s hospital.  At the time of the reporting of the incident, it was believed both men would recover.  Laster did, though only to live for another sixteen years.

The dark eyed and dark haired councilman, perhaps wary of the mining profession, had by 1918 joined the Joplin Police force and achieved the rank of detective.  By 1926, Laster had been promoted and wore the title Chief of Detectives.  On a hot August evening, the chief with his family were heading home when Laster spotted an armed man by the side of the road.  Unknown to the former councilman, the man was engaged in bootlegging and mistakenly believed Laster and his family to be rival bootleggers.  When Laster identified himself, the man shot and killed the 46 year old father of four.  Laster was the tenth Joplin police officer to fall in the line of duty.


Sources: 1910 Federal Census, 1920 Federal Census, Joplin Police Department website, and Joplin Daily Globe.

Opium Den Bust

In the past, Historic Joplin covered the story of “Cocaine Jimmy” Shannon, an unfortunate Joplin resident who succumbed to his love of the drug after repeated attempts to quit. Cocaine was not the only drug accessible to Joplinites. Opium, a drug that many often associated with Chinese immigrants, was also available in Joplin.

On a chilly morning in 1907, after week of surveillance confirmed their suspicions, Joplin Constable Dan Turnbull and Deputies Frank English, Lou Drane, Charles McDonald, and other officers burst into an opium den located at 102 North Main Street. Despite their belief that they would meet with opposition after breaching the door, no one inside the purported den attempted to resist the sudden intrusion.

 The first individual the officers saw was an African American woman lying on a bunk in a “comatose condition” with an African American man passed out beside her. A pipe and pills were located next to them, further confirming the belief that drugs were being used by the building’s inhabitants. It was not long before opium fumes began to overwhelm the officers. Moving quickly, Deputy Constable English questioned the woman nearest to him, asking, “Where is that pipe?” The woman replied, “Oh, there ain’t no pipe here. That’s just the smell of some liniment we were rubbing on the sick woman over there.” With her hand, she indicated the “sick woman” was the African American woman passed out on the bunk. Satisfied they had enough evidence, the officers arrested everyone in the room, and then went through the rest of the building and arrested ever “suspicious character found therein.”

 Altogether, fourteen African Americans were arrested and taken to jail. Charlie Jones, one of the men arrested, claimed he had arrived just a few days earlier from Texas. This bit of information led officers to believe that the opium may have been smuggled across the Mexican border and that Jones was possibly a member of a gang responsible for distributing the drug in the United States. Officers also seized a two foot long opium pipe, other miscellaneous smoking devices, and a large amount of opium that would have lasted the smokers “for weeks.” Harry Paskett, a man who allegedly “spent several years among the Chinese,” declared the pipe very valuable. Charlie Jones and Bertha Morris, two of the individuals arrested, were charged with operating an opium joint while the others would be charged with lewd conduct and disturbance.

Source: Joplin News-Herald

Titanic Thompson – A Joplin Hustler

For those interested in the seedier aspects of Joplin’s past, they might be interested in the newly released biography of Alvin Clarence Thomas, better known as “Titanic Thompson.”  Thompson, a native of nearby Rogers, Arkansas, spent some time in Joplin and had a reputation for literally betting on nearly anything.  It was in Joplin that Thompson purportedly earned the nickname Titanic, which came from “sinking” anyone he came across.  The new book, Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything, by Kevin Cook, a former editor of Sports Illustrated, published by W. W. & Norton Company, offers 284 pages on the life of the hustler.

A Soiled Dove Returns

Florence Woodson was hailed as one of “the most notorious denizens of the north end.” She had spent “many long and tedious hours behind the bars” and “years in dives of ill fame” when her mother appeared in Joplin and forced her to return home. Florence, it was said, had left her home in Springfield years before and journeyed to Joplin’s tough North End where she found work as a soiled dove. She soon gained the reputation as one of the “toughest of the tough.”

When her mother arrived, she found her daughter in jail, held on a charge of prostitution. Their meeting was “a heart rending scene” as Florence’s mother told her that Florence’s father had died from grief after she left home. Florence promised to leave her life on the streets and return home to Springfield. She was released from jail and left Joplin. It was rumored that she had indeed returned to the straight and narrow, but she eventually returned to Joplin, hoping to visit the “scenes of her dissipation” while on an excursion to nearby Carthage.

Florence, however, found that Joplin’s North End had changed. Many of the “resorts” were deserted; some even partially destroyed. Once the scene of “music, dancing, and wrong-doing galore,” reform-minded middle-class women had led a somewhat effort to drive the prostitutes, gamblers, and criminals from the North End, many of whom were African-American.

The police, alerted to Florence’s return, arrested her in a rooming house on Main Street. She begged that if released she would never return to Joplin. The judge fined her $5 and costs before releasing her. Florence reportedly caught a train back to Springfield. One more soiled dove had come and gone, but there would always be more to fill the bars and boarding houses of Joplin.

Source: Joplin News-Herald