After stealing coal from the House of Lords, fourteen-year-old Roy Smith began serving a four month sentence at the Joplin city jail. What was notable about the young African American’s stint at the city jail was that no one filed a complaint against him and he was not tried for theft in police court. Instead, Smith’s guilty conscience led him to serve a self-imposed sentence. Deputy Chief Frank Sowder remarked it was the, “strangest case on record.”
Roy’s friends tried to convince him to “shake” the police after a few days, but he stubbornly stayed at the jail. He busied himself sweeping the police courtroom, building fires in the station in the morning, and running errands for the officers. When asked, Roy told a reporter that he planned to follow the law and serve his sentence.
Officers who may have thought Roy was good at keeping the jail tidy found out that he had even more to offer. Two small paperboys arrived at the jail and reported they had been assaulted by two black boys who pelted them with rocks and struck them with their firsts. Roy, whom officers had nicknamed “Cooney,” listened to their story. He then volunteered that he could identify and find the two black boys. Chief McManamy granted Roy permission to go apprehend the suspects, laughing at the boy as he headed out the jail. But the chief found himself surprised when ten minutes later he heard a “terrible commotion” in front of the jail. Looking outside, McManamy saw Roy dragging two “much larger negro lads by the coat collars.”
Roy proudly announced, “Here they are.” He then proceeded to drag the two boys into the jail. According to Roy, he used the power of verbal and physical persuasion to get the two boys to accompany him to the jail. Roy, who had observed officers over the last few weeks, took every precaution: He searched his prisoners before he handed them off to Chief McManamy, who performed the duties of desk sergeant. A few minutes later, Roy announced he “had scared them into making a complete confession.”
Roy formed a close friendship with Bosco Busick, the assistant deputy poundmaster and patrol wagon driver. The two of them would fall asleep in the big cushy armchairs in the jail at night after talking for hours. Despite fleeting moments of relaxation, Roy continued to serve as Joplin’s junior Sherlock Holmes.
A few weeks later, Roy was called to service once more. When the police needed to question a young African American girl about the whereabouts of some suspected criminals, the officers brought her to the station, put her in the sweatbox, and pressed her for information for over thirty minutes. She professed ignorance. Roy, who had been out buying tobacco for one of the officers, arrived and observed the interrogation. He winked at Night Captain Loughlin and began to talk to the girl. Soon he had obtained the information the officers sought. His task finished, Roy grabbed a broom and started sweeping the jail, which was now decorated with pictures and cartoons he had drawn for the officers.
Like many of Joplin’s other characters, we’re not sure what happened to Roy Smith, but it’s clear he made quite the impression on the Joplin police. One can only hope he stayed on the straight and narrow.