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.

The Devil of East Joplin

Back one hot August summer in the 1920s, the Devil roamed the streets of East Joplin. A number of women and children reported a tall figure that resembled Beelzebub jumping out of the darkness at them and then running away. Mrs. W.H. Longacre watched in horror as a satanic figure ran in front of her car as she drove her children home. Mrs. Longacre’s report to the police went unheeded.

Doors were locked, windows were barred, and a small group of East Joplin men prowled the streets with their shotguns loaded. Rumors swirled as to whether or not it really was Old Scratch or just some harmless prankster. Some believed it was a prankster who wore armor underneath his costume to keep him safe from harm. After it became known that men were searching for the Devil armed with shotguns, Vard I. Cowan, a laborer for the Southwest Missouri Railroad Company, confessed to playing tricks on unsuspecting victims. He had used it at a church party earlier in the year and had such a good time that he continued to play tricks on residents the rest of the summer.

Some expressed their belief that Cowan’s antics were connected to the nearby Nazarene Church, but the pastor, Rev. F.C. Savage, denied that he or the church was involved with Cowan’s mischief. Mrs. Cowan, meanwhile, declared, “He has quit it. We don’t want to get into trouble.”

There were no further reports of the Prince of Darkness lurking on the streets of East Joplin.

Guest Piece: Leslie Simpson – Joplin’s Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian House

In the mid-20th century, Frank Lloyd Wright invented the concept of “Usonian” houses, which were based on the utopian ideals of simplicity, economy, and convenience. The first step in constructing a Usonian house was to lay down a concrete platform with cast-in heating pipes. Next came a grouping of brick supporting screens, creating a chain of linked boxes. The brick supports were topped by a series of flat concrete roofs, with a higher roof over the living-dining area and lower ones over the bedrooms and bath. The difference in roof heights allowed extra light to come in through clerestory window strips. Light also streamed in through floor to ceiling windows, usually overlooking a garden or pool.

One of these Usonian designs was built on the outskirts of Joplin, ¼ mile west of Stone’s Corner on Highway 171. Joplin architect Robert Braeckel adapted Wright’s plans to construct this ultra-modern dwelling for Stewart and Naomi Ruth Stanley in 1950. All steel construction supported Carthage limestone walls and large expanses of glass. Copper tubing built into the floor provided radiant heat. The ultimate in modern living, the house also featured a pool and bathhouse.

Unfortunately, I had to use past tense in my description; the house was demolished May 3, 2012. It is ironic as well since May is National Historic Preservation Month. This month’s Preservation Magazine devotes the entire issue to Frank Lloyd Wright architecture and the efforts to preserve it.

This piece was adapted from Leslie Simpson’s “Little House on the Prairie” that was published in Joplin Souvenir Album, G. Bradley Publishing, 2001. Photographs courtesy of Leslie Simpson and the Post Memorial Art Reference Library.

Leslie Simpson, an expert on Joplin history and architecture, is the director of the Post Memorial Art Reference Library, located within the Joplin Public Library. She is the author of From Lincoln Logs to Lego Blocks: How Joplin Was Built, Now and Then and Again: Joplin Historic Architecture. and Joplin: A Postcard History.

Currently at the Post Memorial Art Reference Library

From 1pm to 5 today, you can visit the Post Memorial Art Reference Library to see artifacts of Joplin’s past.  Ranging from a key to the Connor Hotel to an embroidered towel from the Keystone Hotel, plus a number of other items, you have the chance to get a glimpse of Joplin’s past through “fragments of people lives.”  The items come from the collection of Mark and Paula Callihan.  Additionally, also on display are a number of tornado recovery posters created to benefit Joplin charity in the months that followed last year’s catastrophe.   The Post Memorial Art Reference Library is located inside the Joplin Public Library.

Guest Piece: Leslie Simpson – Route 66: A Method to the Madness

I have always wondered why Route 66 took such a circuitous path through Joplin.  Coming in on West Seventh, it made a sharp turn left onto Main, then headed east on First over the viaduct.  It continued on Broadway, turning north on St. Louis; after crossing Turkey Creek, it took off at a 45-degree angle on Euclid.  It went a couple of blocks on Florida, then right on Zora and left on Range Line.  If it were not for the fact that Route 66 was built during Prohibition, one might wonder if the cartographers had been a little tipsy!


Route 66 through Joplin

Recently I was looking at some old plat maps of Joplin, and I noticed something.  The Southwest Missouri Electric Railway, an electric streetcar that was established in 1893 by Alfred H. Rogers, took an identical 45-degree angle after crossing Turkey Creek in its route from Joplin to Webb City, Carterville, Lakeside Park, Carthage and other points east.  The trolley line angled through Royal Heights, a separate village that had incorporated in 1907.  Eureka!  This information may be common knowledge, but since I did not know about it, I was excited to figure it out on my own.

Plat map showing the Electric Railway line north of Turkey Creek

At its peak, the railway company operated a huge fleet of streetcars and 94 miles of tracks in three states. But its days were numbered. As private ownership of motor vehicles increased, railway patronage dwindled. In 1925, the company began running passenger buses and phasing out its streetcars.  The Joplin stretch of Route 66 was under construction from 1927 through 1932.  After Royal Heights was annexed into the city of Joplin in 1929, the railway company removed the tracks through Royal Heights. The old track-bed was paved as Euclid and became part of the historic “Mother Road.”