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.

1920 Joplin Police Department

Below you will find Joplin’s finest in 1920.  The chief at the time was Joseph Myers and the photograph was taken in front of the old city hall.  Behind the large doors behind them would have been stored some of the city’s fire engines.

1920 Joplin Police Department

Joplin High, Class of 1897

In 1897, 25 young men and women received their diplomas and exited as the largest class yet to graduate from Joplin High School.  While today’s graduating seniors dwarf this number, here are the names of Joplin’s proud students over a hundred and ten years ago.

Joplin High School graduates 1897

Beginning from the boys standing along the top row: Roy Calvin (moved to Long Beach, California after graduation), Ed Shepherd (moved to Miami, Florida after graduation, but who’s “brilliant engineering career was cut short by an accident in South America”), Elmer Williams, James Broadbent (became a teacher in Martinsville, Missouri), Superintendent W.B. Brown (moved to Chicago), Principal J.D. Elliff (became faculty member at University of Missouri), Oscar Nelson (cartoonist for the Joplin Globe, died in Pueblo, Colorado, while employed in “newspaper work.”), Ben Lutman (moved to Burlington, Vermont), Hugh Claycomb, Miss Nellie Fenn (teacher).

Beginning with the top row of girls: Miss Laura Adams (became Mrs. A.C. Thompson of Seattle, Washington), Miss Imogene Price, Miss Susie Simmons (became a teacher in Wichita, Kansas), Miss Etha Taylor (teacher in Joplin), Miss Louis Ogburn (became Mrs. W.A. Clark of Biloxi, Mississippi), Miss Gertrude Creller (became Mrs. J.F. Harbour of Oklahoma City), Miss Grace Fones (became Mrs. W. S. Goddard of Joplin), Miss Luna Yale (became Mrs. C.M.S. Martz of Hollywood).

Beginning with the girl whose picture appears in the lower left hand corner and including two lower rows: Miss Myrtle Foster, Miss Bertha Pertuche (became Mrs. C.M. Carter, deceased), Sam Thornton, Miss Ovella Gardner (became Mrs. Pontius, teacher in Joplin), Miss Ethel Davidson (became Mrs. W.H. Walker of Joplin), Miss Pearl Campbell (deceased), Miss Lillian Foster (became Mrs. Haggard of Miami, Oklahoma), Cleva Freye (moved to St. Louis).

Not pictured was Miss Edith Donnan, who became Mrs. T.S. Slivers of Tacoma, Washington.

(If no location is given after a name, then the individual remained in Joplin at the time of captioning.  The information provided came from the accompanying article.)

The Spook Light

Although the Spook Light is not located within the city limits of Joplin, it’s worth recounting some of the folklore and first-hand accounts of the strange phenomenon. Even though the Spook Light no longer draws in hundreds of cars during the summer, ask any native of the Four States about the Spook Light and they’ll probably have a story, or can share a story that they heard from one of their friends. Much of the recent press surrounding the Spook Light has been rehashed from earlier accounts, so we will focus our attention to early published accounts.

In the late summer of 1934, Clara E. Gordon and her family were on their way home to St. Louis after visiting the Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde when they stopped at “Idle-a-While Camp” just off Route 66 in Carterville. The proprietor suggested they go out and see the “Indian Lights” south of Joplin. The Gordons, the camp owner, and two guides set out for the Spook Light. Right after they got out of the car, “an orange-colored light appeared in the center of the road about three hundred feet beyond.” They walked toward the light, but it disappeared. The group jumped back in their car and sped toward the area where they saw the light, but did not find it. “We remained at the place two hours,” Gordon recalled, “and during that time the lights came at intervals of from four to seven minutes and remained shining for that long, then vanished or faded away regularly.” She noted that the light was “never a white light or natural color but usually of orange or a greenish hue.” Upon her return to St. Louis, she tried to research the phenomenon for an answer, but failed to say if she believed in one theory or another.

In January 1936, reporter A.B. McDonald of the Kansas City Star published his own account, “The Mystery Light of the Ozarks on ‘The Devil’s Promenade.’” McDonald and a handful of locals from Neosho drove out to the area to search for the source of the light. He interviewed a farmer named Tracey who claimed, “I’ve been studying it for four years and the more I watch and study it, the more puzzled I am about it.” Thousands of cars, Tracey said, had passed his home in search of the light. During the summer, he observed, there were sometimes one hundred cars parked, waiting. On a normal night, there were usually 15 to 20 cars parked along the road.

McDonald and the group set out on the foot after parking their cars. One young woman exclaimed, “Heavenly day!” as she saw the spook light for the first time. McDonald observed the phenomenon and noted that it reminded him of the glow “I had often seen when driving along a road at night where there was a hill ahead and a car behind the hill was approaching toward its summit, the glow from its headlights
illuminating the air above the summit several moments before they cameinto full view.” Margaret Tuller, a Newton County home economics demonstration agent who accompanied McDonald, was disappointed the light did not split into two separate lights. According to Tuller, who professed she had spent hours studying the phenomenon, “The two lights are always one straight above the other. Sometimes they remain apart until both disappear, and sometimes they merge together again into one light.”

On a tip from the Joplin Globe, McDonald visited James Nutz, a Joplin mechanic, and Raleigh Carter, the owner of an engraving shop. The two men believed they had solved the mystery. Nutz and Carter asserted the light was coming from a light on top of a gravel pile near a zinc mine just outside of Quapaw, Oklahoma. When the reporter asked how fixed lights on top of a gravel pile could move, the men said that the light, in their opinion, did not move at all, arguing “It simply appears to move as you look at it through the foliage of the trees between you and it, and the same moving of the foliage of the trees
makes it seem to disappear and return again.”

The intrepid reporter found the most convincing argument came from Logan Smith, foreman of the composing room at the Neosho Times, who argued the lights were the results of cars traveling along Route 66. When asked about seeing two lights, Smith pointed out that, “[If] you stand in a road and look at a car coming anywhere from two to five miles away and you will not see two lights, you will see only one. At that distance, the two lights are merged into one.”

When McDonald asked Smith about the stories regarding the Spook Light that pre-dated the invention of the automobile, Smith responded, “Those stories all remind me of the story of revivalist Sam Jones and the frogs. Or in that other fable of the mouse that went in to the ear of a person came out his mouth a full grown elephant.” In 1946, the Kansas City Star published an article by Charles W. Graham. Graham, curious about the Spook Light after reading a first-hand account by C. Paul Spidell of Baxter Springs, Kansas, visited the region to conduct his own investigation. Graham contacted Colonel Dennis E. McCunniff at Camp Crowder in Neosho, and obtained the assistance of Major Thomas E. Sheard, the post signal officer. After a series of on-the-ground tests and aerial flights, Graham, Sheard, and others involved in the investigation were satisfied that the Spook Light was nothing more than car lights.

In his 1947 book, Ozark Superstitions, folklorist Vance Randolph touched briefly on the Spook Light. He mentioned Logan Smith of Neosho being of the belief that the lights were those “of automobiles driving east on Highway 66.” Newton County agricultural agent F.N. Darnell “and a group of surveyors from Joplin, also incline to the view that cars on the distant highway are responsible for the mysterious lights.” Yet Fred C. Reynolds pointed out his grandfather, “a pioneer doctor at Baxter, Kansas” had seen the lights “long before there was any such thing as a motor car.”

Another prominent Ozark folklorist, Otto Ernest Rayburn, published Ronald Ray Bogue’s article about the Spook Light in an issue of his magazine, Ozark Guide. He recounted a few of the popular legends surrounding the origin of the Spook Light, including the story about the ill-fated Native American lovers and another about an old settler who lopped off his wife’s head in a drunken fit. Unable to find her head, he disappeared, and is thought to roam the countryside with a lantern looking for it. Rayburn recounted a story from a woman who claimed to have gone with her husband and another couple to look for the Spook Light. After arriving at Spook Light road, she said they got out of the car and sat on the fender, waiting. After thirty minutes, “There appeared a soft white light in the sky about one hundred yards down the road. Slowly it grew brighter and closer, zigzagging across the road. Finally it got so close and bright that my girl companion and I scurried back into the car. Although it was summer, we rolled up the windows and locked the doors.”

The women watched as the light came toward their husbands. The men tried to get into the car, but finding that their wives had locked the doors, scrambled to get under the rear of the car. The light “sat down on the radiator of the car and its brilliance was dazzling. My friend cried and hid on the floor of the – I sat hypnotized by the light, trembling with fear, yet unable to move.”  After a period of time, the light blinked, and then disappeared. The woman declared, “I haven’t been back to see spook light since then, and I’m not going in the future, either.”

Old-timer Bill Mizer boasted, “I’ve been around here since 1886, and I have heard all the stories, but this story about the light, and the first time it was seen was in 1903.” Mizer went on to say that a widow first noticed the light and thought it was someone trying to run her off of her property. A group of young men decided to find out what was happening. Mizer, along with Jake Leach, Edgar Zirkle, W.L. Buzzard,
Hiram Elliott, and John Ventle, and “maybe others” set out to investigate. Thinking it was phosphorous rising from a clump of cattails on the widow’s property, the group settled in nearby to watch.“We didn’t have long to wait before we saw the thing that had the widow frightened,” Mizer recounted,  “The first time I saw the light, my hair raised several inches from my scalp, and I had a hard time keeping my hat on my head.” The light floated around, but when the wind came up, it disappeared. Shaken, the young men returned the next night, and observed the same thing.

Mizer noted, “After a month or so, the light stopped reappearing with regularity, and we had almost forgotten about our experience, but early in 1905 reports had started coming in again about the light.” He still was not sure what the source of the light was, noting, “I tell you – when you’re sitting out there in the dark, and this ball of light floats around for a while, and disappears, you begin to wonder.”

In a tiny pamphlet entitled, “Ghost Lights,” Garland “Spooky” Middleton, the second owner of the Spook Light Museum, published statements from individuals about the Spook Lights. Louise Graham of Galena, Kansas, said, “While coming home from a school carnival at Quapaw, Oklahoma, we got the thrill of our lives. The light had evidently grown tired and weary and decided to do a little hitch-hiking on our bus. The light perched on the rear window as though trying to get in the bus. We were scared half to death – women screaming and all. The light was so bright it temporarily blinded the bus driver and he had to stop the bus. Just as we stopped, the light went away. I’ll never forget that bus ride.”

Leonard Stoner of Quapaw, Oklahoma, said, “I’ve lived around Quapaw for 61 years. I’ve seen a number of teams investigating the source of the ‘Ghost Light,’ but none of them have ever found out what it is. I was here before there were any cars in this district and the ‘Ghost Light’ was there then.” Frank Allen, Jr., an African American resident of Joplin, proclaimed, “I ain’t been [to see the Spook Light] and I ain’t going and you can be sure they won’t be any segregation problems on that road.”

One humorous account from an anonymous resident of Tulsa recounted, “My parents reside in Neosho. While visiting them we drive out to see the spook light quite often. Old settlers down here say their ‘night life’ falls into two categories – Those who have kidney trouble and those who go to see the spook light. One old widow told about having to move to Neosho from Spooksville. She said, ‘The light makes me
nervous and irregular.’ I think she must have meant ‘irritable.’”

If you have a Spook Light story, we’d like to hear it!