Thomas Connor: Philanthropist, Mine Owner, and Prankster?

Thomas Connor, a son of Ireland and immigrant to America, made his fortune in Joplin in zinc and lead mining.  He oversaw the construction of the New Joplin Hotel, which after his death, became known as the Connor Hotel and was a Joplin landmark until its demolition and collapse in 1978.  Connor Avenue, the site of the Extreme Makeover build, is named for him.  Known for being one of Joplin’s wealthiest citizens at the turn of the 20th Century, as well a philanthropist, Connor was also a bit of a prankster.  Below is an account of one of Connor’s more elaborate jokes:

“Though nearly a month has gone by and Tom Connor is far away out west, he’s still chuckling to himself out there over about the best April fool joke of the season, and the biggest practical prank ever pulled off in Joplin.

Elaborate paraphernalia was necessary to stage this idea, but Tom Connor had the resources at his command and was ready when the opportunity of his life offered.  The occasion came with the arrest of an elderly female employee of the Joplin Hotel Company, which is comprised of Tom Connor, Tom Jones and E. Z. Wallower.  The woman was at work about the hotel as a maid when eleven silver spoons disappeared one day and she was promptly arrested on suspicion.  The case seemed to be a pretty good one, and Frank Lee, whom she retained as counsel, went to the benevolent Tom Connor to get the prosecution stopped.

Connor magnanimously assented and passed the tip to Manager Moats, who had instituted the proceedings.

The Old Joplin Hotel was the site of the prank. The Joplin Public Library is now located where it once stood.

At the same time that he caused the prosecution to be stopped, the big-hearted Connor bethought himself of the chance of a lifetime for a practical joke on his partner, Tom Jones.  Attorney Richard N. Graham was employed to draw up the petition for a fake $20,000 damage suit, alleged to have been instituted by the elderly chambermaid for false imprisonment.

The sheriff’s office was the next piece of paraphernalia employed by the practical joker, and Deputy Clarence Rier responded nobly by awaiting an opportunity to catch Connor and Jones together.  He found them in the Joplin Hotel barber shop and cold-heartedly announced that duty compelled him to serve a copy of the petition of this $20,000 damage suit on them as the two resident members of the defendant hotel company.

“What’s that – a $20,000 damage suit!” fairly gasped Jones.  Connor looked astounded – but his funny-bone was paralyzing him.

“What is it?” demanded Connor, feigning, then the deputy sheriff’s heart failed him – at least risibility threatened him and he walked on away, leaving the victimized Jones pouring over the bogus typewritten petition, which the attorney had purposefully made very, very lengthy, padding it with all the whereases, wherefores and other legal verbiage to be found in the revised statutes.

“Thunderation!” boomed Jones.

“Consternation!” echoed Connor, with a look of blank dismay, but with that ecstatic feeling creeping up his sleeve.

And the best of the joke is that Connor went away on his western trip and Jones don’t know till this day that the chambermaid’s $20,000 damage suit was a “pipe.”

The Lady in the Window

If you have ever lived in  Joplin, you have undoubtedly heard about the House of Lords.  Usually one hears a story that goes like this: Bar on the bottom floor, gambling on the second floor, and a brothel on the third floor.  After reading years of Joplin newspapers, we can honestly say that yes, there is truth in the story. There were slot machines, there were countless rounds served at the bar, and yes, there were prostitutes working the building. This excerpt from a letter describes what one resident saw one day while working downtown:

Joplin Main Street

On the left, the House of Lords, on the right, the Joplin Hotel. Neither quite shared the same clientele.

“Two weeks ago last Saturday night, I, stood in front of the Joplin Hotel, and such a sight as was seen on the opposite side of the street cannot be forgotten.  A drunken, brazen, disgusting prostitute stood in front of a window in the third story of the House of Lords as naked as when she came into the world, in plain view of the hundreds of people walking up and down the street, and not an officer with the courage or decency to prevent it.  Ladies were obliged to turn their faces or leave the street; and I am told that the proprietor of the hotel cannot assign a lady a front room because of the character of the occupants in the building across the street.  Sodom and Gomorrah were never sunk as deep in the depths of infamy and vice as this, and the prayers of the wives and mothers of Joplin will be answered.”

A Hotel Pool at 4th and Main

“Several youngsters who rode past the place on bicycles deliberately rode down the long board incline that leads into the pit and plunged, wheel, clothes, and all, into the murky pool.”

No trace of the old Joplin Hotel remained by late July, 1906.  Excavation was well underway for the new hotel when a summer torrential downpour occurred on July 20.  Over the hours as the rain fell the great pit, from which the Connor Hotel would eventually rise, filled with water.  When the sun rose the next day, to the delight of Joplin’s urchins, a veritable swimming hole at the corner of the city’s economic district reflected the morning light.  Encouraged by the July heat, boys quickly took advantage of the “hotel pool.”

A Joplin Globe article described the enthusiasm of the boys to partake in its cool, wet relief, “The youngsters did not disrobe before entering; such a move would have brought down upon them the wrath of the law.  They simply plunged in, clothes and all, a very few of them removing their outer shirts before the plunge.”  In addition to the swimming and diving, the boys soon discovered wooden boards that were quickly plied into use as rafts.  Envious youthful onlookers, who had failed to secure such craft when the opportunity allowed, willingly paid several cents, upward to a dime, to purchase either a ride on a raft or a raft itself.

Swimming pool at the old Joplin Hotel

A quick sketch of the swimming festivities at 4th and Main

The fun and games did not last forever, at least for a boy named Robert.  His aquatic fun ended upon the discovery of his mother of finding her son, fully clothed, splashing about the rain-filled pit.  The last that was seen of poor Robert was his mother leading him away with a firm grip on his ear.

Source: Joplin Globe

The Demolition of the Joplin Hotel

Demolition of the Joplin Hotel

The demolition of the Joplin Hotel

Wooden sluice-like conduits extended from the windows of the storied Joplin Hotel like slides and ended on the packed dirt surface of the streets below. Considered one of the most popular hostelries in the city, it had been the home to many cigar smoke laden conversations and political planning. One corner of the hotel building had been dedicated for use by the Miners’ Bank, but it had recently relocated down Fourth Street to the intersection of Fourth and Joplin, several blocks away. Instead, the Joplin Hotel was fated for demolition. It was to be wiped away to make room for a new Joplin Hotel, one that would rise an additional five to six stories above Main Street to become the tallest structure in Joplin.

The demolition of the hotel which proceeded in June, 1906, attracted onlookers who made quick bets as to how fast the workmen could dismantle the venerable institution. The speed of which surprised many and likely cost a few unfortunate bettors their gambled money. For as quickly as the hotel was torn apart, care was not sacrificed during the process. The owners of the hotel, likely with the cost of the expensive new hotel in mind, did what could be done to salvage the bits and pieces of the hotel. Door and window lintels, fire escapes and iron railings, all were carefully lowered to the ground. The worth of which, the Joplin Globe speculated, was valued in the thousands. Everything else, torn from the structure with hammers, hatchets, and picks, was sent down the wooden sluices. The piles that accumulated were quickly lifted onto wagons by teamsters who drove the debris away to be dumped.

By the end of the summer, all traces of the Joplin Hotel were gone. In its stead, was the foundation of the hotel that was to become the Connor, an institution whose reputation and luxury outshone the building it replaced.

Source: The Joplin Globe

Growth of a City – Northwest Joplin

Sometimes it’s worth letting photographs speak for themselves.   Below are three photos taken from what is likely the Keystone Hotel of northwest Joplin, essentially a view of Fourth Street heading west.

1902 or earlier view of Northwest Joplin centered on Fourth Street

A photo of northwest Joplin, particularly Fourth Street from at least as early as 1902.

In the first photo we can see the Club Theater, which is on the left with the steeple at the intersection of Joplin and Fourth Street.  On the immediate right, we have the old Joplin Hotel which was constructed like the Club Theater prior to 1900.  What is missing  is the Miners Bank building which has not yet been built across the street from the Club Theater, as well the new Joplin post office building that was completed the same year as the aforementioned bank in 1905.

1905 - 1906 view of northwest Joplin featuring Fourth Street

1905 - 1906 view of northwest Joplin featuring Fourth Street

A few years later and there’s a recognizable change in Fourth street and the northwest view of Joplin.  Now across the street from the Club Theater is the Miners Bank building and to the right of it on Joplin Street is the brand new Joplin post office.  The vacant lot across the street from the Club Theater (the other side of Joplin Street) now has a two story building and laid down the center of Fourth Street are trolley rails.  The old Joplin Hotel is still in the right hand corner, but by this time Thomas Connor is likely already planning to tear it down to build a brand new hotel that one day would bear his name.  It was demolished at some point in 1906, which helps date this view.  Thus, sometime after 1905 and before a point in 1906.

1906 to 1907 view of northwest Joplin featuring Fourth Street

1906 to 1907 view of northwest Joplin featuring Fourth Street

If only this photograph was not torn, we might have had a better view of the Joplin of 1906 or 1907.  Not much has changed from the last photograph except the absence of the old Joplin Hotel in the lower right hand corner.  Instead, we have the beginning excavations for the foundation of the future Connor Hotel.   Constant in all three photos are two narrow buildings in the center bottom or left, one with a flat roof and the other with a peak.  In a few short years, a seven story building would take their place and might have contributed to the decline of the Keystone Hotel as a popular spot to take a northwest view of Joplin.

Thus, in three photos that likely cover a time span of less than a decade, you can get an inclination of the rapid growth of Joplin.

Sources: Historic Joplin’s private collection.