The Shooting of Ben Collier

In previous posts we’ve covered shootouts, robberies, and prostitutes.  Sometimes, however, officers of the law made the headlines – for the wrong reasons.

On a fall evening in 1906, Joplin Patrolman Johnson was standing outside the Mascot Saloon at the corner of Tenth and Main.  It was 9:30 at night.  The sun had set and it was a cool Friday night.  Johnson may have anticipated trouble, but not until Saturday night, which was when the miners were paid their weekly wages.  Special Officer Ben Collier swiftly walked past Johnson and entered the Mascot.

Shots rang out from inside the saloon.  Johnson dashed inside and saw Police Day Captain Will J.  Cofer standing with a gun in each hand.  One gun belonged to Special Officer Ben Collier; the other, still smoking, belonged to Cofer.  Cofer laid Collier’s gun down on a beer keg and then began to holster his pistol.  Patrolman Johnson, however, demanded, “Give me those guns.” Cofer obliged.  Johnson then noticed the motionless body of Ben Collier lying on the floor of the saloon.  Johnson checked for a pulse, but found Collier was dead.

Interior of the Mascot Saloon

Sketch of the interior of the Mascot Saloon

Johnson took Cofer into custody and headed for the city jail.  On the way Johnson was met by Assistant Chief of Police Jake Cofer, who was Will Cofer’s uncle (and was commonly known around Joplin as “Uncle Jake” as he had served for several years on the police force), who took charge of his nephew.  Upon arriving at the city jail, Jake Cofer asked Will to remove his police badge, and then locked him in a jail cell.

It appears that the difficulty between Will Cofer and Ben Collier began over a woman named Rose Proctor.  She was described as a “small and pretty blonde” who lived at 1216 Main Street.  Proctor was reportedly estranged from her husband who still lived in Illinois.  She may have come to Joplin due to the fact she “had several married sisters” living in Joplin.

Will “Rabbit” Cofer was a twenty-three year old married father of five year old son.  At the age of 17, he married a woman from Pierce City who was ten years his senior.  His father, Tom Cofer, served as Joplin Chief of Police before moving to Portland, Oregon.  Will stayed in Joplin and worked as a blacksmith and in the mines before joining the police force.  He had only been on the police force for a year, but was supposedly a satisfactory officer.

Ben Collier, who, at age 55, was older than Cofer, arrived in Joplin in the mid-1880s.  He worked as a butcher for several years before became involved in mining.  Collier eventually served on the police force, but left to become a private watchman.  He was still working as a private watchman when he tangled with Cofer.  Collier’s first wife had died and was allegedly estranged from his second wife who lived in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Cofer and Collier had quarreled in the past.  A Joplin Globe reporter had been standing on the street with Cofer the previous Wednesday when Cofer reportedly pointed to Collier and remarked, “There stands a fellow who has sworn he will kill me and I am afraid that he will try to do it before long.  If he would only come to me and tell me about it, it would be a different matter and we might get things straightened up, but he always talks behind my back.”

Members of the Joplin police force knew that the two men disliked one another and did their best to keep them apart.  Upon learning the Will Cofer was in the Mascot Saloon with Rose Proctor, Uncle Jake Cofer had sent word to his nephew that if he [Will] had any respect for him, Will would leave both the saloon and Rose.  Will Cofer, however, ignored his uncle.

Later that night, around 8 o’clock, Ben Collier appeared at the boarding house room that Rose Proctor called home, but was told she was not home.  Collier then spent an hour visiting with Proctor’s next door neighbor, May Stout, who told Collier that Rose was out with Will Cofer.  When he learned that Rose was with Will, Collier allegedly remarked, “I’ll kill him if I can find him tonight.” He then stalked out of the boarding house.  May Stout tried to call the Mascot Saloon to warn Will and Rose, but failed to reach them in time.  That’s when Ben Collier strode past Patrolman Johnson, entered the saloon, and a series of shots rang out.

There were only a few witnesses: “Red” Murphy, a cook at the Sapphire restaurant; Fred Palmer, bartender at the Mascot Saloon; and Rose Proctor.  In her statement to the police, Rose said she and Will Cofer were drinking a bottle of beer when Collier came in.  Collier called out, “Rose, come to me.” Rose coyly asked, “What do I want to come to you for?” Cofer, looking at Collier, offered to take Rose home.

Collier, enraged by Cofer’s interference, growled, “I have been looking for you and I have got you now!” The two men were standing roughly six feet apart when Collier drew his .44 caliber revolver but Cofer beat him to the draw.  Cofer managed to hit Ben Collier three times above the heart with his .38 caliber revolver.  Collier fell to the floor dead.

Will Cofer

A sketch of Will Cofer

Rose Proctor’s testimony was verified by the two other witnesses.   Upon examination, Collier’s revolver was half-cocked and had not been fired before Collier fell dead.  Jasper County Sheriff John Marrs arrived and ordered Collier’s body be sent to the Joplin Undertaking Company.

At the coroner’s inquest the next day, Rose Proctor and Fred Palmer, the bartender, testified that Collier pulled his gun on Cofer the minute he entered the saloon.  Proctor also testified she had attended “the races at Carthage” earlier in the week with Cofer.  After Collier found out, he waved his revolver at her and threatened to pull the trigger.

Patrolman Henry Burns testified that Collier had told him that morning that he would “get” Cofer “before night.” Joplin Police Night Captain Ogburn testified Collier had made threats against Cofer earlier in the year.  After the coroner’s jury made a trip to the Mascot Saloon to see the scene of the crime, the members made their decision: Cofer killed Collier in self-defense and was free to go.  Cofer shook hands with his friends and then resigned from the Joplin police force.

By 1910, Will Cofer and his wife Amelia were living in Portland, Oregon, where he shoed horses for a living.  According to the federal census, their son died between 1906 and 1910.  The couple was childless.

Curiously, in 1920, Will’s wife is listed as Rose.  His first wife, Amelia, either passed away or the couple divorced.  It seems unlikely, however, that this was Rose Proctor as this Rose listed her birth place as Oregon.  What is certain, though, is that a shooting took place in a Joplin saloon on a crisp fall night and Ben Collier lost much more than his heart.

Sources: Joplin Globe; 1900, 1910, 1920 federal census

Letters to the Joplin Police Chief

In 1907, the Joplin Police Chief Myers shared some of the letters he received on a daily basis with the Joplin Globe.  The letters offer a glimpse of life in Joplin and the surrounding areas.  Some the letters he received were mundane, such as the following letter:

“Cherryvale, Kan., Oct., 21, 1907.
Joplin City Marshal, Joplin, Mo.

Will you please see and inform me if there are any girls wanted to attend to lunch counters.  If so, I can send an experienced one, and please give me the number and the price of wages.  Let me hear soon.  Respectfully,

S.A.T.”

The Globe jauntily remarked, “The chief of police has not answered the above letter because of the fact that he is not running an employment agency.  In fact, if the chief answered all of the letters of this nature he receives he would have to hire a private secretary.”

Another letter that Chief Myers received read,

“Cassville, Mo.  Oct.  22, 1907.
Chief of Police, Joplin, Mo.

Dear Sir – Will you please inform me by enclosed card if a woman by the name of Ella Hailey is in your city.  She may be working in one of your hotels.  Please phone hotels and see if she is there.  Oblige, A.C.H.”

The Globe noted that the “last letter is somewhat out of the ordinary as he addresses  the chief as ‘dear sir’ and actually says ‘oblige’ in ending his letter.  The majority of the letters simply tell the chief of what they desire him to do and let the matter pass.”

Other letters were in response to an earlier missive from a Joplin man, C.T.  Plimer, who was hunting a wife.  One woman from Platt City, Missouri, declared, “Now please understand I am not a man hunter, for I never gave this subject much thought.  I think that I will fill the bill and the description, except having the several thousand dollars.  I have some nice property here.  I have visited in Joplin and like your city very much.”

The “most amusing letter” that Chief Meyers received, according to the Globe was one from an African American man in Fort Scott, Kansas, who wrote,

City marshal, be on the lookout for a young colored woman by the name of Leatha B—-.  She is a brown skin, good looker, good hair, a pair of earrings with blue sets, and a finger ring with a blue set in it.  She might go by the name of Leatha C.  She wears a long black coat, a black hat turned up on the side with a band with a red stripe in it, a nice black dress, and a changeable silk underskirt.  I just bought them for her.  There is a young brown skin man by the name of Will Julien.  If you catch them arrest them both and lock them up until you hear from Butler or Mr.  George Julien.  If she is there and ain’t working and running the streets, make her leave town.  Yours truly, Andy B.

P.S.  – Make her come home; she ain’t got no business down there.  I have got a good home for her and she don’t want for nothing.  Make her leave town.  She left this afternoon at 3 o’clock.  Telephone back at my expense.” – Andy B.

We’re not sure if Leatha returned to Andy B.  in Fort Scott or not, but it was probably not the last time that Chief Myers received a letter from the hopeful and the lovelorn.

Source: The Joplin Globe

Heck No – We Won’t Wear Helmets!

On a hot summer night 1904, the Joplin City Council was in session when someone raised the issue of the “dress of the Joplin policemen.”  A simple complaint about enforcing Joplin’s helmet ordinance revealed many of the underlying problems plaguing the Joplin police force.  Like many law enforcement agencies at this time, the Joplin police force was undermanned, underpaid, and overworked.  They were expected to maintain law and order in a city wracked by cocaine abuse, plagued by saloons, riddled with gambling dens, and infested with men ready to fight at the drop of a hat.  Wearing a helmet was of little concern to a member of the Joplin police force.

Cartoon concerning requirement of Joplin Police to wear a helmet.

The mood of the Joplin Police officers were quite the opposite as expressed in this cartoon.

Councilman Kost reminded attendees that the council had previously passed an ordinance requiring police officers to wear helmets and carry a “policeman’s club of certain size.”  According to Kost, few members of the Joplin police force were complying with the ordinance.  The Joplin Globe noted that prior to the ordinance, Joplin police officers were allowed to wear “slouch hats” and very few carried a club.

Councilman Lane shrugged off Kost’s remarks and suggested that the ordinance need not be enforced, but Mayor Thomas W. Cunningham disagreed. Cunningham opined, “the ordinance was not passed for amusement and that it should be lived up to by all policemen.”

One unnamed Joplin police officer who spoke to a Globe reporter proclaimed, “If I am compelled to wear a helmet or lose my position on the force, I will lose my position.  You cannot realize until you have worn one how hot a helmet is.  I wore one when I first went on the force, but will never do so again.  Fired up, the police officer continued, “And as for clubs, it is very foolish for the council to attempt to force a man to carry a club in his hand.  Every time a patrolman makes an arrest he has to drop his club in order to handle his man.”

The real problem, the police officer snorted, was that city council members “want to see a metropolitan police force on a suburban salary. If the council will pay its police force a salary, the city will not only be able to get better men, but the men will have enough money to buy a belt in which to carry the ornamental club.”

A second Joplin police officer agreed, “Not a helmet for me. I wear what I can get.  If the city of Joplin wants me to wear a helmet while on duty the city will have to put up for it as I can’t afford to buy one.”  He continued, “The police force of Joplin now numbers twelve men.  Five men patrol the business section of the city during the day and the same number are on at night.  From noon until midnight there is one man on duty in East Joplin and another at Smelter Hill.  The twelve men are doing the work of sixteen men.  One man on the force walks from Fourth Street to C Street covering six blocks of territory in the toughest section of the city.  There isn’t even a man to drive the patrol wagon yet we must make a showing and wear a helmet and a club.”

Curiously there was no mention of the death of Joplin police officer John Ledbetter who was killed the previous summer by a rock wielding assailant, though a helmet may not have been enough to save his life.  Unfortunately, helmets and clubs were not enough to save the lives of subsequent Joplin police officers killed in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Source: The Joplin Globe

A Hold Up at the Silver Moon Saloon

Joplin had the atmosphere of the roughest mining towns in the American West. On the evening of December 8, 1903, the Silver Moon Saloon was the scene of a “bold hold-up.” Located at the northeast corner of Fifteenth and Main Streets, the Silver Moon Saloon may not have been as refined as Joplin’s famed House of Lords, but it served the needs of the countless men who crossed its threshold.

Main Street Joplin circa 1906 or earlier.

Main Street Joplin circa 1906 or earlier.

It was 10:40 in the evening. The saloon was empty, save for Einhart, the proprietor, and an old man who was passed out from a bout of heavy drinking. Einhart was cleaning glasses when two men strode into the saloon. As Einhart later told a Globe reporter, “They were strangers to me and I did not pay any particular attention to them when they started to the rear. I did not take my eyes off of my work. They certainly did not appear to be robbers. Neither of them looked vicious.”

The two men silently approached Einhart with their Colt .45 revolvers pointed at him. The saloon owner confessed, “Without saying a word they induced me to throw up my hands for I could see then that they meant business.” One of the men came around the bar and riffled through Einhart’s pockets. He pulled out Einhart’s watch, but the bar owner protested, saying it was a present from a “very good friend.” The robber laughed and told him he could keep it. Einhart then pointed his assailant to the cash register, secretly pleased he had already taken out most the night’s take earlier in the evening.

At this, the old man who had been passed out suddenly revived, looked at the two robbers, and “ran out the side door and headed down Fifteenth Street as hard as he could, screaming meantime as loud as possible.” Frightened, the two men grabbed money from cash register, dashed out the door, and ran east down Fifteenth Street. For their efforts, the two men pocketed $32.10 out of the cash register, a couple of dollars out of Einhart’s pockets, and some checks.

Joplin Police Officer Snow and Night Watchman Heady began tracking down leads in the case within the hour. By the end of the night, they arrested two suspects, Oscar Orman and C. Ownes, both of whom had come to Joplin from Galena, Kansas, earlier in the evening. Both men were locked up and charges followed the next day.

Source: Joplin Globe

Proof that Joplin needs a Police Matron

While the Joplin city council had by 1904 agreed to the necessity of a police matron due to popular demand, a year later, no matron had yet been appointed.  As a response, the Joplin Globe ran an article offering proof to the need of the city to hire a matron.  The headline read, “PROOF THAT JOPLIN NEEDS A POLICE MATRON,” and the paper argued the following:

“The police records show the arrest of eighty women during the month of May.  Eighty women are supposed to have been locked up in the Joplin city jail in the last month without the care of counsel of a police matron.  There was none but the regular police force to listen to the appeals of, or to advise these erring women charges of the city.  True, most of them were doubtless hardened and seemingly deserving of little better than they got, but who can say?

Who can say to what depths each separate individual has fallen to what extent any one was irreclaimable?  The charges as a result were in the cat-purse of blanket charges, if the term may be so used.  Twenty-nine of these eighty women were charged with prostitution, twenty-one with lewd conduct, thirteen with street walking, thirteen with disturbing the peace, and one each with drunkenness, petty larceny, interfering with an officer, and being suspected of robbery.  Hard charges, those, yet many cried when locked up.  Some were not really bad.  Surely one or two, at least, might be prevailed upon to repent and change her ways.  Certainly enough soul remained to cry out through the tears of those eighty bad women to justify the attention of a good and worthy police matron.

The records prove that one, anyhow, might have been saved from death, if not also from deeper depths of sin, for one of these eighty was Lucy Scott, the young, fair, but wayward girl who took her own life as she confessed, because nobody would come and talk to her about going to a reform school.  A police matron could have saved one life last month.  Who knows, how many wrecks could have been averted?”

A year later, the position was finally assumed by Ellen Ayers.  See our earlier post on Mrs. Ayers concerning her appointment and reaction to the job.

Sources: The Joplin Globe

An Outlaw Killed in Joplin

The end of an era came to a close when, on August 16, 1924, Joplin Police Detective Lee Van Deventer shot and killed Roy Daugherty.  Daugherty, a member of the fabled Wild Bunch, met his end when Van Deventer shot him just above his heart as a young child clung to his leg. The mortally wounded bandit staggered, then collapsed onto a nearby bed, and died. With his death ended a saga of the Wild West that began in 1870 in nearby Barry County, Missouri, where Daugherty was born.

At the age of 14, Roy Daugherty ran away from home to Oklahoma.  It was there that he adopted the nickname “Arkansas Tom Jones” and fell in with Bill Doolin of the famed Doolin Gang.  A string of subsequent robberies ended with the “Battle of Ingalls,” in a saloon in Ingalls, Oklahoma, when United States Marshals under the command of E.D. Nix sought to capture the Wild Bunch.  It was a bloody gunfight that ultimately left three marshals and four outlaws dead.  Daugherty was captured when James Masterson, brother of legendary lawman, Bat Masterson, hurled a stick of dynamite at the outlaws and managed to stun Daugherty long enough to arrest him.

United States Marshal E.D. Nix

Legendary United States Marshal E.D. Nix who oversaw Daugherty's capture at the Battle of Ingalls.

Daugherty was sentenced to prison for 50 years, but was released early. It wasn’t long before he returned to a life of crime. It was approximately 1901, after an arrest, when Daugherty’s first recorded visit to Joplin may have happened, purportedly as an unwilling participant in a traveling exhibit of the Wild West.  It is entirely possible this event never happened, but the lifelong outlaw did find his way to Joplin in 1917.

While much of Daugherty’s criminal career happened in neighboring Oklahoma, by 1917, it was rumored he had played a role in a series of robberies in Missouri, including a bank job in the small town of Fairview, in neighboring Newton County.  In 1917, Joplin police detectives William F. Gibson and Charles McManamy sought him for robberies in Oronogo and Wheaton, Missouri.  Their investigation led them to a farmer who, after an hour of intense interrogation, finally confessed the location of Daugherty’s safe house.  The hesitation had not been out of loyalty, but for fear that the outlaw would seek vengeance for the betrayal of his location.

Possibly out of doubt of their informant’s confession, or perhaps for lack of a better plan, the Joplin detectives simply knocked on the door of the house in which Daugherty was reportedly inside.  It may have come as shock when the outlaw opened the door himself, but if the men were surprised, the moment quickly passed as both lawmen charged into the house to arrest Daugherty.  Daugherty stumbled back into the house, while McManamy and Gibson rushed after him, and the three found themselves caught in a moment of hesitation focused around a revolver that lay on a nearby table.  All three men lunged for the weapon, and had Daugherty been the quicker, the stories of Detective Gibson and McManamy might have ended that day.

Gibson reached the pistol first.  Daugherty, who seemed to have known the detective, reportedly said, ” I’m glad you got it, Billy.  If I had beat you to it, I would have had to kill you.”  And so, the Barry County native was returned to prison courtesy of the Joplin Police Department and sentenced to 8 years.  Daugherty, despite being a former member of the Wild Bunch with a string of robberies to his name, was released early on good behavior.  If Daugherty had served his entire prison term, it is entirely possible that the events of August 16, 1924, might have never happened.

Roy Daugherty in the prime of his life.     Roy Daugherty in the prime of his life. Via Wikipedia.

Roy Daugherty in the prime of his life. Via Wikipedia.

Some things had changed since 1917.  Joplin detective, William Gibson, had been promoted to Chief of the Joplin Detectives.  Likewise, some things had not changed, such as Roy Daugherty’s penchant for robberies.  This time it was a bank in Asbury, a town on the Kansas – Missouri line, just northwest of Joplin.  The Joplin police sought out the 54 year old outlaw, and were tipped off to his location on a hot Saturday afternoon.  Once more, William Gibson set out to arrest Daugherty, accompanied by fellow detectives Len Van Deventer, Tom DeGraff, and Jess Laster.  Chief of Police Verna P. Hine also joined the detectives.

Word was that Daugherty was in the home of a Joplin local known as “Red” Snow at 1420 W. Ninth Street.  The plan was simple.  Two cars, one with Gibson and Van Deventer, the other with DeGraff, Laster, and Hine, would speed to a stop in front of the home and the men would rush the house.  Afterward, Detective Chief Gibson reflected on his thoughts as the lawmen left to capture Daugherty:

“I knew there would be trouble when we left the station to get Daugherty.  I knew we were after a man who had shot first in eighteen fatal encounters and I expected no surrender.  Daugherty would die with his boots on and I believed that someone else would unlace them tonight.”

As the police neared their destination, the car in which Police Chief Hine was riding in veered off a block early.  At that point, Gibson believed that Hine had elected to stay out of the capture, a claim that Hine later denied.  When Gibson arrived, he headed for the rear of the house, convinced that Daugherty would try to escape out the back.  Gibson described what happened next to a reporter:

“I saw him [Daugherty] through a window as I ran toward the back door to cut off his escape, and I knew then he knew that it was to a finish.  He ran crouched, to present as small a target as possible, his gun clutched in both hands before him.  I reached the porch in the rear of the house and met him at the door.”

At that point, Daugherty opened fire point-blank on Gibson.  Gibson later was at a loss as to how he was not hit by the outlaw’s fire, especially after he discovered a bullet hole in his hat. Gibson sought cover behind a nearby bush and returned fire.  Three of his bullets hit their intended target. Daugherty was hit in his left wrist, his right side above the kidney, and was grazed on the side of his head above an ear.  Sufficiently discouraged from escape out the back door, Daugherty headed for the front.

As Daugherty did so, Red Snow’s wife, caught in the middle of the gunfight, screamed loudly.  He did not get far.  In the time in which Daugherty and Gibson had exchanged shots, Detective Van Deventer entered the house through the front door.  The two found themselves in a face off and the younger Van Deventer fired first.  The large .44 caliber slug from Van Deventer’s revolver struck Daugherty in the chest and the man who had rode with the Wild Bunch fell dead onto a nearby bed.  At his feet, the young child of Red Snow bawled, confused and frightened.

After confirming that Daugherty was dead, Van Deventer and Gibson helped themselves to two cigarettes from the dead man’s shirt pocket. His body was sent to the Hurlbut Undertaking Company and reportedly attracted the attention of thousands who came out to view the corpse of the famed bandit.  Later it was discovered that Daugherty’s .38 revolver had jammed after he had fired only two shots at Gibson, which might have been a reason that both Gibson and Van Deventer had emerged unscathed in the ordeal.

Roy Daugherty's death certificate.

Roy Daugherty's death certificate.

Daugherty’s death brought about the resignation of the Joplin Police Chief Hine.  When the police had set out to capture, Hine’s car had turned away a block too early.  Hine later stated that he thought he was supposed to go to the rear of the house to cut off escape.  Hine was later accused of cowering behind a barn while Gibson shot it out with Daugherty.  The police chief claimed he had thought Gibson had been shot dead, when the detective had only crouched for cover, and thus had paused in his approach toward the house.  Hine also argued that he had never even paused, but the entire time had been on a slow approach to the house; slow only because of high grass that had grown up in the rear of the property.  His explanations were not enough.  Joplin Mayor F. Taylor Snapp publicly called the police chief a yellow coward and demanded his resignation.

Ironically, Hine, a former barber, had been appointed by Mayor Snapp two years before, his only experience was having served as a special park policeman in Schifferdecker Park and six years on the Joplin police force.  His inglorious end as Joplin Police Chief came only two days after the gun battle when Hine handed in his badge..

Roy Daugherty was not the first notorious gunslinger to visit Joplin, nor was he the last infamous outlaw to come to the city.  In less than ten years, a modern successor to the Wild Bunch rolled into town, headed by two outlaw lovers commonly known as Bonnie and Clyde.  Unlike Daugherty, the Barrow Gang escaped fate in a hurried departure from Joplin, but that is a story for another post.

Sources: U.S. Marshals website, the Joplin Globe, and Digital Missouri.

Joplin By Gaslight

On a rainy spring night in 1878, Marshal L.C. Hamilton turned to a reporter from the Joplin Daily Herald and proclaimed, “If you want to see Joplin by gaslight, take a trip with me.” Not one to pass up a promising story, the reporter stepped under the officer’s umbrella, and together the two men set out into the darkness. “I’m going to raid the brothels,” Marshal Hamilton declared, “Many of the inmates are behind with fines and complaints are being made.” Together the two men visited several brothels over the course of the night, most of them “so filthy” that the Marshal and the reporter chose to stand outside on the steps, rather than go inside.

Despite the efforts of the “city dads” and the police, Joplin’s streets and sidewalks remained populated by prostitutes for years to come. In 1902, Josie Seber was arrested by Office Meanor for streetwalking. She pled not guilty to no avail. Judge Walden fined Josie ten dollars for streetwalking, but the jury decided the fine was too low and pushed the fine up to fifty dollars. Her counterpart, Etta Pitts, was fortunate in that she was only fined ten dollars, but because she was unable to pay the fine, was returned to her jail cell.

Section of Joplin's 1893 ordinance against prostitution

Joplin's 1893 ordinance against prostitution

As Joplin Police Matron Ellen Ayers would find out, many of Joplin’s prostitutes were addicted to cocaine, morphine, and alcohol. Flo Banks reportedly had a “police record as long as any woman in the city” but in 1902 she declared, “her intention of being good henceforth and forever.” A Globe reporter noted Flo was a longtime “cocaine fiend” but that soiled dove had sworn she had given up her addiction once and for all.

Prostitution was also a family affair for Flo Banks. She and her sister, Pearl Banks, ran a brothel at 629 and 631 Pearl Streets in Joplin. Although it was repeatedly raided by the Joplin police, Flo and Pearl continued their life of crime.  The rewards were simply greater than the risks.

Not all scarlet women came from impoverished backgrounds. Gertrude Rhodes, who was arrested by Officer Theodore Leslie and Officer Ben May for “beastly intoxication” claimed she was from a well-to-do Kalamazoo, Michigan, family. She had married a man whose “weakness was poverty.” They moved to Pittsburg, Kansas, and although her husband idolized her, she grew restless and angry at their poverty. Seeking an escape from her husband and young child, Gertrude Rhodes left her family and headed to Joplin, and within a few days “became scarlet.” After spending time in the Joplin city jail, Gertrude announced her intentions to return to her parents in Kalamazoo.  If she returned to Kalamazoo, only her parents know.

Other girls were more fortunate. Pearl Bobbett left home to travel to Pittsburg, Kansas, after she was promised a job. Upon her arrival, she found that the job required her to dance in a “hooche-kooche” show. Pearl told a Globe reporter, “I had no money or I should have come home at once. I only had $2 when I started. Afterwards they wouldn’t let me leave.” Joplin Police Officer Cy Chapman, who was dispatched to Pittsburg to escort the girl back home, “had to resort to force to get her away from” the show’s managers but not before she had been hit by the showmen with a stick on her neck, arms, and back.

Joplin's 1903 ordinance against prostitution

Joplin's 1903 ordinance against prostitution.

But many ended up like Annie “Black Annie” Stonewalk, an African-American prostitute in neighboring Galena, Kansas. Annie, who was arrested in early 1902 for disturbing the peace after a fight with fellow white prostitute Jose McClure, died a few years later in 1904. It was at the home of Mrs. James Burton, where the former street walker succumbed to a slow and painful death from consumption. The Joplin News Herald remarked, “She has been giving the officers much trouble since she arrived in Cherokee County four years ago from Alabama. Her life would have been shortened months sooner if it had not been for Mrs. Burton’s kindness.”

By no means sanctioned, prostitution existed outside the law but for occasional attempts to reign in its excesses.  Of the women who by intent or by desperation were drawn into the trade, little is known except when apprehended by the police or sought out by reporters who sought shocking or pitiful stories to draw in readers.  Never the less, any history of Joplin is incomplete without acknowledging their presence and their impact upon the city that Jack built.

Sources: Joplin News Herald, Joplin Globe, Joplin ordinances.

Joplin’s First Police Matron: Ellen Ayers

In the immediate years following 1900, Joplin continued to aggressively expand with more mines, more buildings, more wealth, and more vice. Back alley crap shoots, billiard halls, saloons, bars, and brothels were common sights. Just like mining towns in the American West, Joplin had its share of soiled doves. In 1904, a mix of Victorian morals, a steady number of prostitutes, and petty crime led to the public to demand that the Joplin Police Department hire a police matron.  A police matron, often an older woman, was placed in charge of female prisoners in the city jail.  The Joplin city council responded to the growing problem in the spring of 1904 when it unanimously passed an ordinance that required the city to hire a police matron.  The only hitch was that the hiring would have to wait until the next fiscal year as there was no money in the then city budget to pay the matron’s salary.

It was not until two years later, in 1906, that the city hired a police matron.  Over forty eager women applied for the position, but many were quickly turned aside for lack of skills, deportment, and experience deemed necessary for a qualified police matron. The field of candidates was narrowed down to three women: Mrs. Dona Daniels, matron of the city’s children’s home; Mrs. Agnes Keir, who oversaw Joplin’s chapter of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA); and Mrs. Ellen Ayers.  Mrs. Daniels refused the offered position.  Mrs. Keir had her admirers and fans amongst the members of the YWCA, who all threatened trouble to the city council should they attempt to steal her away.  Through the process of elimination, Mrs. Ellen Ayers was selected as the successful applicant.

Joplin's first police matron, Ellen Ayers

Pictured here, Ellen Ayers took on the role of police matron at the age of 64.

Described by both a local Joplin paper and the city council as highly qualified and trained for the position, Ellen Ayers’ appointment was closely followed by the newspapers.  She was described as a “kindly faced, white haired woman of 64 years,” originally from near Portsmouth, Ohio, and moved as a young child several times, first to Trenton, Missouri, and then to Pleasant Hill, and finally to Paola, Kansas.  The uncertainty of safety found in the border counties between Kansas and Missouri prior to the outbreak of the Civil War may have been the reason her family moved temporarily to Kansas City, only to return after the war ended.  During the war, Ellen Fields, as she had been christened by her parents, met Felix M. Ayers, whom she married in 1864.  A farmer and Union veteran from Kentucky, Felix was gave up his plow for the miner’s pick and moved his family to Joplin in search of a more prosperous life.  He worked as miner until his health failed him, which may have prompted his wife to take on the candidacy of a police matron.

Although she was selected sometime around the end of 1906, she had to wait several weeks due to the fact that the city, despite the passage of the ordinance two years earlier, was still not ready for its new police matron to assume her duties.  On November 27th, Mayor C.W. Lyon formally recommended that she begin her duties, which some hoped would allow the Joplin police to “much better work” at in “exercising influence to restrain wayward feet.” It was not until December 1, 1906, that Mrs. Ayers officially began her job looking after the female prisoners of Joplin’s city jail.  While she had a residence at 1922 Pearl Street, an office and private apartment were prepared for her on the second floor of the city building, which was shared by both the city’s police and fire department. Described as inexpensive but “substantial” the paper promised a certain amount of coziness for its inhabitant.  Adjoining her living area was a wooden door, built to conceal a barred one behind it which had a cement floored cell for female prisoners.

Floor plan for the second floor of the Joplin Police Station

Floor plan for the second floor of the Joplin Police station, which also served as the fire station and city hall.

Mrs. Ayers approached her job nervously, admitting that the work was new to her, but professed her resolute determination to do a good job.  While unaware of what was entirely expected of her, she told a reporter that she thought that “firmness and kindness” were the most essential elements of her job.  Likewise, it was thought that the new police matron would provide motherly reassurance to the wayward women of Joplin.  Mrs. Ayers was the mother of four children; the only surviving child, a daughter, was Mrs. Myrtle Gobar.  One of the duties assigned to the police matron was inspection of the food served to the women, and on her first go Ayers quickly rejected a breakfast for her first charge, Nettie Waters.  Declaring the meal inedible, the police matron demanded a new one.  Nettie may have appreciated the care, but unfortunately did not get to experience much more of it as she was ordered off to the State Industrial School for Girls in Chillicothe for a year.

One week and twenty-four women later, a reporter caught up with Mrs. Ayers to obtain her reaction to her new job.  It was a job, Mrs. Ayers said, that demanded constant attention and required her presence nearly twenty-four hours out of the day at the city jail.  With the exception of when she left on business or for meals, the police matron found herself always in the city building.  The most striking and shocking revelation for Mrs. Ayers, was the “depravity” of the women she encountered.  While ages varied, many of the women were jailed for prostitution and street walking.  Of their vices, the police matron complained that many were addicted to cigarettes and “coke.”  Coke in this sense was the local term for morphine and cocaine.  She estimated two-thirds of the women were addicted to either morphine, cocaine, or both.  The police matron experienced the needs of an addict in one of her first days when a new arrival grew terribly sick and demanded a physician.

“She awakened me with the most painful screams.  I went to the door, and she was crying loudly, and complained that she was very sick.  I immediately went down stairs to see about getting a physician but the officers informed me that it wasn’t a physician she wanted, but rather some morphine.”

Beyond the dark and depressing side of Joplin’s prostitution problem, she also encountered women who arrived at the jail for other reasons.  One was a young girl, perhaps 16 or 17, who to Mrs. Ayers dismay constantly smoked during her conversations with the police matron.  Another girl was Alma Richards.  Described as appearing to be 14 years old, despite being much older, and possessing “dark eyes,” the girl had been to the Missouri State School for the Deaf and Dumb in Fulton, and despite being ascribed those qualities, communicated to Ayers through writing.  By this communication, the matron explained, she learned that the girl refused to go home due to the presence of an abusive father, who reportedly brutally beat her after she broke a window.  Alma’s presence at the jail caused its own news, as the city did not want to release her, and the Industrial School at Chillicothe refused to take her as she was older than 18 and reportedly, “unmanageable.”  Alma Richards’ fate is unknown.

Joplin's city hall, police and fire station

This building served as Joplin's city hall, fire station and police station. Mrs. Ayers' office was likely along the left side of the building pictured here.

For three more years, Ellen Ayers performed the role of matron for the Joplin Police Department before leaving the position in 1909.  After a period of time, she was replaced two years later in 1911 by Vernie Goff who worked the job until 1914.

As for Ellen Ayers, at some point before 1920, her husband Felix passed away.  In 1920, she lived a widow with either a nephew or niece, but by 1930 had her own room in a boarding house at age 87.  Despite the trials and undoubted stresses of the position as Joplin’s first police matron, Ellen Ayers did not let the job overwhelm her and hopefully lived the next 20 years of her life knowing she made a valuable contribution to her community as the city’s first police matron.

Sources: 1880, 1920, 1930 United States Censuses, Joplin Daily Herald, 1918 History of the Joplin Police Department.