Fifty Days of Sunday: The Preparations for Sunday

The Preparations for Sunday

 

While the ministers of Joplin were busy raising the tabernacle in advance of the arrival of Reverend Billy Sunday, other preparations were also underway.  Among those was the organization of women to help reinforce the religious teaching of Sunday’s great revival through “cottage prayer meetings.”  112 districts were created which encompassed the city with at least one woman per district.  While several meetings were expected to happen before Sunday arrived, thereafter, thirty-minute meetings would be held every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday after the Sunday services to follow up on the sermons.

Preparations also were afoot in the office of the mayor, Guy Humes.  At his behest, the chief of the Joplin Police Department, John A. McManamy, issued a notice to the department which read:

“To members of the police department: Gentlemen, I desire to call to your attention to the fact that boys are being allowed to shake dice in pool and billiard halls and saloons.  This must be stopped.  Second, that gambling houses are running in Joplin.  These must be closed or the proprietors put in jail.”

Five days later, under the order of Mayor Humes, the Joplin Police under the cover of night, swept through the district of the city between Eighth and Ninth Streets.  Their orders were to investigate “suspicious houses,” where a newspaper claimed “questionable resorts were being maintained in buildings” on the block.   The investigation netted two women, Bessie Cook and Anna Grimes, arrested on the charge of “lewd conduct.” (Both pled not guilty)  Before the specter of Reverend Sunday’s pending arrival, another raid was executed this time on “joints” on Main Street at nine in the morning on the 15th of November.  Three squads of Joplin Police officers worked their way through suspected locations and by noon had arrested over 68 women (similar arrests resulted in $10 fines and a charge of disturbing the peace).

Guy Humes, the crusading mayor of Joplin.

Since his election, Humes had struggled to rein in the vices of Joplin, but often had met with resistance.  One Joplin daily newspaper (which threw its political support to the party of Humes’ opposition) even made a habit of ridiculing Humes’ morality crusade.  Regardless, the fact that Billy Sunday was coming to Joplin had provided the mayor with a new well of support to achieve his goals.  It was with no surprise that with such a groundswell of backing that Humes selected the most (in)famous saloon in Joplin to personally raid, the House of Lords.

By law, alcohol was not to be sold on Sunday, a Joplin blue law.  It was also a law that newspaper articles implied was routinely flouted.  In his effort to ensure that he could catch the proprietor of the House of Lords in the act of breaking the law, Humes made the controversial decision to hire private investigators to go undercover to alert him of the time and practice of the violation.  Thus armed with said information, Humes personally lead a raid into the famed saloon accompanied by not just police officers, but also a newspaper reporter.  The result was outrage by some and congratulations by others and space on the front page of a Joplin daily.

The city’s crusade was not without violence and bloodshed, either.  In the midst of the prior raid on suspicious women, one police officer was killed and another wounded by William Schmulbach, when an attempt was made to arrest his wife.  Schmulbach escaped and became one of Joplin’s most notorious and wanted men.  High rewards failed to turn others against him and Joplinites claimed to have spotted him at one time or another across the breadth of the nation.  Chief McManamy blamed the municipal judge, Fred W. Kelsey, who had ordered the raid for the officer’s death.  Judge Kelsey, likewise accepted responsibility, but fired back that “No officer should shirk the responsibility of a raid made in an effort to enforce the law…”  The severity of the conflict by Humes against the vices of Joplin soon garnered the attention of the Kansas City Star, which sent a reporter to Joplin to report on crackdown.

In the outsider peering in perspective offered by the article that ensued, the true state of the recent events took on the incredible air of a city government divided.  In one corner was the mayor, whom the article referred to as supported by “those who desire to see the laws enforced.”  In another, the long time and often re-elected chief of police, McManamy, who purportedly was lobbied by the ne’er do wells to simply allow the city to be policed as it had before the pre-Sunday enforcement push.  In the third corner, the municipal court judge Kelsey, who in contrast to Humes, wanted an even stricter crackdown on criminals.  Additionally, the city council of sixteen was also divided along even lines of support for and against the law enforcement effort.

Police Chief John A. McManamy, the target of lobbying by the “open town” supporters.

It all, the paper claimed, was due to the eventual arrival of the Rev. Billy Sunday.  His arrival, “caused a shiver to run through the camp of the lawbreakers.”  Purportedly, such was the concern of those on the wrong side of the law that a meeting was held at the House of Lords where a temporary agreement was made “…The gamblers agreed to leave town for a while and the saloon keepers decided to close their places on Sunday while the revival was in progress.”  Thereafter, as soon as the revival and the excitement it generated ended, the gamblers would “slip back again.”

The House of Lords was, the paper described, “The central point of attack of the law enforcement contingent and the place around which the defenders of an open town are rallying…[It is]…the pioneer saloon, café, pool hall and rooming house in Joplin.  It is the headquarters of many of the politicians, and the stronghold of those who do not like to see old conditions disturbed…”  The House of Lords was a place of “red paint and expensive furnishings” which separated and distinguished the saloon from any similar business in Joplin.  Humes, after the raid, refused to sign the liquor license and vehemently swore the House of Lords would be permanently closed.

Joplin Main Street

On the left, the House of Lords, located at the very heart of Joplin’s financial district and the alleged heart of those who supported an “open town” policy for Joplin.

Rev. Sunday also brought fear to those who indirectly supported unlawful activity.  “Some of those “church goers” who had been renting their buildings for rooming houses of questionable character and for dens of vice, took fright and demanded that their tenants vacate.  The Rev. Mr. Sunday has a way of collecting local information and announcing publicly the names of offending church members.  There was a general stampede for righteousness among that class of church members…”

The Reverend Frank Neff, formerly assistant pastor at the Independence Avenue Methodist Episcopal church in Kansas City, and then president of the Ministers Alliance of Joplin, stated to the reporter, “We expect a great clean up in the city, but it will be in the nature of a religious awakening which will result in a permanent clean up and will come from a sincere desire of the people.”  Neff went on to offer his support for Mayor Humes’ activity and granted him credit for attempting to clean up Joplin since he was elected.

The pending arrival of Billy Sunday shook Joplin to its core.  For some, it was the opportunity to save the city from vice once and for all through an up swell of religious fervor.  For others, it was a direct attack on the customs and habits, if not livelihoods, of a city that had persisted since the birth of Joplin as a rough mining camp in the old Southwest.  While factions fought, compromised and fought even more, all sides waited in one form of anticipation or another for the reverend to arrive.

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 Soiled Dove Returns

Florence Woodson was hailed as one of “the most notorious denizens of the north end.” She had spent “many long and tedious hours behind the bars” and “years in dives of ill fame” when her mother appeared in Joplin and forced her to return home. Florence, it was said, had left her home in Springfield years before and journeyed to Joplin’s tough North End where she found work as a soiled dove. She soon gained the reputation as one of the “toughest of the tough.”

When her mother arrived, she found her daughter in jail, held on a charge of prostitution. Their meeting was “a heart rending scene” as Florence’s mother told her that Florence’s father had died from grief after she left home. Florence promised to leave her life on the streets and return home to Springfield. She was released from jail and left Joplin. It was rumored that she had indeed returned to the straight and narrow, but she eventually returned to Joplin, hoping to visit the “scenes of her dissipation” while on an excursion to nearby Carthage.

Florence, however, found that Joplin’s North End had changed. Many of the “resorts” were deserted; some even partially destroyed. Once the scene of “music, dancing, and wrong-doing galore,” reform-minded middle-class women had led a somewhat effort to drive the prostitutes, gamblers, and criminals from the North End, many of whom were African-American.

The police, alerted to Florence’s return, arrested her in a rooming house on Main Street. She begged that if released she would never return to Joplin. The judge fined her $5 and costs before releasing her. Florence reportedly caught a train back to Springfield. One more soiled dove had come and gone, but there would always be more to fill the bars and boarding houses of Joplin.

Source: Joplin News-Herald

What Did You Do During the War, Grandma?

Joplin Police Chief Joseph H. Myers

During the height of World War One, a covert raid was launched by the Joplin Police Department on behalf of the federal government. Chief of Police Joseph H. Myers, Assistant Chief of Police Charles McManamy, Chief of Detectives William F. Gibson, and an assortment of “street sergeants” met under the cover of night at the police station. Few, if any, of their colleagues knew about the raid. Chief Myers was concerned some of his men might tip off the intended targets.

At eleven o’clock at night, the men set out in squads. Their orders: to raid all rooming houses on Main Street and arrest all female occupants. In a complete surprise, the chief and his men successfully carried off the raid. One hundred and forty two women were taken into custody and taken to the Joplin Police Department. Once there, they were examined by “city physicians under the direction of Dr. R.B. Tyler,” Joplin’s commissioner of health and sanitation. Those assisting Tyler were Drs. W.H. Lanyon, J.B. Williams, D. R. Hill, and R.W. Amos. Of that number, fifty five women were  detained on suspicion of having a venereal disease.  They were to be held for observation and would be released only  after they showed no signs of a sexually transmitted disease.

After the raid and subsequent examinations, Dr. Tyler told a reporter that “Joplin is unusually clean. Few of the girls detained will be required to remain in the detention home.” He estimated that at least ten percent of the women arrested were afflicted with venereal disease. Curiously, as the sun rose in the sky over Joplin, eight women voluntarily  surrendered themselves at the police department for examination.

Judge John McManamy (Also former Joplin Police Chief)

For those fortunate enough to escape detention, they were brought before Judge John McManamy and charged with “improper conduct.” Apparently many, if not all of the women, pled guilty and paid a $10 fine. They were then released on “parole” with the understanding that they were to report weekly to Chief Myers or to Desk Sergeants Dave Isbell or Verna P. Hine. The women would have to report their current address and whether or not they had been “working.”

Police Matron Wathena B. Hamilton and Assistant Matron Minnalin McKenna were to assist women find gainful employment if requested.

Shockingly, it was reported:

“Investigations conducted by the police at the instance of officials of the war department resulted in the obtaining of approximately twenty names of wives of soldiers and sailors in government service, either in Europe or in American  cantonments. Should they be found to be of questionable character, reports will be made to the proper officials and  their allotments stopped, if their husbands request it.”

Talk about government intrusion!

Cornbread Wilson

Why some women turned to prostitution, be it from circumstance or drug addiction, it might be never known.  Unfortunately at times, caught up with them in the tragic whirlwind by no choice of their own were children.  This is one story.

How Pearl Wilson received the nickname Cornbread is unknown, but what is known from contemporary accounts is that she bore a “bad reputation and was bringing her little five year old daughter up in the very blackest of sin.” It was not surprising, then, to officers when they arrested her in 1903 on a charge of street walking with her daughter in tow.

After she was arrested, Wilson was escorted to the city jail, and when the “iron doors closed between the woman and her child, she began to cry” because the police “refused to lock up her little girl.” Deputy Marshal Frank Sowder contacted the Children’s Home and asked that someone come take charge of the child.

When Mrs.  Barr, matron of the Children’s Home, arrived to take Pearl Wilson’s daughter to the home, a “most pathetic scene” ensued.  Wilson begged to kiss her child goodbye and when the doors of the cell were opened, she “bounded out and clasped the little girl to her bosom, and the tears of mother and daughter mingled.” But Mrs.  Barr could not tarry long and soon the “tender, loving mother, [fought] the battle of her life to prevent the officers from separating her from little one.” Her appeal to keep her child with her in the jail cell tugged at the heartstrings of the officers.  Both Deputy Marshal Sowder and Night Captain Loughlin could not “keep back the tears.” Neither man wanted to separate mother and child, but with the assistance of Mrs.  Barr, the two were separated.

Pearl Wilson was placed back in her cell while her daughter was taken the Children’s Home.  The following day, Wilson went before the police judge, where she claimed that she was not street walking; she was merely “on her way home from church when the officers placed her under arrest.” The Globe reporter remarked, “No one in the courtroom who is acquainted with her methods was inclined to believer her story and the court decided to continue her case until” the next morning when “her conduct will be thoroughly investigated.”

By the next day, however, Pearl Wilson was in trouble again.  This time it was for going to the Children’s Home at 10 o’clock at night on a Sunday to regain possession of her daughter.  After being denied entrance, she “raised a disturbance.  She disturbed the entire neighborhood and in a loud manner served notice that she would ‘clean out the roost’ if her wishes were not acceded to.” Pearl left empty-handed but returned the next day and through “a series of gigantic bluffs she endeavored to frighten the inmates and she succeeded in scaring the smaller inmates nearly out of their wits.  Perfect and harmonious bedlam reigned” until the police arrived and arrested her once again.

The Globe reporter observed, “Although ‘Cornbread’ has lost the principal attributes of a fond and affectionate mother, she has retained as strong love for the little waif as the matron of the most comfortable home in the city.  She has been known to shamefully neglect little Bonnie, but when she is pursued and corralled by the policemen she invariably takes Bonne with her to the jail.”

She must have failed to sway the mind of Mrs.  Barr as she and a young man were seen on Christmas eve “prowling about the Home by some of the attendants and were ordered away.” The Globe reported, “the Wilson woman has made the threat that she will have possession of her child if it costs her life.”

What happened to Pearl Wilson and her daughter Bonnie remains unknown.  Their story, however, is a common one as many women chose to pursue their livelihood as a member of the frail sisterhood.  For the children who were born to women who earned their living on the streets, life was far from easy.

Source: Joplin Globe

Death of a Soiled Dove

Joplin’s North End was riddled with “immoral resorts” filled with young women.  Mamie Johnson was one of many who walked the streets of Joplin.  Her life tragically came to an end at the age of thirty-three after she abandoned her husband of four years and two children and took up the profession of a scarlet woman.  But her life as a lady of the night must have worn her down, for in the end Mamie’s life was cut short by her own hand.

Mamie, whose real name was allegedly Minerva Rickey, was the daughter of a “well-to-do” farmer from the Kansas City.  At a young age she eloped with John Gordon, a young farmer, and settled down.  After four years and two children, however, Mamie left her family and strolled into Joplin and a life of vice.  Shortly before her death, she had confided to an aunt who lived in Joplin that her husband had mistreated her.  The two had reportedly divorced.

One day life was too much for Mamie to bear and she overdosed on ten cent dose of morphine.  She was discovered in her room by Frank Wilsey, a laundryman for the Empire Steam Laundry, when he dropped off a bundle of clothes at her room.  Word quickly spread throughout Joplin’s tenderloin district and “many touching scenes were witnessed as the unfortunate creatures crowded about and gazed upon the face of their dead sister.” A letter was found in her room addressed to Bessie Blair.

The text of the letter read,

Joplin, Mo.  July, 27, 1898.

Dear Friend Bessie:

I will write this for you and leave it for you.  I may not get to talk to you or see you anymore.  But my bedroom suit you can have for that fine, but give my clothes to my aunt.  That is all I want, but would like for you to come as I want to send word home.  I would like for you to see them as soon as possible, for my clothes, my trunk, and things is all I ask of you to let them have.  Well, I am satisfied and hope you will be.  Tell them to go down to the wash woman’s and give up three dollars for clothes there.  I would like to have my aunt come as soon as you get this note.

Do not think nothing as you know what caused it.  You will not be out nothing as my folks will take care of me.  I suppose you will be satisfied when you see, anyway.  You have been a friend to me and not a friend.  And I hope when the girls see this they will take warning by me.  Bessie, it is hard to do, but I cannot help it.  I hope you will be satisfied with Minnie [Mamie's roommate] as she is a good girl, and will treat you right.  I send my love and best regards and hope you will not take a foolish idea like I have took.  Kiss them all for me.  Tell Pearl she is all right.  Time is drawing near and will have to close.

Good bye.
from your Mamie Gordon to my dear friend Bess, 1,000 kisses to all you I will go to hell tonight.

Interestingly, the letter was dictated by Mamie to her lover, Ernest Boruff, who testified at the coroner’s inquest that the two had quarreled a few weeks earlier after some of his clothes went missing.  They quarreled again after he wrote the letter for her and he subsequently left.  He claimed that he did not suspect Mamie had suicidal intent and swore that she “was not in the habit of using morphine.” Bessie Blair also testified at the coroner’s inquest and stated that Mamie had threatened suicide several times during the past month.

After Mamie Gordon’s funeral, the coroner’s jury issued the following verdict:

“We, the jury, find that Mamie Gordon came to her death form an overdose of drugs, taken by herself presumably with suicidal intent.”

W.M.  Whiteley, Coroner
Dave K.  Weir
Samuel Cox
A.C.  James
J.M.  Graham
Ed Trimble
A.  Malang

Life as a prostitute was not a happy one, and more likely than not, one that women simply fell into due to misfortune and bad circumstance.  At least some had addictions to cocaine or morphine, and as Mamie Gordon’s letter warned, one that could easily end in the death of a soiled dove.

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

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.