Kansas City Bottoms: Part II

A portion of the Kansas City Bottoms was leveled to make way for the new Union Depot station (left side of photo).

As time passed and mining operations relocated across the area, the Kansas City Bottoms was transformed as “a few factories and mills” dotted the valley and its hillsides. Although there was talk that the Kansas City Southern Railway would build rail shops in the bottoms, the project never came to fruition.

This led to an effort to “more or less isolate the city’s riff-raff of humanity there. It became a sort of ‘red-light’ district, and flourished with gayety, containing gambling houses, saloons, dance halls, and rooming houses.” As Joplin continued to grow, the area grew more desolate, and “buildings were moved, burned, or fell in ruins.” The Kansas City Bottoms soon became a sprawling slum that doubled as a dumping ground. At the turn of the century, an angry mob descended upon the Bottoms and chased out a number of prostitutes who had taken up residence there. Soon the area became populated with African Americans, some of whom had been chased out of Pierce City in 1901, after a brutal race riot ended in the expulsion of Pierce City’s black residents.

A lifelong Joplin resident shared her memories of the Bottoms in a letter to the Joplin Globe:

“Where the [Union Depot] station is now and scattered throughout the valley were shanties occupied mostly by colored folk. This place was known as the Kansas City Bottoms. There was a footbridge over Joplin Creek near where the Union Station is now. Rather than walk around to Broadway, for four years I walked through the Bottoms and came onto Main Street at about A Street on my way to high school.”

“A girl or woman did not dare to cross the Bottoms without an escort. It was not even safe for a man,” the woman continued, “My boyfriend who later became my husband lived on the West side and he never crossed without a weapon. There were often holdups and sometimes murder in the Bottoms. There was no Broadway viaduct then.”

One former Joplin police officer claimed that “policemen were virtually given orders ‘not to bring any of the ‘bottomites’ out.’” This reportedly meant that a police officer should “shoot at the least provocation and shoot to kill.”

Burt Brannon, Joplin Police Officer

Officer Bert Brannon

Charles Sweeney, Joplin Police Officer

Charles Sweeney

These reputed orders presumably came after the death of Officers James Sweeney and Bert Brannon in 1901 after they were shot and mortally wounded after arresting a gang of vagrants in the Kansas City Southern rail yard and the death of Officer Theodore Leslie who was killed in 1903 while searching the rail yard for a burglary suspect. In 1909, work began on the Third Street viaduct, which spanned the Bottoms to connect East and West Joplin. (To Learn more about the Third Street Viaduct – click here) A year later, work began on the Joplin Union Depot, and a portion of the Kansas City Bottoms was leveled to make way for the expanded railyards and station. (To learn more about the leveling of the Bottoms for the Depot, click here)

By 1915, the condition of the Kansas City Bottoms was as close to a living hell as one could find in Joplin. One account painted a bleak picture of life in the bottoms: “Squatters, trash and garbage haulers, tramps and other transients” moved into the bottoms, living in shacks, shanties, broken down wagons, and tents. Men, women, and children lived in abject poverty. Few outsiders dared enter the bottoms as it had a reputation as, “a most dangerous place. It hardly was safe for a person to enter in daylight. After dark, entry into the hollow by an outsider was practically synonymous with suicide.”

That same year, however, the Kansas City Bottoms would experience a significant transformation for the first time since Sergeant first struck lead.

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!

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

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.