The Love Pirate and the Bandit’s Son: Murder, Sin, and Scandal in the Shadow of Jesse James by attorney Laura James was published in 2009, but we thought we would mention it because the book contains a detailed look at one of Joplin’s lesser known scandals involving one of the most influential men in early Joplin history.
Zeo Zoe Wilkins was a charming osteopath who also a cunning opportunist. Her prediliction for marrying men, taking their money, and then divorcing them led some to call her a “vampire.”
After meeting 72 year old banker and former Joplin mayor Thomas W. Cunningham, Zeo Zoe sought to marry him and, in the process, seize his assets for herself. There was only one problem: Thomas had a common-law wife, Tabitha Carr Taylor Cunningham. Zeo, however, pushed ahead with her plans and married Cunningham. She kept him sequestered away from his friends, took over half a million dollars in cash, sold his bank to a rival, and disposed of his real estate holdings. Cunningham launched a divorce suit, claiming he was Zeo’s slave. In the end, the marriage was anulled. Zeo Zoe received a generous settlement while Cunningham returned to Joplin and to Tabitha. But Zeo Zoe’s story did not end in Joplin. She continued her scandalous ways until she met a brutal end in Kansas City. Her murder was never solved, but among those suspected of killing her was her one-time lover, Jesse James, Jr.
Despite the campy title, Laura James has produced an entertaining and well documented narrative account of Zeo Zoe Wilkin’s sinful life, and in the process has provided an in-depth look into one of Joplin’s lesser scandals that, for a brief moment in time, captured the nation’s attention.