Thomas Connor: Philanthropist, Mine Owner, and Prankster?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thunderation!” boomed Jones.

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

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

The Lawyers

The scene of undoubtedly many a colorful exchange between Joplin's lawyers. It later burned to the ground.

We have covered desperados, sinful sirens, and other ne’er do wells in the past. We have yet, however, to discuss the lawyers who were called upon to defend their clients over the years. There are biographical sketches of many judges and lawyers in the various Jasper County histories, but nothing quite brings the local bar to life like the address the Honorable John H. Flanigan delivered before the Jasper County Bar Association on March 1, 1941, the one hundredth anniversary of the Jasper County Circuit Court. Although we cannot reprint the entire speech in its entirety, we can share some of the more colorful stories he related to his audience.

One of the most vivid tales Flanigan shared was one that he had heard from the venerable Samuel McReynolds:

“One of the old time lawyers in Carthage was Bill Green. He died in the State Hospital [Insane Asylum] at Nevada. For years before his confinement there his mind had been failing, but the failure was so gradual that many were unaware of his condition. Samuel McReynolds told me that on one occasion his firm had been requested by a law book concern to make collection of an account against Bill Green. The firm was unable to make the collection and thus the matter stood until one day a salesman from the law book concern called at the office of McReynolds & Halliburton on a sales trip. Learning that the Green account had not been paid, he asked Judge McReynolds if there was any objection to his undertaking to collect. McReynolds agreed that the salesman might try it.

In a few minutes, the salesman came back white as a sheet and quivering like an aspen leaf. He said:

‘Mr. McReynolds, I have had a perfectly horrible experience. I went up the stairs, found Mr. Green’s door, walked in, and found a very large man lying full-length on the floor. The floor was covered with papers and documents. The man had a large past pot on the floor and a paste brush in his hand. Without preliminary, the man said, “This is my filing system. For years I have been unable to find lost papers. Now I take a paper, put paste on it with this brush, slap it on the wall and there it is until the end of time. I am going to patent this invention.”

He then rose to his full height and asked me to state my business. I told him I had come to collect the account. Green had a peculiar glitter in his eye. He said, “Sir, I am possessed of supa’ powers. You see this long knife with its keen blade. With this knife I am able, sir, to separate your head from your body, remove your head, place it on the floor, and replace it on your shoulders without injury to you, and sir, I am going to perform that miracle on you right now.” I don’t care if we never collect that account.’

According to Flanigan, “Tom Connor [of Connor Hotel fame] disliked Judge Malcolm G. McGregor, but said he was willing to trust McGregor to decide any case because, ‘Even though he is a damned Scotchman, he is absolutely honest.’”  He added that when McGregor arrived in Jasper County, he had walked from Ft. Scott, Kansas, to Lamar. After taking a brief rest, he walked the rest of the way from Lamar to Carthage.

Judge John C. Price, it was recalled, had a fondness for alcohol and tobacco. Flanigan said of Price, “When he was riding the circuit he would retire at night in the primitive hotels of the period, a giant ‘chaw’ of tobacco clamped in his jaw. When seized with the desire to expectorate he would spit a steam of tobacco juice straight in the air above his head and would then quickly draw the covers over his head so that they might catch the fall, thus ‘saving his face.’”

Once Al Thomas was participating in a trial at Carthage and, as usual, “shouted his argument in penetrating tones that carried far beyond the court house square.” His opponent in the courtroom that day, Lon Cunningham, stood up and replied:

“Gentlemen of the jury, I read an article in the encyclopedia which interested me very much. It stated that some scientists had gone to the upper reaches of the Amazon far into the jungles of South America to find out what sort of animal was capable of making a tremendous noise described to them by the natives who reported that when this noise was heard the cockatoos and the wild bird would fly from their perch and flit from tree to tree, hyenas would take to the deep undergrowth, and panthers would retreat to their dens. After weeks of search[ing], the source of this noise was found. It was a harmless beetle which made the noise by the tremendous beating of its wings. This noise was the beetle’s only defense against attack. Al Thomas reminds me of that beetle. He is all noise and noise is his only defense.”

Cunningham was also known for winning a court case over water pressure. One of the parties in the case was required to provide enough water pressure that a stream of water would reach the fourth floor of the Keystone Hotel. Cunningham argued that the contract was invalid because of the required water pressure was not provided. In closing arguments, Cunningham recalled that growing up on the family farm, he remembered boys would “usually gather around a large apple tree behind the barn and each in turn would attempt with Nature’s own water pressure to throw a stream to reach the big limb of the apple tree.” According to Cunningham, he knew from experience “there were boys in the family who could furnish more pressure than the defendant had furnished under its contract.”

Perhaps in 2041, we’ll be greeted with just as colorful recollections of today’s lawyers.

General Coxey Comes to Joplin

In 1899, General Jacob S. Coxey rolled into Joplin to try his luck in the mines. General Coxey was not a hero of the Civil War; instead, he was a hero of the working class who twice led a rabble of unemployed workers dubbed “Coxey’s Army” on quixotic marches on Washington, D.C.

Coxey, a native of Pennsylvania, who despite his status as a prosperous businessman, believed that business monopolies brutally crushed the common man. One year after the nation descended into financial panic during the economic crisis of 1893, Coxey led a ragtag group of unemployed workers to Washington, D.C. to protest unemployment and to ask the federal government to create public works projects to provide jobs for the unemployed. His plan anticipated the economic recovery programs of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Although unsuccessful, Coxey and his followers captured the country’s attention. He would later launch a second march in 1914 that also failed to achieve lasting results.

General Jacob S. Coxey

General Jacob S. Coxey, leader of "Coxey's Army" in his later years via Library of Congress

In between marches Coxey continued his successful business pursuits, but remained open to new ventures. The year 1899 found Coxey in Joplin, Missouri. He brought with him a sixty foot long railroad car that had once been outfitted for traveling in luxury, including his personal office on wheels, but had since been converted into a car that carried machinery. On board was a boiler and engine, mining timbers, mine cars, and other equipment brought from an Ohio coal mine.

Coxey announced his intent to mine according to his style, but the Joplin Daily News remarked, “what use he has for a dozen coal cars experienced miners here cannot explain.” Coxey’s mine was made up of two lots on the Shoal Creek Company’s lease located at Redding’s Mill south of Joplin. Coxey’s railroad car and its contents attracted “unusual attention” among onlookers at the Frisco Depot.

One week after his arrival Coxey departed Joplin to return home to Massillon, Ohio, and announced his intent to return in the following weeks to check on his mining operations. He was described as a “business like man and has plenty of ready cash” who “merely smiles and says but little when politics is broached. He is a good storyteller and never fails to tell jokes on himself.” In looks he was a “plain business appearing man, middle aged and wears the latest style tailor made clothes and tan shoes.”

While in Joplin, he reportedly became good friends with Thomas Connor, who would later build the New Joplin/Connor Hotel, and expressed his interest in “the story of Mr. Connor’s success.”

It is unknown just how much money Coxey made from his mines, but he certainly livened up Joplin for at least one week in 1899.

Source: Joplin Daily News, Library of Congress

Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at the Connor Hotel Restaurant

…only requirement is a time machine.

Of those who lived in Joplin, the city claimed not a few number of sons of Ireland.  Some of the city’s wealthiest citizens, such as Patrick Murphy and Thomas Connor, were the children of Irish immigrants or born in Ireland.  In a tip o’ the hat to Joplin’s Irish, presented below is a menu ad for the Connor Hotel’s restaurant.  The Connor, named after Thomas Connor, was once the architectural centerpiece of Joplin’s downtown.  Not bad for a true son of Ireland.

An ad for the restaurant at the Connor Hotel

A 1923 ad for the restaurant at the Connor Hotel

Source:  Joplin Globe

The Connor Hotel – Part One

The Connor Hotel

On November 11, 1978, the Connor came crashing down. It had once symbolized the luxurious height of Joplin’s prosperity, but seventy years later, the Connor Hotel was singled out for demolition. Unwilling to have its fate dictated by dynamite, the Connor collapsed on its own and in the process trapped three men, two of whom died. The suspense of the search and rescue effort caught the attention of the nation and for one last time, the Connor Hotel made the headlines.

The Connor Hotel was the dream of Thomas Connor. In time, Historic Joplin will dedicate an entire entry to Connor, but for now a brief profile will suffice. Connor, the son of Irish immigrants, arrived in Joplin as a young man with little more than ambition and grit. A shrewd real estate developer, Connor’s wealth flowed from the lead and zinc mines, and became one of the city’s millionaires. His life and achievements were reflected in the life of Joplin as he played a considerable role in the city’s development and growth.

Thomas Connor

Among his many investments, Connor owned a significant interest in the Joplin Hotel, a three story structure situated on the northwest corner of the busy intersection of Main Street and Fourth Street. The Joplin Hotel, also known as the ‘Brick Hotel’ was built in 1874. It boasted fifty rooms that were constantly occupied by miners, capitalists, and traveling salesmen. Joel Livingston, an attorney and early resident of Joplin, recalled that the Joplin Hotel served as the hub of activity among powerful local politicians in the 1870s and 1880s. In 1893, one period newspaper reported that the Joplin Hotel planned to add a fourth floor. Thomas Connor, however, had grander ambitions. In 1906, Connor ordered that the Joplin Hotel be demolished in order to make room for a new building.

Work on a new structure began shortly after the Joplin Hotel was torn down. Connor shared his vision with the people of Joplin. Plans for the “New Joplin Hotel” revealed an ambitious design, one that would give rise to Joplin’s tallest building, one that would tower over Joplin’s then tallest building, the six story Keystone Hotel, which occupied the corner just across the street.

Connor employed the St. Louis architectural firm of Barnett, Haynes, and Barnett to design the Neo-Classical style structure. Work was then contracted to the local construction firm of Dieter and Wentzel. Building materials came from near and far. Steel for fireproofing and decorative ornamentation was brought in from the Des Moines Bridge and Iron Works of Iowa. The Spring River Stone Company of nearby Carthage supplied the exterior stone. Italian marble, imported by the St. Louis Marble and Tile Company, was used in the lobby and added to the planned elegance of the hotel. A visitor entering the hotel would enter under a Roman canopy built of bronze and glass.

Architectual Plan for the new Joplin Hotel

The new Joplin Hotel was unable to escape completion without incident or misfortune. The first notable accident occurred on September 26, 1906, when a 90 foot crane, used to lift the massive steel beams used in the construction of the hotel, collapsed without warning. Just after lunch, the crane was in the process of lifting a heavy beam from a pile situated on Fourth Street. To do so, the crane operator had to be careful that he raised it up and over the street’s telephone wires.

John Hively, a worker from Indiana, was riding on the beam as it was lifted into the sky. Hively and the beam he stood upon had risen over fifteen feet above the telephone cables when the five-eighths wire cable that held the weight of the beam snapped violently. The severed wire cable lashed out and struck the exterior of the Club Saloon across the street, “slicing through the weather boarding” for several feet like a knife. The severed crane wire then collapsed across the electrified trolley cables running down the street and the crane became “a mass of shooting sparks.” The crane’s metal cable finally settled on the street writhing dangerously with electric current from the trolley wires.

Illustration of John Hively's fatal accident

At the same time as the wire was causing havoc in its collapse, the heavy steel beam plummeted to the earth with Hively still on top of it and crashed onto the pile of beams below. Hively, as witnesses later recalled, landed in a seating position. He might have survived the incident had he not fallen backward from the force of the fall and hit the back of his head on the t-shaped end of another steel beam. His death was instantaneous, but may have been avoidable, as it was later reported that the crane had not been setup properly. His death was not the last.

By January 1907, five stories of the new hotel were completed. Irvin Neyhard, a thirty-five year old divorced father employed as a plumber’s helper, was one of many who found a job working on the building. Although he had first arrived in Joplin some seven to eight years earlier, he rented a room a nearby boarding house not far from the job site. Neyhard was killed when, while crossing the hotel’s elevator shaft on a wooden ladder on the fourth floor, the ladder broke. Neyhard plummeted more than forty feet and landed on a cement floor. His fellow workers reported that Neyhard frantically attempted to catch something, anything, as he fell through the air. He died a few minutes after hitting the ground.

Illustration of how Neyhard died.

Two months later another death made the headlines. Thomas Connor, Joplin’s generous benefactor, died while visiting a sanitarium in San Antonio, Texas. Only sixty years old, he had not even finished his first term as a state senator from Jasper County. The Joplin Daily Globe headlined Connor’s unexpected passing. The Globe’s editor suggested that the new hotel should be named after Connor. The public agreed and when the hotel opened up a year later in 1908, it was christened the Connor.

Advertisement for the opening of the Connor

The Connor Hotel officially opened Sunday, April 12, 1908, but had a soft opening a few days earlier. The evening meal, served at six o’clock, was not considered the official event to usher in a new era in Joplin’s history, but nevertheless was attended by Joplin society. Men wore their best formal evening attire while women wore elegant gowns and plumed hats. An orchestra serenaded the diners. The proprietors of the hotel, brothers Allen and D.J. Dean, were forced to turn away more than a hundred visitors who had hoped to dine at the Connor. Many more Joplin residents crowded the hotel to inspect the luxurious interior, though not before it was deemed safe that their shoes were not a threat to the hotel’s expensive carpets.

Allen J. Dean

D.J. Dean

The manager of the Connor was O.A. Reif, a long time employee of the Dean Brothers. Reif was assisted by Chief Clerk of the Connor, Sam B. Campbell. Campbell, in turn was aided by Carl Young, a former employee of the Keystone Hotel, and . The register, which was opened officially the day before, quickly filled up with fifty names, the first being C.V. Floyd, a traveling salesman from Chicago. By the end of the opening night, guests had contributed four more pages of signatures.

Due to Sunday laws, the Connor’s bar was not open that evening until midnight. Upon the chiming of the midnight hour, the doors to the Connor’s bar were thrown open, and the crowd swept into the room. The first to drink from the bar was A. Webber, the gentleman in charge of the installation of a refrigeration unit in the hotel. While enjoying his drink, Mr. Webber dropped a hundred dollar bill on the bar top to treat the rest of the guests to a round. It was promptly displayed on the bar’s mirror for all to see.

In order to ensure guest safety, there were only two entrances to the Connor, which the proprietors boasted protected guests from thieves. The main entrance featured a Roman canopy which led to the lobby which was graced by brilliant white marble columns. The lobby walls, which ran east to west, were lined with equally beautiful marble while the floors were covered in tinted tile. To the visitor’s right upon entering was a cigar and newsstand and the hotel office, replete with bronze and brass railings for the cashier and bookkeeper departments where visitors checked in. Elevators were also to the right. While not present opening night, a life sized oil painting of Thomas Connor was later placed on the north wall of the lobby near the office, a reminder of the man who envisioned the hotel.

Perhaps the most prominent feature of the Connor was the grand staircase located at the lobby’s west end. The steps, the balustrades, and railing were carved from the same fine marble of the lobby. Large glowing glass orbs encircled and supported by metal roses illuminated the steps. At the top of the steps, the stairway divided into opposing stairwells, one going up toward the north side of the building and the other the south. Both flights opened up to a fancifully decorated parlor on the next floor.

Interior of the Lobby

Back inside the lobby, spread throughout the long columned hall, were plush leather chairs and divans. Off of the lobby, by the office, was a seven chair barbershop, which boasted the finest barbers in Joplin, and in the basement, a billiards hall, the kitchen, and toilet rooms. There was little a visitor to Joplin, or a resident for that matter, could not enjoy or acquire within the walls of the Connor.  The history of the Connor continued for another seventy years, one that includes growth, downturn and ultimately, tragedy; all of which will be covered in continuing coverage by Historic Joplin.

Street Level Photograph of the Connor's Fourth Street facade.

Photograph of Connor in a Joplin promotional booklet

Sources: Joplin Daily Globe, Joplin News Herald, University of Missouri : Digital Library, Historic Joplin Personal Collections