No Rest for the Weary Willie

Today many Americans, unless they live in an urban metropolitan center, have little interaction with the country’s rail system.  Once in a while, one might find themselves stopped at a railroad crossing watching a train roll past, but gone are the days when the train would stop at the town depot to take on coal, passengers, mail, and freight before heading to its next destination.  Peruse an old Joplin newspaper and ads from the St.  Louis and San Francisco “Frisco” Railway touting summer excursions to Eureka Springs, St.  Louis, and Chicago spring from the pages.  Joplin was fortunate that it not only had an extensive interurban trolley system, but was home to a handful of rail lines that carried lead and zinc to industrial centers in the east.

With the trains came hoboes and tramps.  Just a few years after the turn of the century, the Joplin Daily Globe reported that local train crews were having problems with hoboes.  “According to trainmen,” the Globe recounted, “they are having more trouble with tramps this winter than for a great many years.  They are of the worst class and are exceedingly dangerous customers.  They are traveling around stealing rides when they can and endeavoring to find the most favorable places for looting stores or cracking safes.”

The trainmen claimed that the “harmless hoboes who would go out of their way rather than harm a human being are very much in the minority.” Instead, many trainmen told the Globe reporter that they had engaged in “hand to hand fights in an effort to rid the train of them.” Many of the fights broke out during the night when hoboes boldly roamed the rail yards in groups of four to six men.

Later that year, the Globe reported that the, “rail road yards have been especially infested with the merry willies of late.” Nels Milligan, a Joplin police officer detailed to keep an eye on the hoboes told a Globe reporter, “All up along the Kansas City Southern embankment from Broadway to Turkey Creek, you could see the bums lying stretched out in the warm afternoon air sunning themselves like alligators or mud turtles on a chilly afternoon, and here and there was a camp.”  According to Milligan, a hobo’s camp consisted of a “small fire that you could spit on and put out, between two or three blackened rocks, and a blackened old tin can, and an improvised pan or skillet made out of another tin can melted apart and flattened out.”

Hobo getting a free meal

Sometimes a hobo succeeded in getting a free meal.

The officer admitted there were too many hoboes and not enough room in the jail to house them.  He worried they would be “working the residence district for grub, hand-outs, punk, pie, panhandle, pellets, and any old thing they can get together.” Once they had food, Milligan claimed, the hoboes would “feed and gorge and lie around there like fat bears dormant in the winter time” until a bout of bad weather would send them on their way.

Five years later, the Joplin News Herald interviewed a railroad employee about the tramps who traveled through Joplin.  Watching a couple of hoboes jump off of a freight train in the Joplin rail yards, the railroad employee remarked, “See those fellows getting off up there? Now there is no telling where they got on, nor where they rode.” He shook his head.  “There’s another thing connected with this hauling of tramps.  Some of the most notorious criminals of the country have occupied places on the train and eluded the crew for hundreds of miles.”  According to the man, rail workers made every effort to assist law enforcement officers in locating wanted criminals who might be catching a ride on the trains.

Joplin was still struggling with hoboes eleven years later when Chief of Police Joseph Myers directed his officers to sweep the town for any weary willies.  Six men were arrested on charges of vagrancy, jailed, and then told to move on.  But as long as there were trains rolling into Joplin, there were always tramps and hoboes to contend with.

Hobos kicked out of Joplin

Joplin Police kicking out bums and hobos

Hoboes were sometimes looked at in a humorous light.  A hobo celebration was held at the “hobo cave one mile and a half north of the union depot in the hills of Turkey Creek.  Twenty of the Ancient Sons of Leisure gathered there in the cool cave.” One of the hoboes stood up to deliver an impromptu address about the significance of the Fourth of July and said, “Fellow brothers, you all realize what this day means.  It was on this day in 1776 that George Washington crossed the Delaware, whipped fifty thousand Redcoats and whacked out the Declaration of Independence.  Since that time we have been independent.  We do not have to work.  I now propose a committee of three raid a [chicken] coop so we can have an elaborate dinner as befitting Washington’s birthday.”

By 1918, the day of the hobo in Joplin had begun to wane.  Despite Joplin remaining an “oasis  in the great American desert created by prohibition” it was no longer “possible for police to spread a drag net in the railroad yards and gather in anywhere from a dozen to fifty ‘Knights of the Open Road.’”
Tim Graney, a former Joplin police officer and station master at Union Depot, declared he had not seen more than half a dozen hoboes in the last year and not one in the past six months.  The camps where the tramps and hoboes once gathered were empty.  The Globe, unable to explain their absence, mused, “Maybe they have all gone to work…At any rate, they’re gone! The genus Hobo is no more!”

Sources: Joplin Globe, Joplin News Herald

A Changing of the Police Guard

An early ritual of the Joplin Police Department concerned the changing of the guard between new officers and old upon the assumption of a new police chief into office.  One of the powers of the chief was the appointment of selected officers, a relic of the days of political patronage.  In April, 1911, such a changing of the guard occurred and was described in a city paper.

“At midnight tonight the forces of the police will change from the present “bulls” to the new assignment which Chief Myers has selected.  At that time every prisoner in the city jail that is not held on a state warrant will be released so that the new force may enter with a clean slate.”

The preparation involved in this change concerned snipping brass buttons from coats and polishing the stars that the policemen wore to mark their station.  These two things, plus revolvers, were to be handed over by the old guard to the new upon the stroke of midnight.  The newspaper noted that most of the police force was to be dismissed with only a few experienced veterans retained.  Those who were about to lose their jobs were expected to go into mining, many of which who claimed they intended to prospect rather than go into the earth for others.

The dramatic signal to bring all the police to the station was to turn on every red traffic light across the city.  After the policemen had returned to the headquarters for the exchange of stars, buttons, and pistols, it was estimated 30 prisoners would be released.  The recently freed criminals would not have long to play upon the streets of Joplin without oversight, as beats were already assigned to the new officers who would immediately take them up as soon as they assumed their new duties.

Source: Joplin News Herald

A Pioneer Aviatrix Visits Joplin

The usual bustling noise of Joplin was interrupted one June morning by the unfamiliar buzzing of an eight cylinder airplane engine from several thousand feet above.  It was not the first time that Joplin had been visited by an airplane, but neither was it a common occurrence, particularly due to the aviatrix at the plane’s helm.  The pilot was the famous Ruth Bancroft Law and had been challenging both stereotypes and flying records for the past several years.

Ruth Bancroft Law

Aviatrix, Ruth Bancroft Law

Her arrival in June, 1917, was intended to be promotional flight to drop “liberty bond bombs” over the city.  All had begun well with a take off from Bartlesville approximately 110 miles away earlier that morning, but somewhere along the way, as she cruised in her modified Curtis airplane, one of the cylinders of her engine began to misfire.  Concerned about the engine, Law opted to pass over the city once and then head for the landing strip setup for her on one of the links of the Oak Hill golf course.  A crowd awaited her arrival, and she swooped down over their heads before she agilely set her plane down without incident around 11 am.

Immediately, the aviatrix was mobbed by fans who began an incessant volley of questions at the new arrival to Joplin.  Law was described as dressed in “regulation army aviation uniform,” an outfit she later exchanged for a divided skirt, leather boots, and leather jacket.  It was of particular note that she wore the uniform, as the United States began its venture into the war in Europe, Law had argued on the national level that women be allowed to join the military as aviators, a position that the government refused to adopt.  She voiced her aspiration to the assembled crowd, “I have offered my services to the war department to be used in any way it thinks best.”

Ruth Bancroft Law in her cockpit

Ruth Bancroft Law in her cockpit surrounded by fans. Via the Chicago History Museum

The Joplin Globe reporter on the scene wrote, “She talks distinctly, biting off her words with flashes of white teeth in a rather square little jaw.  Her pronunciation is that of an easterner, or perhaps an Englishwoman.  She talks fast, as she moves and does everything else.”   Law continued on her aspiration to go across the pond to Europe, “I should like to go to France, but I don’t believe I would care for personal encounters in the air where the object would be to send one’s opponent hurtling to the ground in a mass of debris, mangled and perhaps killed.”  She noted that the French had fine flying machines and her desire to fly one someday.

Law had planned to fly from Joplin to St. Louis, but the problem with her 100 horsepower engine effectively grounded the pioneer aviatrix.  Instead, a special train car upon which her plane would be loaded, would be attached to the next Frisco train and hauled to St. Louis for maintenance.  Law was not alone, but supported by one mechanic, two others, and a trusty French fighting dog.  The plane, itself, was a bi-plane, but with the engine mounted behind an exposed cockpit.  “The propeller blade is at the rear of the two main planes [wings] and is a monster thing compared with the rest of the machine.  Made in one piece, it is nearly twelve feet from tip to tip.”  The plane was a dirty yellow, streaked and smeared with oil from the engine.  It was also a famous plane, as the pilot acknowledged it was the same that had flown the record breaking flight from Chicago to New York, a distance of nearly 600 miles.

Ruth Bancroft Law flying over St. Louis

Ruth Bancroft Law flying over St. Louis after leaving Joplin, via the Chicago History Museum

The journalist described Law as possessing baby blue eyes, tawny yellow hair that often was kept under tight fitting headgear, and a satisfied smile that twisted the corners of her small mouth into delightful curves.  From St. Louis, Law stated, she intended to fly to Chicago.  When asked why she flew, the bold aviatrix stated, “I fly because I like to.  I like the feel of the air and I like to do things that other girls can’t.”

Source: Joplin Globe, Chicago History Museum, Library of Congress

The Unfortunate Life of Jung Ling

Life was not easy in Joplin for a Chinese immigrant. The Chinese community was minuscule in the midst of a city whose population was overwhelming white.  In previous posts, we covered the lives and affairs of Joplin’s immigrant community, and found that their lives were fraught with hardship and hostility. Jung Ling, sometimes referred to Lo Jung Sing or just Jung Sing, was one of those immigrants. During his time in Joplin he had to deal with his American wife absconding with his life savings and was forced to defend his business with a pistol.

In June of 1907, Jung attempted to gain legal entry for his son into America. During an interview with a government investigator, Jung claimed his son was born in the United States. When the boy was four, Jung took him to China to live with Jung’s Chinese wife. Now that his son was older, Jung wanted the boy to return to the United States to pursue an education. The government investigator, identified only as Mr. Tape, was a Chinese-American reportedly renowned for his ability to uncover and expose illegal Chinese immigrants. Mr. Tape rarely ventured into Southwest Missouri as few Chinese immigrants made the area their home. Reportedly at this time Joplin was home to only five Chinese residents and Carthage had only one Chinese resident. We do not know whether or not Jung was successful in his attempt to bring his son to the United States, but we do know that he was living alone four years later.

The same year, Jung, who owned both the Troy Laundry (located at 109 West Fifth Street) and a restaurant (in a 1909 Joplin city directory it is simply called “Chinese Restaurant” located at 117 East Fifth and 624 ½ Main Streets — Google Maps indicates the laundry was located roughly where Columbia Traders is today and that both businesses were across the street from each other) found himself in trouble once again. Jung was working late at his restaurant on a Wednesday evening when four strange men entered. The men sat down as if they were going to order a meal. Jung walked over to take their order. Without warning, the men jumped to their feet and attacked Jung with a blackjack. Frantically, Jung tried to escape out the back door, only to be beaten and choked into unconsciousness by his attackers.

Twenty-one hours passed before friends of Jung aroused him with loud knocks on his door.  The thieves had locked him inside, perhaps to create the illusion that the restaurant was closed for business and to prevent a sooner discovery of their victim. Jung managed to unlock the door before he fell back into unconsciousness. A broken blackjack club, the metal shot used to give the weapon its heft spilled across the floor, illustrated the brutality of the attack. Once again, Jung’s savings had been stolen.

It was not until two weeks later, when the Joplin police had arrested a notorious robber, Arlie Smith, that Jung had the chance to identify one of his attackers.  The Chinese immigrant still bore the wounds inflicted upon him from a fortnight before, but was by no means fearful when he spied Smith in a cell.  The Joplin News-Herald reported that Jung leapt forward, prepared to attack Smith.  Smith, meanwhile, dismissed Jung with a slur, and laughed.  It’s unknown if Smith was tried for his robbery and assault of Jung, but already accused of other such thefts, it’s likely he was sent off to the penitentiary for one crime or another.

Sources: Joplin Globe, Joplin News Herald

Blind Boone comes to Joplin

Blind Boone

Blind Boone, famed Ragtime piano player.

In June, 1907, a crowd in the large auditorium of the First Methodist church sat enraptured before the musical genius of John William Boone, better known as “Blind Boone.”  Boone had lost his eyesight at the age of six due to illness, but the handicap had not prevented him from finding a career as a piano player.  Managed by John Lange, Boone toured Missouri and the nation performing a mix between the classic and the popular.  His visit to Joplin coincided with his 26th season on the road with Lange.  Considered a Ragtime player, Boone entertained the Joplin crowd with songs from Chopin, Sidney Smith, Liszt, Gottschalk, and Wollenhaust.  Additionally, Boone performed songs of his composition.

The Daily Globe reporter who covered the event described Boone’s playing and its effect as, “He plays in perfect time and interprets the most difficult selections with ease.  He is very enthusiastic when about to begin a selection and his laughs at the end of his songs made a decided hit.”  The reporter continued on the laugh, noting that it, “enraptured his audience.” Furthermore, “Boone has a constant motion of the body backward and forward as he plays and sings which affects him only in appearance.”

Boone was not the sole performer, but was joined by a Miss Emma Smith who sang several songs, and then was called back by the crowd to sing several more.  Among the songs that Boone performed was the famed “Marshfield Tornado.”  Composed after a disastrous tornado swept through Marshfield, Missouri, the reporter stated of it, “so realistic a portrayal of the wind and storm that several small children in the audience cried out in alarm.”  Boone also exhibited imitations of various instruments on his piano, such as a violin, drum, and a fife.  The black performer closed with “The Mocking Bird” and “Home, Sweet, Home.”  For those Joplin residents who missed this performance, the article noted that Boone would be playing again a second night at Joplin’s First Christian church in South Joplin.

Source: Joplin Globe

White Man’s Heaven

Cover to White Man's Heaven by Kimberly Harper

White Man's Heaven by Kimberly Harper

Interested in reading about local history? A new book this fall will offer the first comprehensive examination of five interconnected episodes of racial violence in the Ozarks.  We like it already because its cover art features the work of Joplin’s famed resident, Thomas Hart Benton.  Here are the details:

“Drawing on court records, newspaper accounts, penitentiary records, letters, and diaries, “White Man’s Heaven” is the first book to investigate the lynching and expulsion of African Americans in the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Kimberly Harper explores events in the towns of Monett, Pierce City, Joplin, and Springfield, Missouri, and Harrison, Arkansas, to show how post—Civil War vigilantism, an established tradition of extralegal violence, and the rapid political, economic, and social change of the New South era combined to create an environment that resulted in interracial violence. Even though some whites, especially in Joplin and Springfield, tried to stop the violence and bring the lynchers to justice, many African Americans fled the Ozarks, leaving only a resilient few behind and forever changing the racial composition of the region.”

The book has received high praise from noted scholars Edward Ayers, Fitzhugh Brundage, and Brooks Blevins.

“Kimberly Harper has written a powerful, deeply researched, and persuasive account of the driving of entire communities of African Americans from their homes. These stories of the Ozarks speak of a larger tale of violence and subjugation we must understand if we are to understand the history of this country.”
Edward L. Ayers, President, University of Richmond, and author of The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction

“An uncommonly sophisticated piece of local history that demonstrates why local / micro history is so valuable.”
W. Fitzhugh Brundage, William B. Umstead Professor, University of North Carolina, and author of Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880—1930

“A valuable contribution to the study of American race relations and the Ozarks.”
Brooks Blevins, Noel Boyd Associate Professor of Ozarks Studies, Missouri State University, and author of Arkansas / Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies, and Good Ol’ Boys Defined a State

Keep an eye out for it in the fall. If you want to pre-order, you can purchase it on or through the University of Arkansas Press.   At the time of the book’s release, we’ll offer  more comprehensive coverage.

UPDATE:  Check out the White Man’s Heaven website at

An Annual Amount of Mail

In Joplin’s first few years in the 20th Century, its ever growing population sent an ever growing amount of mail.  A newspaper sketch decided to illustrate that amount of mail by showing how high it would stack in a single column.  As noted, it would go well over the roof of the Keystone Hotel, the tallest building in town at that time (until eclipsed by the Connor Hotel).

All the Mail in Joplin Stacked in A Column

The Keystone Hotel, once the tallest building in Joplin.

Source: Joplin Globe

A Playground Not For All

Joplin swimming pool circa 1913

African Americans were generally not welcomed at swimming pools like this one at the Joplin Country Club.

In 1910, the total black population of Joplin was approximately 800 individuals out of a total population of approximately 32,000.  Thus, the African American community represented only about 2.5% of the city’s population.  Despite being such an insignificant portion of the population, the de facto laws of segregation were in strong effect in 1913.  The effect of the segregation struck one prominent Joplin businessman when he took his son to the local playground.  He recounted, “The other night I went to the playground with my son.  It made my heart ache to see the wistful faces of the negro children outside the fence, and know that they could not enter.”

It was not merely the denial of the playground to the black children that upset the businessman, but also that, “Unlike white children the negro kiddies cannot have the swimming privilege of the amusement parks of the district.”  Additionally, the businessman noted, “they are not allowed to attend many moving picture theaters, and are confined to a balcony in those places they are allowed to enter.  The streets and alleys are the only places they are welcome.  When they grow up they are unwelcome almost everyplace they visit.  It is not right.”

As a result of the segregation, the businessman pledged $250 to the establishment of a playground where black children, as well the general poor, could visit and play.  It would not be the first donation by a businessman to benefit the black community of Joplin, previously Thomas Connor had paid for the construction of four African American churches some years earlier.  Such sentiments were a start toward a better approach to a society of different races, but unfortunately along the reasoning of “separate but equal,” not equality for all.  The solution in 1913 Joplin was not to open the playground to children of all races, but to simply build another playground.

Source: Joplin News-Herald, 1910 United States Census

A Receipt of the Past

Should you somehow travel back in time to Joplin, 1925, and find yourself with a bag of dirty clothes, one option would be the Keystone Laundry, located at 410 Virginia Ave.  Below is a receipt from the laundry from 1925.  There’s more than a few items on the receipt that simply don’t come up in conversation anymore.   To our knowledge, there’s no connection between the Keystone Laundry and the Keystone Hotel (located at 4th and Main).

Receipt from the Keystone Laundry, 1925

Receipt from the Joplin's Keystone Laundry, 1925.

The Banishment of Seers

A few posts ago, we mentioned that Victorian Americans participated in palmistry, spiritualism, and séances.  Throughout the years Joplin was home to numerous psychics, seers, and fortune tellers. An issue of the Joplin Morning Herald from 1895 announced, “Madame Zita LaRoux, the famous trance medium, may be consulted on all affairs of life for a short time only at 619 Joplin Street. She gives valuable advice on all subjects — love, marriage, divorce, lawsuits, business transactions, etc. Names and dates given.”  But by 1913, the city fathers were tired of palmists, seers, and mediums, and subsequently prohibited them from practicing within city limits.

Ad for traveling fortune teller

An ad for a traveling fortune teller visiting Joplin with testimonials

Unsurprisingly, clairvoyants and their followers were upset by the city council’s decision. Joplin City Attorney Grover James, who “took charge of an aggressive fight to drive from the city ‘seers’ and ‘mediums’ that have remained since the passage of an ordinance barring them from practicing in Joplin” received threatening letters. In one week’s time, James received half a  dozen letters after his successful conviction of Mrs. T.J. Sheridan.

One letter read,
Mr. City Attorney,

City Hall

You think you are awful smart to prosecute a pore woman becauz she ain’t of your religion, doan’t you? Your talk at the trile was rite funny. Ha, ha. We’ll git you yet. Watch out.”

Another letter said,

Grover James

Joplin, Mo.

I write this to let you know that you may have misjudged the character of the people you are fighting. In persecuting worshipers you show an ignorance that is amazing. Many men have been shot for less than what you have done.”

Some people mailed Mr. James spiritualist publications while others stopped by his office to urge him to drop his campaign against fortune tellers and palmists. James, however, just smiled in response. He told the Joplin News-Herald, “I have found that many Joplin society girls attend séances and believe the stuff told them by mediums. When I started to gather evidence I supposed that I would have to obtain it from ignorant and superstitious persons. I found, however, that the elite of Joplin society are some of the best patrons of the mediums. Daughters of the most prominent Joplin citizens can tell me all I want to know about the ‘seers’ I am prosecuting. It may be that I will have half a dozen of the younger social set at the next fortune teller’s trial in police court.”

James confided he had gathered evidence against a local clairvoyant that “should be an eye opener to mining men that have the curtained rooms of mystics for their base of operations.”

According to James, “A woman ‘seer’ told a mining man just where to drill in order to strike ore. She said, however, that there was but one drill man that could find the stuff. She then described the man very closely. Half a dozen bids were made on the work. All of them were very low and reasonable but the mine operator was not satisfied. Finally a man came to him that fitted the woman’s description. His bid was thirty cents higher than any other but it was accepted.” The city attorney then claimed, “It has been shown that this drillman was kept in lucrative employment by the fortune teller who doubtless got a rakeoff for throwing him the work.”

Within a week, the “Reverend” Mary E. Anderson was arrested in Joplin for violating the clairvoyant ordinance. A few days prior to her arrest, Police Matron Vernie Goff visited Anderson in the psychic’s home at 731 Joplin Street and asked Anderson to read her fortune.  Anderson informed Goff that she would first have to buy facial cream and then she would read Goff’s fortune. Goff complied. She purchased a tube of facial cream that normally cost nine cents in a drugstore from Anderson for one dollar. The purchase completed, Anderson read Goff’s fortune.

According the Joplin News-Herald, Goff learned many “interesting things about herself and family that she had never known.”  Anderson claimed Goff had a long lost “Uncle Jim” and told her that her investments in an Arizona gold mine were a smart choice. The only problem was, according to Vernie Goff, is that she did not have an Uncle Jim, nor did she have any investments in gold mines.

Goff told the News-Herald that “the only money she has sunk in stocks was down on her father’s farm near Springfield, where she owns a little stock — that is some cows, calves, and such.”

At around the same time, two young boys had visited Mary Anderson and asked to have their fortunes read. She told them that her fee was one dollar. Unable to pay, the boys decided instead to testify against her in court. There was no need, however, as Police Matron Goff, Mrs. F.B. Cannon, and Miss Wathena Hamilton testified for the prosecution two weeks later. Like Goff, Cannon and Hamilton had both visited Anderson to have their fortunes read for one dollar. Anderson did not help her cause when she took to the stand, only to be caught “contradicting herself on many things.”

Ad for a Joplin Palm reader

An ad for a Joplin palm reader before the prohibition was put in place.

After a three hour trial, Mary Anderson was found guilty and fined one dollar and costs, as it was her first offense. She balked at paying the fine, but when told she would be taken to jail, Anderson borrowed a dollar from her attorney to pay the fine. She remarked, “I won’t have that News-Herald telling about me being behind the bars. I’ll pay the fine first.”

James’ campaign against palmists, mediums, and clairvoyants drove members of Joplin’s spiritualist community to Webb City. The News-Herald remarked, “One of the most notorious ‘seers’ of Joplin purchased property in Webb City and makes the city his home. He is doing a rushing business, it is understood.” But just as in Joplin, spiritualists were not welcome. The News-Herald reported that, “It was when a man came here from Columbus, Kan., for a ‘reading’ and became insane because of things told him by a ‘seer’ that Webb City businessmen began to wonder what became of the much talked of clairvoyant ordinance which was to have prohibited fortune telling in Webb City.”

Source: Joplin News-Herald, Joplin Morning Herald