Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sister Xavier Cunningham and St. Joseph's Orphanage

On September 1, 1915, the St. Joseph's Orphanage just outside of Abilene, Kansas opened.  The orphanage offered a home for less fortunate children.  Inhabitants of the home were orphans or children whose parents had come under hard times and could not afford to care for them.  At the time of its opening, Sister Xavier Cunningham began work as a nurse for the home.  Sister Cunningham had poor health throughout most of her life.  After visiting a doctor in Colorado Springs, she was told that she had little time to live.  However, she would go on to live over thirty five more years and do many great things.
An illustration of St. Joseph's Orphanage.  Courtesy of the Dickinson County Historical Society.
Doctor's told Sister Cunningham to find outdoors work and to exercise to lengthen her life.  She soon became a farmer for the orphanage.  The children needed milk, meat, eggs, and vegetables, so Sister Cunningham worked to provide those things for them.  She had prior farming experience, as her father had been a longhorn beef farmer.

A family from Beloit, Kansas donated the first milk cow.  Under Sister Cunningham's care, this would eventually lead to one of the first all registered Holstein herds in Kansas.  Over the years, Holstein breeding stock was sold over a large area of the state by the St. Joseph's farm.  Additionally, a retail milk route in Abilene was established, and the orphanage was able to raise funds to stay running well past the Great Depression. 

At one time, the farm had forty registered cows, five hundred hens, and twelve brood sows.  Many vegetables were grown, as well as apples and peaches, and a vineyard for grapes.  Sister Cunningham was known as an authority on breeding cattle and had a great knowledge of bloodlines.

During the Great Depression, as many as eighty-five children were living at the orphan home.  Not only did Sister Cunningham create a means to feed the children at the orphanage, with the farm she created a way to teach the children to care for themselves and become self-sufficient. 
A photograph of the orphanage.  Courtesy of the Dickinson County Historical Society.
Sister Cunningham retired from the orphanage in 1944 due to poor health.  She died on December 28, 1948.  Before her death, she worked with a Mexican Catholic mission in Salina, Kansas.

St. Joseph's Orphanage continued to care for children until 1959, the building was closed after being deemed unsafe.  Today, all that remains is a small building on the property, and stone markers along the old entryway.  Each marker bears a cross.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Merry Christmas!

For this week's post, I thought I would upload a few pictures from the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum's collection.  If you have walked past the museum recently, you likely saw these pictures in the museum's window.
A view of Broadway Street in Abilene taken on Christmas Day 1930.  Courtesy of the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum.

The same view taken several years later.  Courtesy of the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum.


A group of children staying at the Lebold Mansion for Christmas in 1933.  Courtesy of the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum.

Teenage girls on an outing in winter 1915.  Courtesy of the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Photographs of My Exhibit on Charles Stanley

Since the late summer, the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum has featured an exhibit on Charles Stanley entitled "The Story of the Death Car."  December is the last month that the exhibit will be featured.  Here are some photographs of the exhibit.

The Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum's next exhibit will be up very soon.  Be sure to check it out in January 2011!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Charles Stanley: The Crime Doctor

For the past few months the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum has been featuring an exhibit entitled “The Story of the Death Car.”  This exhibit tells the story of Charles Stanley, Abilene native, who traveled around the country exhibiting the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car for a number of years.  This is an especially interesting story for those who have not heard it yet.  If you have visited the museum since I set up this exhibit, you likely know this story.  But who knows?  Maybe you are not the type that reads all of the text in a museum exhibit, or perhaps you have forgotten.  A large reason of why I am currently writing about this topic is that I want to have it on a page before I forget elements of the story.  So let’s begin.
Courtesy of the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum.
To set the stage, we need to know about Bonnie and Clyde so that we can see why the Death Car was important to Charles Stanley.  There were several criminals during the Great Depression of the 1930s who were incredibly popular.  John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly (the list goes on...) were big celebrities.  Some people find it hard to believe that criminals like these were celebrities and were admired by the public, but no matter what time period you look at, you can find questionable people that were looked upon as heroes or were glorified.  Jesse James is an obvious example (and coincidentally was one of Clyde Barrow’s childhood heroes).  Several Depression era criminals were from the Great Plains region of the United States and were known to travel from town to town robbing banks.  It being the Great Depression, the banks were not necessarily viewed in a sympathetic light by the public.  Many people that were affected by hard times were seeing their homes foreclosed by the bank, so in some cases people thought of these robberies as something that the bank deserved.

Bonnie Parker was not an established criminal before meeting Clyde Barrow.  She grew up in the Dallas, Texas area in a family that was certainly not wealthy.  At the age of sixteen, she married a man named Roy Thornton.  After three years of marriage, Thornton left Bonnie.  Apparently Thornton was an abusive husband, but even though they separated, the couple never officially divorced.  In fact, when Bonnie was gunned down in 1934, she was found still wearing her wedding ring.

While Bonnie was not an experienced criminal, Clyde Barrow most certainly was.  He also grew up in the Dallas, Texas area.  His family was very poor and had trouble making ends meet.  This led Clyde to become a criminal during his teenage years.  As a teenager, Clyde began stealing cars and selling them for profit.  He later moved on to robbing gas stations and convenience stores.  Soon after meeting Bonnie Parker, he was arrested and put in the Eastham prison work camp in 1930.  Prison had to have an awful mental toll on Clyde; he was sexually assaulted during his time in Eastham.  However, during this time the romance between himself and Bonnie grew and grew (as evidenced by their letters to one another.)  Feeling that he could not last in the work camp much longer, Clyde cut off one of his toes in 1932 so that he might be transferred somewhere else.  However, at about the same time, his mother negotiated his release.  He was released on parole, and left the prison on crutches. 

After getting out of jail, Clyde tried to go straight, but saw himself in a life of crime again, this time with Bonnie by his side.  One thing was certain though; Clyde was not going back to prison.  From 1932 to 1934, Bonnie and Clyde traveled throughout the Midwest with a small gang of crooks robbing banks and grocery stores.  Generally speaking, they were not very successful, only making enough money to travel to the next town and rob another bank.  During these two years, the criminals did leave a few dead bodies behind during run-ins with the police.  While Clyde did shoot and kill a number of people, there is no concrete proof that Bonnie ever killed anyone.
Bonnie and Clyde on the run.  Courtesy of the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum.
On May 23, 1934 Bonnie and Clyde met their end.  A number of law officers had been on their trail.  The police ambush was carefully planned.  Bonnie and Clyde were in Bienville Parish, LA so that a member of their gang, Henry Methvyn, could visit his family.  Methvyn’s father, Ivan, betrayed the gang in exchange for amnesty for his son.  Ivan’s automobile waited along a road, as Bonnie and Clyde’s car slowed down to approach the vehicle, Texas rangers and local sheriffs came out of the forest shooting at the Ford sedan that the pair of criminals were in.  The law officers covered the car with over 160 bullet holes; at least 50 bullets hit Bonnie and Clyde.  The car that the criminals were driving was a 1934 Ford V-8 DeLuxe Sedan.  About a month prior to their deaths, they stole the car from a family in Topeka, Kansas.  While Bonnie and Clyde were dead, the journey of this car was just about to begin.
A close view of the damage that occurred to the car.  Courtesy of the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum.
After the Death Car was returned to its original owners, Jessie and Ruth Warren of Topeka, the couple were confounded on what they should do with the car.  A carnival operator named Charles Stanley who worked for the National Anti-Crime Association (NACA) in Topeka approached the couple and convinced them to let him rent the car.  With the Death Car, Stanley would travel around the country offering a free exhibition.  He would also give a presentation on why "crime does not pay."
Charles Stanley with the Death Car in 1938.  Courtesy of the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum.
Stanley with displays advertising his exhibition.  Courtesy of the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum.
Charles Stanley was born in Abilene, Kansas and grew up wanting to be an entertainer.  He played in the school band throughout his youth and enjoyed going down to the Abilene depot to see theatrical performers arriving in town to put on their shows.  Later, he and his wife Irene, a Chapman, Kansas native, would travel around with carnivals putting on shows for the public.  After doing this for a few years, Stanley also found himself giving educational presentations with the NACA, which brings us back to late 1934 when Stanley began traveling with the Death Car.

Stanley first exhibited the Death Car in his hometown Abilene on September 18, 1934.  After touring with the car for four years, Stanley purchased it from Ruth Warren in 1938.  In Stanley's exhibitions, he would not only show the Death Car, but would also show slide-shows and motion pictures on Bonnie and Clyde and other famous criminals like John Dillinger.  He was featured on the radio, and built himself quite a persona as the "Crime Doctor" since he was an expert on these famous criminals.
Courtesy of the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum.
Stanley later took the exhibition off the road when he secured a job as the Director of Special Events at Coney Island Amusement Park in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1941.  While he was working for Coney Island, the car was available to view until 1952.  With declining public interest in Bonnie and Clyde, the Death Car sat in storage for a number of years.  In 1960, Stanley sold the car to Ted Toddy, who would run an exhibition of his own.  I am uncertain how much Stanley was paid for the car, I have found evidence that shows it was anywhere from $1,500 to $14,500.  Either way, this was not much money considering the price that Toddy would sell it for in 1973.  
An advertisement for the Death Car while it was exhibited at Coney Island.  Courtesy of the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum.
The movie Bonnie and Clyde starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway was released in 1967.  Suddenly the two criminals were famous again.  Due to this regained popularity, Toddy sold the car for $175,000 in 1973.  At the time, it was the largest amount ever paid for an antique automobile.  "If I had only known!" was Stanley's response when he heard this news.

Even after selling the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car, Charles Stanley continued to give presentations and entertain people.  He continued working for Coney Island in Cincinnati until 1973.  After his retirement, Stanley and his wife, Irene, moved back to Dickinson County and lived in Chapman.  Stanley died on October 31, 1996.

The Death Car is still on display to the public, at the time of this writing, it can be found in a casino in Nevada.  Also displayed with the car is the shirt Clyde Barrow was wearing when he met his end.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Tom Smith: The Marshal Who Fought with his Fists

It seems fitting for my first true entry to be about Abilene's first lawman. He was an interesting person, that is for certain.

"Bear River" Thomas James Smith was born around 1830 in New York.  We do not know his birth date for certain since records have not been found.  This can be a fairly common problem when researching individuals that lived so long ago, but even today, many people do not write things down or save personal records or diaries.  According to an 1870 census though, Smith was listed as being 40 years old, so that is where we get his birth year.

This is the only known portrait of Smith.

Smith worked in law enforcement in quite a few different states before coming to Abilene, Kansas.  He was an officer of the law in New York, Colorado, and Wyoming.  He was also known to be quite a boxer, which is a skill he would put into great use while enforcing the law in the roughneck town of Abilene.  Smith earned his nickname "Bear River" while serving as a lawman in Bear River City, Wyoming.  In the town, a group of armed men killed an employee of the railroad because they claimed the man was guilty of murder.  This led to several railroad workers attacking the group of armed men in retaliation.  A massive fight occurred between the two groups, and much of the town was destroyed by fire.  Smith being on neither side, defended himself and other townspeople from the massive attacks.  This went on for several days until troops from Fort Bridger were able to respond to the problem and stop both groups.  It is not exactly clear what Smith did during all of this, but he gained renown for the event.

Smith was hired as Abilene's chief of police on June 4, 1870 by Mayor T.C. Henry (who would later gain a reputation as the "Wheat King" of Dickinson County).  It is important to understand what Abilene was like before Smith was hired though.  Abilene was definitely a dangerous town at the time, one could even call it a "sin city."  When Joseph McCoy built the Great Western stockyards in Abilene in 1867, effectively turning the town into a cattle shipping railhead, the town mostly consisted of sod homes and dugouts.  Three years had passed and much had changed.  Abilene became a town of transients for most of the year.  When cowboys arrived in Abilene, they had been on the trail for three months.  They were ready to come back to society.  These cowboys were accustomed to maintaining a strict discipline while on the trail, because if they did not, cattle could be lost, or someone could be injured or killed.  So when they arrived in Abilene, they were ready to let off some steam.  The cowboys were paid their wages once the cattle were delivered, and generally, they spent the cash like wildfire.  They would get a haircut, clean themselves up, and buy new clothes.  After that, it was time to hit the saloons, where they could drink and gamble their money away.  Or in some cases, the cowboys would visit one of the brothels and spend their money on a "lady of the night."  If all of this was not enough, violence was common as well.  Fights over poker games would occur.  Sure, most of these fights were likely just fistfights, but most of these cowboys were wearing six-shooters on their sides, so shootouts could occur.  That said, generally speaking, most of the gunfire that could be heard on Texas Street in Abilene was cowboys shooting at signs and other objects; but nevertheless, Abilene was a dangerous town to reside in.

After all of this, it was time for Abilene to have some law enforcement.  First off, two men from St. Louis were hired to clean up the town.  As the story goes, these two men were so intimidated by the crime in Abilene, that they quit before they even finished a day of duty.

Getting back to Tom Smith being hired as chief of police on June 4, 1870...  His initial pay was $150 a month and $2 for every conviction he made.  Here is an interesting fact, Smith was only hired to be in this position for one month.  However, he stayed on until his death that fall.  Smith received a raise in August, so he must have been doing a good job.

What did Smith do though?  Well first off, he enforced a "no firearms ordinance."  With this law, everyone arriving in Abilene was required to check in their firearm with the proprietor of the hotel they were staying in.  Smith himself did not use a firearm much either.  He was known to use his fists when apprehending lawbreakers.  With Smith, it was definitely more common to see him punch someone in the face than see him draw a weapon.  Smith was capable using a firearm when necessary though, he just did not see the need when apprehending many criminals.  Another event that Smith received praise for was closing down the red light district.  In the Abilene Chronicle, September 8, 1870, it states that Smith told the "vile characters" to "close their dens--or suffer the consequences."  According to the article, all of the "houses of ill fame" quickly closed down and the women involved in that work left town shortly after. 

Probably the most well-known story concerning Smith is his death.  What is most surprising about his death is that it occurred by the hands of two farmers rather than cowboys.  In late October, a local farmer named Andrew McConnell had an argument with his neighbor John Shea.  Shea had been driving his cattle across McConnell's land, McConnell unhappy about this, confronted Shea about the problem.  After this confrontation, Shea ended up dead.  McConnell was brought in for questioning by law officers and claimed that he shot Shea in self defense.  A man named Miles backed up McConnell's claims, so he was released.  After this occurred, some other neighbors claimed that Shea was not the aggressor and that McConnell was guilty of murder.  A warrant for McConnell's arrest was reissued.

On November 2, 1870, Smith and officer J.H. McDonald went to McConnell's dugout to arrest him.  McConnell and his friend Miles were at the dugout when the law officers arrived.  Smith approached the dugout stating that he was there to arrest McConnell.  After this, a fight broke out.  Smith was shot through the right lung by McConnell.  Smith was able to shoot McConnell, but it was not a fatal wound.  After coming in close contact with one another, Smith and McConnell grappled with each other.  Smith was not giving up without a fight, even though he was fatally wounded.  According to the newspaper report on all of this (Abilene Chronicle, November 3, 1870), Smith "was getting the better of McConnell.  At this time, Miles struck Smith with a firearm, knocking him to the ground.  Miles picked up an ax and chopped at Smith's neck.  Miles did not exactly decapitate Smith's head, it was still loosely connected to his body.  This had to of been a grisly scene.  McConnell and Miles fled the scene after this happened.

Now, during all of this, what happened to that other law officer, McDonald, that arrived with Smith?  Well, McDonald returned to Abilene to get more help.  He raised up a posse, but when they returned to the dugout, Smith was already dead, and the murderers were gone.  Evidently McDonald did not receive much of the blame for Smith's death, since he continued working in law enforcement in Abilene throughout 1871 as well.

McConnell and Miles were captured three days after the killing.  During their trial, they claimed that the officers did not show a warrant or authority.  McConnell was sentenced to twelve years in prison and Miles was sentenced to sixteen years.  This seems like a pretty light sentence for such a brutal murder.

Smith was buried in the Abilene cemetery.  At the time, it was not a very lavish grave.  However, in 1904 Smith was reburied and a unique stone was used to mark his grave.  Abilene's first mayor, T.C. Henry, returned to town to give a speech on Smith's service at the dedication.  That stone still marks Smith's grave today, and reads:
Thomas J. Smith
Marshal of Abilene, 1870
Died, a Martyr to Duty, Nov. 2, 1870.
A Fearless Hero of Frontier Days Who
in Cowboy Chaos
Established the Supremacy of Law.

A recent view of Smith's grave, taken this summer.
Further Reading:

If you would like to learn more about Tom Smith, check out these books:

Cowtown Abilene by Stewart P. Verckler.  Verckler focuses on several aspects of Abilene's cattletown days, including Smith's time as chief of police.  This book can be purchased for under $10.00 at the Dickinson County Heritage Center in Abilene.

Abilene Lawmen by Larry D. Underwood.  This book tells the stories of both Smith and "Wild Bill" Hickok in great detail.  I believe it is out of print, but some sellers on Amazon.com list it for close to $12.00.

Why the West was Wild by Nyle H. Miller and Joseph W. Snell.  This is a fantastic book that is a collection of material on different wild west personalities.  This book is almost entirely made up of text from newspapers printed in Kansas 1860s-1890s.  The book also includes text from legal records, letters, and diaries written during this time period.  The section on Smith is a little slim, since not many documents on him exist.  However, the sections on "Wild Bill" Hickok, Luke Short, Henry Brown, and Bat Masterson (plus others) are really interesting.  I bought my copy from the Kansas Historical Society, but it can also be found on Amazon.com.

Monday, December 6, 2010


This blog is a new personal project of mine.  I have never been much of a blogger in the past, but I figured it would be a nice thing to try and a great outlet to share some different writing of mine on historical topics.

The primary focus of this blog will be to feature stories and hopefully discussions on various moments in the history of Dickinson County, Kansas and some general Kansas history as well.  Local history is a sometimes overlooked topic, but a great deal can be learned from examining it.  With local history we can not only learn personal stories of those who lived before us, but we can also see how national and world events affected those people as well.  If this blog is successful, these types of stories should interest all types of readers, not just those from Dickinson County.  (Fingers crossed!)

To introduce myself, I am the Education Coordinator / Curator for the Dickinson County Historical Society.  In this position, I work at the Dickinson County Heritage Center (which houses the Dickinson County History Museum, the Museum of Independent Telephony, and many out-of-door attractions including a 1901 C.W. Parker carousel).  Also in my position I manage the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum, which is a former photography studio that opened in 1925 and was operated by three generations of photographers.  At this museum, we feature temporary photo exhibits, antique cameras, and many pieces of photographic equipment.  Both the Heritage Center and Jeffcoat Museum are located in Abilene, Kansas.