How a pair of Topekans became Public Enemies Nos. 1 and 2

Despite spending the better part of the past decade with my ear to the ground, listening for stories about Kansas’ most interesting crimes and criminals,  Ben and Stella Dickson–two bank robbers who would eventually make the FBI’s Public Enemies list–never blipped on my radar.

At least, not until this year, when I spotted Matthew Cecil’s The Ballad of Ben and Stella Mae: Great Plains Outlaws Who Became FBI Public Enemies Nos. 1 and 2 listed among the University Press of Kansas’ new releases.

Author Matthew Cecil’s fascination with the Dicksons stems from his childhood in Brookings, South Dakota, the location of one of Ben and Stella’s bank robberies. Cecil spends years tracing the Dicksons’ movements, from the bad luck and bad decisions that set them on their destructive path to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s obsessive need to take them down by any (legal or not so legal) means.

Benjamin Johnson Dickson was born in Topeka in 1911. His father taught chemistry at Topeka High School, and his household was, by all accounts, a warm and happy place where reading and education were highly valued. Ben was a Boy Scout who was commended for saving a woman from drowning in a local pond. He was both studious and a good athlete, and he became known for his skills as a featherweight boxer.

In 1926, when Ben was 15, he and some friends were arrested for joyriding in a neighbor’s car without permission, and Ben was sentenced to serve time in the Kansas Industrial Reformatory. This–and his skills as a boxer–put him on the radar of the Topeka police, and he became one of their favorite suspects for every crime. After a cab driver accused Ben of knocking him unconscious and stealing money and the cab (a crime he likely didn’t do), Ben’s life became a series of thefts, aliases, and stints in prison, including time in “The Walls,” the Missouri State Penitentiary.

Eleven years his junior, Stella Mae Irvin also hailed from Topeka. She was a typical teen until she was 15 years old, when she accepted a ride from a stranger and was violently raped and infected with gonorrhea. Treatment at that time was brutal and dehumanizing, and when Stella refused continuing treatment, she was referred to the Shawnee County Juvenile Court system.

By 1938, neither Ben nor Stella was in a good place. They met in Topeka (Stella was introduced to Ben as Johnny O’Malley), and eventually Stella would run away from home, meeting up with Ben in California. Ben and Stella married. In a matter of months, they would rob two banks (patiently waiting for the time-lock safes to open while determining whether customers inside could afford to give up a little cash), kidnap people (who were later compensated financially for their troubles), and steal (and wreck) several vehicles along the way. By April 1939, Ben was dead and Stella was left to answer for their crimes.

Cecil also documents the consequences of overzealous law enforcement. The descriptions of the Topeka Police’s gun “battle” with Ben at a motor camp–a gun battle that involved shooting in only one direction–are chilling, especially when, at that time, the Topeka police only wanted Ben for punching a guy in the face and stealing a car. Worse, though, is the FBI and Hoover’s almost desperate need to keep the bureau relevant in the public eye–even if it meant greatly exaggerating the threat the Dicksons posed to the public and inventing their own gun “battle” with Ben, which resulted in the bank robber being shot in the back, no weapon drawn, in St. Louis.

It’s hard to know what would have happened to Ben and Stella Dickson had Ben not been gunned down in front of a hamburger stand on April 6, 1939. Maybe they would have gone the way of Bonnie and Clyde and taken a violent turn. Or maybe, as the books and college pamphlets in their abandoned cars would suggest, they would have reinvented themselves and faded into obscurity. The question The Ballad of Ben and Stella Mae really asks, though, is who Ben Dickson and Stella Irvin might have become had fate dealt them a better hand early on.

Today is Kansas Day

156 years ago when the state of Kansas was born, our country was in the middle of tremendous turmoil as we tried to work out who we are and what we value.

I haven’t blogged much this past year, but I have spent time traveling to new locations around the state.

Kansas is beautiful.

Kansans are resilient.

Kansans have a long history of fighting for the rights of those whose voices might not otherwise be heard.

Ad astra per aspera.

Touring the Kansas capitol with my Leadership Franklin County class in spring 2016. John Steuart Curry's murals remind us the road to progress is hard.

Touring the Kansas capitol with my Leadership Franklin County class in spring 2016. John Steuart Curry’s murals remind us the road to progress is hard.

Pawnee Indian Museum in Republic County, Kansas

The history and current stories of the native and emigrant tribes of Kansas have been on my mind these past few days. My Sisters in Crime chapter (that would be a group of writers, not a group of criminals) was lucky enough to host tribal law expert Traci McClennan-Sorrell as our speaker this past weekend. And today, a story of a Wisconsin bill that would loosen the protection afforded to earth mounds constructed by indigenous people more than a thousand years ago–protection put in place after nearly 80 percent of these mounds were destroyed by farming and development–showed up in my Twitter feed.

The more I study Kansas history, the more I realize how little I know and understand the stories of the people who were here long before the rectangle that is Kansas came to be. Which is why during our Republic County research trip last May, Jim and I made a point of allowing time to visit the Pawnee Indian Museum, which is just north of Belleville and a short jog from the Nebraska border.

The Pawnee Indian Museum is Kansas' first state historic site.

The Pawnee Indian Museum is Kansas’ first state historic site.

Here’s the first thing to know about the Pawnee Indian Museum: The land was not originally preserved because it tells the story of an amazing group of people who lived in Kansas hundreds of years ago. Landowners George and Elizabeth Johnson deeded it to the state of Kansas in 1899 (which accepted it in 1901, making it the first state historic site) because of the mistaken believe that explorer Zebulon Pike (of Pike’s Peak fame) stopped here in 1806 to raise the American flag west of the Mississippi River for the first time. And while he did stop in a Pawnee village to do so, it turns out that he was actually in the Pawnee village 40 MILES NORTH of the state historic site in the village the Pawnee moved TO after abandoning the one that was preserved.

However, this error in geography probably went a long way to protecting the Republic County site from being plowed into oblivion. The result is a truly wonderful site dedicated to sharing the story of the Pawnee in the late 1700s.

A map of the earliest tribes to live in the area now called Kansas.

A map of the earliest tribes to live in the area now called Kansas.

In this area by the Republican River, a band of Kitkehahki Pawnee built an entire village of earth lodges, which were surrounded by a fortification wall. After the village was abandoned, the earth lodges, which were built over carefully packed depressions, settled in place, complete with any remaining contents. Part of the fortification wall still exists. A handful of the depressions have been excavated. In 1967, the museum was built over the largest unexcavated depression in the shape of a Pawnee earth lodge, and archaeologists carefully unearthed the contents, exposing them but leaving them in place.

Pawnee Indian Village Scale model

A model of what the Pawnee lodge would have looked like when it was still in use.

As a result, when you enter the Pawnee Indian Museum, you don’t feel like you’ve entered a museum. You feel like you’ve entered a Pawnee earth lodge. Wooden posts that once held up the roof fell in place. Grains, shells, pottery, and other tools lay exactly where they were found. The storage pit–which is several feet deep (the Pawnee buried their supplies underground, hiding them from anyone poking around their village during the seasons they were elsewhere)–is visible. And then there is the faint scent of wood smoke, which will make you feel like the inhabitants could return at any moment.

A view of the excavated area in the Pawnee Indian Museum.

A view of the excavated area in the Pawnee Indian Museum.

The Pawnee did not live in the village all year long. During the hunting seasons, they followed herds of bison. The women also cultivated crops and stored them in the storage pits.

Earth lodge storage pits were very deep.

Earth lodge storage pits were very deep.

A sacred bundle–a bundle of items important religiously and symbolically to a Pawnee family–is reverently displayed over the sacred area of the earth lodge. It is the only artifact that cannot be photographed.

Around the perimeter of the excavated area are several displays about the history of the Pawnee. Audio recordings of memories, journals, and the Pawnee language make the visit to this site even more meaningful.

The museum does not end in the building. The site includes numerous depressions, and a walking trail and signage help you interpret the depressions and remaining fortification walls.

Signs along the walking trail help you interpret the depressions and remaining fortification walls.

Signs along the walking trail help you interpret the depressions and remaining fortification walls.

After centuries on the Plains, the Pawnee’s population began to decline. As other tribes were pushed into the area that would become Kansas, the Pawnee were pushed out, and the tribal members who were not killed off by disease ultimately ended up in Oklahoma. By 1900, only about 600 Pawnee remained.

Pawnee populations declined rapidly in the 1800s.

According to one of the displays at the Pawnee Indian Museum, Pawnee populations declined rapidly in the 1800s.

If you visit the Pawnee Indian Museum, give yourself several hours to explore the museum, listen to the audio clips, and wander the grounds. It’s also a great museum for asking questions. Museum site manager Richard Gould has been researching the history of the Pawnee for years, and his insight made our visit even more meaningful.

This site does an amazing job of making the story of the Pawnee accessible to visitors regardless of what knowledge they may have of the history of native tribes. I highly recommend making the time to visit this museum.

The Magic of Moon Marble Company

Even though it has been around since 1997, I first heard of Moon Marble Company a few years ago, when the Kansas Sampler Foundation named it one of Kansas’s 8 Wonders of Commerce. After hearing everyone from our 12-year-old nephew to my historical society executive director singing its praises, Jim and I finally made our own trip to the mecca of marble making.

Moon Marble Company: Where the magic happens.

Moon Marble Company: Where the magic happens.

Moon Marble is one of the most whimsically wonderful places we’ve ever visited. The building’s exterior only hints at the happy energy inside. The place is filled with marbles and toys, bright colors and staff that truly love what they’re doing.

As you’d expect, bins and bins and more bins of beautiful marbles line the walls of an entire room.

You'll find bins and bins and bins of beautiful marbles at Moon Marble Company.

You’ll find bins and bins and bins of beautiful marbles at Moon Marble Company.

There are also cases of some of the most beautiful art marbles made by true craftspeople. Many of the marbles showcase the work of Moon Marble’s own marble masters, but the company also sells marbles by other glass artists from around the country.

I love this marble SO MUCH.

I love this marble SO MUCH. (Artist: Cathy Richardson)

Many of the marbles made in-house are mesmerizing.

Many of the marbles made in-house are mesmerizing. (I didn’t catch the name of the artist who made this one.)

Three days a week, Moon Marble marble makers offer demonstrations on how marbles are made. You’ll learn the difference between machine-made and  handmade marbles and come to appreciate the science and artistic skill that goes into making a truly beautiful and unique marble. The day we were there, artist Ernie Kober made a marble for us, rotating a ball of molten glass over a 2000° flame as we all leaned in toward the safety glass.

Marble-making masters offer free demonstrations three days a week.

Marble-making masters offer free demonstrations three days a week.

Many of these beautiful marbles can fetch a handsome sum (and rightfully so). However, visitors will have an easy time finding marbles they can afford. Jim needed a few hundred marbles for a physics lab he was teaching, and Moon Marble lets you fill a container that holds about a hundred small machine-made marbles for just $8.50.

Now, here’s the part of Moon Marble that was a total surprise to us: room after room of vintage toys. I have no idea where they get them, but if you’re yearning for a plaything from yesteryear, you will probably find it at Moon Marble.

Moon Marble is a mecca for old-timey toys.

Moon Marble is a mecca for old-timey toys.

We expected to spend a half hour or so at Moon Marble, but our short visit lasted an entire afternoon. It’s a fun place to learn and shop and will appeal to the whole family. If you’re in the KC Metro area (especially during the colder months when you’re looking for fun indoor things to do), Moon Marble is a fun choice.

53,550 Words

I am finally coming up for air after thirty days of writing, writing, writing during NaNoWriMo, also known as National Novel Writing Month, when thousands of people all over the world are hunched over their laptops, tablets, computers, notebooks, journals, and phones, all trying to crank out 50,000 words in just thirty days.

I tried NaNoWriMo last year, but thanks to a) not having any real plot in mind and b) landing in the emergency room courtesy of some unfortunately seasoned green beans setting off my food allergies, I stalled out at 23,000 words. But still–23,000 words. Which is a lot of words, especially when I remember the days in high school where having a week to write a 250-word essay didn’t seem like enough time.

NaNo-2015-Winner-Banner

But this year was magic. I won, knocking at 53,550 words by midnight on November 30. And as wonderful as having drafted about 80 percent of a novel might be, I am coming of of the process with some really important life lessons and moments of self discovery.

  1. In real life, I waste a lot of time. I truly wondered if this was the year to try NaNoWriMo again. We were hosting two big events at the museum and tearing down and setting up our major exhibit space. I’m also part of this year’s Leadership Franklin County class. These are all awesome things, but it means that I’m already pretty worn out half the time. But the reality is that when I get home, I can choose to while away my time in front of the television, or I can choose to spend some of that time writing. You can guess which of those two is easier.
  2. Writing every day really is important. NaNoWriMo’s goal is 1,667 words a day. Some days, I all but fell asleep in my chair when I hit 300 words. On other days, I wrote more than 3,000 and had to force myself to stop so I could go to sleep. No matter what, touching that novel EVERY SINGLE DAY was what kept it real, kept it fluid, kept it moving. Those few times when I came back to it after missing a day  were the hardest, because it takes time to reconnect with the story’s soul if you’ve let it drift out of reach.
  3. Understanding the central theme of my story helps me keep it moving better than knowing the plot. When I was in high school, I took a summer workshop with a professional storyteller. She insisted that a good story had a central theme you could describe in one or two words. It isn’t the plot, but that nugget of truth that drives the plot. And while I was making dinner one night, the word CONFINEMENT rang through my head and suddenly it was like flashes of light and rainbows and unicorns were dancing in circles around my novel and I was no longer flailing my arms for a life preserver of a plot. I was in the boat and the current of truth was taking me where I needed to go.
  4. Tell the truth. This comes straight out of Stephen King’s miraculous book on writing. No matter what you’re writing about, for a reader to care about the story, it needs to ring true, even if that truth is painful or icky and makes you a little queasy.
  5. Be accountable. The best thing about NaNoWriMo is that it forced me to set a goal and hold myself accountable to meet that goal. I touched base with one of the regional Kansas NaNoWriMo online communities almost every day. I posted my word count almost every day. And I took a few minutes every evening to cheer on other writers who were doing the same thing. It kept me going, it kept them going, and a whole lot of us made it to 50K.
  6. Writing is exhilarating. Writing is also hard, frustrating, teeth-pulling, brain-grinding, gut-wrenching, and tear-inducing. But when it’s 12:30 in the morning and the you can barely type fast enough to keep up with the story that’s pouring our of your thoughts, it’s absolutely glorious.

November is over; my novel is not. But for the first time in three years–three years that include two abandoned drafts of novels and hundreds of hours researching true crimes for which I don’t think I have enough to write entire books about–I am finishing a draft. And that’s a glorious thing.

 

The Grinter sunflower fields in northeast Kansas

In late August and early September, when our lawns are brown and the native grasses are going to seed and the gardens are tired and everything but the soybeans have been harvested, there is something a little magical about the common sunflower. The cheery flowers are on the only green-leafed stems right now, and there are millions of them growing in every uncultivated field and along every rural road and highway.

With so many sunflowers on hand, you’d think us Kansans would get enough of the state flower. And yet…when word got out that the Grinter Farms sunflowers were about to peak, we couldn’t resist, and we weren’t alone. In the middle of a holiday weekend, people stopped what they were doing and drove out into the countryside to take in a million sunflowers.

sunflower fieldThe sight of all those cheerful flowers raising their faces to the sun stops you in your tracks. It takes your breath away. You want to study the face of every flower, and you want to see the entire ocean of them. There is this amazing moment of awe where the happy flowers make you smile back at them.

sunflower closeupWhat I found most amazing about these sunflowers is that their joy is so contagious. Jim and I posted our pictures online yesterday, and today, our Facebook and Twitter feeds were full pictures of our friends, smiling while standing in the same field of happy flowers.

Jim and me with a lot of sunflowers.

Jim and me with a lot of sunflowers.

It’s not too late to see the sunflowers, but don’t dawdle. Kris Grinter says this is really the week they’ll be at their best. Check out the Lawrence-Journal World article for information on how to get there and where to park. And if you want to take home a sunflower, that’s okay, too; just leave a donation of a dollar per flower in the boxes at the end of the fields.

The Boyer Museum of Animated Carvings in Belleville

Last month, an old murder case I’m researching took me to Republic County, Kansas, a county in central Kansas that shares the boarder with Nebraska. I’ve never had a chance to explore this area before, so when I wasn’t buried in a back room somewhere researching, Jim and I wandered around, visiting museums and driving the back roads.

For a county with fewer than 5,000 people, Belleville has a lot of neat things to see–enough to merit several blog posts–but today I want to mention the fascinating and quirky Boyer Museum of Animated Carvings.

A lot of people are mechanically inclined, and a lot of people are artistically inclined. Paul Boyer is one of those people who looks at mechanical things and finds artistic ways to repurpose and apply them. He was just a child when he made his first carving, but after an accident left him seriously injured when he was 35, Boyer took refuge in his art. The result is dozens of wonderful animated carvings, whirling gizmos, and spinning things that mesmerize you with their cleverness and charm.  Some of his pieces were created over the course of thousands of hours.

This beautiful sculpture, with it's whirling gears and fans that fold and unfold like peacock feathers, is completely mesmerizing.

This beautiful sculpture, with it’s whirling gears and fans that fold and unfold like peacock feathers, is completely mesmerizing.

Each creation is housed in a case, and museum guests are invited to press the magic buttons that set the animations in motion. Jim and I easily spent two hours playing with these creations and puzzling over how they worked.

The museum is operated by Boyer’s daughters. Candy and Annie are passionate about their dad’s work, and they can often share the back story of how a piece was crafted and the challenges of keeping it running.

But words can’t do these pieces justice, so here is some video of two of my favorite animations.

At the Boyer Museum of Animated Carvings.

A post shared by Diana Staresinic-Deane (@kansaswriter) on

At the Boyer Museum of Animated Carvings.

A post shared by Diana Staresinic-Deane (@kansaswriter) on

The Boyer Museum is definitely worth a visit if you’re anywhere in the area. Because it’s a family-run place, you might want to call ahead to make sure it will be open that day, especially if the weather is looking ominous (Paul Boyer has instilled a healthy fear of tornadoes in his daughters). I will mention that a few of the pieces might be considered risque or culturally insensitive by some visitors, but all are pieces of amazing artistic and technical achievement.

If you’re interested in spending a day in Republic County, a trip to the Boyer Museum is easy to combine with a trip to the Pawnee Indian Museum, which I’ll be blogging about soon.