Tag Archives: Missouri

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.

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Dying to read about Kansas murders?

Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder is weeks away from being available to read. In the meanwhile, here are some famous (and not so famous) Kansas murders worth reading about.

The Bloody Benders – Labette County, Kansas – 1870-1873

Saga of the Bloody BendersThe Benders appeared to be an average family of homesteaders who ran a store and restaurant in Labette County, just a few miles away from where the town of Cherryvale would be platted. While many families would purchase goods and pass through without any trouble, the lone traveler might not be so lucky. The Benders killed at least nine people, including two young children, stole their belongings and then buried them in the garden. It was not until nearby counties began to wonder about the number of people gone missing that they made the connection to the Benders, who escaped and were never apprehended. Books about the Bloody Benders include Robert Adleman’s The Bloody Benders, and Rick Geary’s graphic novel, The Saga of the Bloody Benders. The basic story can be found at the Murder by Gaslight blog and at Legends of America. There is also a movie in the making.

The Walkup Murder – Emporia, Kansas – 1885

AdventuressWhile in New Orleans for the World’s Fair in December 1884, James Reeves Walkup fell for a 16-year-old girl named Minnie Wallace. Just a few months later, he would die of arsenic poisoning. The courtroom was packed for Minnie Walkup’s trial, but the all-male jury just couldn’t bear the idea of sending a teenaged girl to the gallows. Minnie moved on to at least two other wealthy husbands, both of whom died very shortly after marrying. Virginia McConnell documented Minnie Wallace’s life in The Adventuress: Murder, Blackmail, and Confidence Games in the Gilded Age. You can read the basics in The Vamp of New Orleans.

Ax Murders – Ellsworth, Kansas – 1911, Paola, Kansas – 1912

Rollin and Anna Hudson of Paola.

Murder victims Anna and Rollin Hudson of Paola.

A series of ax murders happened in the Midwest during the 1910s, and two of the families hit were in Kansas. Other attacks happened in Missouri, Colorado, Illinois, and it is believed that the famous murders in Villisca, Iowa, may also be connected. Although Lee Moore was convicted of the murders in Missouri, the other cases remain unsolved. The Ax Murderer Who Got Away is available online through the Smithsonian Magazine web site. Actual articles from the time period are available through the Miami County Historical Museum, Millers Paranormal Research, and the Villisca Ax Murder House website.

The Clutter Family – Holcomb, Kansas – 1959

In Cold BloodHands down, this the most famous Kansas murder story of the Twentieth Century. Hearing rumors of a safe full of money, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith carefully planned an attack on the Clutter family. Unbeknownst to them, there was no safe full of money, and they brutally murdered a respected small-town family for about $50. The story of the murder, trial, and execution of Hickock and Smith was captured in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a piece of literature that would shape the way we write about murder and think about Kansas. It was also made into a movie that was shot in Kansas. In recent years, movies about the writing of the book have come out. I recommend watching Capote, which really delves into the psychological impact the book had on its author and the people he portrayed.

The New Orleans Sniper – New Orleans, Louisiana – 1972 and 1973

Terrible ThunderAlthough the events took place in Louisiana, the man involved–Mark Essex–was from Emporia. After dropping out of Kansas State Teachers College (now Emporia State University), he joined the Navy and went AWOL. He then became involved with Black radicals in California and would later join the New York Black Panthers. On December 31, 1972, and January 7, 1973, he would became involved in a spree killing that would kill nine people and injure thirteen others. Essex was fatally wounded by police officers shooting from a helicopter. Peter Hernon wrote about Mark Essex in A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper. Read the basics online at the Crime Library.

David Harmon Murder – Olathe, Kansas – 1982

Cold Blooded BusinessIn 1982, David Harmon was bludgeoned to death while sleeping. Although his wife Melinda and friend Mark were immediately suspected, justice did not find them until two decades later. Marek Fuchs wrote the book A Cold-Blooded Business: Adultery, Murder, and a Killer’s Path from the Bible Belt to the Boardroom  in 2009.

The Bird Murders – Emporia, Kansas – 1983

Murder OrdainedAsking someone what they were doing in Emporia when they heard about the deaths of Sandy Bird or Marty Anderson is kind of like asking other people where they were during the Challenger space shuttle disaster. Murders aren’t unheard of in Emporia, but the deaths of Sandy Bird and Marty Anderson shook and divided the town, and to this day, people still feel very strongly about whether Rev. Tom Bird and his secretary, Lorna Anderson, were both involved in the deaths of their respective spouses.  This particular case caught the attention of newspapers and news stations all over the country. While there is no definitive book on the subject, you can find many articles about the subject online. The story was also made into a movie called Murder Ordained, starring John Goodman, Kathy Bates, and Keith Carradine. A few examples of articles include this one in the L. A. Times, 20 years later. If you’re in Emporia, visit the public library and ask about the binders of newspaper clippings from around the country.

BTK Murders – Wichita, Kansas – 1974-1991

Nightmare in WichitaMany books have already been written about Dennis Rader, the BTK strangler who terrorized Wichita for nearly two decades. An average family man who installed security systems for a living, Rader was a Cub Scout leader and church goer. He was also responsible for the torture and deaths of at least ten people. Books include Nightmare in Wichita: The Hunt for the BTK Strangler by Robert Beattie; Inside the Mind of BTK: The True Story Behind the Thirty-Year Hunt for the Notorious Wichita Serial Killer by John Douglas and Johnny Dodd; and Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story of BTK, the Serial Killer Next Door by Roy Wenzl, Tim Potter, Hurst Laviana, and L. Kelly. Read the basic story online at the Crime Library.

Deborah Green and the Farrar Family Murders – Prairie Village, Kansas – 1995

Bitter HarvestDeborah Green was a smart physician whose personal life was out of control. After her husband, Mark Farrar, filed for divorce, she made numerous attempts to poison him to death and finally resorted to setting her own home on fire, killing two of her three children. She would eventually plead no contest to two counts of murder, two counts of attempted murder, and one count of arson. The famous true crime writer Ann Rule told the story in Bitter Harvest: A Woman’s Fury, a Mother’s Sacrifice. Read the basic story online here.

Bobbi Jo Stinnett Murder – Skidmore, Missouri – 2004

Murder in the HeartlandMelvern, Kansas woman Lisa Montgomery desperately wanted a baby of her own. When she met pregnant Bobbi Jo Stinnett online through a forum for dog breeders, she concocted a plan to drive to Skidmore, Missouri, kill Bobbi Jo Stinnett, and steal her unborn child. This tragic story changed the way law enforcement handles Amber Alerts and made many a little more cautious about how they interact with others online. M. William Phelps chronicled the story in the book Murder in the Heartland. Read the basics online at the Crime Library.

Sunday Snapshots: Photographs of Kansas in Missouri

This weekend, Jim and I crossed the state line into Missouri to visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which was hosting Heartland: The Photographs of Terry Evans. Evans grew up in Kansas City and studied at the University of Kansas. Her portraits are beautiful, but I was most moved by her amazing photographs of the prairie. It’s very difficult to capture the movement, shape, and texture of grassland, but her photographs are full of depth and energy. Her portraits and landscapes from Matfield Green, Kansas, truly capture the spirit of the Flint Hills.

Heartland The Photographs of Terry Evans at Nelson Atkins

Heartland: The Photographs of Terry Evans is on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art through January 20, 2013.

With an hour to spare after touring the exhibit, we dashed through the halls to see some of our favorite pieces. We were disappointed to discover that our absolute favorite painting, Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness by Caravaggio, is on loan to the Los Angeles County Museum (lucky LA!). But many of my other favorites, ancient pieces that have fascinated me since my middle school class visited the museum to see the ancient Greek sculptures after reading Homer’s Odyssey, were still on display.

Heartland Nelson Atkins Kirkwood Hall

Looking up at the natural light in Kirkwood Hall.

Heartland Nelson Atkins Assyrian

Winged Genie Fertilizing a Date Tree, 884-860 B.C.E. , at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Detail.

Heartland Nelson Atkins Greek Pottery

Ancient Greek pottery at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Heartland Nelson Atkins Roman Sarcophagus

The Muse Sarcophagus at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.