A Dark Day In Missouri

A Dark Day In Missouri

“On Saturday, January 2, 1932, a particularly tragic incident was proclaimed in banner headlines throughout the country. An event later known as the Young Brothers Massacre claimed the lives of six officers from the Greene County Sheriff’s Department and the Springfield, Missouri, Police Department. Until the tragedy of September 11, 2001, in New York City and Washington D.C., the massacre held the record for the largest number of law enforcement officers killed in a single incident.

Before even reaching their late teens, Paul and Jennings Young had established a reputation in the Springfield, Missouri, area as petty thieves with violent temperaments. Both would receive short prison sentences for breaking and entering after robbing a store near the family’s Brookline farm. By the late 1920s, Paul, Jennings, and Harry, the younger brother, had developed a reputation in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and southwestern Missouri as thieves and brokers of stolen merchandise. Evidence for arrest and conviction, however, proved elusive even though the family farm was searched often. The Young brothers’ crime spree took a violent turn on June 2, 1929, when Harry Young murdered City Marshal Mark Noe of Republic, Missouri, during a drunk driving stop. Harry fled to Texas and lived under the alias Claude Walker while working for a dairy farmer. He also assisted his brothers in the development of a multistate automobile-theft ring.” Excerpt from Murder & Mayhem on the Main Street of America: Tales From Bloody 66

Photo Springfield News Leader

The research for this new book led me to some very dark places along Route 66 and the National Old Trails Road, the Main Street of America. It also led to the discovery of some incredible and tragic stories that have, with the passing of time, been forgotten. One of these was the incident known as the Young brothers massacre that took place at a farm near Springfield, Missouri. Even in an era when newspapers carried stories of brutal murders, bank robberies, and police shootings committed by viscous outlaw gangs almost daily, this incident was unprecedented.

“The police shot a tear gas shell through a window. The sheriff and Mashburn positioned themselves near the kitchen door. Oliver positioned himself behind a tree to cover them. Houser stood by the lawn gate, and Detective Sid Meadows took cover behind a nearby tree. Detective Ben Bilyeu stood close to Oliver, and Detective Frank Pike and R. G. Wegman were ordered to the rear of the cars to watch the barn and shed. Detective Owen Brown and Deputy Sheriff Crosswhite took up positions at the northeast corner of the house. Sheriff Hendrix and Deputy Mashburn knocked on the kitchen door and called out the boys’ names several times.

Detective Johnson, with Mashburn on the left and Hendrix on the right, shoved hard against the door with their left shoulders. It opened enough for Mashburn to step inside, but he was immediately blasted on the left side of his face by a shotgun. Sheriff Hendrix reportedly said, “God, boys, they mean business,” as he stepped into the opening to the left of Mashburn. He was shot at nearly point-blank range in the chest, a fatal shot. Mashburn, critically wounded and blinded, stumbled back through the door.”

When we think about Prohibition-era gangsters, it is Chicago, Al Capone, and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre that often come to mind. Tulsa, however, was where some of the most violent gangsters of this period got their start and honed their skills. Many would profit from the lessons they learned in Tulsa by working for syndicates in Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit, contributing to the rise of gangster empires such as Al Capone’s in the mid-1920s. In Tulsa’s Central Park district at 6th Street and Peoria Avenue during the years bracketing World War I, juvenile gangs ran rampant. The roster of ruffians reads like a Who’s Who of notorious Midwestern gangsters in the late 1920s and 1930s. Volney Davis, Wilbur Underhill, Ray Terrill, and Elmer Inman were just a few. The infamous Barker gang led by Ma Barker got their start in this district as well.

Another training ground for ruthless gangsters was St. Louis and East St. Louis. For more than a decade Egan’s Rats ruled the cities with violence, extortion and intimidation. With the waning power of the gang the heavy hitters moved and became hired guns for Capone, for Detroit’s Purple Gang, and free lancers that worked for the highest paying gangs.

This fall, to promote the new book, I will also be making a newly developed presentation that takes the audience with me on a walk on the dark side of Route 66. It’s stories of serial killers, brutal race riots, gangsters, mobsters, and viscous killers like the Young brothers. I will introduce listeners to the seedy side of Tulsa and St. Louis. Follow my schedule on our Facebook page for dates and locations. And if you have interest in scheduling a presentation, drop me a note. As it will be in October, I am confident that a few folks will find it quite appropriate for Halloween.

 

 

 

Hard Times

Hard Times

“By most accounts it was a surprisingly mild day in late March 1933 when McLean County sheriff’s deputy Charles Adams, accompanied by a DeWitt county deputy, went to the grocery store located at 1410 S. Main Street, Route 66, in Normal to arrest a suspect on a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The suspect was also wanted for questioning about the robbery of a diner in Clinton. It should have been a simple, easy arrest.”

When the editor at Rio Nuevo Publishing approached me with a proposal to write a book about the dark side of Route 66, the idea intrigued me. In all that I do, be it books, presentations, podcasts, or walking tours, adding depth and context as well as historical perspective is a goal. Still, in the modern era Route 66 is viewed as an almost magical time capsule where only the remnants of good times are preserved. If the project was accepted I would be adding context and historical perspective, and tarnishing the romanticized image of a highway that has become an almost sacred place where the very best of America is enshrined.

Photo courtesy Joe Sonderman

Well, for better or worse the book is complete and pre-orders are now being accepted. And as been the case with the publication of the previous eighteen books, I can now begin worrying over content. I was fortunate to have a strong editorial team. Still, are there errors? Will the stories reopen old wounds? Will these stories from Route 66 and its predecessor, the National Old Trails Road, bring closure? Is it possible that these stories will solve decades old mysteries?

“By 1940, the era of the fast-driving roving bank-robbing gangs had passed. But Tulsa had grown into a bustling city, and cities had crime. In the early to mid-1940s the city faced something far more terrifying than an occasional murder, burglary, theft, or assault. There was a serial killer prowling the Brady Arts District a few blocks north of the Route 66 corridor.”

“Chester Comer, who often used the alias Jack Armstrong, was an itinerant oil field roustabout who never stayed in one place, or on a job, for long. His first wife, and possibly his first victim, was Elizabeth Childers of Oklahoma City. Initially identified and buried as a Jane Doe, she was shot five times in the head, and her body burned, near Kansas City, Kansas. Eighteen-year-old Childers was pregnant at the time of her death. Lucille Stevens, unaware of his first marriage, wed Comer in December 1934, four months after Childers went missing. A postcard with a McLean, Texas, postmark dated September 16 was her last correspondence with family. Comers killed her in the late summer of 1935, burned the body, and dumped it in the brush along the highway near Edmond.”

Joe Sonderman collection

In every book and feature article written I learn something new. My perspective of the past is changed as it is brought into sharper focus. With this book I developed a deeper understanding of hard times, of desperation, of how lawlessness can be nurtured and fostered, and the consequences of turning a blind eye to or making excuses for evil. With clarity this book illustrated the ripple affects of violence, and how a decision as simple as turning left instead of right can unleash a series of events that end in death and mayhem. To say the very least it was a sobering and fascinating project. It is my hope that readers will find value in it beyond simply adding depth to the Route 66 story.

 

 

W.A. “Tex” Thornton was a larger than life figure in the oil fields of Texas in the 1920s and 1930s, and as a result his murder and a trial that included tales of illicit sexual exploits grabbed headlines throughout the nation in 1949. His exploits were so legendary that it was almost impossible to separate fact from fiction, especially since Tex often acted as his press agent and he was famous for tall tales. Before the age of six, Thornton’s family relocated from Mississippi to Goree, Texas about halfway between Wichita Falls and Abilene. In nearby Electra, a major oil discovery sparked a boom, and Thornton, then 16-years of age, dropped out of school and went to work as a roughneck on rigs. Shortly afterwards he signed on with a torpedo company as a well shooter and displayed such a talent for the job, the company sent him to Ohio for training. It was there that he acquired the nick name “Tex.” In 1919 he shot out his first well fire near Electra, Texas, and within a couple of years he was the Panhandle branch manager of the U.S. Torpedo Company in Amarillo, Texas.

At a particularly difficult well fire, he devised a valve system that became an industry standard.  In 1924, in Hutchinson County, he shot out a fire that had been blazing for a week. The following year he extinguished six blazes that had resisted the most professional teams available. In 1926, the Borger, Texas oil field was discovered, and Thornton’s career skyrocketed. On April 11, 1927, a premature well shooting explosion killing three men, and badly injured several more. Tex was on the scene, and after racing into the blazing inferno to pull the injured to safety, was hailed a hero. Less than a month after his daring rescue, a major explosion and fire at Sanford ten miles west of Borger killed eight men. Two days later, clad in an asbestos suit of his design, Thornton shot the fire out. Less than 24 hours later, there was another well explosion and fire southeast of Borger, and Thornton donned his now famous asbestos suit, entered the fire, placed a charge, and extinguished the fire before an audience of several thousand people. On June 9, there was a well fire near Pampa. This time Thornton entered the fire zone and closed a still intact valve which extinguished the blaze. Soon he was being called to work well fires in throughout Texas as well as Oklahoma, and New Mexico.

It was in a bedroom at this motel on Route 66 in Amarillo, Texas that the legendary life of Tex Thornton came to an abrupt end. Photo Joe Sonderman

Thornton’s murder was tailor made for the fueling of a major media circus and speculative stories that lured readers back for updates the following day. As an example, Norton Spayde, an Amarillo Globe reporter, asked a question that resonated with everyone familiar with Tex Thornton, a legend in the oil industry, “How a young pair as described to officers could take advantage of Mr. Thornton is still a mystery. Both the young people are described as lightweights, and Tex had been schooled in the rough and ready oil fields.”

Thornton’s widow in an interview with police, claimed that he had left Amarillo on Sunday, June 19, 1949 for a job in Farmington, New Mexico with plans to return on Tuesday, June 21 and so law enforcement agencies along the Route 66 corridor in New Mexico were called upon to retrace Thornton’s steps and to  assist in the  search for Thornton’s Chrysler. The Amarillo Range Riders formed their own search teams to track the car after it left Amarillo. Between 4:00 p.m. and 5 p.m. on the 21st, Thornton had called Frank McCullough, sales manager of Meyers Motor Company in Amarillo, and said that he was east of Albuquerque, and was experiencing trouble with his distributor. Police determined that Thornton had spent the night in Albuquerque and theorized that he had picked up the hitchhiking couple between Santa Rosa and Tucumcari, New Mexico. Friday morning, 24-hours after discovery of the body, a Potter County grand jury returned murder indictments against John Doe and Mary Roe.

Members of the Range Riders followed leads east along Route 66 to Elk City, Oklahoma, and located a service station where the attendant identified the car, and the man and woman. Other witnesses were found in El Reno and Oklahoma City. A few days later, police located Thornton’s Chrysler abandoned in Dodge City, Kansas. In a field nearby, they found the keys, and a .45 caliber handgun that had belonged to Thornton. The discovery was front page news in the Saturday edition of The Amarillo Daily News.

Route 66 served as center stage for the story of Tex Thornton’s murder in 1949, a tale that I detail in my new book, Murder & Mayhem on the Main Street of America: Tales From Bloody 66. Today Route 66 is known for its neon, the catchy song made famous by Nat King Cole, the television program, and countless stories of fun filled adventures shared through the magic of social media. When this storied old highway truly was the Main Street of America, it was know as bloody 66. This reputation was well deserved resultant of the thousands of bloody wrecks that littered the highway from Chicago to Santa Monica. There was another facet to the highways association with death, quick, sudden, unexpected, and bloody. It was the stories of serial killer, murderers, and gangsters that often had an association with US 66, the Mother Road, that appeared in newspapers most every day.