“Wicked Wichita” divulges secrets of the city’s sordid past

Written by Julie Hying

Rarely does a new book appear on store shelves that offers something unique. However, this autumn one intriguing read, “Wicked Wichita,” serves as an interesting exception. Composed of chapters that tell dark yet enlightening tales of marriage mayhem and decadent drugs, revelry and entertainment, tragedy and corruption, it is a must-read for Kansans.

For example, droves of cattle handlers passing through brought a colorful element: “After dark, the city underwent a transformation as the more conservative portion of the population closed up shop and the Texas cowboys took over. ‘Brilliantly lighted saloons’ threw open their doors, beyond which ‘gaily attired females' played piano, smiled and sweetly called to passing cowboys.”

Like many early townships, “The city’s officials tolerated prostitution, gambling, and illegal liquor for simple reasons: it brought money into the city’s coffers, supported local businesses and help keep taxes low.”

The book’s author is a SPLURGE! writer and former food editor for the Wichita Eagle, Joe Stumpe. In addition to his writing contributions, he is a talented musician who sings and plays guitar in a local band, Fly By Night. Stumpe also serves as the editor of “Active Age,” another publication in Wichita.

A year of research and writing was devoted to the creation of “Wicked Wichita.” The past converges with the present as Stumpe entertains readers with true-to-life stories that highlight personal accounts as well as downplayed realities about our city’s hidden history. His interest for writing this book deepened as he delved into the city’s sordid stories, criminal activities and peculiar happenings of the past.

A chapter titled “The Boy in the Sand” tells one mother’s tragic tale. “Mary Mork eventually agreed to take the police to her baby boy. She got in a buggy with detectives Harry Sutton and Jim Cairns, directing them south on Main and then west on Lincoln toward the Arkansas River. At Wichita Street, Mary took the reins herself and guided the buggy to the riverbank. She got out and walked toward the water’s edge, stopping and kneeling near a pile of willows. The officers watched as she dug around in the sand with her hands and pulled out an old blanket. Then she reached in again and pulled out the body of her son.”

The book’s photos alone tell a story of Wichita’s past, and the beauty found in its architecture and landscapes featured in images of the Manhattan Hotel, the Wichita Public Library, the Delano area, the Arkansas River, The Carey Hotel (today’s Eaton Place Apartments) and a street that defines our city, Douglas Ave. Also within the pages lie literary bridges between the contemporary city and the Wichita of long ago: “He ventured to a gambling hall called Keno Corner at the intersection of Douglas and Main (where Intrust Bank’s main branch sits today) in which five-card monte, faro, roulette, poker and other games were played.”

The book cover hints at the topics and tales of “Wicked Wichita” that speak directly to the reader, and previews the treasures within:

“Early Wichita earned a wicked reputation from newspapers across Kansas thanks to the bevy of madams and murderers, bootleggers and bank robbers, con men and crooked cops. Gambler and saloon keeper ‘Rowdy Joe’ Lowe was the toast of the town before shooting down his rival, ‘Red’ Beard, and skipping town. Robber and cop killer ‘Clever Eddie’ Adams spread a wave of terror until the police evened the score. Dixie Lee ran the city’s classiest brothel with little interference from authorities. Notorious quack ‘Professor’ H. Samuels made a fortune selling worthless eye drops. And county attorney Willard Boone was chased out of town when he was caught with his hand in the bootlegger’s cookie jar.”

Released last month, “Wicked Wichita” can be purchased at Watermark Books and Barnes and Noble, as well as other local retailers. There is online accessibility to the book as well.

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