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"Notorious Missouri," Reviewed by Bill Schwab

In 2022, Missouri will celebrate its bicentennial in a wide variety of ways. James and Vicki Erwin have compiled a unique book whose subject coincides with the 200th anniversary of statehood. The couple summarizes reports and stories of crimes, criminals, and victims from Missouri’s violent history.

From the arsenic-tainted meals prepared in 1907 by Bertha Gifford, to slowly kill her Catawissa neighbors, to the 2007 “Missouri Miracle” recovery of kidnapped Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby in Kirkwood, the authors succinctly revisit some of the most sensational crimes perpetrated in the Show-Me State.

For example, the first western gunfight in a town square took place in 1865 in Springfield, Missouri between Wild Bill Hickok and Dave Tutt. This shootout launched Hickok’s fame as a gunslinger throughout the Old West.

“Gunfights among the elite in early Missouri were called duels. Gun battles among the lower classes were called gunfights. There were rules regulating the duels, but it seems a little strange today that people would stand 10 feet away from each other and shoot because one of them called the other a ‘puppy’. But then I read the paper today and people still shoot people over some of the most trivial things. The Western-type gunfights were, I think, the 19th century equivalent of today's drive-by shootings.”

The Erwins also recount events at the Coral Courts Motel, the well-known murder scene on Route 66 near Webster Groves. It was one of few motels with garages for each unit suitable for hiding cars from the view of passers-by. It was locally referred to as the “No-Tell Motel” because of the clandestine affairs that took place in its rooms. The motel gained national notoriety in 1953 as the scene of the kidnapping and homicide of 6-year-old Bobby Greenlease. A $600,000 ransom was demanded from his wealthy Kansas City family, the largest ransom in U.S. history at that time.

A chapter about the fatal 2008 shooting spree in Kirkwood City Hall recalls a more recent horrendous crime. In one minute and 32 seconds, Charles “Cookie” Thornton killed five people and wounded two others after killing a police officer outside the government building.

The Erwins include many brief but engaging trivia facts in their overall report. For example, the songs “Stagger Lee” and “Frankie and Johnny” were inspired by 1899 killings in Missouri. Or, did you know the state capitol’s famous Thomas Hart Benton Missouri murals, which he claimed were his best work, portray scenes from Missouri’s violent past?

James Erwin contends we can learn from our nefarious history. As we approach Missouri's 200th anniversary, “We shouldn't flinch from what happened or try to ignore our history.” This brief history is informative and well written, although many of the accounts leave the reader with unanswered questions and the wish to know more.

About the Authors

Vicki Berger Erwin has been involved in almost all aspects of the publishing business for more than 30 years including owning a bookstore in St. Charles, Missouri. She is the author of 30 books of various genres. James W. Erwin practiced law in St. Louis for 37 years. He is the author of five books on local history.

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