While I'm sure there are plenty of unsubstantiated tales as related to Newton County and encounters with old-school Public Enemies, there are few things we do know, or think we know, for sure.
Most local folks are probably aware that Bonnie and Clyde and friends, while they were holed up in their garage apartment on 34th Street in Joplin, took a nice little drive down to Neosho and robbed the Neosho Milling Company office on today's Baxter Street. The old brick building is still there, now home to Certified Express Inc. trucking company. I might add that the walk-in safe that Clyde Barrow, and probably his brother Buck and gang member WD Jones, once emptied of cash is still there as well. It is now utilized as a storage closet, I believe. I got to walk inside it once. Now that was a neat experience, knowing who had been in there before.
Other Neosho businesses might have been hit as well during the gang's Missouri vacation, but investigation into the Neosho Milling Company robbery is at least partly what prompted law enforcement officers to raid the Joplin apartment (they thought they were only after bootleggers) and cause the now famously bloody shootout there.
On the escape south on what is now Missouri Highway 86, the gangsters sped through Redings Mill, and there we lose track of them, officially anyway. I used to doubt they made it all the way to Racine because they supposedly turned west some point after Redings Mill. However, I was later told a story by an older gentleman about how the gangsters stopped for gas at his folks' store on DD Highway, between today's Y Highway and Missouri Highway 43, late that same night or early the next morning. The family lived at the back and above the store. They hadn't heard of the shootout in Joplin that afternoon, or possibly the day before by that time on the clock, and it was only later that they realized the identities of the mysterious strangers knocking on the door in the middle of the night. According to the story I was told, the strangers asked for directions to Anderson, and that one of the young women, thought to be Bonnie Parker but it could have also been Buck's wife, Blanche, paid for the gas – and short changed them. No one noticed the desperately wounded young man in the back seat, WD Jones, who had been shot in the side during the gunfight.
The gentleman who related the story to me is convinced that this was the Barrow gang. In my mind, there's a strong possibility that it was.
Much less known is the "great Neosho bank robbery," reportedly perpetrated by Leo "Irish" O'Malley and gang. On the early morning of March 2, 1935 seven or eight of O'Malley's "boys" caught janitor Leslie Cooper as he was walking across the Neosho Square to what is now Boulevard Bank but at the time was the First National. According to accounts, O'Malley stood guard outside while the rest of the gang members forced Cooper to open up the safe and then "greeted" employees as they came into work, tying them up. The O'Malley's fled town with supposedly about $8,000 in cash (though authorities often lied about how much was actually taken so as to prevent publicizing tempting targets).
Page 2 of 2 - Now all of that is available in several local history books. What you won't find in those books, however, is just who this Leo "Irish" O'Malley was.
Actually, he wasn't even the gang's leader though he may have been the most flamboyant, according to a recent law journal article. It was the newspapers who sensationally dubbed it the "O'Malley Gang," a collection of mostly Missouri ex-convicts operating out of northeast Oklahoma. Before the press turned them into the "O'Malley Gang" the bunch of toughs was known as the Ozark Mountain Boys and they hit banks all over the Four-States, earning a reputation for rather gutsy hold-ups.
It all came to an end less than three months after the Neosho robbery when most of the gang was arrested one-by-one for a Ft. Smith bank job and they all ratted each other out, including Leo "Irish" O'Malley himself who was captured while on the lam in Kansas City. He was extradited to Illinois on a prior kidnapping charge, where he died, insane, in 1944.
In all likelihood, Newton County had many more connections with what I call "old school gangsters" -- some nationally known, others wannabe big names. But besides the old family stories about grandma getting a ride to school one snowy day from a nice man in a well-tailored suit and then later seeing his mug shot in the newspaper beneath sensational headlines in bold letters, we'll probably never know for sure.
But I'd still love to hear some of those stories.
Wes Franklin serves on the Newton County Historical Society Board of Directors. He is also public relations director and events coordinator for the City of Neosho. Contact him at 658-8443.