a.k.a “Joplin Red”
Safe Cracker, Burglar, Silk Thief
Cause of Death: Poisoned
Motive: Revenge for Snitching
Murder Scene and Date
Des Moines, Iowa
February 24, 1900
By Nancy Bowers
The story is straight out of the pages of Damon Runyon: safe blowing, burglaries, and — strangely — silk thefts perpetrated by men named “Yellow,” “Whiskey,” “Shady,” “Miggins,” and “Moon Eye.”
Written June 2011
And it’s a cautionary tale not only about lack of honor among thieves but of what can happen when a law officer gets too close to the criminals he has sworn to catch.
☛ Death of a Criminal Icon ☚On Saturday morning, February 24, 1900, his mistress found John West — a.k.a. “Jud West,” “Jud Curry,” “M. Michel,” and “Joplin Red” — dead in bed in room 54 of the Northwestern Hotel in downtown Des Moines.
A long and notorious criminal career was over.
John “Joplin Red” West was an expert safe blower and knew the insides of the Illinios and Missouri penitentiaries.
When in Des Moines, West lived in “White Chapel,” a notorious red light district where prostitutes, gambling, and liquor were freely available.
He had a knack for being around when suspicious or illegal things occurred. In 1897, he was arrested in Des Moines for pimping — than euphemistically called “vagrancy.”
☛ The Gang ☚
Joplin Red seldom worked alone. His criminal gang included Jim Dimmitt, a.k.a. “Shady Saunders” and “Whiskey”; his brother Elza Dimmitt, a.k.a. “Yellow,” “Red,” “Moon Eye,” and “George Thompson”; and one of the Dimmitt brothers’ pals, Denver Shine.
The gang burglarized properties and even pilfered the occasional bike. But they concentrated on stealing high-end clothing from tailor shops and bolts of silk from upscale stores in Illinois and Iowa.
They stole silk from the Weishaar and Fassig store in Waterloo, the Taft Store in Cedar Rapids, and similar businesses in Marion and Marshalltown.
Along the way, the gang blew a few safes, Joplin Red’s specialty.
In 1898, Joplin West was sentenced to two years in Anamosa Penitentiary for trying to smuggle tools and nitroglycerin to a fellow gang member locked up in the Story County Jail in Nevada.
When West was sentenced for the attempted bombing, the Oxford Mirror wrote:
“West is known as ‘Joplin Red.’ There is quite a romance connected with his life which involves Des Moines people, he having been a Des Moines character for many years.”
☛ The Cop Who Loved Criminals ☚
One of the first to be notified of Joplin Red’s death was W.A. “Bill” Richards, Deputy United States Marshal at Ottumwa. Richards traveled to Des Moines, where he told reporters he was a friend of the man he called “Jops”:
“I have talked with a number of persons who saw him [Joplin Red] between Wednesday and the night of his death and these have informed me that he had about $600 in money and a gold watch he had purchased for his mistress. . . . [At the time his body was found] he did not have a cent on him, while the watch was also missing. I am satisfied that the investigation of West’s stomach will show that he was poisoned. Some of my witnesses saw West with several hundred dollars up to a few hours before he was taken to the hotel.”
Richards was right about the death. An autopsy by Polk County Physician Edwin B. Shope revealed that West — of an unspecified age and already suffering from lung and kidney disease — died of an “unknown poison.”
Polk County Coroner Rollin V. Ankeny ruled West took poison “voluntarily or otherwise.”
☛ Apoplexy, Not Poison? ☚
On the night he died, Joplin Red visited the Ferguson family on East Fourth Street between Walnut and Court avenues in Des Moines.
In fact, some news agencies reported Joplin Red died there, which explained Marshal Bill Richards’s comment that the dead man was “taken” to the Northwestern Hotel.
A few months after the death, the Fergusons told Daily Iowa Capital reporter that a man named Frank “Davy” Utterson brought him to their home and said:
“I suppose you know this man. This is Joplin Red.”
Joplin Red, Mrs. Ferguson claimed, was an opium smoker and was drunk and maudlin that night and tried to force money on her when he learned she was ill, saying, “I’ve got lots more handy if I need it.”
Mrs. Ferguson said West bragged to her and her husband that he was a walking time bomb:
“‘Joplin Red’ stayed and talked awhile and while he was there in the room he told us that the doctor had told him that he had apoplexy and that he might die at any time; of course, we never thought anything about it at the time, but when we heard that he was dead it all came to us.’”
The source of the apoplexy? Joplin Red was “hurt while working.” Not actual physical labor, but the burglary of a hotel in Indiana, where he’d gone because there was little “work” available then in Des Moines. In the dark, Joplin Red fell over a landing and struck his head.
The result of the stairway fall, Mrs. Ferguson said, was mixed for Joplin Red:
“He got out all right and after he got clear of the town he went to a doctor, but of course he couldn’t tell him how he had been hurt, and the doctor told him that he might die at any time.”
Mrs. Ferguson — who swore Joplin Red died of apoplexy, not murder — said the reason police did not find any money on the dead man or in his hotel room was that he gave it to a friend for safekeeping and the friend just held on to it and said nothing after the death.
☛ Broken Loyalty ☚
After his death, Joplin Red’s gang wasted few tears on him because he was a squealer, the worst thing a criminal could be. The Webster City Tribune reported:
“It is stated that West’s former pals were not adverse [sic] to his being made away with, and that they succeeded in accomplishing what they may have considered necessary to their own safety. Shortly before his death West returned from Chicago with between $600 and $700 which it is supposed he got by giving information of a proposed attempt to rob the Adams Express Company.”
☛ A Lawman Goes Bad ☚
At the time of Joplin Red’s death, many wondered how U.S. Marshal Bill Richards became friends with him.
Richards even testified to Joplin Red’s “good character” in the 1897 Story County jail break trial, which cast some doubt on his own moral fiber.
Then, burglary tools were found in Richards’s office; and he was forced to resign his U.S. Marshal duties.
The Estherville Enterprise wrote:
“It had been known for two years that Richards had kept company with a bad gang in Des Moines and that some of his apparently closest friends were Pete Yoark, John West, Bill Burgoyne, [a] man named Miggins, and others who have records as safe blowers and term servers. It was supposed he was using them as ‘stool pigeons’ in his detective work.”
If Joplin Red was Richards’s confidential informer, then the money he was rumored to have may have come from Richards.
Eventually, the life of crime had too strong a pull on Marshal Richards.
Within a few years, former U.S. Marshal Bill Richards was accused of robbing an elderly couple near Knoxville with an accomplice, Frank Baird. After temporarily disappearing — some thought to Mexico — Richards gave himself up.
Frank Baird turned state’s evidence and was paroled within a few years. Richards, however, went to Anamosa for 15 years.
Not long afterwards, Frank Baird’s lawyer, Peter Sullivan — who blamed his downfall on “adherence to the flowing bowl” — was convicted of attempted murder after trying to cut another man’s throat during a dispute over 50 cents in a card game; in prison, he met up again with disgraced U.S. Marshal Richards, the man he helped put there.
☛ Unknown and Unclaimed ☚
Little is known about John West, even if that was his real name.
Without an established identity, authorities could not trace his family, although some believed he was a Sioux City native.
With his friends having deserted him and law enforcement breathing a sigh of relief at his death, there was no one to mourn Joplin Red.
The Waterloo Daily Reporter wrote what passed for his obituary and eulogy:
“John West, alias ‘Joplin Red,’ alias M. Michel, safe blower, burglar, all around crook and ‘stool pigeon,’ is dead . . . . For twenty years his face has adorned the walls of rogues’ galleries and during half that time he has lived inside prison walls. He started out as a petty thief, but soon became known as an expert safe blower and was constantly under the surveillance of the police.”
West’s place of burial is unknown.
Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Are In The Quay,” Cedar Rapids Republican, May 19, 1900.
- ☛ “Arrest Is Important,” Waterloo Semi-Weekly Courier, June 22, 1900.
- ☛ Buffalo Center Globe, March 29, 1900.
- ☛ Cowles Digital Library.
- ☛ “End Of Convict,” Waterloo Daily Reporter, February 26, 1900.
- ☛ “Held Autopsy,” Waterloo Daily Reporter, March 12, 1900.
- ☛ “Joins Richards in Penitentiary,” Adams County Free Press, May 15, 1907.
- ☛ “‘Joplin Red’ Hurt While ‘Working,’” Daily Iowa Capital, July 20, 1900.
- ☛ “May Be Murder,” Waterloo Daily Reporter, March 1, 1900.
- ☛ “The News In Iowa,” Oxford Mirror, September 22, 1898.
- ☛ “News Of Iowa,” Buffalo Center Globe, March 29, 1900.
- ☛ “News Of Iowa,” Webster City Tribune, March 9, 1900.
- ☛ “Richards Now In Mexico,” Estherville Enterprise, January 28, 1903.
- ☛ “Silk Thieves Are Caught,” Semi-Weekly Iowa Reporter, May 22, 1900.
- ☛ “Two Years In Prison,” Des Moines Daily News, September 9, 1898.
- ☛ “West Probably Murdered,” Humeston New Era, March 7, 1900.