Review: Wicked Wichita by Joe Stumpe


Early Wichita earned a wicked reputation from newspapers across Kansas thanks to a bevy of madams and murderers, bootleggers and bank robbers, con men and crooked cops. Gambler and saloonkeeper “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. Local author Joe Stumpe tells the real stories of the city’s best-known and least-known criminals and misfits.

Wicked Wichita by Joe Stumpe.  Published by The History Press, 2018.  159 pages.  Several black and white photographs.

I love to support indie authors, especially in person.  I go to a lot of conventions and I love finding an author there to talk to.  I enjoy getting to hear the author talk about his or her book.  I like buying a few and getting them autographed is a nice little bonus.

Not too far away from where I live, there is an independent book store that I like to visit.  They constantly have authors stopping in to give talks or readings about their new book, and then having their book for sale, followed by q & a’s and a signing.  I live in the midwest, and while sometimes the book store will have a really big named author stop in, most of the time it is midwest indie authors.  I really enjoy going to the author meet and greets.  Unfortunately, a lot of the time I can’t make it due to scheduling differences.  Such was the case with Wicked Wichita.  Luckily the bookstore had an autographed copy left a few days later when I could finally go get the book.


Now, I’m not a huge fan of American history, especially the basic stuff you’d find in your average school textbook.  And while I don’t like an over all American history lesson, I do find histories of individual cities interesting.  I enjoy hearing about how those cities were founded and their early life (I also like hearing about their haunted sides but that is a whole separate story).  So when I heard about Wicked Wichita, I was pretty eager to start reading it.  It’s a city I have been to many times and I didn’t really know anything about it’s history.  And who doesn’t like to read about the bad guys?

It is a pretty thin book, but packed with a lot of information about early Wichita, and surrounding Kansas locations.  A very quick read.  And so fascinating!  Wichita was founded in 1870s as part of a cattle drive, and quickly grew in to the largest city in the state of Kansas. Even if you had never been to Wichita or don’t care about Kansas history, just hearing what life was like back at that time was absolutely crazy.  I don’t read western genre- fiction or non fiction.  I just know about old time-y west from movies and tv.  I never really put much thought in to how lawless the lawless west really was.  Holy crap… we think violence is out of control now??  The stories in this book… I mean… GEEEEZ.  This stuff actually happened.  People just started having gun fights in the middle of a crowded dance hall, shooting patrons and dancers, with shotguns to the face or stomach, just because, you know… they were there and they didn’t like the way you looked at them.  Just your Joe and Jane average… shooting people. Or drugging then strangling people.   Or shoving a pipe through someone’s head.  I just kept going “……..WHAT??” And it wasn’t just the criminals that were messed up.  The people there to up hold the law- the police, judges, lawyers, soldiers- didn’t care, or were apart of the crime, or were bribed. It is all absolutely bananas!!


There are 19 entertaining chapters in Wicked Wichita.  My favorite was titled The Rotary and the Wobblies.  It was my favorite because I got to learn about a type of building I had never heard of before.  It is called a Rotary Jail.  Only around 18 of them were ever built and it seems like it was a midwest thing only, but I’m not positive.  Basically, you have cells that are wedge shaped, the they form a rotary wheel that can rotate on an axis via a hand crank.  There is only one door and you have to crank the wheel in order to let the prisoners out.  There were problems almost immediately.  It was supposed to have state of the art plumbing, but it almost never worked and it didn’t get flushed or changed for weeks at a time.  The gears that rotated the cells had issues and would become stuck.  Guards got their hands crushed with trying to repair gears.  Drunk prisoners would fall asleep with their arms through the bars, and when the cells rotated, the wall would come up and crush or amputate their arm.  Unhygienic and rat infested.  Not to mention an extreme fire safety hazard.  Here is a short youtube clip showing footage of the last remaining one still standing – Rotary Jail.  Very interesting stuff.

A pitfall a lot of history books suffer from is being a little too dry and boring.  Sometimes the author just goes in to professor lecture mode and it just isn’t a lot of fun reading that kind of writing.  Mr. Stumpe had a very lively writing style that made the stories anything but boring.  His style was filled with a lot of passion and excitement and you could tell he really loves to research this sort of thing and then re-tell the stories to a captivated audience.

I really enjoyed Wicked Wichita.  I just wish it had been a little bit thicker of a book.  It mostly focused on 1870 -1923.  It would have been great if the author had continued with the history lesson up to the last few decades at least.  I doubt Wichita just stopped being totally rowdy at 1923.  I seem to recall hearing a story once about a sniper on one of the downtown skyscrapers in the 80s or 70s.  I seem to remember some sort of odd rabbit scheme / con job back in the late 1920s also.   Maybe the author just wanted to focus on the early decades of the city instead?

This was a very entertaining book that was well researched and fun to read.  There were a couple of pictures for each chapter, although you rarely got to see the “bad guy” that the chapter was about.  A very thin book, making it a quick read.  It wouldn’t have hurt to have a little bit more content, maybe leading up to a more present day Wichita.  All in all, this was a great book about the crazy early days of Kansas’ biggest city.




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