Most people with a knowledge of history, when they think about female outlaws from Carthage, the name that immediately pops up is Belle Star.
Carthage Artist Andy Thomas found another dashing young female outlaw from Carthage who grabbed international headlines for a much shorter period of time, but produced flowery copy for newspapers from New York to New Zealand.
Thomas said the story of May Colvin first caught his eye while searching through Google’s newspaper archives.
“I had typed in Carthage, Missouri or something like that,” Thomas said. “An article that had been digitized in New Zealand, that had appeared in a New Zealand newspaper in 1897, showed up. It said the famous May Colvin had escaped from the Jasper County, they called it gaol, which is their word for jail.”
The events Thomas had stumbled upon apparently happened in June 1893 and were just part of the criminal career of a teenage girl with a flair for stealing horses and escaping from jail when caught. They caught the attention of newspapers across the country.
“They were all over the country, there was one in Ohio, one in upstate New York,” Thomas said. “There was one that had her escaping from jail in Girard and others had her escaping from the Jasper County Jail and the final one in these national searches was an interview with her when she was in jail.”
The interview with a reporter from the St. Louis Republic newspaper, appeared in newspapers across the country and around the world, including the New Zealand newspaper where Thomas found it.
The story includes a colorful description of Colvin that would not be allowed in a newspaper today.
“May is only 18 years old and is a rustic beauty,” the reporter wrote. “Dress her in the gorgeous paraphernalia of Lillian Russell and she would be a more brilliant beauty than that stage celebrity. She has great blue eyes and a mass of towselled blond hair of Titan tint. Her form is luscious — well-rounded and plump — her cheeks are red with the vigorous life of the Ozarks, whence she came. Her mouth is one that an impressionable artist would go wild over, with its cherry-red lips of sensuous curves, the who forming a most perfect Cupid’s bow.
“And withal, May is a horse thief and doesn’t deny it. Certainly confinement in the penitentiary has brought out her native beauty that must have been blurred or obscured by her exposure to all sorts of rough weather while fleeing over the plains and mountains of the southwest from officers, or else, no jury would have been induced to give her a term in prison, especially for so common and plebeian an offense as stealing a horse.”
Page 2 of 3 - Thomas’s painting, which will go up for sale at Friday’s Midwest Gathering of the Artists auction, features a dashing young woman waving a “Maude Moller” type of hat and riding away a white horse from the Jasper County Jail that sat at the same location, at 405 E. Fifth Street, as the current jail.
Thomas said he found a number of newspaper articles that described the antics of May Colvin, although he now believes that name was an alias.
The Carthage Press also wrote about May Colvin and her escape from the Jasper County Jail on June 22, 1893. Its description of May Colvin, using what archivists at the Jasper County Records Center now believe was her real name of May Calvin, was much different.
“The county jail this morning contained two less toughs of the female persuasion than it did last night,” the newspaper wrote. “The missing birds are May Calvin, the notorious horse thief, and Mary Medaker, the all-around bad character who has been in jail here many times within the last few years.
“The escape was made through a small opening in the brick wall from the female quarters in the northwest room on the second floor of the jail. A pair of scissors was the instrument with which the digging was done and the hole was one commenced two years ago by Deila Oxley, the female horse thief who made herself so nororious about that time. The hole is small one and it can hardly be seen how the women worked their way out through the opening.”
Doris Wardlow, a volunteer at the Jasper County Archives, heard about Thomas’ idea and found information about a May Calvin, or Mary Calvin, in the warehouse full of old papers and records from Jasper County’s past.
“Andy finds the most unusual things,” Wardlow said in an email to The Carthage Press. “Out of a New Zealand newspaper we learned about May Colvin of Webb City. Was she real or someone’s fantasy? I for one am not ready to give into fantasy yet. I'm searching. Webb City's searching but what an unusual young girl.”
Days after sending this email, Wardlow delivered copies of an transcript of a court case for May Calvin, spelled with an “a,” instead of an “o,” and sworn out by W.V. White in the Galena Township of Jasper County on June 6, 1893.
In the warrant, White charges that Calvin “did feloniously take, steal and carry away one brown horse and one top buggy of the value of sixty five dollars, the goods and property belonging to W. V. White and L. Vangundy.”
The transcript says the trial was held before Clark Craycroft, justice of the peace for the Galena Township. According to the document, White swore out the warrant on June 6, 1893, Calvin was arrested on June 7, and a preliminary hearing was held on that day.
Page 3 of 3 - The judge found that “an offense as charged in the complaint had been committed, whereupon, the Justice fixed her bond at the sum of One Thousand Dollars, to await action of the grand jury, and the defendant failing to give bond as above required, she is committed to the Jailor of Jasper County to await the action of the grand jury.”
Wardlow also dug up a “Judgment and Decree Docket,” that says on June 22, 1893, a court found in favor of the State of Missouri and “Mary Calvin,” was sentenced to two years in prison.
Thomas said other people, including Brent Comer and Michelle Hansford at the Powers Museum, dug up information about May Colvin or Mary Calvin, all of which contributed to the painting which will be sold on Friday.
Thomas said Calvin disappeared from newspapers as quickly as she appeared and no one has been able to tell what happened to her after her stint in the state pen.
“It's not significant, but what an interesting story,” Thomas said. “She was that close to being a national figure and in fact she was in all the national papers, but it's just an interesting sidelight. I guess Carthage should be glad she faded into obscurity because we have two famous female horse thieves.”