‘Wicked Wichita’ explores our city’s madams, murderers, misfits and miscreants

Joe Stumpe’s book, “Wicked Wichita,” recounts true stories of the city’s best-known and least-known criminals and misfits.
Joe Stumpe’s book, “Wicked Wichita,” recounts true stories of the city’s best-known and least-known criminals and misfits. File photo

Bootleggers and bank robbers.

Madams and murderers.

Casinos, con men, criminals and crooked cops.

Dig back through history, as author Joe Stumpe did, and you’ll see that Wichita was a pretty wicked place.

“I thought there were some stories there that were pretty colorful and that people did not know about,” said Stumpe, a writer, musician and cook who once worked as a reporter for The Eagle.

“And I’ve just always had a fascination for people who I like to call the underbelly of society.”

Stumpe’s debut book, “Wicked Wichita” (The History Press, $23.99), recounts dozens of stranger-than-fiction stories from Wichita’s past. He’ll tell some of them during a book talk and signing at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Watermark Books, 4701 E. Douglas.

Stumpe spent more than a year researching and writing the book, sifting through old newspapers and historical archives to weave a tapestry of Wichita’s bawdy past. The book’s characters include “Clever” Eddie Adams, “Rowdy” Joe Lowe, the “notorious” Dixie Lee and Alice “The Nightingale” Irwin.

Dancers are bringing the flamenco to Old Cowtown Museum this weekend. The Spanish dance was likely first brought to Wichita in the 19th century by vaqueros who brought cattle up from Mexico and Texas.

“It was the most interesting thing I’ve ever worked on, no doubt about it,” Stumpe said. “There were thousands of crime stories to choose from, so I looked for the ones with real beginnings, middles and endings. And some of the endings were really surprising to me.”

Like a fatal fire on Main Street in 1873, which later became known as the “Christmas cremation.” The perpetrators, Arthur Winner and Joseph McNutt, eventually were tried, convicted and jailed for drugging a colleague, dousing him with kerosene and setting him afire.

“As to why the pair picked Wichita for their scheme, McNutt said his partner got the idea by reading newspaper stories about the place,” Stumpe writes.

“Winner had found ‘a place where we could execute our deeds in broad daylight without being bothered by the law; a place where men were killed every day in the week, and that place was Wichita.’”

Despite the heinous crime, the two men were believed to have been rehabilitated in prison. After being pardoned and released in 1893, McNutt started a sign painting business in Leavenworth, where he’d served his sentence, and Winner worked as a traveling salesman.

Stumpe said one of his most astonishing discoveries was the vast and colorful history of Tremont Street — an area along South St. Francis where Intrust Bank Arena is located today. Tremont was notorious across the region for prostitution, liquor and gambling in the early 1900s.

“The Eagle called Tremont south of William ‘one of the most cantankerous spots ever permitted to exist in a civilized community,’ with nearly every building ‘a den of vice,’” Stumpe wrote.

And most people think all the trouble-making happened in Delano.

“Delano has this reputation as being the spot where all the brothels were and all the bad stuff happened,” Stumpe said, referring to the neighborhood just west of the Arkansas River along Douglas.

“But that was a very, very short time period. . . . These things really were happening all over the city.”

Stumpe’s book is part of a series produced by The History Press that includes titles such as “Wicked Charleston,” “Wicked St. Louis” and “Wicked Women of Northeast Ohio.”

“But I truly don’t think any of them roll off the tongue quite like, ‘Wicked Wichita,’” he said.