Former Springfield News-Leader columnist Mike O’Brien wrote in May of 2001 that in 1946, a publishing house in Kansas put out a 32-page booklet called “True Stories of Peculiar People and Unusual Events in the Ozarks.” It was written by former Kansas City newspaper reporter William R. Draper.
Among the topic included were: the guy in Arkansas who wanted to build an Egyptian-style pyramid, and the lady from Cassville who was once dubbed “The Witch of Roaring River.” But the story that caught Mike O’Brien’s eye was about a character known as “The Angel of Ava.” It told, said Mike O’Brien, “of mysterious mailings of money to residents in and around the Douglas County community” early in 1940.
If you want an unsolved mystery, this is one of the best: a man or woman who positively impacted the lives of a handful of people for unknown reasons, who to this day has remained anonymous, with few if any clues pointing toward the person’s identity.
Much like the story fascinated Mike O’Brien, the “Angel of Ava” has fascinated a friend of his, Kaitlin McConnell, Media Relations Coordinator for CoxHealth, and writer of the blog “Ozarks Alive.”
“The Ozarks was a much different place” in the early part of 1940, says McConnell. “You’re on kind of the end of the Great Depression, but still a very tight financial situation for a lot of people. And for someone to suddenly start sending money in the mail? I mean, we would think that was a little bit unusual—or a lot unusual—today. But especially back then. This probably was the talk of the town for years afterwards.”
In January or February of 1940, a woman, Mrs. E. E. Lawson, received one hundred dollars in the mail, with a letter merely signed, “an old-time friend.” She figured it was someone she knew trying to do something nice for her—and choosing to be sneaky about it. Adds Kaitlin McConnell, “And she figured eventually she’d find out who it was... and never did. When you look at the story, it’s amazing how much effort this individual went to, to stay hidden. Even Mrs. Lawson, I believe she checked with the bank who had sent the cashier’s check, tried to figure out who had purchased that. And the only thing they could tell her was, whoever it was had used the name ‘Lawson!’ So they even went so far as to think, ‘Someone in Ava might try to track me down—I’m going to head that off at the pass right now,’ and even go to the length of purchasing the check in another name.”
The “Angel” sent amounts ranging from $50 to about $150 to various individuals—good sums of money at the time—in either cashier’s checks or cold, hard cash. About 15 people were documented to have received these monetary gifts, but there were probably more, says Kaitlin McConnell.
“There was also the thought that there might be others that did not confess to the fact that they had received money, because once again, back during this time period, they were afraid they might get taken off of the relief rolls if someone had found out that they had received an amount of cash. So we don’t know—there are a lot of mystery questions about the Angel—of course who they were, but also, who even were the recipients. I’m sure this drove them crazy trying to figure out who in the world would be doing this? Who in the world would be rich enough to be able to do this, who knew all of these people?
Not unreasonably, some folks thought they were being scammed, according to McConnell. “We think about ‘junk mail’ today—there was actually someone who received money who almost threw it away because he thought it was junk mail! I never got the sense from the research that it kept anyone from TAKING the money that they were sent... but I’m sure it would have been a huge question mark in their mind, of why is this happening, and why me, and of course, who is this?”
Interestingly, some recipients of the Angel’s money were very much in need of it, while others were actually much better-off financially. “There were others who did desperately need the money,” says Kaitlin McConnell “and that money kept them out of hardship, especially in one case. There was a lady who, I think, was given $50, and that paid the taxes on her house. She was afraid she was going to lose the house. And in our current society this worked out well for us too, because the house that was saved is actually the Douglas County Historical Museum now. And so we are still benefitting from the generosity of that Angel.”
Whoever the Angel was, he or she was clearly very well acquainted with Ava’s citizens, their needs, their activities, and the impact they had on the local community. Among those receiving monetary gifts were a doctor, and even the Mayor of Ava—who, along with the money, received a note encouraging him to keep working on the sewer project he had just initiated.
Soon the Angel’s anonymous generosity was garnering national headlines. “Yes,” says Kaitlin McConnell, “Time Magazine picked it up—it was in the spring of 1940 when they ran a blurb about it.” Newspapers from Minneapolis to Miami sent reporters to do stories about the Angel of Ava.
But almost as soon as the money started... it stopped. The Mayor received the last documented gift in May of 1940. As for the “who” and the “why”, today all we have to go on are accounts from the time it happened. “First-hand knowledge of the story is pretty much gone,” notes McConnell. “You don’t have a lot of people who were old enough to remember it first-hand. But I think it does live on in some ways—for how long, I don’t know. You have to be looking for history to find this story, I think.” Kaitlin McConnell looks for history, and writes about it, for her blog Ozarks Alive. (You can find her write-up on the Angel of Ava at http://www.ozarksalive.com/still-mysterious-angel-ava/.