Family deals with notoriety

Register Editor

Register/Susan Lynn
Judy Brownback of Blue Mound holds mementos of her great-grandmother, Etta Melvin, wife of Charley Melvin, whose 1905 bombing of three Iola saloons is being commemorated tonight.

Judy Brownback is coming around to accepting Iola’s celebration tonight of Charley Melvin, the Mad Bomber. Brownback, of Blue Mound, is Melvin’s great-granddaughter.
Melvin’s explosive antics of 1905 have had wide-ranging repercussions along the Melvin family lines, including bouts of depression and alcoholism, Brownback said.
The city’s sesquicentennial committee and other organizations are observing tonight the July 10, 1905 bombings of three saloons as a landmark occasion in Iola’s 150-year history.
Brownback’s visit to the Register on Wednesday helped flesh out Melvin’s character.
“He was crazy, yes. A religious zealot, yes,” Brownback said.
Born in Chicago, Melvin was raised in Bates County, Mo., across the Linn County line. As a youth he had a vision that God selected him to “strike the rum power a blow,” he told his wife, Etta, in a letter.
For many years he nurtured that vision, confident of God’s purpose for him, which “has been given to but few people on this earth ... but I am one of that few. I have been led by the spirit of God in the pillar of fire, just as truly as ever Moses was led by God.”
Melvin’s committal to insane asylums and purchase of firearms were all part of a divine plan, he wrote. But it was after a drunken spree — “for the purpose of learning and studying the drink problem” — and perhaps the hellacious hangover, that Melvin became clear of purpose.
“I was so mad I decided to kill every jointist in town, or die in the attempt.”

BY THE TIME of the 1905 bombings, Melvin had had a string of stays in asylums. His stint as a teacher was short-lived and he and his young family lived meagerly by vegetable truck farming. Charles and Etta had eight children. A daughter, Athol Marie, starved to death at age 11⁄2 from a diet of primarily green beans, Brownback said, another indication of Melvin’s belief “that God will provide,” though their garden could not. Another child, Lee Melvin, died at birth or shortly thereafter.
The family moved to Iola around 1900, according to birth records, with the last three of their children born here.
Melvin was 42 at the time of the bombings. After the explosions he fled town and was on the lam for more than a month. Authorities found him in Iowa. He was found guilty of his crimes and sentenced on Sept. 15, 1905 to prison for a maximum of 15 years. He languished in the state penitentiary for nine years until, at death’s door, he was released. He died two months later of “tuberculosis of the bowels,” at his sister’s in Falls City. Melvin was not sent to Iola, Brownback said, because of the family’s dire financial straits and the possible ill feeling the townsfolk held toward him.
Melvin’s vendetta on Iola drinking establishments “was very traumatic” for the family, Brownback said.
His daughter, Naomi, grandmother to Brownback, tried to commit suicide and was institutionalized twice in Wichita, she said.
Melvin’s son, Tim, suffered from alcoholism and also spent time at the mental hospital in Osawatomie.
Daughter Penny died of a botched abortion in Coffeyville, bleeding to death.
And grandson Walter Earl Walton also suffered from alcoholism.
One daughter’s career also was likely influenced by her father. Veva Frances became a nurse in a psychiatric hospital in California. Veva was born eight months after the bombings.
Melvin’s notoriety “was so hard on the family,” Brownback said, forcing the older children to support the family at early ages. Etta took work taking care of others’ newborns from 1909 to 1938.
Etta Melvin carefully recorded the names of the 183 babies she took care of in a small book. She also recorded the names of the doctors who delivered them. Baby No. 49 was Iola’s June Elizabeth Thompson, now Toland, born June 19, 1914.

MANY OF MELVIN’S descendants are concentrated in Southeast Kansas. Great-great-granddaughter Tammy Prather lives in Iola, and is signed up for tonight’s fun run. Others are scattered among Mildred, Fort Scott, Fredonia, Erie and Wichita.