During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cities measured themselves against other cities by comparing their public buildings, civic amenities, businesses, population, and crime rates. A progressive city could boast of substantial public buildings, public utilities and paved streets, a prosperous business district, a growing population, and a low crime rate.
Cities with high rates of violent crimes were generally embarrassed and feared their reputation would slow the city’s growth and limit its prosperity. In 1920, an event in Warrensburg resulted in a statement from the city’s newspaper, the Star Journal, that the city’s pride had been “humbled…to the zero mark.” Citizens were “humiliated at the thought of how the general public” viewed the city.
The event that caused such distress involved a Sedalia man, attorney W. A. Collins, who was the candidate for the Republican nomination for state senator. Collins maintained offices in rooms 200-202 of the Ilgenfritz Building at the northwestern corner of Third Street and South Ohio Avenue. He and his wife and children lived at 820 W. Fourth St.
On Thursday, Jan. 15, 1920, Collins was working in Warrensburg, checking documents at the Johnson County Courthouse. His work took longer than he anticipated and he missed the afternoon train to Sedalia. To fill the time before the next train, he visited friends in Warrensburg. At about 7 p.m., he stopped at the Shobe Restaurant near the depot to eat supper and as he recalled, “to have a glass of buttermilk, of which I am very fond.”
When Collins entered the restaurant, he unwittingly stepped into a drunken brawl between Courtney Keith and Willis Easterwood. As Collins arrived, they turned on him. One of the men struck him in the face so hard that he fell out of the door and onto the concrete sidewalk. The other man rushed out the door and began kicking Collins in the head. By the time other customers had separated the men, Collins was nearly unconscious.
A bystander summoned Dr. John A. Powers, who took Collins across the street to his office and provided emergency treatment. Collins suffered a badly broken and displaced nose, two broken cheekbones, cuts and bruises on his face, and a fracture near the base of his skull.
Collins was taken to the Oak Hill Hospital in Warrensburg for further treatment. His wife and children came to the hospital by train on Friday morning. On Monday evening, Collins left the hospital and returned to Sedalia. Powers stated that Collins would recover, but said he would probably be permanently disfigured.
Keith and Easterwood were arrested. Both denied being involved in the attack, but restaurant owner Mr. Shobe and several customers testified they had witnessed the fight.
The people of Warrensburg responded in a variety of ways. One group of citizens hired Judge Nick Bradley and attorney M. D. Aber to assist the prosecuting attorney in trying the perpetrators. Community outrage was so high that no attorney from Warrensburg would defend Keith and Easterwood.
Other residents visited the newspaper office to demand better law enforcement and protection from violence, asking if any person in the community was truly safe. The Star Journal responded with an editorial referring to the recent war: “We helped to fight a world war to make civil liberty safe, only to discover that the right to live and pursue a peaceful way on the streets of our home town has not been properly safeguarded.”
Ministers announced plans to speak from their pulpits Sunday on the need for strict law enforcement. They planned to seek the support of fraternal organizations and civic clubs “to prevent any such recurrence in the future.”
Law enforcement officers noted that the community generally did not offer them the support they needed to keep the city safe. Assaults happened frequently, they reported, but residents were unwilling to help police identify perpetrators or to testify against them.
Amid the responses, Collins may have found the best one. He filed a civil suit against Keith and Easterwood asking for $5,000 in actual and $5,000 in punitive damages to cover the cost of his medical treatment, his clothing, his loss of income during his recovery, and his pain and suffering. Several people owed Keith money, and the court moved to attach any money Keith received.