Monday, July 16, 2012

Boom goes the dynamite

I have fairly eclectic taste when it comes to what I like to watch on TV. I love my soap, my news and weather, crime shows, comedies, dramas and home improvement shows. But, in the last couple years, I have started watching historical documentaries from the History Channel or National Geographic. A few months ago, I watched a three-part documentary called Prohibition on PBS. It was fascinating. I love learning things about history that completely escaped me in school.

Now, after six viewing hours of Prohibition, I thought I knew quite a bit about the whole time period and the people important to all sides of the issue. Somehow, though, I still didn't know this quirky little story of Charley Melvin, the crazy prohibitionist bomber from Iola, Kansas.

You don't know this story, either? Why, let me enlighten you.

See, apparently, this guy, Charley Melvin was a little nutso. That's a clinical term, I'm sure. He lived in Iola, Kansas, in 1905. Iola is in southeast Kansas, about two hours away from Kansas City. Well, Charley started suffering from insomnia and could not sleep, which made him even crazier. Even though he didn't like alcohol on principle, his friends convinced him that he should drink beer and whiskey to help him sleep. Whoops. Backfire. It actually made him even crazier. In early January, he got drunk and decided that it would be a good idea to get some guns and kill half a dozen of Iola's saloon keepers. I'm thinking Charley wasn't only nutso, but also not that bright.

Charley bought the guns needed to complete his diabolical plan, but in the meantime, wandered around the town square seeing giant pillars of fire. Yes, giant pillars of fire. Luckily, police were able to arrest him before he carried out his mass murdering spree. They arrested him on grounds of insanity. Shocker, I know.

The state mental hospital treated him for a whopping four months before declaring him cured. At which point, they released him. But, see, Charley wasn't so cured afterall. Less than two months after his plans to kill the saloon-keepers failed, he decided to try another tactic. He planted bags of dynamite in several of the town's illegal saloons. (They must've been illegal in name only, as they were prominently located in the town square, so I'm thinking the cops could've shut them down, had they any desire.)

At 12:26am on July 10th, Charley stood a block from the Eagle, Red Light and Blue Front saloons and watched his handiwork. He had placed bags with hundreds of sticks of dynamite at both the Eagle and Red Light saloons. The explosions ripped through the buildings and could be heard in towns miles away. They completely damaged the walls and roofs of the Eagle and Red Light saloons. The Blue Front saloon, which was in the middle of the other two, collapsed, trapping the saloon-keeper in his second-story apartment.

It even caused massive damage to the brand new Allen County Courthouse, including destroying 71 windows and stopping the two-day-old clock that had just been installed.

Charley later did admit that the damage was " ... a great deal heavier than I really wanted." He ran away. Police found three more sacks of dynamite at various other saloons around the town square. Apparently, Charley decided not to set those other explosions.

Police found Charley some two months later and charged him with burglary and larceny, in connection with the theft of the dynamite. Not sure why they couldn't charge him with, oh, something like bombing, but, whatever, I'm not an early twentieth century lawyer. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. And, as much as I'm sure he was probably crazy, the jury rejected that defense, and Charley was sentenced to prison. He spent 11 years in jail before being released in 1914, shortly before his death.

So, now you know all about crazy ol' Charley Melvin. And, now you know why I drove down to Iola late at night on Friday in order to run the Charley Melvin Mad Bomber Run for Your Life 5K at 12:26am on Saturday morning. Well, truth be told, I didn't do it for Charley. I did it for my friend Jen, who lives close to Iola and is on the planning committee for the run.

They came up with the race as a way to encourage healthy habits in southeast Kansas and as a way to turn a crazy, bad story into something good. I do think it is quite hilarious how much alcohol I saw being drunk before the race. I don't think Charley would've approved.

As crazy as I sound for running at 12:26am, I was in good company. Almost 400 people ran in the race, including myself, Cory, my friend Nikki, Jen and Jen's husband Arthur.

Me, Jen and Nikki before the race started.

Cory and Arthur got their tough faces on. Cory's tough face is a smile.
The clock Charley's bomb stopped. This one, clearly, has been repaired. No need for a Back to the Future Save the Clock Tower fund in Iola.

Nikki and I with the throngs of other crazies behind us at the starting line.

The race itself was rather insane. Not only were we running in the middle of the night, but it was pitch black. Yes, I know this should be self-evident, but I thought perhaps there would be more lighting. We even ran through a graveyard. At one point, I was pretty sure I was just going to step into a black abyss. I'm lucky I made it out of there alive! I stayed with Cory the whole time, and though I pushed and pushed, my time was still over a minute slower than my last 5K. I'm blaming the time of night, the darkness, and the fact that it was two hours past my bedtime. But, it was definitely an experience. And, it was fun to see Jen again. Since moving to Iola, I don't see her a whole lot. And, I did end up with 2nd place in my age division (30-39) with a time of 23:01. Guess what I won?

Going to get my award.

Yup, I won a stick of dynamite!

Posing with Jen: all sweaty and happy at 2am.
Despite the fact that Charley Melvin was nutso, and I don't agree with a thing he did, I got a good history lesson, ran a crazy race with friends and walked away with my very own stick of dynamite (not real, don't worry). So, thanks, crazy Charley. I will drink a beer and toast to you tonight.


  1. Great post! The history on Charley Melvin and Iola are very interesting. I'm always surprised at the things you can learn from little towns like Iola. I'm so glad you drove the 2 hours to run.

    1. Thanks for convincing us to come down there! It was so fun to see you!

  2. Okay, you convinced me. I'm going to drink a beer for Charley tonight also.

    1. I figured, if anyone, you would enjoy the history lesson, John ;) Cheers!

  3. I liked the history lesson. I wonder how he'd feel about a race named after him.