Scandalous happenings in 1900s Sedalia

Rhonda Chalfant - Contributing Columnist

Rhonda Chalfant

Contributing Columnist

Last week’s column promised more information on the Co-Partner Shirt Factory. However, a review of the Sedalia Democrat has revealed little about the factory or the strike that precipitated its founding. Until I get a chance to survey the various labor union papers of the era, I’ll write about some events in Sedalia at the time the factory was being established. Happenings in 1910 and 1911 varied from tragic deaths to devastating fires to scandalous affairs.

Social reformers tried to improve human behavior by eliminating every aspect of sin and vice, which they tended to equate with unclothed bodies, risqué language, and sexual suggestivity. Strong censorship laws forbidding the possession, sale, or shipping by mail of any material determined to be obscene had been passed in 1873. These laws included art that depicted nude or partially clothed figures, as well as documents containing basic scientific information about human anatomy and physiology and methods of contraception.

The Comstock Laws, named after U.S. Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock, were rigidly enforced, especially against suggestive materials sent through the mails. Thus, when Mrs. Dick Barrett received letters thought to be obscene from Mrs. Annabelle Reeve, Postal Inspector H. B. Mayhew and U.S. Deputy Marshal T. H. McKenna, of Jefferson City, began to investigate the woman responsible for writing the letters. On March 8, 1910, the Democrat reported that on the night before law officers had arrested Mrs. Reeve and taken her to Clinton where she was to answer the charges. Her arraignment before U.S. Commissioner W. R. Jeffries was scheduled for March 8.

Mrs. Reeve was the widow of Charles Reeve and lived at 205 S. Massachusetts Ave. She was, according to the Sedalia Democrat of March 8, “a well-known character in Sedalia.” This rather cryptic description was generally used by the Democrat to describe someone who was mentally ill and behaved badly in public.

Widow Reeve had apparently developed an overwhelming and publicly demonstrated infatuation for Dick Barrett. Mrs. Barrett learned of Widow Reeve’s feelings for her husband. Mrs. Barrett was quite understandably upset.

Mrs. Barrett went to Sedalia authorities in an attempt to have them persuade Widow Reeve to leave her husband alone. She was unsuccessful. Widow Reeve continued her infatuation. She also retaliated against Mrs. Barrett by sending her “some of the most obscene letters that ever went through the United States mail.” The laws of the time and the concern for the innocence of the young people who might read the papers prevented the Democrat from printing the contents of the letters, so readers are left to imagine exactly what obscenities or vulgarities the letters contained.

In a second article about the case, the Democrat reported that on March 8, Annabelle Reeve appeared in court in Clinton. She pleaded not guilty to charges of sending obscene letters through the mail. She was held on $300 bond and turned over to Henry County Sheriff King.

Widow Reeve was only one of Sedalia’s citizens who made news in early 1910. Fortunately, most of the rest of Sedalia’s newsworthy residents were neither as flamboyant nor as threatening as she.

Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.

Sedalia Democrat

Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.

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