MOzarks Moments: Angel of Ava

Top: Graphic from the Minneapolis Star from April 28, 1940 showing a mystery hand dropping money on the town of Ava. Bottom right: A photo from the same newspaper of Nellie Lawson who was the first Ava resident to receive a check from the “Angel.” Bottom left: A 1931 map of southwest Missouri showing both Springfield and Ava where the “Angel of the Ozarks” anonymously gave away money.

In early 1940 in the MOzarks, residents were still suffering from the effects of the Great Depression that had crippled the nation's economy for more than a decade. 

Cash money was not that easy to come by and most people’s wages barely paid for the essentials without much opportunity to save any extra.

Institutions, organizations and individuals in the MOzarks were all in need of help to get by. In January of 1940, strange things began to happen, both in Springfield and in the Douglas County community of Ava.

In Springfield, out of the blue, anonymous monetary donations were made to various groups and institutions. The Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts and the Springfield Scout Band each received $50 donations. The five unions of the Women's Christian Temperance Union in Springfield each were anonymously given $100.

But this mystery angel did not stop there. The South Street Christian Church and the Greene County Red Cross each received $500 gifts. The mortgage on the American Legion Home in Springfield was paid off by the mystery angel to the tune of $1,250. To top off all that, an anonymous donation of $10,000 was given to Burge Hospital.

On Jan. 14, Nellie Lawson, the wife of a filling station owner in Ava, received in the mail a cashier's check for $100. The check was from a bank in Union, Missouri, which is situated about 50 miles southwest of St. Louis in Franklin County. 

The check came in an envelope with no return address. The mail was simply addressed to, “Mrs. E. E. Lawson, Ava, Missouri.” It had a postmark that revealed it had been mailed from Washington, Missouri, which is also in Franklin County.

Baffled by who would send her a gift of money, Mrs. Lawson contacted the bank in Union to inquire about who had purchased the cashier's check. The bank said it was a man who identified himself as “Lawson,” who looked to be about 55 years old with grayish hair. She had no idea who the man was, and he was obviously just using her married name as identification.

With the decade-long Great Depression haunting everyone's nightmares and what appeared to be a second world war beginning overseas in 1939, something that was a feel-good story was sure to be written about. The Associated Press picked up the story and it ran in various newspapers around the country.

On Feb. 23, the story ran in The Hutchinson (Kansas) News with the headline; “Springfield's 'Mystery Angel' May Be Extending Operations.” It talked about “three former merchants and a widow, all living in Ava, received checks totaling $450 from anonymous sources this week. Speculation immediately spread as to whether the gifts may be from the same person who has given $12,900 to various charitable and other organizations in Springfield recently.”

The same story ran the same day in the Moberly (Missouri) Monitor-Index with the title; “More Checks Are Spread About By 'Sunshine Friend' Who Has Given Away $12,250 in Springfield.” That $12,250 amount was apparently a typo. In the story, the correct total of $12,900 was given.

The reference to “Sunshine Friend” was from a note that was included with one of the Ava checks that said, “From your sunshine friend.”

Strangely enough, there was nothing about the gift Nellie Lawson received in the Douglas County Herald that was published in Ava until the March 7, issue.

There were no further donations made in Springfield, but the smaller individual gifts in Ava continued for a few months, and that story became more and more convoluted. A story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from March 13, revealed that former Ava resident J. E. Mackey, now living in California and the brother-in-law of Bank of Ava president J. W. Reese, received a check from the “Angel of Ava,” as the media was now calling him. 

The envelope included a return address from “Ed Glen” and a postoffice box in Jefferson City. Mackey sent a note to the post office box thanking “Dear Santa Claus,” but it turned out that box belonged to a State Tax Commission member named Jesse Mitchell. 

When asked about the use of his post office box, Mitchell said that he had met a man on a bus traveling from Ava to Jefferson City several months prior and struck up a conversation with him. They apparently knew a few of the same people in Ava and the man said his name was Ed Glen. 

During the long bus trip the man identified as Ed Glen said he wanted to send a Christmas gift anonymously to an old friend in California, but didn't want to put his own return address on the envelope. Mitchell said Glen could use his post office box number in Jefferson City, if he wished, and gave him the information.

Of course, no one in Ava had ever heard of anyone named Ed Glen and some doubted Mitchell's account. The story about this in the March 14, issue of the Douglas County Herald noted that Jesse Mitchell was a former Ava banker, which made the connection with Ava banker J. W. Reese's brother-in-law suspect. The Herald also indicated that the newspaper thought Mitchell “is in on the secret” of the identity of the “Angel.”

Next, the whole story was picked up in Time magazine in the April 8, 1940, issue. It stated that the “Angel of Ava's” first check to Ava resident Nellie Lawson included a note that said, “With the compliments of an oldtime friend.”

By that time, some people in Ava were wanting desperately to know who the mysterious “Angel” was, while others thought it better not to look a gift horse in the mouth, because the checks might stop coming.

Next week: The “Angel of Ava” continues to confound the residents.

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