MOzarks Moments: Angel of Ava from the Douglas County Herald

Clockwise from top left: The second issue of The Douglas County Herald from May 10, 1887. The Ava square with the Douglas County Courthouse shown around the time the Angel of Ava was bestowing anonymous gifts on Ava residents. In 1916 the Douglas County Herald and the Ava post office were in the same building, with the post office in the front half and the Herald in the back half. James E. Curry who was editor and publisher of the Herald from 1915 to 1969. Photos appear courtesy of the Douglas County Herald, which has been publishing for more than 133 years.

As the mystery of who was the Angel of Ava deepened, the Kansas City Star started their own investigation, and they decided it was a man named Joseph B. Thompson. Thompson lived in Ava and was an insurance executive with a Kansas City insurance company. The only problem was that he denied it and there really wasn't any evidence that directly tied him to the angel.

Ava residents were also busy trying to envision motives for the angel. One possible motive they came up with was connected to a robbery of the People's Bank in Ava in 1921. A number of people jumped on that idea and declared that the angel was one of the bank robbers who was attempting to give back the stolen money to depositors.

The only problem with that fairly far-fetched theory was that one or more of the recipients had lost no money in the robbery of the now-defunct bank.

When the editor of the Douglas County Herald received his second list of names with a request for their addresses, he discovered that at least one of them had been gone from Ava for two decades. Some of them had died.

By the latter part of September 1940, the New York Daily News was reporting that no new checks had been received by any residents or former residents of Ava and it looked like the fairy tale had ended.

However, the following year, on May 4, 1941, the Abilene Reporter-News in Texas ran a United Press story that started with the lead sentence, “The 'Angel of the Ozarks' is active again.” The story said that the still-unidentified angel, who, according to them, had given away more than $2,000 to individuals in the last year, had gifted the Basher Church in Ava with a new piano.

O. E. Maxy, the mayor of Ava, who was also a furniture dealer there, said that a stranger had come into his store, picked out a piano, paid cash for it and made arrangements to have it delivered to the church with a note that declared it was from the 'Douglas County Angel.'

Maxey, the paper claimed, had been a recipient the previous year of money from the angel. However, the mayor the previous year who received a monetary gift was Dave Tillman. He received two fifty-dollar bills.

With the money came a note to Tillman that read, “Whosoever doeth his work well shall be rewarded for his labor. You have done a good job as mayor of your town. I am interested in Ava. Keep up the good work and receive more rewards. P.S. Be sure to finish your sewer.”

The gift of the piano, if it was from the mystery Angel of Ava and not a copy-cat gifter, was the last bestowed on Ava or its residents. It seems unlikely that a mysterious giver who dealt in anonymity and monetary gifts would suddenly walk into town and buy a piano instead of just sending the church money for one.

From newspapers’ accounts, that appears to be the last of any gifts attributed to the Angel of Ava. It was certainly an interesting time in the history of Ava, Missouri. The Douglas County Herald expressed the feelings of many of the residents of Ava when the editor replied to inferences and put-downs from big-city newspaper editors.

In regard to the statement in the Minneapolis Star that most of the Ava citizens had never received a letter in their lives, the Herald responded with the fact that the Ava post office delivered around 5,000 pieces of mail each and every day to its patrons.

And the editor could not stand still for the article in the Chicago Tribune that said that folks around Ava were driving to the post office each day in their buggies to see if they had received a gift from the Angel. He retorted in print that they didn't need to come into town to get their mail because there were 64 miles of R.F.D. (Rural Free Delivery) Routes that received mail from the Ava post office. And on top of that, a buggy would look as out of place in Ava as it would in Chicago!

The checks and cash that were bestowed on lucky recipients by the Angel of Ava, were reported to have totaled “more than one-thousand dollars” in some newspapers and “more than two-thousand dollars” in others. If we take a figure in the middle of those estimates, $1,500—which might not sound like much—and convert it to today's dollars, it would equal $26,917. That is nothing to sneeze at.

While there were plenty of guesses about who the Angel of Ava might be, that person's identity was never revealed, so it remains a mystery even today. While many of Ava’s residents today may not recall this incident at all, it was a national news item many times in 1940 and into 1941. Today, it is merely the providence of people who like local history.

A couple of people who it might have been, and who were never mentioned in the articles as suspects, come to mind. One of those is the editor of the Douglas County Herald, James E. Curry. A resident of Ava, he was a respected civic leader, the publisher of the paper for 53 years and a state senator from 1945 to 1952. 

In an online article about the Angel of Ava, an anonymous comment stated that “Jim Curry himself did a good deed for us once and it was many years before I found out who it was. Then for many, many years, someone left Christmas gifts for her children in my sister’s mailbox . . .”

He certainly seems like the type of man who would want to help out others anonymously and also one who would enjoy writing a couple of letters to his own paper in the guise of the 'angel.'

Another possibility might have been the president of the Bank of Ava. His brother-in-law, who was a former Ava resident, but now lived in California, was the recipient of a cashier's check from the Angel. The return address listed the post office box of a member of the State Tax Commission of Missouri, who was a former banker in Ava. It seems possible that the then-present president of the Bank of Ava had recruited an old banking acquaintance with a Jefferson City post office box to mail the cashier's check to his brother-in-law.

Regardless of who the Angel of Ava was, his or her identify is still unknown, and perhaps that's how it was meant to be. However, we do know that the Angel giving away money 

in Ava and the one giving away money in Springfield were not one and the same.

Next week: the Angel of Springfield is revealed.

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