Alexis Coe’s past essays on women’s history for The Toast can be found here. Most recently: Vera Atkins, Spymistress.
There is no record for Vivian Davis before the 1920 United States Census. She first appears as a single, 18-year-old boarder in Kansas City, Missouri. The next record is a 1921 marriage certificate to George M. Chase, a well-known thief 30 years her senior.
After that, there’s a steady trail of arrests records and newspaper articles. When one becomes a notorious lady miscreant riding the 1930s Midwestern crime wave, it’s hard to stay off the grid.
The first time the Chases were arrested together, George had been shot by Ella Keller. She’d reported the couple to the police, and was waiting with a shotgun when they came to voice their displeasure. A wounded George was arrested on the scene, and a home visit paid to Vivian, whom police found wearing six diamond rings. She refused to offer provenance, and so they booked her on “suspicion.”
Three years later, Vivian was by the side of a different man, one Charlie “Pighead Hardman” Mayes. The couple ran with Lee Flournoy and his wife, Dorothy. They were arrested in February of 1926 after instigating a wild fight in a Wichita, Kansas rooming house, or so the police were told. Vivian refused to talk.
The foursome didn’t last long. After the 1926 Cherryvale Bank robbery, they crossed state lines, but the Ottawa County, Oklahoma police department was onto them. Lee, Pighead Hardman, and Vivian were under surveillance when they went for a “drunken party and joy ride” on June 9, 1926. They got as far as Pitcher, a thriving lead-zinc mining town, when a gun battle ensued. Of the three, only Vivian survived, but they couldn’t keep her locked up for long.
By then, Vivian had emerged from multiple arrests–two of which resulted in the shooting of her paramours–a free woman, and for three years after, she virtually disappeared. Perhaps she tried to live inside the law, or just got better at evading arrests, but on April 9, 1932, her luck ran out.
The First National Bank robbery in Kansas City had been small. Vivian and her male accomplices pilfered less than $1,500, but the courts finally had enough evidence to set a trial, and they had no intention of letting her go. A staggering $50,000 bond was set, and Vivian was shipped off to the Clay County Jail in Liberty, Missouri.
It took her four months to get out, but this time, she wasn’t released. How she got a saw is anyone’s guess, but once she worked the bars off the window, the sheets covering her bed were all she needed to fashion a rope.
A year later, she was partnered with Walter “Irish” O’Malley in Missouri. He drove her to Illinois, where she rang the doorbell of August Luer, prosperous banker. She feigned distressed, and the unassuming August invited her in to use his phone. She didn’t make a call, but rather ensured no one else could, slashing the line while Irish overtook Luer. He was gagged and spirited away to a farm, but his ill health quickly worsened in the cool, dank cellar. It looked as if death would surely arrive before the ransom. 123 hours later, they freed Luer and fled. When Irish was arrested in Kansas City two years later, Vivian was nowhere to be found.
Shortly after, there were a series of drug store robberies in Kansas City, all perpetrated by a couple. Witnesses described the woman as tall and slender, her hair colored with henna. By then, a mug shot of Vivian was not hard to come by, and she was readily fingered by onlookers as the culprit.
No one knows who shot Vivian with a .45 caliber gun on November 3, 1935. The same person who pulled the trigger may have been the very one to drive her to Saint Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, or maybe the driver hadn’t turned a gun on her at all, but had rather tried to save her. Many say she double-crossed the killer, while others believe she picked a fight with a member of her gang during a raucous night of celebratory drinking. Whoever it was, they didn’t take her inside the hospital.
Newspaper accounts following her death slightly differ. According to the Herald Examiner, “the country’s ranking female criminal,” was found slumped in the bottom of a stolen car, her own .22 caliber pistol within reach. The Lawrence Journal does not mention that the car was stolen, but asserts the “attractive 34-year-old consort of gangsters” was found with a purse full of the very same bullets that had killed her. They also note a woman matching her description – this time her hair is simply described as dyed red – forced two Platt county farmers, machine gun in hand, to obtain liquor for her gang. They both vaguely note a connection to the notorious Depression-era gangster Alvin Karpis, whose unnerving smile earned him the nickname “Creepy.”
After her body arrived at the funeral home, the director reportedly received an anonymous call about funeral costs. The next day, an envelope stuffed with the exact amount necessary arrived along with a blue dress and undergarments. Attendees included reporters, lawmen, and fewer than a dozen mourners, all of whom declined to sign the guestbook.
Images very kindly provided by the Minnesota Historical Society, and their Vivian Davis collection.
Alexis Coe is The Toast's history correspondent. She holds a master's degree in American women's political history, and was a research curator at the New York Public Library. Alexis is also a columnist at The Awl, and has contributed to The Atlantic, Slate, the Paris Review Daily, and many others. Her first book, Alice+Freda Forever, will be published on October 7th. Follow her @alexis_coe.