Tuesday, September 8, 2015

They Wore Pants, Carried a Gun or Rode Like A Cowboy: TOM KING aka FLORA QUICK MUNDIS

They were the newspaper writers dream come true and the inspiration for numerous 'penny dreadfuls' and dime novellas. Often ignored for their more violent, gun toting brethren, these women are an important chapter in the history of the westward expansion.
The challenges of the west often meant that some aspects of ‘civilization’ tended to fall under the onslaught of necessity.  It was not unusual for frontier women, from the era of Daniel Boone and beyond to have mastery in firearms that would have shocked people in eastern cities. The further west people moved the more flexible were the social structures defining gender roles. Hunting, riding, chopping wood, and a host of activities that their more rarefied sisters back would have seen as unladylike by Victorian standards were commonplace.    

Wearing men’s clothes was not a fashion statement as much as a safer alternative when forced to do certain work.  There was, to the western woman, a practical streak.  There was also, historic precedence, because in every nearly every conflict of the American nation there were women who donned male attire, signed up or joined in, and fought the enemy as defined in that moment. In the American Revolution, the Civil War, and in the American Frontier women dressed as men to either pass as a man or as a means to do the task of a man forbidden them as a woman.

In Oklahoma, there were several of these stories.  They are delightful in the sense that some adopted the costume but never tried to hide their identities, some hid their gender and their companions, by mutual consent, accepted them for what they presented themselves as and some even pulled the wool over everybody’s eyes in their masquerade.  They cannot be labeled with any common word s they were soldiers, outlaws, and cowhands.  There are probably more of them, hidden from history and family alike, and one can imagine that may still bring a chuckle to the ghosts of these women who shook free of social constraints to establish their unique place in history on their own terms.

"Tom King" was the alias of Flora M. Quick (some records state Flora B. Quick), a Missouri 'half-breed' Cherokee who married John Ora Mundis and then moved to Guthrie.  According to local papers, she had an affair with a local doctor and then left.  When next seen she had adopted male attire and was calling herself "Tom King." In 1893 there are many newspaper articles concerning this dashing person who loved excitement and did not want to be a home body. She was born in Missouri and died in Arizona in 1903.

One time U.S. Deputy Marshall, Charles Colcord in his autobiography indicates he and U.S. Marshall E.Nix, accompanied her to Massachusetts where she had been sentenced to serve four years at South Farmingham, just outside of Boston. He identified her a girl who had been on e of the 'wild bunch' that ran with Oklahoma outlaw Bill Doolin. She was about 20 years old at the time and 'not bad looking' which was a Victorian era criteria for potential respectability as low intelligence, evil and the like were thought to be plainly visible in all cases. "Bill Doolin told me that she had more nerve than most of the men in his gang." (pg. 175)

In 1894 she was apprehended in Fredonia, Kansas in the company of a former madam from Guthrie. Strangely, Flora was dressed as a woman and her companion was dressed as a man using the name "Ed Bullock".  Ettie McGree aka Jessie Whitewings was an "Oklahoma sport", a euphemism denoting a prostitute. There is a possibility this Ettie was Ellen McGee, sister to Flora.  Some sources claim Flora had also worked as a prostitute in Guthrie and various newspaper accounts seem to be in conflict as to when and why the Mundis couple separated.

Many legends, lies, and labels attached themselves to her and some tried to ride her coat-tails by claiming a lot of knowledge they did not have about her.  What is a matter of record is that she twice escaped from jail: in Guthrie and in El Reno.  She rode with some 'desperadoes' and stole  horses.  She may have planned some jobs for the Bill Doolin gang, as Charles Colcord in his autobiography indicates that outlaw described her as smart and daring. In 1903 she was allegedly going by the name 'China Dot' and was killed by a man (William Garland) in Arizona.  Some allege that William Garland was actually her estranged husband John Ora Mundis there are many questions related to the theory.  

Early drawing of 'Tom" ca 1893

An 'old-timer' in 1909 named J.E. Van Mattie in an interview said he remembered her from her days as a child in Holden, Missouri. He said she graduated from Holden College and after her unfortunate marriage with 'George Mundis' she lost all feelings for her family and severed ties.  That article shared the story that 'Tom King" had died in the Chinese Quarter of a California town about three years ago, known to the denizens of the underworld as "China Dot."  The sub-text of this story is that she had become either a prostitute or an opium addict. It seems unlikely a woman who rode the land as "Tom King" as horse thief would have entered the life of prostitution found in Chinese communities of the time.  This may rank on the same level as the theories she hit on jail guards to escape when she actually just out maneuvered them. When she broke jail in El Reno she got the key away from the guard and locked him up!  Then, to hide his cries for help, the other prisoners would break out in a rousing line of "Annie Rooney" every time the jailer called out.

"Tom" allowed no photographs, according to one source, and so an unnamed artist is believed to have sketched the depiction shown here.  The dress is supposedly what she was wearing when arrested. It was noted that she was dressed in the 'cowboy fashion': high heeled boots, white broad brimmed hat pushed far back on her head, trousers held up by leather cartridge belt. (Boston Post, Aug.22,1893, pg. 3. The image was found, uncredited in numerous other publications).

In 1903 local papers reported various version so of her life with different levels of accuracy and half-truths. Many said she had been killed in Arizona by a man named Fletcher (some accounts it was a William Garland) who turned the gun on himself. She was going by the name "China Dot" but her real name, according to reports at the time,  was Mrs. B.F. Neal. This is interesting because her mother's maiden name was "Neal" and so may have been an alias. 

Just what is the truth?  We may never really know. Maybe 'Tom' was like the 'Dread Pirate Roberts' of 'The Princess Bride' and simply passed on the identity....stranger things were known to have happened in the old west.

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