· It Was All a Terrible Mistake
It’s Thursday night, June 19, 1934, in Hutchinson, Kansas. Dorothy Swafford Simon Cunningham, 25, wife of Reno County Sheriff Ed Cunningham, age, 37, has just returned to town after running off with a saxophone player. Having been apprehended days earlier in Columbus, Ohio, Dorothy is welcomed by her father, Tom Swafford, 45.
Tom opens his arms to greet his daughter, “Dorothy, we’re so glad you’re safe.”
“Oh, Daddy, I’m so sorry; it’s all my fault,” said Dorothy, with tear-stained eyes, referring to her running off with a musician who had been working in an orchestra at Whatisit Club, a Hutchinson westside roadhouse, while Ed, her husband, the sheriff, was picking up a prisoner in West Virginia.
On the evening of June 13th, Frank Swafford, Dorothy’s brother, had accompanied her to the Whatisit Club. Later that night, he was the last known person to see Dorothy driving her Chevrolet Coach with Jack Huffman as a passenger. She told her brother that she would return after taking Huffman home, instead, she disappeared into the night.
The questions asked by family and the authorities were, “Where is Dorothy?” “Is she safe?” “Could Huffman have stolen Dorothy’s motor car and diamond ring?”
Once Dorothy’s disappearance had been recognized by friends and family, they searched for her in town before notifying the sheriff’s office. When authorities assumed Dorothy had been kidnapped by Huffman, who had been living at a nearby federal transient camp, they notified Sheriff Cunningham, and sent out a nationwide wire about the possible abduction.
Jack H. Huffman, 23, is wanted for car theft and kidnapping. He is described as six feet tall, blue eyes, and blond hair. The kidnapped party is Dorothy Cunningham, 25, five feet, five inches; blonde hair, brown eyes, at 126 pounds. The two are traveling in a 1932 Chevrolet Coach, Kansas license 6402.
After Dorothy and Huffman—whose real name was Meinhard Ernst—were apprehended in Columbus, Ohio, Dorothy told the authorities that she had not been kidnapped. She had left town on her own free will; the car belonged to her, not her spouse; and that she would never return to Kansas or her husband.
Ernst, the saxophone and piano player, said he and Dorothy had known each other six weeks. “I met her in a night club in Hutchinson. I was playing in the orchestra and Dorothy asked me to play a number for her. I knew she was married and her husband out of town, but I only learned later that he was the sheriff.”
Ed Cunningham was at a loss to explain his wife’s action. “She’s had a good home here, clothes, a car and about everything a woman would want. She had a nice savings account, and I can’t understand why she would pick up with a tramp like that,” referring to Huffman’s brief stay at the transient camp.
It was bad enough Ed’s wife had run off with a man; it was worse he was a tramp. The idea of a transient camp was valid, but too many of the people seemed to be living better than hard-working citizens, including the sheriff’s employees who had their wages cut while their work increased.
Ed agreed with the state director of the Transient Service, who said that an increasing number of clients believed that Kansas “is a land where the coffee tree grows and the sandwiches hang from twigs.”
Laura Swafford, mother of Dorothy, sat quietly in the darkness, listening to her husband and daughter, until she had to speak. “What about your Billie? He’s only six. He kept asking us, ‘When is mom coming home?’ We didn’t know what to tell him.”
“Mother, it was all a terrible mistake. I don’t know why I did it. I must have been crazy, leaving a home, a husband, and a son. I’ll make it up to Billie and Ed.”
“Ed’s not forgiving you,” said Laura. “He’s hired John Fontron to file suit for divorce. Your second marriage is over. As for Billie, time will tell if and when he trusts you again.
“Did you have your sister, Helen, participate in your night club visits to see the piano player?” continued Laura. “Because if you did, you may be helping wreck her marriage, too. Ed trusts his brother Paul, and this could destroy their relationship.”
“Helen hasn’t done anything wrong,” replied Dorothy. “It’s all my fault.”
“We’re glad you’re back,” said Tom. “You were crazy to leave, but you’re courageous to come back.”
Upon her return to Hutchinson, Dorothy had to face a community of people who would judge her as unworthy as a tramp. While she had to live with her choice of playing around, her former public paramour, Ernst, seemed immune from negative consequences. He took advantage of his free ride to Ohio.
Ernst was released from jail without criminal charges. He continued alone on his trip to Atlantic City, where he had a job waiting for him to play his saxophone and the piano. In his future, he would be judged for his looks, his clothes, and his music; not for romancing another man’s wife or for stealing the suit of clothes he wore at every performance.
At least his matched outfit didn’t belong to Sheriff Ed Cunningham.
Until next time, happy writing and reading.
Sounds like a double standard…
Jim Potter says
Nancy Julien Kopp says
What I want to know now is–did the sheriff divorce her or not? Or was it merely a threat? Her mother told her the marriage was over, but was it?
Jim Potter says
I can’t find the date of their divorce but I can tell you that in the next year’s Hutchinson City Directory – 1935 – (within 6 months of Dorothy running off), Ed was married to an Esther. So, I’d guess it all happened pretty quickly after hitting the newspaper headlines.
Marilyn Bolton says
Well, Jim, this chapter is certainly the “juiciest” one to date! Dorothy could have written a book on Dim Bulb/Nitwit.
Jim Potter says
Dorothy had been married to Ed about three years and should have know that the sheriff had the “wire” to find her. What a mess.