A 1940 article in the Minneapolis Star told of the Angel of Ava, who anonymously sent money to local residents. (Courtesy of the Minneapolis Star)
AVA – It may be trendy to talk of “paying it forward” when buying that latte or burger for the next car in the drive-thru line, but anonymous generosity in the Ozarks isn’t a new concept. One particular example came in 1940, when the folks of Douglas County were visited by the Angel of Ava.
The seemingly divine being was most surely mortal, but appeared to be from above when envelopes of money began arriving in local folks’ mailboxes. Some contained cash, while others offered cashier’s checks. Mysterious messages were often included, but never a name save a signature of “Your Sunshine Friend.”
The amounts varied from person to person, but were frequently around $100 — which felt more like $1,800 does today after accounting for inflation. At the end of the Great Depression, and in the middle of the rural Ozarks, such a sum might’ve provided several months of living expenses.
However, the mysterious gifts provided more than money. They also brought Ava nationwide notoriety, fueled by intrigue of who was sending money and why.
“The ‘Angel of Ava’ story spread like wildfire throughout the entire country, having been picked up by both magazines and newspapers everywhere, some of which sent feature writers here to get the story firsthand,” wrote J.E. Curry, publisher of the Douglas County Herald newspaper, in 1957.
However, the widespread publicity and passage of time didn’t help the ultimate question: Who was the generous angel, seemingly guarding several in the small Ozarks town?
Even today, no one seems to know.
According to an article in Time magazine — proof of the fame the angel brought Ava — the mysterious envelopes of money began arriving in early 1940.
The first gift’s arrival month is a detail that varies with the source; the number of recipients, their occupations and when they were received, also seem to fluctuate from publication to publication. In the case of Time, February was mentioned as the first month the angel visited Ava. Other places say January.
Whenever the gift came, sources generally cite Mrs. E.E. Lawson as the first beneficiary. She received $100 and a message that identified the giver as an “old-time friend.”
“Pleased but puzzled, she wrote the Bank of Union, Mo., on which the check was drawn, to see whether they knew who had sent it, ” recorded Time in April 1940. “Their description of the man who had bought the check fitted no one Mrs. Lawson knew.”
The name he used to buy the check didn’t help, either. “The name he had given the bank: Lawson,” noted Time.
Lawson didn’t say much about her gift when she received it, thinking it was a random, one-time surprise and she’d soon find out who her “friend” was.
But she never found out — and soon, it happened again.
In February, Time noted that three local men received money on the same day: Two found $100 each in their envelopes, while the third got $150. The gifts were unexpected and unbelievable, and got the entire town talking.
“They talked about it and the news spread over town that somebody was sending unexplained checks to retired businessmen of Ava,” noted Everyday Magazine, a publication of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in July 1940. “People began to take notice. Particularly retired businessmen.”
The gifts also illustrate that junk mail isn’t a new concept, proven by the $150 received by former merchant Luther Story.
“Mr. Story did not have his glasses on when his letter came, thought at first the check was an advertising coupon and started to throw it away,” noted Time, a story repeated in Everyday Magazine.
“With such things going on, the retired businessmen of Ava took to examining their mail with more care than had been their wont,” printed the magazine. “They did not want anything to happen to them like almost happened to Luther Story.”
Locals, pictured in 1940, gathered at the post office to see if anyone received money. (Courtesy of Everyday Magazine)
As time passed, gifts kept appearing in local mailboxes — and attracted a new clientele to the post office.
“A large proportion of (Ava’s) population is descended from the old pioneers, some of whom have never received a letter in their lives,” wrote William R. Draper, a reporter who came to town and wrote about the angel. “These old-timers, and hundreds of others, are now making daily trips by buggy, flivver, hitch-hike, or afoot, to stand in the daily line at the little post office and wait hopefully for mysterious gifts.”
One of the recipients was Mrs. Grace Singleton, a widow, who believed her $100 came from someone who owed an old debt to her late storekeeper husband. She used the money to pay off the note on her farm.
Brush Judd, a retired grocery store owner, also found $100 in his envelope. He didn’t need the money, and instead bought groceries for a needy family of four. “I followed the instructions which came with the check, ‘make somebody else happy,’ and I sure do feel a lot better,'” he told reporter Draper.
Elmer Christian, a farmer who sold funeral and tornado insurance on the side, received a $20 bill.
Mrs. Henry S. Wilson, a widow living in a 15-room home, felt her gift of $50 was truly divine intervention. “Do you know,” the woman told Draper, “this is actually an answer to my prayers? I’ve been trying to run this old place and make both ends meet, but the taxes have not been paid for so long that they were piling up to where I thought I might lose it. So, last night I knelt down and prayer to heaven to find me some way out of the fix I was in, and here this morning I received the check in the mail.” (Side note: This home is where the Douglas County Museum and Historical Society lives today!)
Dr. J.L. Gentry, a horse-and-buggy physician, received $90 in cash with a typewritten note: “I was sick and you visited me. I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. He who rebels against his government is in open sin and shame. Beware of the New Deal, but still remain the same.”
That sentiment was puzzling on its own — but even more so since Dr. Gentry was a staunch Republican, and had no intention of supporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal efforts.
In total, sums of money arrived for at least nine different locals. However, there’s a chance that not all beneficiaries are known.
“Some are being afraid of being stricken off the relief rolls if they tell; others have chosen not thus to invite bill collectors,” wrote the Minneapolis Star newspaper in April 1940, which also recorded some public cynicism.
“Some people suspect that the gifts are part of a subtle plan to upset the relief rolls, or to influence political views, to publicize the town for a real estate boom, or to set the scene for some colossal confidence racket.”
Dorothy Spurlock, 93, agrees that there was skepticism. A longtime Douglas County resident, she remembers those days.
“Most people were excited, but also others thought that it was a scam and they shouldn’t accept it,” she says via her son, Randy Spurlock. “Older folks were always kind of superstitious or not trusting of outsiders, and that’s kind of the way they looked at this.”
There were many efforts, of course, to figure out who exactly the angel was. Some wrote to the banks where checks were issued from, but no details were able to help identify the donor. Eventually, the angel switched to cash from cashier’s checks, a move some tied to the inquiries about his (or her) identity.
Really, all that recipients knew was that many of the letters were mailed from Kansas City, that the mysterious donor had been well-acquainted with the people of Ava — and was a loyal local newspaper reader. At one point, the angel wrote to Curry, the Herald’s publisher, and asked him to find and print several people’s addresses in the paper.
With that request came $12, which Curry was instructed to use for payment for space in the paper. Whatever was left was to go to the young people’s society of a local Baptist church. However, that didn’t end up happening.
“Curry didn’t keep anything for the space, which he did not think would be fair when the angel was providing him with a good story every week,” noted the magazine.
Given the donor’s seemingly devout readership, Curry searched his subscriber list to try and determine the mystery donor’s identity. However, neither the search or contact gave Curry any clue of who the person was, either.
“I don’t have any idea who the man is,” Curry was quoted as saying in the Miami News in May 1940. “He might be a fellow who once sat around the general stores, spinning yarns and relating the new stories from the cities. Perhaps he made a good many friends in those days, and since he has hit it lucky, has more money than he needs, and gets fun out of these gifts to those who once were cordial to him.”
At one point, locals thought the mystery donor had come to town. “A mysterious stranger came to town and announced he wished to look over some real estate sites,” wrote Draper. “Word got around that this was the mysterious benefactor, who had come to Ava to see how those who had received money were spending it.”
Their excitement, however, was perhaps a bit intense.
“Within two hours, a crowd had gathered in front of his hotel, and in fear of being mobbed, the stranger fled and was not seen again.”
The last donation, it seems, came in May 1940 and was sent to Ava’s mayor. According to Everyday Magazine, the donor didn’t actually know the mayor. However, the donor gleaned he was a good one from reading the local newspaper, and needed some encouragement — especially on his latest project, which was installing a sewer system in town.
“Feeling that way about it, he wrote: ‘Whoever 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 two $50 bills sent to the mayor was the last known contact with the angel. According to a leader with the Douglas County Historical Society, no one ever discovered who the benevolent donor was — or why he felt compelled to help local folk.
“At any rate whatever his motive may be, the ‘Angel of Ava’ has made a kindly impression on the town in general, though he has stirred up some envy and cupidity among those who have not received any of his benefactions,” printed the Star. “Perhaps he is chuckling to himself about it all, and will remain a mystery until such time as he has accomplished whatever he has set out to do, or until his real motive is exposed.”
Perhaps part of that motive was simply a good story.
“Angel of Ava,” Time, April 8, 1940
“Douglas County History and Families,” 1995
“Mysterious ‘Angel of Ava’ still giving money away,” Miami News, May 12, 1940
“Mystery gift checks stop,” Danville Morning News, Jan. 30, 1941
“Not even old-timers can recall ‘Angel of Ava’ episode,” Mike O’Brien, Springfield News-Leader, May 20, 2001
“A Reminiscent History of Douglas County, Missouri,” J.E. Curry, 1957
“The Town of Ava’s Strange ‘Pennies from Heaven,'” Minneapolis Star, April 28, 1940
“True Stories of Peculiar People and Unusual Events in the Ozarks,” William R. Draper, 1946
“Where they entertained an angel unaware,” F.A. Behymer, Everyday Magazine, July 14, 1940