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Wild Women Of The West: Anne Cook

Lincoln County Outlaw.

November 05, 2019

Anyone who knew Anne Cook thought she was cruel, unfeeling and motivated by money.  The brothel she operated in North Platte, Nebraska, in the late 1920s was a profitable enterprise, but she wanted to amass a fortune and one house of ill repute would not be enough.  No legitimate business alone could make her rich either. Anne hoped to fulfill her dream with a combination of both. According to those who knew the Cook family well, Anne’s teenage daughter brought in a substantial amount of income working for her at the brothel.  Clients requested the thirteen-year-old on a regular basis.

By the time Clara was in her 30s she had fully adopted her mother’s quest for wealth and was equally ambitious.  In addition to entertaining callers, Clara had become a bookkeeper for Anne’s various illegal enterprises. Among Anne’s nefarious business ventures was bootlegging, gambling, and extortion.  Clara used what she knew about her mother’s criminal behavior to extort money from Anne and grow her own bank account. The pair often fought over the misappropriation of funds. Clara misjudged how far Anne would go to maintain the property, money, and power she had acquired.

On May 29, 1934, Clara challenged her mother for the last time.  Family members at the sprawling farm where they lived in Lincoln County, Nebraska, told authorities that the pair had been arguing most of the day.  No one was certain of the nature of the quarrel only that Anne had settled the heated discussion by killing her daughter.

The fight began in the kitchen.  At some point Clara stormed out the house, and Annie followed after her with a cast-iron bar used to lift the lids off the stove.  Anne’s sister, Elizabeth “Liz” Peete, saw her throw the bar and hit Clara in the head. Clara didn’t fall down immediately but when she did the right side of her head was bleeding profusely.  Liz later told a reporter that Anne stood in stunned silence for a moment staring at the dark liquid filling up the ground under her daughter’s mass of auburn hair. Anne ran inside the house and grabbed a towel to wrap around her daughter’s head. After she had completed the gruesome task, she coolly walked back into the parlor of the house and called the family physician.

Shortly after the doctor arrived and examined Clara’s lifeless body, he pronounced she was dead.  Anne was informed that her daughter’s body needed to be transported to town to be embalmed. Contemplating any questions that might arise, she resisted the idea at first.  After deciding that no one would dare inquire as to what happened, Anne agreed to let the ambulance take her daughter away.

While Clara’s father and doctor talked over the details of transporting the deceased, Anne ordered her adopted son, Joe to her side.  In a hushed but stern voice she ordered Joe to retrieve a bag of money Clara had hidden away in her closet. She told the boy to move the money to the cellar until the matter with Clara was settled.

Anne insisted Clara’s death was an accident and an inquest was not deemed necessary.  According to the May 30, 1934 North Platte, Nebraska, newspaper the North Platte Bulletin, an anonymous witness had contacted authorities and told them Anne had instructed one of the boarders who lived at the farm to prepare a dose of poison she could slip into her daughter’s food.  Anne denied the claim that the poison was given to Clara purposely. Through broken sobs she explained how the boarder accidentally poured the lethal concoction into a glass that Clara then unwittingly drank from.  The article in the Bulletin noted that the young woman did not die solely from a blow to the head but from poison that entered her lungs and suffocated her.

Investigators could not adequately prove Clara’s death was intentional.  Much to the dismay of the Lincoln County residents who disliked Anne and suspected she was guilty of multiple crimes, including murder, the case was closed.  Clara was laid to rest at the North Platte cemetery. Hours after the funeral and burial had ended, Anne sent Joe to the cellar for Clara’s money sack. The funds were quickly added to Anne’s stash of cash that she kept in a secret location at the Cook farm.

Anna M. Peete Cook was born on July 15, 1873, in Denver, Colorado.  Her parents were ranchers and owned a big house with stables. They were well respected in the community of Nunn; Colorado and all their investments were profitable.  They had five children, two girls and three boys. The oldest son married early in his life and worked with his father. The two younger Cook sons became ministers.

Anne, as she was referred to when she was little, and her husband Frank owned a spread in Hersey, Nebraska, where they raised corn and wheat.  The Peete’s daughter Elizabeth seemed to be the only child that lacked direction. According to what her parents shared with Anne, she seemed disinterested in men and unmotivated to do anything outside the home.  In 1898, Anne’s parents asked if Liz could move in with her. They hoped Liz might find her place in life while staying with her older sister. Anne agreed but not out of any true sense of loyalty to Liz. She knew Liz stood to inherit their parent’s home and some of their savings when they died.  Anne wanted Liz’s inheritance. She also saw her sister as an extra hand around the farm – one that could be worked hard to bring in the crops.

Anne seldom if ever considered her husband Frank in any of the decisions made with regards to the homestead.  The two married in 1891, and Anne recognized from the start that Frank was not as ambitious as she required. He was content to own and work the few acres he cultivated, but Anne had bigger plans.  After ten years of marriage she had expanded their property holdings on either side of the farmhouse and added poultry and livestock, an apple orchard and cherry trees to their business ventures. Frank took out a mortgage to fund some of the growth, but it was Anne’s side jobs that provided the bulk of the financing.

Professing that she suffered from back and kidney problems, Anne made frequent trips to Omaha to meet with a doctor.  In truth, she was meeting customers at a brothel where she was employed. According to a biography about her life written in 1991, Anne liked her job at the brothel and from the money she made, she was quite good at it.

The Cooks became parents in February 1894.  As soon as Clara was old enough to contribute to the work force, Anne made her help on the farm.  She did the same with Liz’s daughter, Mary, born in July 1902. Liz met and married Joe Knox, a cowboy from Sandhill Ranch country near Hyannis, Nebraska.  The relationship was conducted in secret, and when Anne found out she was furious. She viewed Liz as her property; a necessity to keep the farm running. Anne managed to put an end to the marriage in 1905 after persuading her sister and her child to come and visit her.  Once Liz arrived, Anne made her and Mary work. She withheld letters that came from Knox and intercepted letters written by Liz to her husband. Knox tried twice to rescue his wife and child but both times Anne ran him off the property with a shotgun. Knox asked law enforcement to help him but Anne had paid them a sizeable amount to stay away.  Knox eventually gave up on the situation and filed for divorce.

Anne physically and verbally abused Liz, Liz’s daughter Mary, and her own child, Clara.  Clara’s life in the Cook home was only mildly better than her aunt’s and her cousin’s life.  She was allowed to attend school fulltime and had piano lessons. Her mother’s motivation for both was purely economic.  Anne wanted Clara to have an education so she could keep the financial records for her sporting house and bootleg liquor sales.  Clara’s musical training was put to use at the brothel entertaining clients as they waited for the women, they paid for to greet them.  Mary attended school sporadically. Anne made the girl work constantly and kept her out of class so Mary could finish the various jobs she was assigned.  If either of the girls failed to do what they were told they were beaten.

Frank didn’t care for Anne’s harsh treatment toward the children, but he lacked the intestinal fortitude to do anything about it.  A couple of times during their relationship, he decided to live in the barn for an extended period of time rather than stay in the farmhouse with his wife.  The second of the two incidents that drove him out the house was when Anne accused him of having an affair with her sister. Frank removed all his things from the room he shared with Anne and transferred them to an empty beet shack on the property.  It wasn’t until the last month of his life, several years later, that he slept under the same roof as his wife. Frank died of old age in 1936.

Anne’s reaction to Frank’s death was the same as when he moved out the house.  She moved into a room with her daughter and then rented out the room she shared with Frank to a boarder.  She saw Frank’s absence only as a way to earn extra money.

In the autumn of 1912, laborers with the Union Pacific Railroad arrived in North Platte to repair and maintain the tracks that ran through the area.  When Anne learned how much the local hotel was charging the railroad to house the men, she decided to rent space in the house to the workers. She charged them as much for the use of a cot in the corner and three meals as the hotels in North Platte and Omaha.  Any money the railroad workers had left over after paying room and board went toward evening entertainment provided by Anne’s ladies. Anne’s bank account increased in size. Migrant farm workers employed by the Cooks at harvest time received the same amenities for the same price.

In 1920 Anne used some of her income to have a new, bigger farmhouse built.  When the home was completed, she hosted a party for the local politicians and their associates and the police.  County commissioners and administrators, state representatives and the sheriff were all in attendance. Four of the most attractive and popular girls from Anne’s parlor house in North Platte made sure all the influential guests had a good time.  Bottles of whisky confiscated by law enforcement from bootleggers and brought to the event by the sheriff and his deputies were served. Anne’s own liquor made from a still on her property was also available. The type of social events Anne hosted along with the monetary contributions she made to the campaigns of the community leaders enabled her to maintain her illegal dealings without interference.  Anne’s connection with officer holders provided her with the opportunity to make more money when they assured her a contract to care for the country’s poorest residents.

In May 1923 indigent patients at the Lincoln County Hospital were transferred to the Cook farm to live.  According to the biography about Anne Cook’s life, the cost to house the impoverished patients varied. For the healthy needy the county was charged $1.00 a day; those who were sick or had an injury that needed treatment cost $1.25 per day, and for those who were insane or needed around the clock care the cost was $1.50 per day.  Those patients who were able to care for themselves were made to work long hours on the farm, and they were paid nothing for the pleasure. Anne treated the poor residents living at the farm with the same contempt she did everyone else who lived there.

In an effort to keep the cost of feeding the county’s poor low, Anne withheld food from them.  When the orphans who lived at the home cried for something to eat, she threatened to beat them with a buggy whip.  Community members aware of the sad goings on at the Cook farm voiced their displeasure to county leaders. Leaders promised that an investigation would be conducted but nothing ever transpired.  Eventually concerned parties’ lost interest and dropped the matter entirely.

The mysterious death of Sarah Martin, an indigent deaf woman who resided at the county endorsed establishment with her five-year-old, Joe, was dismissed as readily as the accusations of the mistreatment of the patients in Anne’s care.  On September 8, 1925, forty-year-old Sarah’s body was discovered alone in the room she shared with her son. Anne claimed the woman wasn’t feeling well and asked if she could take the morning off and rest. She told authorities that Sarah often had headaches and had to take medicine to make them go away.  By late afternoon when Sarah hadn’t come out of her room Anne went to check on her. According to what Anne told authorities, Sarah had accidentally swallowed a bottle of carbolic acid instead of the headache remedy. The blinds in the room had been pulled and the room was dark. Anne speculated that in the darkness Sarah had picked up the wrong bottle.  Sarah lapsed into a coma before her bladder and kidneys ceased to function from the acid.

Ada Kelly, a prominent and benevolent woman in North Platte, thought the timing of Sarah’s death was suspicious.  Two days prior to the incident Sarah had petitioned the county judge to allow her and her son to live and work elsewhere.  The judge granted the request and mother and child were to move to Phelps County some sixty-five miles away and work as a housekeeper for an elderly couple.  Anne was outraged that Sarah was leaving. Not only would she be losing a pair of good workers around the farm house but also the money the county paid to support Sarah and her little boy.  Ada and other members of the community wanted Anne arrested for murder but with no physical evidence or witnesses linking her to Sarah’s death the police couldn’t do anything.

Sarah was buried at the North Platte cemetery for a cost of $45 and the responsibility of her son was completely turned over to Anne.

In an effort to improve her image in the area and secure a continual contract to operate the Poor House, Anne held a number of prayer meetings in the front yard of her home.  She prevailed upon the pastor of the largest church in Hersey to lead the prayer meetings. Clara played the piano before and after the short services and lemonade and pastries were served.  Some of the attendees purchased bootleg whisky from Anne at the conclusion of the meetings. Anne’s liquor business flourished at the prayer services, and, at the pastor’s request she eagerly agreed to host more events.

Unhappy residents of the poor house attempted to run away during the prayer meetings and other public events held at the Cook farm.  Anne was too distracted to keep an eye on the patients, and, in that time when her attention was divided, they tried to leave. The sheriff and his men would always find the patients and bring them back.  An elderly man by the name of Pitts, who was the subject of much ridicule from Anne, attempted to escape after only three months living under her roof. His body was found in an irrigation ditch not far from the farm.  Crip Jenson, another aged gentleman who disapproved of the home, was never found. Jenson had a crippled leg and often complained about being hungry and not being allowed to take a bath. Neighbors suggested the police search the farm for the man’s remains.  The implication was that Anne had killed Jenson and buried him in her apple orchard. Authorities on Anne’s payroll excused every death involving people who lived at the farm as an accident and characterized every missing person case as an investigation in process.

Anne and her daughter Clara frequently spread the money they had acquired overseeing the poor and disabled, from prostitution, and bootlegging on the kitchen table to be counted.  Joe Martin told the author who wrote the biography of Anne Cook that the pair made piles of one hundred-dollar bills and then stuffed them into sacks. “The money bags were sometimes six or seven stacks thick,” he remembered.  Mother and daughter fought often over the money that accumulated, neither thought the amount was close to what they needed to be independently wealthy.

Prohibition ended in December 1933, and the bootlegging business had fallen off considerably.  Anne was forced to find another way to increase revenue. In addition to adding a few new women to the house of ill repute she owned and operated, Anne decided to venture into banking.  Irrigation companies that needed funds to upgrade the system statewide issued multiple irrigation warrants. Using all the political leverage she had Anne was allowed to purchase many of those warrants.  In doing so she was in effect loaning money to the irrigation companies for the work that had to be done. She imposed a seven percent interest rate on the payback of those funds. The warrants more than made up for the money Anne was no longer getting from bootleg whisky.

In February 1934 a new county commissioner took office and dared to accept bids from other caregivers to handle the community’s poor.  He was not intimidated by Anne and had zero tolerance for corrupt politicians. He managed to take the contract Anne had monopolized for eleven years away from her. The job then went to a team of individuals who drastically improved the life of the region’s impoverished.

Three months after the poor house business was given to another bidder, Anne was still furious over the matter.  That anger spilled over into the argument she had with her daughter. Clara’s death was the source of much gossip.  Few believed Anne’s version of the fatal event. In private, Anne complained about the rumor mongers, but in public she played the part of the grieving mother who had no knowledge of what other people were saying about her.  The insurance representative that called on the Cooks several weeks after Clara’s demise did not suspect any foul play. He was a stranger in the area and hadn’t heard anything bad about Anne or the rumors surrounding Clara’s death.  The sorrow Anne displayed over the loss of her daughter when he handed her an insurance check seemed genuine. The face value of the policy was ten thousand dollars. Anne claimed double indemnity because Clara’s death was deemed an accidental death.  She used the money to purchase more land.

After Frank Cook passed away in October 1936, Anne sold most of his belongings and invested the cash in her businesses outside the farm.  Not only did Anne provide funds for the upgrade and installation of utilities in the area, of which she made a huge amount off the interest, but she was also now the bank for men who operated backroom gambling parlors and slot machines.

The majority of the meetings Anne held with the bosses of the criminal enterprises she bankrolled were held at the kitchen table at the farm.  It was during one of those meetings in December 1936 that she was informed of a competitor from Miami that had moved to Lincoln County and was threatening to take control of all the crooked activities in the area.  Anne devised a plan to scare the out-of-towner into leaving using her adopted son Joe. Joe would be forced to visit the corrupt man, and, afterwards Anne would go to the sheriff and report that the man had sodomized the boy.  Anne assured her associates that she could make Joe testify to the act in a court of law. The accusation would be recanted if the competitor promised to take his business elsewhere. The threat had the desired outcome, but there was another opponent waiting in the wings to take Anne on, county attorney Sam Diedrich.  Diedrich was determined to end the long reign of gambling and prostitution in the area.

By early 1941, the criminal element in Lincoln County had all but gone.  Anne’s associates moved their businesses to Idaho. The sixty-three-year-old woman sold off the brothels she owned and various other criminal ventures in which she was heavily invested.  The irrigation warrants she held continued to yield a large amount of money.

Anne Cook died on May 27, 1952, from natural causes.  She bequeathed the fortune she made as an outlaw to friends.  She left nothing to her sister, niece, or the adopted son she abused and worked as slaves.  She was laid to rest with her daughter and husband.

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