J.M. Davis Arms and Historical Museum
When he was seven, John Monroe Davis was given his first weapon, a muzzle-loading shotgun. When he was 15 he used it to kill his younger brother at the dinner table. His defense, given years later to a newspaper reporter, was, "I didn't know it was loaded."
By the time the interview was published, no one would have suggested otherwise. J.M. Davis was a man of considerable clout in Claremore, six times its elected mayor, wealthy from his construction business and his management of the downtown Mason Hotel. And by then he also owned more guns than anyone, ever.
"The Greatest Collection of Guns in the World" could be seen everywhere in the Mason Hotel. Davis used firearms as a kind of wallpaper, arranging pistols in sinuous, swirly patterns; and rifles in precise, mirror-image mountings, like tiger stripes. They literally covered the walls of the hotel's lobby and hallways. The banquet rooms eventually stopped hosting banquets and became closets for Davis's growing arsenal. According to a booklet for sale in the Davis Museum gift shop, "He was never happy unless he was looking at or talking about guns."
Davis eventually realized that the situation was out of control and agreed to give all 13,000+ of his firearms to the state of Oklahoma under two conditions: it had to build a fireproof museum in Claremore big enough to display them, and it could never charge admission. The museum opened in 1969 (and is still free). Davis, rather than cutting the Grand Opening ribbon, blew it apart with gunpowder.
Unlike modern roadside museums, which often have more flair than actual museum-worthy objects, the J.M. Davis Arms and Historical Museum is strictly functional, packed with thousands of items, displayed on simple pegboards under unflattering fluorescent light. It's also a rare Route 66 attraction -- the Mother Road runs right past it -- that has nothing to do with Route 66, old cars, or nostalgia. It's guns, guns, and more guns, with occasional nods to Davis's lesser obsessions, such as his 1,200 beer steins and his 600 pairs of animal horns.
Our attention, of course, was drawn to the freakier weapons on display, such as an improvised home-made gun used for a botched suicide, and gold-plated pistols from World War I, and the "Volley Gun" that fired seven .52 caliber shells at once, cutting a bloody tunnel through flocks of birds or people. "This was one of Mr. Davis's favorite guns," says its accompanying sign. He posed for several photos holding it.
The most crowded part of the museum during our visit was its Gallery of Outlaw Guns, which Davis purchased from a Kansas City police department employee who would haul the weapons to county fairs in the back of his truck. Death and Murder guns fill several showcases (Davis's killer first gun is also in the museum, but displayed elsewhere). There are sawed-off shotguns, rifles, and six-shooters belonging to Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, Wild Bill Hickok, John Wesley Hardin, Pancho Villa, Belle Starr, and the Dalton Gang. The museum has six of Pretty Boy Floyd's weapons alone, but modestly notes that outlaws usually had lots of guns.
A special highlight of the museum is Davis's unequaled collection of nearly a dozen execution hoods and nooses used in capital punishment hangings. Yellowed newspaper clippings accompany the macabre mementoes, providing first-hand accounts of their use. When teenaged Lawrence Mabry was hanged, for example, the sheriff's dog "howled as the trap was sprung, and continued for five minutes." Carl Panzran, a serial killer maniac and latter-day minor media celebrity, spat in the executioners face and "swore he hated all humanity." The display accompanying the noose of Eva Dugan -- the last woman hanged in Arizona -- somehow fails to mention that it tore her head off, although it really should.
If you're wondering how J.M. Davis died, it wasn't from a gunshot. He tripped and fell down the staircase in the Mason Hotel in 1973, and landed in the lobby on his head. He had told his second wife, "I want to be buried with my guns," and indeed he is buried with his guns, right in the museum, in a black marble crypt. A Gatling Gun stands between the tomb and the tourists, pointed in their direction, keeping them at a respectful distance.