Thursday, August 31, 2017

Prohibition project: Grand Avenue Temple


Continuing the series on the Prohibition era in Kansas City, 1920 to 1933, about surviving buildings and other structures with stories to tell about moonshine, bootlegging, speakeasies, "wets" and "drys," and associated events, activities and personalities.

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Grand Avenue Temple, a Methodist church near the corner of Ninth and Grand, looks good for its age. The ionic columns and arched windows, lashed by weather and time, stand straight and tall as they did in 1912, when the building was dedicated. And except for a few details, like the small air conditioner protruding from a stained-glass window, it probably looks much as it did in 1924, when Ira M. Hargett was pastor.

“The wolves of greed, vice and sensuality infest our fair city, lying in wait to prey upon the innocent,” Hargett declared from the pulpit here in late November that year. He had come to Kansas City from Wisconsin a year earlier and soon was broadcasting Sunday night sermons nationally (the new medium of radio, he said, was God’s work) over WOQ, a station owned by the Unity School of Christianity. That November night he praised Kansas City for its beautiful boulevards, residential neighborhoods, schools and industries, but said the city
bears the stigma of vice and crime. Bootleggers, robbers, thieves, murderers, prostitutes, drug fiends and narcotic peddlers prey upon an almost helpless populace. There is, too, the hypocrite who uses the guise of church affiliation to conceal underhand dealings.
The Reverend I.M. Hargett
Hargett, a defender of the Ku Klux Klan and president of the local Society for Suppression of Commercialized Vice, a watchdog group of moral reformers, was just perhaps the loudest of several religious leaders decrying liquor traffic and the city’s many varieties of vice. He imagined a special place in hell for the police. “Gambling of all kinds is rampant,” he said in 1926. “I know of places where dice games, card games and policy games flourish without police interference. But why should I go to the police and lead them to these places? They already know about them.”

An ad for a 1927 sermon by Rev. Hargett.

Hargett left town in 1929 for a position in Tulsa, came back in 1932 as pastor of the Linwood Boulevard Methodist Church, then returned to Oklahoma in 1936. Before leaving Grand Avenue Temple he warned against repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment.

"The devil will declare a holiday and decorate hell," he said, "and the angels will put on mourning if Prohibition fails in America."
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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Prohibition project: The Leaping Hound

This two-story structure on Summit, behind La Posada restaurant, once was home to "Swede" Benson's  Leaping Hound.
Continuing the series on the Prohibition era in Kansas City, 1920 to 1933, about surviving buildings and other structures with stories to tell about moonshine, bootlegging, speakeasies, "wets" and "drys," and associated events, activities and personalities.

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The Volstead Act – the working part of the Eighteenth Amendment – took effect January 16, 1920, making it illegal to "manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish or possess any intoxicating liquor except as authorized." But part of this had been true since the previous summer, which was how guys like Swede Benson wound up on the wrong side of the law.

In 1918 President Woodrow Wilson had signed an agriculture bill that included a wartime prohibition amendment, outlawing the sale and importation of intoxicating liquors until after the army had demobilized. It became law July 1, 1919. Real enforcement of wartime prohibition didn't get serious until after Congress passed the Volstead Act that October. 

In November 1919, police raided and closed Benson’s notorious Leaping Hound, a whisky-and-beer joint on the second floor of a building on Summit near Southwest boulevard. The place reportedly got its name after a customer declared "the booze sold here would make a hound leap at a lion." 

The joint in 1919.

Frank O. "Swede" Benson was a longtime gambler, saloon owner and political operative. A former deputy county marshal, he counted votes and cracked heads in elections for Miles Bulger, a Democratic rival of Tom Pendergast. After the Leaping Hound closed, he opened a pool hall across Summit on the opposite corner, and later a barbecue joint on Main near 20th. Both were raided several times. Political protection kept him open until Bulger’s power faded. By the time the barbecue was padlocked for liquor violations in 1925, Pendergast was firmly in control. Benson got three months in county jail.

In 1934, a love triangle caused him to shoot and kill a man on a northern Missouri farm. He fled, was captured four years later in Los Angeles, and eventually sent to prison for second-degree murder.



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Friday, June 23, 2017

Prohibition project: Carey's drugstore

The bricked-over facade at 1812 main hides the former location of D.M. Carey's drugstore.

Continuing  the series on the Prohibition era in Kansas City, 1920 to 1933, about surviving buildings and other structures with stories to tell about moonshine, bootlegging, speakeasies, "wets" and "drys," and associated events, activities and personalities.

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During Prohibition a drugstore was a place to buy liquor legally. Many people still considered whiskey a remedy for certain ailments. With a physician’s prescription, pints of bonded whisky could be obtained for “medicinal purposes” in any drugstore that held a government permit. Abuse of the system was widespread. Disreputable physicians sold individual prescriptions, or they sold pads of blank, signed prescriptions to bootlegging “druggists.” Many druggists were former saloon keepers who maintained dummy inventories of cigars, candies and pharmaceuticals as a disguise for the real business behind the “soft-drink” counter. After Prohibition began, the number of drugstores here doubled. By 1923 there were 450, more per capita than any other city.

The store in the 1920s.

One was Union Drugs and Sundries at 1812 Main, operated by a man named D.M. Carey. Before Prohibition Carey had run an east-side saloon. In the 1920s he found greater success with a series of drugstores and joints where he became familiar to police as a “well-known bootlegger.” One, City Hall Drugs, was in the original Gillis Theater building at Fifth and Walnut. After the Gillis burned down in 1925, he opened this much-raided-and-padlocked place on Main. He paid fines but did no jail time. Carey’s son, a wounded World War veteran who went by “June,” partnered in the stores, ran the Music Box cabaret at Fifteenth and Locust and another speakeasy at Fourteenth and Main.

The vacant storefronts in 1940.

In August 1929 an explosion and fire in a drugstore at 69th and Prospect killed three firefighters, and fixtures in the store were traced to the Careys. Police determined they were part of a ring of arsonists collecting insurance payoffs. As a grand jury was hearing testimony that also implicated Carey senior in the earlier fire that killed six and destroyed the Gillis Theater, he was in a dingy room at the Majestic Hotel, near 12th and Baltimore, putting a bullet in his head. His suicide note blamed “the KC Star paper – drunkards – blackmailers and backbiters.” June Carey was charged with murder in the Prospect blast but went free after a principal witness disappeared.


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