Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Ephemeral city: Jefferson Hotel sign

It's another obscure treasure from the cluttered crannies of the West Bottoms antiques malls. A time-stained cardboard placard in a cheap frame, listing hotel "Rules and regulations" for "persons engaging rooms" in the Jefferson Hotel. Presumably it once hung on a door or wall of a guestroom in the hotel, which long ago stood on the southeast corner of an intersection that no longer exists, Sixth and Wyandotte streets.

The rules include a few era-specific references, like "cloak room" and "servants" and 25-cent room service, but they provide few hints of the Jefferson's infamy as "one of the leading and most notorious vice resorts in the city."

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The Jefferson had a relatively short life – one decade – after replacing an office building in 1910. It fancied itself "Not the biggest – just the best" and featured a cafe with four-bit lobster dinners, cocktails named "Chorus Girl" and "Leading Lady," live music and "other entertainment." The early ownership group included Dan Shay, then also the hot-tempered manager of the Kansas City Blues who later in an argument fatally shot a black waiter in Indianapolis (and was acquitted). The Jefferson's primary owner was one Thomas J. Pendergast.

An advertisement from 1911.
In those years Boss Tom worked out of an office in the hotel. His "Goat" faction competed for political power with fellow Democrat Joe Shannon's "Rabbits." By the time America entered the World War even out-of-town newspapers were referring to the political machine being run by "the Hotel Jefferson gang."

At the same time the hotel's reputation among upstanding citizens had deteriorated. Beatings, robberies, even murder took place at the Jefferson. Gamblers rented rooms for games. The cafe flaunted liquor laws. And "other entertainment" might have been what Army Sanitary Corps investigators meant when, in seeking to protect the manhood of wartime soldiers and sailors, they investigated the local scene and reported widespread vice. Thus the "leading resort" quote above and the accusation that

On every occasion the Jefferson Hotel was visited, assignations were observed in the cafe. The parties followed upstairs were seen to register and go to rooms.

Reformers used this report ahead of the 1918 city election to try to rid the city of vice and corruption. They failed. Law required bars to close Election Day. The cabaret at the Jefferson Hotel was open for a victory celebration.

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With the arrival of Prohibition in 1920 Boss Tom found it easy to close the Jefferson. Especially with the deal he received from the city to vacate for a new Sixth Street trafficway: a check for $79,550 for his property at Sixth and Wyandotte.

Ninety-five years ago today the newspaper headlined its story

Hotel Famous in Politics And
Crime Being Torn Down Today

Not quite accurate, as demolition was yet to come. The actual event of August 12, 1920, was the removal of stuff bought at auction a day earlier – "furniture, carpets and fixtures," said the classified ad. Also, according to the news story, unwanted junk like empty whisky cases, beer kegs, "old registers, account books and ledgers that might have revealed tales of sorrow or joy."

And perhaps at least one framed room sign, a reminder that the place did have some rules and regulations.

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Postmark: July 23,1917

It's a Monday, hot. Mid 90s by noon. Circus Day.

The Ringling Brothers big top is set up on the grounds at 16th and Indiana, hard by the Belt Line railroad tracks. 1250 Actors. 300 Dancing Girls. 100 Musicians. Five Great Trains of Circus Marvels Including Scores of Foreign Features Never Before Seen in America. Childhood's Golden Dreams Come True. Half a mile back toward downtown the Blues and the Columbus Senators are taking batting practice at Association Park, trackside near 20th and Prospect.

Two miles further west, at Union Station, a slender, brown-haired youth from rural Kansas is waiting for a train east. In the Fred Harvey restaurant he buys a postcard.

The great station is now three years old. Its lobby, pictured in the postcard, provides an ever changing scene for the voyeuristic traveler.  Just this month, Russian envoys touring America. Amateur baseball teams. A man seeking to trade his Steinway piano for a small car. Female job seekers entering Room 252 – Fred Harvey headquarters – hoping to become Harvey Girls in some distant western hotel. A mustachioed Kaiser Wilhelm lookalike in military handcuffs. A middle-aged woman meeting her much older pen-pal romance for the first time. Coroners accompanying a body, the 18-year-old victim of a self-administered version of what polite society refers to as "a criminal operation" – an abortion. Heat-stressed vacationers heeding the Secretary of the Interior's advice: It is even more important now than in time of peace that the health and vitality of the nation's citizenship be conserved. Rest and recreation must materially assist in this conservation ... New Army draftees, fresh from crash courses in French language, bound for training camps and French battlefields.

The young Kansan watches. He takes out his fountain pen and addresses his postcard to Rural Route 3, McLouth, Kansas. He writes:

Miss Elma Jones
Dear friend. Will drop you a card & let you know that I am still alive but am a long way off. I am in KC now but will go to Mt. Leonard, Mo., in about 3 hours so good bye from 
Ray Roark
Malta Bend, Mo
that is where I am staying
will write more next time dear.

Later his Chicago & Alton train pulls east, rolling past the Blues and Senators and the grandstand at Association Park, and then the circus grounds and the sidetracked Ringling Brothers trains with their elephants and marvels, their dancing girls and their childhood dreams. Ray Roark is just 17, ineligible for the draft until next year. A full year to dream about dancing girls and French battlefields.

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Still life on Gillis

In the darkness of early morning the men dug. There were four of them. They spaded Missouri clay from beneath the stone foundation, slowly carving out a dungeon-level space for hiding. Upstairs the children slept in apartments. The women dozed in cars outside. 

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Down in the 500 block of Gillis street, just half a block north of the funky little Happy Gillis cafe, a row of old brick rowhouses wears a red, white and green banner celebrating LaPICCOLA ITALIA.

Little Italy. Time has brought significant changes. For one, an interstate highway long ago severed the neighborhood from downtown. The Italian character has faded since the 1920s, when it was called the North Side – the rough-edged home territory of Pendergast henchman Johnny Lazia and the Sicilian immigrants who ran groceries and fruit stands and a good chunk of the city's vice business in the shadow of the old city hall and police headquarters.

Still, it's not hard to imagine an early morning, 88 years ago today, when federal agents paid a visit to the red-brick row houses on Gillis street.

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 It was 1927, the height of Prohibition. Liquor, though illegal, was nonetheless available just about everywhere in the United States through bootleggers. Law enforcement was spotty everywhere too – cops often were good customers of the drug stores, cigar stores, pool halls, soft-drink parlors and other places that sold booze. Public outcry from civic leaders brought periodic raids, and there were fines and jail time. Or not, depending on political connections. Especially in Boss Tom's town.

"The worst thing that ever happened to Kansas City was the putting into effect of the Volstead Act," said James R. Page, Jackson County prosecutor at the time. "In theory and practice that law is all right , but it is not enforced. The police department is not enforcing this law. It is reaping the benefits of it."

Despite lack of manpower, and sometimes poor cooperation from local police, federal agents made efforts to enforce the Volstead Act. Their prime targets were bootleggers.

In June 1927 the biggest bootlegger in Kansas City was said to be Frank "Chee-Chee" DeMayo. That month DeMayo was indicted (and eventually went to prison) for violation of the Prohibition laws, including the manufacture and sale of counterfeit revenue stamps. DeMayo was thought to have a client list that included some of the city's well-to-do citizens and to offer them the finest imported liquor through his connections in New Orleans and Detroit. It turned out much of his product was homemade moonshine, bottled and labeled to masquerade as the real thing.

Frank DeMayo

DeMayo didn't make his own hooch; he was smarter than that. He employed a network of small distillers, always personally checking for quality, but never at the source. He preferred the safe distance of his office, across the street from the federal building downtown.

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 It had been a big year for still-busting in Kansas City, including a February raid on an ersatz feed-and-seed company in the West Bottoms that housed a 1,500-gallon apparatus. That month federal agents seized a record 40 local stills. It was a record that stood until June, when 51 bit the dust. 

That number included eight taken in the early morning hours of June 28, when agents raided the red-brick row houses on Gillis street. One address yielded two stills; next door surrendered another. A quantity of corn mash turned up in another apartment and four stills were discovered in the garage out back. At the last address agents arrested four men with shovels. They were digging a sub-basement below a 75-gallon still.

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