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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