Sunday, March 27, 2016

Ephemeral city: Election day sign

It's a brown paper sign, backed with cardboard, found in a dark nook of an antiques mall. I wanted it to be an original artifact from the most notorious election day in city history, but knew it was probably a fake, a prop. And I was pretty sure I'd seen it somewhere before. Turns out, I was right.

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Several folks suffered beatings and kidnappings, and four people died in election-day violence on March 27, 1934. One of the dead was a deputy sheriff, one a Democratic precinct captain, one the owner of a hardware store, and one was Larry Cappo.

In March of 1934 Larry Cappo was a 27-year-old former boxer, a welterweight with a middling record who had been known by his opponents as a crafty puncher with a dangerous right, by regional sports writers as the "Knockout King" or the "Walloping Wop" or the "Pride of Kansas City," and by adoring females as the "Valentino of the Ring." Cappo's hometown fans would often travel to his out-of-town matches in towns like Sedalia, Joplin and Des Moines.

Larry Cappo
He had been born Lawrence Caciappo on Valentine's Day 1907, the second son of Italian immigrants on Kansas City's tough North Side. It was a poor neighborhood where some boys learned to run in packs, destroying property, rolling drunks, stealing cars, etc. These were boys who came of age just as Prohibition was creating a whole new world of criminal opportunity. Newspaper stories often referred to them as young Sicilians in silk shirts, with oily hair and powerful cars. 

By March 1934, Larry Cappo was out of the boxing ring and waiting tables at Dante's Inferno, a new night club that had opened just before Christmas as Prohibition was ending. The club, at Independence Avenue and Troost, would become known for its devil-themed decor and its female-impersonator floor shows, and was owned by Joe Lusco.  Lusco also ran a flower shop known to police as a nest of criminal activity. He was active in North Side Democratic politics and until recently had been associated with Johnny Lazia, the chief underworld connection for Boss Tom Pendergast. But Lusco had split with Lazia and aligned himself with Pendergast rival Cas Welch.

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The election day violence in 1934 was the result of a political rift between separate elements of the Democratic party, the Cas Welch faction and the Joe Shannon faction. The precinct captain, a black man, was shot dead at a polling place at 24th and Michigan. The other three were killed later in the day near 58th and Swope Parkway. Three carloads of men pulled up outside a polling place there looking for the deputy sheriff. Shots were fired. The deputy fell, as did the hardware man, who was an innocent bystander. Larry Cappo was a passenger in one of the cars. A bullet from the deputy's gun  struck him in the head. 

The scene at 58th and Swope Parkway after the shooting.

In the language of the newspapers, the events of March 27 changed Larry Cappo from "boxer" to "gangster." One account had it that "Cappo was a lieutenant of Joe Lusco." He was buried and forgotten.

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In 1996, director Robert Altman gave us Kansas City, a film about his hometown with a fictional story set amidst historical realities. The movie includes jazz, played by world-class musicians, and in the minds of critics the music is the only reason to watch. So recently I got a copy of the Kansas City DVD and watched it again. 

Altman reimagined real pieces of his youthful Kansas City, not necessarily true to life. For instance, his "Hey-Hey Club" was set in the 18th and Vine neighborhood, but the real Hey-Hay Club was spelled differently and sat at 4th and Cherry streets on the North Side. 

And while the movie is set in March 1934, the election violence is depicted as a simple Pendergast power play, trucking in thugs to pad the Democratic vote and shooting down someone who stood in the way. Fraudulent voting was certainly a part of elections in the Pendergast era, but the 1934 events could be traced to political infighting.

In real life, Boss Tom Pendergast lived in a huge mansion in the Country Club District and probably would have voted that day in a grander building than the one depicted in the movie. But there it is, in the scene where Boss Tom goes to a humble edifice to cast his ballot, my sign identifying an official "polling place."

Mr. and Mrs. Tom Pendergast enter the polling place in Robert Altman's "Kansas City."

At the end, the credits roll and there are characters named "Tom Pendergast" as well as "Johnny Lazia" and other real-life figures. And yet, the movie has no "Larry Cappo," in history the "Pride of Kansas City" turned dead gangster.

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