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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Friday, May 26, 2017

Prohibition project: Affronti's grocery

The Affronti building today, 517 Gillis,.
Another post in a series on the Prohibition era in Kansas City, 1920 to 1933. Posts take the form of encyclopedic entries 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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Affronti grocery – A neighborhood store run by Antonio Affronti, who had immigrated from Italy in 1890. The grocery occupied the street level of 517 Gillis, a three-story brick structure Affronti built in 1908 (his name remains etched in stone on the facade). The upper floors housed two families, including the Affrontis – husband and wife, five daughters and one son, Lonnie, who worked here as a youth. Age 21 as Prohibition began, Lonnie left the family business to become a career criminal.

Lonnie Affronti

He was characterized by the Journal-Post as "dapper and debonair … sleek-haired, neatly and jauntily dressed," but also "the exemplar of violence and lawlessness." His rap sheet included vagrancy, bootlegging, narcotics sales and murder. Apparently he benefitted from his father’s North Side political connections (although the senior Affronti was denied citizenship for having lied about Lonnie’s criminal record). When a robbery victim identified him from a photograph as one who barb-wired him to tracks just before a train severed the man's hand and foot, police appeared reluctant to cooperate, and a lineup contained no one resembling Affronti. Convicted in another robbery, Affronti received written support from influential Kansas Citians including Senator James A. Reed. In prison he somehow became the warden’s chauffeur and was allowed to leave to visit family. In 1929, after serving half of a 10-year sentence for a robbery in which two little old ladies were brutally beaten, Affronti was arrested in the West Bottoms while unloading a boxcar of alcohol. He was fined $300. Two years later he was caught selling morphine, and while awaiting trial he shotgunned a primary witness on a rural highway, killing the man’s wife. He eluded capture until 1937. After serving five years for possession of firearms, he got 10 years for the slaying and was doing time for the narcotics sale when he died at 61 in 1960. According to his obituary, prison officials considered him "a model prisoner and a good worker."

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Prohibition project: the Pompeii Cafe

The old Merchants Bank building today is home to the Brown & Loe restaurant.

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This month brings another post in a series on Prohibition. Specifically, Prohibition in Kansas City, 1920 to 1933, those years the Eighteenth Amendment was in effect. Posts take the form of encyclopedic entries 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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Pompeii Cafe – Basement speakeasy cabaret in the Merchants Bank building, 429 Walnut. Run by Frank Demanti, who was frequently raided and fined for violations of the city's dance code. In the 1920s, dance was great fun or great evil, depending on your perspective. “It is not the dance so much as the way they dance nowadays,” said one concerned mother. “Not of a character to preserve morals,” said another who saw dangerous eroticism in the Shimmy, Black Bottom, Charleston, Texas Tommy, Camel Walk, Cootie Crawl, Varsity Drag and other new dance steps. A Methodist pastor declared any amusement which allowed a man “the privilege of holding a girl in his embrace during the gallop of the latest dance wiggles is utterly without defense for its existence.” Dance permits were required of cabarets and public halls, and the Board of Public Welfare dispatched dance hall inspectors to enforce the rules, including that ladies keep hands and arms on the gentleman’s shoulder. Police arrested cabaret owners for allowing dancing after 1:30 a.m.; fines could be $50. The newspapers reported dancing-youth-gone-bad. “The Charleston is the cause of us being here,” said one of four young men in jail for armed robbery, who quit jobs and turned to crime for money to enter Charleston contests. “As to public dance halls being a road to evil,” said a judge in 1921, “of ten girls whom I sentenced in the last two days, with but one or two exceptions, all got their starts downward in public dance halls.” That same year a group of high school students published a pamphlet advocating for their favorite pastime. “On with the dance,” they wrote. “Let joy be unrefined.” In 1933, with repeal of Prohibition at hand, the Pompeii reopened as a nightclub called the Pirates' Den.