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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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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