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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