Friday, September 29, 2017

Prohibition project: Livestock Exchange Building

The building at 1600 Genessee.
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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In March 1920, when Prohibition was just a few weeks old, the nine-story Kansas City Livestock Exchange Building stood tall above cattle, hogs, sheep, and the little town-within-a-city that catered to the stockman's trade: saddle stores, blacksmith shops, hotels, and several places – a pool room, a cigar store, a tailor's shop, a "soft-drink saloon" – where a cowboy could find a little action.

Early that month Mayor James Cowgill received a letter from the president of the Livestock Exchange, E.W. Houx. "There are at least four gambling houses being conducted in the stockyards district adjacent to the Livestock Exchange Building," said the letter. "Each afternoon and night these gambling joints are creating gamblers amongst our sons and employees, and even the patrons of this market, and when we protest the proprietors of these holes pooh-pooh, and insinuatingly ask what are we going to do about it. We are law-abiding citizens and this is an appeal to you to suppress this nuisance at once."

The letter was a carbon copy of one addressed to the Missouri governor, who was ultimately responsible for the Kansas City Police Department. Missouri law prohibited gambling devices and games, but gambling in all forms flourished. The political system, in the words of the Kansas City Times, “affords police protection for gambling dens and vice in this city.” The Times noted police raids had slowed considerably: “Election day is not far off and the persons operating dives must be kept in ‘good humor’ so their enthusiasm at the polls will not be cooled.” A police commissioner, appointed by the Democratic governor, saw it differently.  “Kansas City never was cleaner, in my knowledge,” he said.

Mayor Cowgill was backed by the Democratic machine. During his administration, from 1918 to 1922, this was “one of the worst vice-infected cities in the United States,” according to one reform group. But Cowgill took the stockyards letter seriously. He was a stockman, himself, owning twenty-one thousand acres along the Arkansas River near Garden City, Kansas, on which he raised cattle. “Gambling in that district will have to stop," he said. "And if there is any way I can stop it I will.”

Mayor James Cowgill
The Kansas City Post reported police reaction to the complaints. "Policemen who have worked in the stockyards district say that there is more gambling among the stockmen and their employees than any other group of men in the city," the Post said.
They say that most of this gambling takes place on stockyards property, where the gamblers are more or less immune from arrest. Saturday is payday at the yards and business stops at noon. From then on until dark, gambling goes on all over the yards and throughout the stock exchange, it is said. Crap games are in progress at various points throughout the stock pens and barns and the offices and halls of the exchange building. It is difficult for the police to search out these games in the maze of privately operated pens and behind locked doors in the exchange building.
The four gambling dens shut down, temporarily. 

Two years later a new exchange president asked police to clean up booze dives in West Bottoms. Raids followed. The market for illegal liquor, one police commissioner noted, included prominent citizens. “Many of our best people buy the stuff," he said, "hence the bootlegging business flourishes despite our efforts to check it.”

That same year religious leaders criticized Cowgill for lack of support in helping police rid the city of prostitution. The mayor called a meeting of concerned citizens groups, city officials, and police. Engaged in a heated argument, Cowgill fell back in his chair, dead of a cerebral hemorrhage.

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