Kansas City's Wholesome Image Belies Mob Past Kansas City these days seems like a bastion of wholesome, Middle-American values. But from the 1920s to the 1960s, the city was a haven for gamblers, bootleggers and a corrupt political machine.

Kansas City's Wholesome Image Belies Mob Past

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/14512796/14527878" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

You want a soundtrack for the mob. How about this?

(Soundbite of theme to "The Sopranos")

CHADWICK: Or perhaps you prefer the Corleone family to the Sopranos.

(Soundbite of theme to "The Godfather")

CHADWICK: Or, well, how about this?

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) I'm going to Kansas City. Kansas City, here I come.

CHADWICK: Yeah, Kansas City is gangland. Maybe it's a cultural hangover from frontier days, but there is a history here of very bad guys. And it's the subject of a bus tour that begins right here out in front of Union Station.

Mr. TIM PHILLIPS (Actor): All right. Welcome aboard, ladies and gentlemen. How are you doing today? How are you?


Mr. PHILLIPS: Nice to see you. Thanks for coming on. How are you doing? This is the way we do things in Kansas City. You're going to hear that expression a lot this afternoon.

CHADWICK: That's Johnny Holiday in a gangster-cut '20s-era pinstripe suit and fedora. Okay, actually, it's Tim Phillips, a 36-year-old actor who adopts the wiseguy persona to lead these tours.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Now, when we think of prohibition and we think of gangsters and we think of the 1920s, what's one name that usually comes to mind?

CHADWICK: Al Capone.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Al Capone, that's true. Right up here is the Riga Building, ladies and gentlemen, where Al Capone used to stay, among other places, when he came here to Kansas City.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Oh, and there's the Bella Reeve Building, where Mr. Capone used to throw those gangster parties with entertainers like Frank Sinatra and Liberace.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: And there's the Hotel President. It used to have a popular speakeasy with an underground entrance to tunnels, used to smuggle in the bootleg booze.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: And 12th Street, where a gambler named Slicey Sauly Weissman(ph) coined the colorful gangland term.

Mr. PHILLIPS: We're taking this guy for a ride. He's the guy who came up with that concept.

CHADWICK: Yeah, if you're a mob nut, Kansas City is a very happy place to be. And there are mob nuts.

Mr. TERENCE O'MALLEY (Mob Historian): It dawned on me that there had never been any really good treatment of the history of organized crime in Kansas City, so that's what I'm trying to do.

CHADWICK: Terence O'Malley, a local attorney, a reformed journalist, and amateur mob historian at work on a Kansas City gangland documentary. This is the town coming through the Depression, he says.

Mr. O'MALLEY: Kansas City's mafia was so closely connected with politics during its formative years.

CHADWICK: The big boss was Tom Pendergast, once a city councilman for Kansas City, Missouri. He left office but he held onto power. He understood getting people together to recognize and work on common interests, mob guys from Sicily, say, with the Democratic Party, sure. Maybe he wasn't personally running for office, but Tom Pendergast won a lot of elections. And gangland politics, Terence O'Malley says, was thriving.

Mr. O'MALLEY: He purposely made sure that the police were underpaid so that they would take bribes, so that they would leave the bars, the saloons, the speakeasies alone.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Through Prohibition, it was very easy to buy a drink in Kansas City or buy company for an evening out on the town, which could be a very good time.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. O'MALLEY: It's the music, baby.

CHADWICK: Mob nut Terence O'Malley.

Mr. O'MALLEY: Yeah, this was just the partying town because of the great tunes that were coming out of this time, and so that's just another thing that made it a raucous, wild, fun place to be. It was known as a wide-open town.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: When liquor was legal again, the old speakeasies turned into bars and nightclubs, but the mob guys hung around. By the '70s, a seedy-looking neighborhood called River Quay was a violent place in Kansas City. Charles Gray was a reporter on the crime beat.

Mr. CHARLES GRAY (Reporter): Nick Spero(ph) was killed and left in a car trunk. David Bonadonna was killed. John Broccato was found in a car trunk. He'd been frozen, tortured, and strangled. Then Johnny Amero(ph), known on the streets as Johnny Green(ph); a little later, Sonny Bowen(ph); a group of guys shot and killed him at the table, shot Carl Spero(ph) in the back, severed his spinal cord. He was paralyzed for life, but life wasn't very long for him because they got him with a bomb later in his wheelchair. They have some quaint ways of dealing with each other.

CHADWICK: Okay. But the Kansas City mobsters who did survive, they were doing great. They ran a skimming operation in Las Vegas casinos. Martin Scorsese's late based his biggest mob film on it.

(Soundbite of movie, "Casino")

Mr. JOE PESCI (Actor): (As Nicky Santoro) They had so much money in there, you could build a house out of stacks of $100 bills. Now, that suitcase was going straight to one place, right to Kansas City.

CHADWICK: And in the end, that pretty much was the end, because the FBI eventually broke the skimming operation and rolled up most of the Kansas City mob. They went to jail. The city got respectable. The music is still here, says Terence O'Malley, but the mobsters are gone. He almost sounds regretful when he says it. But then I ask a former FBI man, are they really, really gone? And he mutters something under his breath and turns away to study the neighbor's yard.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Kansas City Gangland produced by Sarah Spivack.

BRAND: So Alex, remember yesterday, you said you'd tell me the difference between Missouri and Missoura(ph). Well, what is it?

CHADWICK: Well, when I told you that, I didn't know. But on the line with us, Bill Worley, an adjunct professor of history at the University of Missouri or Missoura(ph)-Kansas City. Bill Worley, which is it Missouri or Missoura(ph)?

Dr. WILLIAM WORLEY (University of Missouri-Kansas City): It's both. It is the state question, of course, in Missouri as to how you pronounce it. It really goes back to the old French maps that included the name of the Indian tribe for whom the river running across the state was named, and then the state got its name from the river. On the old map, sometimes the Indian tribal name would have an I ending making it Missouri. On other maps, it would have an I-A ending, making it Missouria. So that's one of the possibilities for the origin of the difference.

CHADWICK: Well, Missouri, Missoura(ph), you can do no wrong no matter what you say. Bill Worley, University of Missouri at Kansas City, thank you.

Dr. WORLEY: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: And for a deeper look into our view from the middle here in Kansas City, go to our Web site, npr.org. There you'll find links to the music in today's show too. And it's all jazz from Kansas City.

DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News, with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick in Kansas City all the rest of this week.

BRAND: And from our studios at NPR West, I'm Madeleine Brand.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.