August 23, 2021
Terrence O’Malley remembers a time when the Mafia’s footprint was all over Kansas City. Historians quip that the mafia once owned everything — even “the stones in the ground.”
In 1968, when O’ Malley — the author of Black Hand Strawman: The History of Organized Crime in Kansas City — was a child, he was sitting shotgun in his father’s car as the two of them drove past Antonio’s on 43rd and Main streets.
“[My father] goes, ‘that’s a mafia hangout.’ And I was like, man, what the hell?” O’Malley said. “I had no idea as a 10-year-old kid, but, it was just known in the city that there was this criminal underworld — this subculture called the mob.”
Contrary to the historical treatment given to a majority of violent criminals, mob stories are often romanticized, passed down from one generation to the next — and glorified.
Much of the reason for this can be traced back to Prohibition. Organized criminals were heralded as heroes, standing against the hugely unpopular Volstead Act.
Even as time puts distance between the present and early 20th century mobsters, the public’s interest in these men hasn’t waned.
A reader recently asked “What’s your KCQ?,” a community reference project with The Star and the Kansas City Public Library, about the early days of the Kansas City Mafia: “Who was leader of the Kansas City mafia during Prohibition?”
To answer the question, we took a deep dive into records kept by the library, particularly their recently published “Organized Crime Files” archive. We also talked to crime experts and historians.
In May of 1929, a corrupt New Jersey politician named Enoch Johnson (the real-life inspiration for the character Nucky Thompson in “Boardwalk Empire”), hosted America’s most notorious career criminals in his hometown of Atlantic City. The meeting of mobsters is considered to have been the first organized crime summit in U.S. history. It also was one of the first times that Jewish, Italian and Irish criminals came together in unison, mutually forming governing principles. Attendees included the likes of Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Kansas City’s own, John Lazia.
The Atlantic City Conference’s organizers called the meeting during an inflection point for mobsters in the United States. The federal alcohol ban brought organized criminals more wealth than any of Prohibition’s champions could have imagined. Suddenly, the criminal underworld was able to provide a product that legitimate establishments could no longer serve. Consequently, regional bootlegging outfits were getting into territorial disputes with one another as their businesses grew larger and more profitable.
Lazia’s presence at the Atlantic City Conference was indicative of the earning power and political influence held by the Kansas City Mafia at the time. By 1929, organized crime in Kansas City was becoming, well … more organized.
The two men responsible for shaping the criminal underworld were Lazia and none other than Tom Pendergast. While the mob might have controlled the North End, Pendergast controlled all of the Kansas City metro by wielding his unchecked political power as Missouri’s most prominent Democrat, and through his control of Missouri’s federal relief welfare program.
Like Atlantic City, 1920s Kansas City had a reputation for being a wide open town, where illegal vice and corruption flourished. Pendergast’s corrupt political machine turned a blind eye to the gambling, extortion and bootlegging enterprises that were thriving within city limits. O’Malley said Kansas City authorities did not make one single alcohol-related felony arrest during all of Prohibition.
“The mob sponsored a lot of fun in Kansas City,” O’Malley said. “Kansas City had one of the best mobs in the country.”
In exchange for turning out the vote in the majority-Italian North End, the Pendergast political machine gave free reign to Lazia and other mafioso. Consequently, Kansas City’s voter turnout was suspiciously high during the Pendergast era — sometimes surpassing the number of registered voters. The mob would ride around town on election day and make sure people voted for the Democrats whom Pendergast had endorsed.
Pendergast’s allies in the Democratic Party amassed a mountain of political, economic and social influence within the city. With “Boss Tom” at his side, Lazia climbed the criminal ranks and began ascending higher on the socioeconomic ladder.
This press release was produced by the Kansas City Public Library. The views expressed here are the author’s own.
Originally Appeared Here