Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Summoning spirits: A brief history of Kansas City speakeasies

A brief history of Kansas City speakeasies.

Posted By on Wed, May 9, 2012 at 8:11 AM

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John J. Lyman's house had a secret.

Lyman was the Kansas City Chiefs' photographer for 25 years, and after he died in 2005, at age 90, his two-story Coleman Highlands home overlooking the city fell into disrepair. The basement was full of his old junk: cameras, vinyl records, shelves with liquor bottles from the 1960s. It also had a massive, solid floor-to-ceiling closet built in front of the wall.

When new owners bought the place this past winter, workers tore it down and discovered a hidden vault. When they opened it, they found some dry goods and a shelf. When they removed the shelf, they discovered a secret room. Hidden inside: 30 moonshine jugs, 16 whiskey bottles, 13 gin bottles, 10 vermouth bottles, and five ancient champagne bottles.

The trove included a rotted piece of crate stamped "GLASS" and, underneath that, the name "T.J. PENDERGAST." That would be the man called "Boss Tom," the dark prince of Jackson County politics who made Prohibition a party for the locals and something of an international joke for everybody else.

The Coleman Highlands discovery is a rarity. The speakeasy, ubiquitous in the 1920s, is slowly disappearing from Kansas City's physical history and collective memory. It has been, for instance, 20 years since Terry Sanchez (of Weird Stuff Antiques, at 901 Tracy) bought a property near 33rd Street and Troost and found a concrete-sealed stairwell leading to a secret store. "It was one of Pendergast's beer companies," says Sanchez, who didn't find booze there, just a bunch of old signs dating back to the 1920s and earlier.

The antiques dealer says he doesn't see much evidence floating around of Prohibition bootlegging. "You just don't find that stuff anymore," he says. (Someone did recently call to offer him a moonshine still - for thousands of dollars. Thanks, he said, but no thanks.)

Lyman bought his house in 1961 from Melvin and Donna Mains. Prior ownership can't be verified with public records, so we may never know whether this was a full-on hideout for Prohibition bootleggers or a home speakeasy or something else. One of the bottles discovered dates to a couple of years after the ban's end, but that doesn't mean the basement stash was legal. Bootleggers continued their work after Prohibition ended, in order to avoid alcohol taxes. (Taxes on liquor accounted for one-third of federal revenue before the enactment in 1913 of the income tax, whose huge revenues made it easier for lawmakers to stomach the loss of alcohol taxes when they passed Prohibition.)

As Prohibition slides further into history, there's less likely to be living experts around to recognize a major find. "My guess is that speakeasies by nature were 'underground,' so there's often little if any formal recording of them to begin with," David W. Jackson, archives and education director at Jackson County Historical Society, tells The Pitch. "Personal stories and remembrances, held only in people's minds, are lost when they die or get senile."

Discoveries usually happen during construction. A few years ago, Northeast News reported on a project at 1400 Guinotte, where an old cannery was being turned into lofts. Under the structure was a basement tunnel, rumored to lead to the banks of the Missouri River - a possible smuggling point for contraband liquor.

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When you pour out the public record from those days, it seems like you couldn't elbow past a sheriff's deputy without knocking over a couple of gallons of moonshine. Yet even when organized crime kept good times flowing, the menfolk around town found themselves driven underground by women's groups hellbent on keeping them sober. Legendary bar-buster Carry Nation - described in Daniel Okrent's Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition as being "six feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden and the persistence of a toothache" - took the cause to her grave in Belton, where her tombstone reaffirms her undying loyalty to the Prohibition that would come a decade later: "SHE HATH DONE WHAT SHE COULD."

Her torch was picked up by people like Maude Wilson, "the saloon-smashing woman" who, in a December 1928 luncheon at the Hotel Baltimore, "resumed with her tongue where she left off a couple of weeks ago with her ax," according to the Kansas City Journal-Post. The fundamental problems of enforcing Prohibition in Kansas City, even then, were obvious. "The politicians own the buildings which house the [speakeasy] joints," Wilson told her audience. "They're not going to see the business ruined." The police, she said - who were repeatedly indicted in news reports at the time for cavorting around with the bootleggers they were supposed to bust - raided places only when the public really demanded it. "They are controlled either by money or by politics," she said.

The pseudo-speakeasies popular today, such as Manifesto at 1924 Main, borrow the veneer of 1920s secrecy without any of the illegality and danger that made speakeasies sexy. The properly criminal speakeasies these days? The backseat of a car, a basement, an old shed - anywhere you'd roll a joint.

Those aren't very social locales, though, which sets them apart from the speakeasies of 1920s Kansas City - not just the homes outfitted with drinking lairs but also soda shops, pool halls, restaurants and cabarets. Judging from records of police raids, not every such place was downtown. But most were.

One massive bust in 1926 closed down 52 suspected speakeasies at once, including the Blue Goose cabaret, in the basement of the Puri-tan Hotel at Ninth Street and Wyandotte. That same year, a judge padlocked a cabaret at 500 West Sixth Street dubbed "a resort of mixed colors" by a Star story. "It has been considered good etiquette there for the two races to mix in their dancing, and it was not unusual for mixed couples to go there together," the Star added of the so-called "black-and-tan" club. Today, that precursor to the ends of Prohibition - and, later, segregation - is a parking garage.

Another major gateway for booze trafficking was an unnamed soft-drink joint across an alley and east of the Hotel President, according to one report of a booze bust. But don't go looking for history there - that building has been demolished.

Kansas City's revolving cast of bootleggers came with a set of usual suspects. Harvey Leopold bootlegged before Prohibition started, according to the Star, in an effort to avoid liquor-license fees; he did his work out of a soda shop on the 7000 block of East 15th Street. John "Slim" Good ran his business out of a soda shop at 6809 Independence Avenue. "Good holds the distinction of being the only bootlegger in Kansas City who ever got up nerve enough to lodge a complaint against patrolmen for watching his place too closely," the Star reported in 1926. "He complained to the chief of police that two patrolmen assigned to watch his joint 'hung around so close' they were ruining his business."

But the cops often got wrapped up in the same alcohol hooliganism that they were supposed to stamp out. When judges ordered police to padlock out-of-control speakeasies, prosecutors would be shocked - shocked! - when the booze sometimes mysteriously disappeared anyway. Officials were even less amused when, in 1924, seven federal agents were indicted on charges of conspiracy to "violate Prohibition." (At trial, they were asked if they were "in sympathy" with the law. Only one had the nerve to say no.)

But alcohol - much as marijuana does in medical dispensaries today - found a loophole in prescription medicine. In 1927, Dr. E.W. Cavaness, Kansas City health director, estimated that 1,300 city physicians had licenses to allow 400 liquor prescriptions a year. There was once such a thing as a "whiskey drug store," often operated by former saloonkeepers, the Star reported; "it is said most of them are not equipped to fill anything except whisky [sic] prescriptions." There was good business in treating the ill.

Eventually the nation came to its senses and revoked Prohibition. In 1934, a Parisian doctor named Georges G. Valot spent nine months investigating the liquor scene in the United States immediately after the end of the ban. In the annals of Kansas City history, he's somewhere between the Tocqueville of tipple and the Borat of booze. By one reporter's account of his trip and his findings - "It would be much better that this be printed after I sail, no?" the doctor asked before he departed - the Paris of the Plains lived up to its international reputation.

"The wettest towns in America are Reno, Nev.; New Orleans, and Kansas City, Mo.," according to the doctor's report, as quoted in the St. Joseph News-Press. (Valot's findings were prefaced by one of the great openings in literature: "I like very much America.")

Before he sailed off into history, he summed up our legacy pretty accurately. "The wettest town is Kansas City, Mo., which can be compared only with Juarez, Mexico. I have seen the streets of Paris at their worst, or best, but they are nothing like Kansas City. If you want to have a good time, go to Kansas City."
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