It promised to get hot that morning of Aug. 23, 1909. Patrick O’Hearn already was sweating.
“Did you ever whip a Negro girl for insulting your wife?” attorney Frank P. Walsh asked him in the Kansas City Council Chambers. “Did Mr. Burger make a hose for you to do the whipping with?”
Alas, O’Hearn, superintendent of the city workhouse, could not recall.
The hearing on O’Hearn’s abruptly ending administration was an especially sordid chapter in the sordid story of that old ruin, which we admire today as our own cute medieval castle at 21st and Vine.
No surprise, it came complete with its own dungeon, a dark, suffocating box. Stealing bread from the prison table would get men or women chained, standing, to a wall down there.
“Bad, very bad,” one prisoner said of the grub. “In the morning they always had pan gravy in a rusty pan, coffee in a rusty cup, half a loaf of hard, moldy bread and a small piece of meat.”
Then they’d shuffle, chained, across Vine to the city water and street department buildings (they’re still there, too, in matching gray limestone) to harness horses and pick up tools for a long day laboring for the fast-expanding city. Women stayed behind to sew prison clothes.
The jail’s stone was quarried on site and stacked between 1895 and 1897 by those convicted of petty crime, public drunkenness, domestic abuse, inability to pay a fine or adjudged “bums or loafers who’d strayed into Kansas City.” And the mentally ill.
This castle had “vampires,” too, the term then for well-dressed fellows who fed off women of the night. Waiting to be bailed out by their ladies, some pimps didn’t bother changing out of street clothes, but played cards and sipped whiskey in the large steel cages. Cocaine and gum opium could be had, too.
It wasn’t all grim. Jailed for non-support, Terrence O’Grady promised to mend his ways and return to prize fighting. Or maybe the “kerosene circuit” and his “human ostrich” act, eating broken crockery and nails. One parole board member recommended release, or “O’Grady might swallow a shovel if he were put on the street force.”
O’Hearn’s successor brought in electricity, refrigerated water, fresh straw for the mattresses, showers and some toilet plumbing — a floor drain meant chiseling 22 inches of concrete sandwiching a steel plate.
By 1911, all the men had been moved out to Leeds Municipal Farm, the women following a few years later. Uncomfortable in its other uses, the workhouse was abandoned in 1972.
Before the roof caved, it surely went back to its natural state, housing trespassing vagrants.
An effort to renovate the building into a community center was eventually abandoned.