Star Magazine

1904: Murder in the West Bottoms, Part One

The Kansas City Star

Chapter 1 of a four-part historical fiction series .In this 1904 Kansas City crime “noir,” we meet our hero, Lafayette Alonzo Tillman, the only black policeman in a city dominated by the Pendergast political machines and rooted in racial inequities. While the crimes are fiction, the stories use real names and locations of the time.

A Harlot’s End in Hell’s Half Acre: Tillman Takes the Case

Lafayette Alonzo Tillman coughed.

The deep dim of the Eighth Street tunnel was opening up to the slighter dim of the early January morning in the West Bottoms.

Another cough, more at the idea of what he must be sucking into his 45-year-old lungs than for any actual sensation of particulates in his throat. Coal smoke crept low everywhere, belched from the locomotives and factory stacks, but that hardly signified; coal smoke often crowded out the oxygen in all parts of Kansas City’s air, most especially in winter.

No, it was the stench … and the feel … of the place, the policeman thought as the trolley made its rattling descent down the elevated railway into the Kaw Valley. He searched for the word he wanted, settled on “miasma.”

The odor of the stockyards mixed with the floating grease from the next-door packing, rendering and soap plants. On humid days it seemed to film his skin, get into his hair and make his wife wrinkle her face when she helped him shed his uniform coat.

Lord, Lord, he so hated coming down here to Hell’s Half Acre.

Inside the elevated barn that was the trolley stop for the train depot, the motorman hit the hand brake too hard, jerking the passengers and causing some luggage to skitter across the dirty floor between the slat seats. Tillman let his fellow riders get off first and then stepped onto the platform and followed the covered overpass to the station.

It was early, but the depot was crowded beyond capacity as usual. Built about 30 years earlier, supposedly the biggest west of New York, it couldn’t handle the number of trains or Kansas City’s exploding population. They were talking of a new, bigger depot over around 20th and Main, well above the treacherous floods, but KCK wasn’t happy about it.

Early on, Union Depot had been derided as the “Kansas City Insane Asylum” because the contractor had been constructing an asylum in Topeka at the time.

Well, the name fit. The depot was a roaring madhouse: folks greeting arrivals, fathers shouting at wandering children, lines at the ticket windows and the sounds of the trains just outside. He strode through the mass of travelers, porters, food hawkers and … (he caught the eye of Pearl Hart, who made a wide-eyed show of innocence but nevertheless sashayed away from a well-dressed mark arguing with his wife) … pickpockets.

He went to the corner of Union and Santa Fe to survey the cross tides of buggies and hacks, their roll-eyed nags made nervous by a chugging horseless carriage — a Smith Veracity, he thought, made over in Topeka. One of the vehicles was driven by a Kansas City policeman. Tillman strode toward it, failing to suppress another cough.

The copper looked at him oddly. Must be new, Tillman thought. No one told him what to expect.

“Waiting for Tillman?” he asked. The officer gave the slightest of nods. He apparently was digesting the disquieting idea of having to drive Tillman around, even if his passenger was wearing the same blue uniform with the same silver star on his chest.

Tillman stepped carefully into the street fouled with horse apples as the nag lifted her tail and added to the bountiful harvest. Heaving himself onto the seat beside the stock-still officer, he asked: “Big Jim sent you, am I correct?”

Another nod. The man wasn’t looking at him. Another Irish turnip-head. The Pendergasts can sure pick ’em.

He sighed. Then the black man had to admit to himself: Big Jim sure picked me, too, didn’t he?

“Well, take me to the body.”

Chapter 2

This northern part of the First Ward hugged the river and seemed the least recovered from the ’03 flood. What shanties that had mushroomed again on the banks and in the lots amid the factories were more pitiful than before the deluge last year.

The same for the people who had to live in Hell’s Half Acre. All as poor as Job’s turkey.

Many were the latest wave of Deep South folk who had escaped one brand of misery only to land in another. They generally came with skills no higher than staring at a mule’s ass while pushing a plow.

Yet many had worked or lucked their way out of this human swamp onto Kansas City’s higher ground, if not financially, then at least geographically. Now you could find black folk on just about any street in town.

The Half Acre wasn’t near as big as it was once. Growing factories and the flood had pushed many out. But there were always those who seemed incapable of or uninterested in leaving. And they were joined by every kind of white riffraff who’d come down a few pegs in life, or maybe started at the bottom, too.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw two boys clamber aboard a coal car of a train while the engineer was watching for the switches ahead. They tossed down chunks of coal to others running beside with sacks. Ah, the fireman had discovered them and they were leaping off, very close to the deadly wheels.

Turning his mind back to his immediate condition, Tillman had no idea why he’d been summoned, although the puzzle obviously involved a Negro. That fact, however, had to be yoked to some other element, something that went beyond the usual petty crime he mostly handled: assaults, thefts, cuttings.

In the low-land district known as the “Bloody First,” black crime or crime of any color was nothing unusual. The white coppers didn’t need him for the business of billy clubbing just one more black man; they had no trouble with that job, no sir, that particular white man’s burden was always tackled with enthusiasm.

So it wasn’t his place to be poking around in the business, even criminal business, of most white men, and the Irish were the worst. He dealt mostly with his own people, Mexicans and the immigrants, bohunks, Slavs and such, drawn by the plants. In the Greek colony, he’d once worked out which Apollo had buggered the wrong white boy. It had meant lifting cups in every Greek coffee shop — and there were more than a dozen along Fifth Street alone — but it had paid off. If still alive, the sodomite was breaking rocks down at Jeff City.

The sullen fellow at the reins had turned the wagon onto a particularly “wet” street, lined with saloons and card halls and other sin spots. One block down here, he was told, had 23 bars in 24 buildings. It was just across the line from Kansas, which hypothetically was now a “dry” state.

A few men and some women, too, lingered outside the door of one establishment. Another blue uniform was there, joking with gawkers. Tillman recognized him as another patronage case, a fat drunk working a beat of mostly saloons. Seeing their approach, the officer shooed the little audience away.

Tillman knew where he was. Miss Dottie’s sporting house. The curtains in the front windows gave the place a more gentle air, none of those red railroad lanterns sitting out front like at other cribs.

He’d never been inside, but he knew it was probably the last good establishment down here after the flood. The nightly recounting of his work hours would titillate, maybe scandalize, his wife, Amy, tonight. It wouldn’t be discussed at the supper table with the children, of course, but later under the covers. He smiled to himself as he went through the door with the etched glass.

Most of the light in the parlor was sucked into the dark furnishings and woodwork. For starters, he would tell Amy, everything seemed rococo and velvet, which had to be new because the water and mud would have ruined everything on the first floor.

An impatient-looking woman he assumed was Dottie, middle-aged and in better silk than he could ever afford for his wife, was sitting there, surrounded by mostly younger ladies of both races, all surely more clothed than normal.

The girls looked exhausted. They hadn’t seen 8 a.m. since back on the farm, he knew. They gazed at Tillman with some curiosity. A black man wearing a badge was an unusual concept for most in Kansas City. Tillman understood he was the third Negro in the force’s 30-year existence, and he’d been in uniform — this uniform, anyway — only since the year before.

The older woman seemed unimpressed. Probably thought he represented just one more bribe to shell out.

He followed the beat cop’s broad bottom up the stairs. Second door on the left was ajar. Inside, the victim was on the bed under the coverlet; with her head turned away she looked asleep, but her bosom was motionless. She appeared no older than Portia, his first daughter. He looked around the room, noted from the barely moving curtains that the single window was not quite closed.

Approaching the bed, he saw better the red band on the neck. Not a ribbon, but a thin, ragged cut. Now he saw her left eyebrow had been split, too. A dried trickle of blood had curled around her delicate ear to join what soaked the pillow.

Tillman pulled down the cover, saw no other marks on the thin body. He felt guilty, made himself look harder. He could sense the other officer shifting for a better view. But when the fat fellow spoke there was none of the ribald joking of officers who’d seen everything about the human condition.

“Jest a wee thing, ain’t she?” he said, puffing out ruddy cheeks. His breath could fell an ox, but his voice was full of sorrow and latent wisdom.

“A wee thing, indeed,” Tillman agreed, his own voice low and heavy. When he sang bass at the Allen Chapel AME, others in the choir said his clear voice seemed to swell up from the deepest well. He loved to pitch “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” a fairly new tune, low and slow for the congregation.

Swing low for this one, Lord, he thought. Carry this one home.

He looked at the girl’s small, stiffened hands before replacing the coverlet. Out of your depth, he thought to himself. Never been assigned a murder before. Why was he here?

An idea about the time of the murder was surely downstairs in the mind of the madam. She’d have a track switchman’s skill about keeping the traffic of the house running smoothly.

He lifted the eyelids, looked up the nose, felt through her straightened hair — from his barbering days, Tillman recognized the Turnbo treatment — to her skull, feeling a little ridiculous. The other officer watched closely, however, assuming these were tips from an old hand at homicide. Or maybe voodoo. Tillman gently opened the girl’s lips. Was that a gold tooth?

“So we think he went out that window?” he asked, causing the other copper to turn instinctively to look at the sooty panes of glass.

“Mebe,” the patrolman said, “looks like a big fingerprint here. Yeah, think it’s blood!”

His hand in his pocket, Tillman went over to glance out at the tar paper roof of the adjoining one-story. Climbed down from there to the back alley, no doubt. He grimaced. The low sky was beginning to spit sleet.

Going back down the stairs, he was happy for the smell of baking. Miss Dottie had decided her girls could go ahead and eat. She remained, stiff on the edge of her parlor chair, like an unhappy schoolmarm.

“So you didn’t see the fella?”

“Not propers, anyways. Not his face.” Her voice unlocked a memory or two.

“Is that usual, not getting a good look at who comes into your resort?”

“He barged in with a bunch of Micks, some got girls right away, some went straight to the bar. Saw’m looking out the window there, but his back was to me. Paid him no special mind cause I got busy pouring more champagne. Then Liddy was waving him up the stairs, and I saw his legs going up, saw his shoes. They had a high shine to ’em and mother-of-pearl buttons. I like a man in good shoes.”

Shined shoes. Well, that eliminates 95 percent of the Irish in the First Ward, Tillman thought.

“So you think he was Irish?”

“Well, he had red hair; I saw the back of his head.”

“How big, how old?”

“Twenties, tall but not as big as you. I ain’t seen you before.”

“And you won’t again, probably. Let me be clear. I’m not joining the queue of coppers who come around these places with their hands out. I want no part of the lug. They brought me in strictly for her,” he said, rolling his eyes to the ceiling.

She actually brightened at that. Official overhead must be heavy on a place like this.

“Where you from?” she asked, tone softening.

“Been around, been to New Orleans, but didn’t see you there.”

A smile appeared on Miss Dottie’s painted lips, a pleasant shade of coy. “Then guess you weren’t in Storyville, soldier.”

Tillman smiled back at the purr of an exaggerated drawl. Well, he had given it some thought when he was down there.

“What’s the girl’s name? She can’t have been here long?”

“No, she wasn’t, maybe three, four months. Said she’d come down from St. Joe, had some experience. Never heard no complaints about her. Some would ask for her. No wonder there. Pretty thing.”

“Her name?”

“Oh, yeah. Liddy. Elizabeth Holden.”

“Catholic?”

“Oh Lord, yes, honey! Went to Mass mornings. Had a pretty cross on a chain, never took it off, far as I know. Was always kissin’ it.”

“She have it when she came here?”

She thought a minute. “You know, I can’t say for sure. Maybe the girls know.”

“Who shut the window upstairs?”

“I did,” Dottie responded. “It was freezing.”

“OK, could you go into the kitchen and send them out, just one at a time, please.”

“Surely will,” she said rising, silks rustling. “They’ve been gossiping about you, handsome. Can I have one bring you out a biscuit? Our cook, Ellie, makes ’em lighter than a drunkard’s promise, I swear.”

“That would be fine. Could I trouble you for a little molasses on it?”

“We’ve got honey. Everything’s sweeter at Miss Dottie’s, don’t you know?”

Chapter 3

“Yer supposed to go to Pendergast House,” said the police driver, still refusing to look at Tillman.

The black officer was hardly surprised. The hotel, a lot of folks still referred to it as the American, was the power base of the Pendergasts in the First Ward. Jim’s brothers Michael, John and Tom and some sisters, pretty much the whole St. Joe clan, had worked there at times.

The hotel wasn’t their only place, either. Jim had moved up from being a puddler in the Keystone Iron Works after his big bet on a horse named Climax paid off. Bought a St. Louis Avenue saloon just off Union. Not surprisingly, it had been promptly named The Climax.

But while that saloon had been closed for some time, Jim had kept the next door hotel. Tom even lived there.

He’d opened the Pendergast Brothers saloon on Ninth closer to “dry” Kansas and had another joint up on Main, not that many steps from City Hall.

As a jolly saloon keeper with a Bismarck mustache and a knack for helping out a fella, Jim had first gotten elected in 1892 to the Bottoms’ seat on the council.

Jim had the mayor, James A. Reed, deep in his pocket, having engineered the votes for his election, as well as the earlier one for prosecuting attorney.

With Reed, the Pendergasts also had their thumb on the police commission. At the height of Jim’s power a couple of years ago, they said he’d picked all but 50 of the 173 coppers on the force. Not for nothing was he called the “Policeman’s Friend.” Many a whore and gambler sleep easier knowing Jim was in control..

It hadn’t stopped there. Reed also named Tom as streets superintendent, which came with a couple of hundred more patronage jobs. And Tom had done a good job getting the cobbles laid. Even The Evening Star and its Republican publisher admitted that.

But now Reed wanted to be governor, which made the fix on the commission damned shaky; fellas were already talking that Jim had lost some of his juice.

Meanwhile, little brother had moved up in the world, got elected to county marshal. It paid better, $4,000 a year, Tillman heard, a princely sum. The deputies whom Tom’d given their pork jobs had shown their appreciation by presenting their boss a gold badge. Studded with diamonds, too.

As they turned onto St. Louis, Tillman wished he were on that Ninth Street incline streetcar lifting folks toward the heavens, or at least away from all that manure in the yards.

But then you couldn’t always escape the smell up there on the West Bluffs, either. In fact, a lot of the folks on what they called “Quality Hill” had abandoned their fine brick homes and rebuilt south, along Broadway or over on Troost, to get away from being downwind of the reeking valley of the Kaw.

Multistoried, ramshackle flophouses and shanties had once clung to the limestone escarpments. Most were torn down now, for after a decade of lawyers fighting, the cliff-top beautification project was finally underway. But goats still grazed on the bluff’s ledges. They always said Jim voted everyone in his ward, including the goats. So the Pendergast Democrats were dubbed the “Goats.” Their party rivals, Joe Shannon’s crowd, were called the “Rabbits.”

The horse, which needed new shoes and had been slipping on the icy stones, seemed relieved to stop at the hotel. Tillman jumped down, brushed the sleet off his shoulders and pushed through the doors.

Jim and Tom were in the office, and from where Tillman stood he could also see Ed Finley, the fellow who ran the Pendergast gambling operations, and another fellow they called Pinky. Jim looked up, saw the tall policeman and motioned for him to take a seat nearby in the lobby. Another man was waiting, too, a fellow in spectacles and bowler.

Not surprisingly, the conversation seemed to be about a boxing match. Jack Johnson had got off the train the other day on his way to Chicago. There was talk of some pug from out west, Jack Munroe, getting in the ring with Johnson. The consensus was that if the fight came off, the money was going on the black fighter Johnson. Tillman agreed silently but wholeheartedly.

The little meeting broke up, and the fellow in the bowler went in and left an envelope that Tom swiftly put inside his coat.

Jim heaved himself up from his chair and stomped out to the clerk’s desk, where he mumbled something to the fellow on duty, who glanced at two workmen waiting nervously in a corner.

The Pendergast establishments served as banks of sorts, a place where you could cash a paycheck and spend a bit on the booze or the games upstairs. People still knew who to come see for a little help. It was well past payday in the yards and packinghouses, so the men probably needed loans.

Before Jim came back and waved Tillman inside the office, the clerk handed the grateful men a couple of bills each. Those dollars had just secured two votes in any direction Big Jim might wish to swing the next election. It was probably the only thing they could do in return for those gifted dollars or buckets of coal or plucked Christmas chickens.

But it wasn’t all just about votes with Jim.

The year before, when 7 feet of water had surged through the depot, Jim had paid out of his own pocket to help his flooded-out constituents; lived in his buggy for weeks, doing what he could for the refugees, once rescuers got them off their roofs. Didn’t see the swells living up on the bluff or the Commercial Club stiffs doing that.

“You figure out them ‘ice-box thieves,’ yet?” asked Tom, as his brother carefully closed the door.

The thieves in question had a pattern: hitting saloons just at closing, pulling revolvers, pushing the bar men and last customers into the coolers before they emptied the till. They’d robbed three saloons that the police knew of. Three men. No masks, but nobody recognized them.

“I’ve only read about it, Marshal, none happened on my beat,” replied Tillman, settling into his chair unbidden. “Maybe they’re from St. Joe.”

Tillman had tossed out that last to tease the brothers, who’d come down river from St. Joseph. But they didn’t chuckle. Tom just frowned. “Hmmm,” Jim said absentmindedly.

The boss’s face had been getting flabby, and when the flood washed away a lot of the ward’s shanties and tenements, it seemed to take some of his spirit away, too. But the luggage now under his eyes was new to Tillman. He realized the man was carrying fresh sorrow in those carpetbags.

“You been to Dottie’s,” Big Jim sighed. “What do you think?”

“Hardly anything. A ‘gentleman friend,’ surely. Redhead. Went out the window.”

“Yeah, we knew that,” Tom shrugged. “What else?”

“This was in her mouth,” Tillman said, pulling out the crucifix.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” cried Jim, and grabbed it from him. He made a sound from deep within, not a sob, not a sigh, but like a pugilist might make when taking a low punch.

Tillman waited. Tom studied his brother’s absorption in the religious trinket. The policeman was no expert, but the cross had felt heavier than most and therefore more expensive, a gift from someone with a little more money than most, too.

Finally, the bluecoat said, “Somebody took the chain — it was used to saw her throat, I think. I take it you recognize it, Mr. Pendergast?”

“Don’t be getting any ideas, Tillman,” Tom interjected sharply. “Just because he knew Liddy, doesn’t mean …” Jim took out a handkerchief and blew his nose, a resounding honk.

“Her mother, up in St. Joe, she was a friend …”

“Ah, Jesus!” Tom turned away from Jim, his mouth registering a curl of disgust. “Must we go into this! Here? With him?”

“… a dear friend,” Jim continued, ignoring his youngest sibling. “Liddy came down here after her mother died. Consumption. I tried to help her. She was a sweet girl, Liddy, like her ma.”

Tillman tried to keep his voice flat. “By getting her a crib at Dottie’s?”

“Of course not! That was all her own doing. She refused to work as a domestic. She couldn’t work here …”

“His missus wouldn’t stand for it!”

“Shut up, T.J.!” Jim’s massive fists, scarred from his days in the foundry, dropped on the desk, making the coffee cups jump. “I tried to get her a place at the Pullman laundry on Southwest Boulevard, they’re always looking for mangle girls. She’d have none of it.”

Tillman had his own thoughts on that. The “mangles,” industrial wringers that squeezed out the water, often caught fingers and hands. It was not a place he’d let his daughters work, but dozens of blacks made their living amid the steam, doing the linens for the hundreds of railroad carriages rolling through.

“You saw her. Beautiful. Nearly white. She was looking for somebody with money to come along and take her away. It happens…” The boss’s chin sank, and his voice disappeared into that barrel chest.

Tom slurped the last of his cold coffee, then sighed. “Jim’s always sentimental. Heart’s too big, I tell him sometimes. Anyway, this isn’t something you need to talk around about. I don’t want to hear…”

Those fists came down again. Tillman looked at the big man.

“Find her killer, Lieutenant.”

Lieutenant. It’d been a while since anyone called Tillman that.

Scenes of true life in 1904 Kansas City

▪ Getting from uptown on the bluffs (what we now call downtown) was an issue, for streetcars especially. At Eighth Street, tunnels were bored to reduce the steep degree of descent, but the Ninth Street incline (shown on Pages 10 and 11) went straight to the top of the bluff. Closed in April 1904 after complaints that it was too dangerous, it dropped 18.5 feet every 100 feet. On the trial descent run, all passengers leaped off in fright at the tipping point on the bluff.

▪ Pearl Hart, once imprisoned for her part in the last stage robbery in the West, was said to have been part of a Kansas City pickpocket ring in 1904.

▪ At this time, only 8,000 automobiles were puttering around the nation’s 144 miles of paved roads. The Missouri legislature would set the speed limit at 9 mph.

▪ One of the wettest blocks was on Ninth Street. Another “wettest block,” also with 23 saloons, was on Union Avenue just across from Union Depot.

▪ Miss Dottie’s West Bottoms bordello is fictitious, as is the murder victim. Prostitution was nearly everywhere in the city, but heavily concentrated two blocks west of the City Market, called the “dingy north end.” A 1913 survey would count 47 bawdy houses there, with 248 “lavender ladies,” though several others operated quietly around town. Police discreetly collected fines of $30 a month from every bordello; $50 if liquor was served.

Kansas City’s prostitution rates ran roughly from 25 cents to $10, as evidenced from this story in court by a hooker for assaulting another sister of the street: “Well, Judge, Your Honor, I was working on my regular beat last night and had a trade all worked up for fifty cents, when this hussy came along and tried to take him away for a quarter; then I flew into her and beat her up. Now Judge, you believe in fair play and how can you expect us to make a living, with a scab like that coming around cutting prices. I struck her in self-defense.”

▪ Storyville was an infamous prostitution district established just off Canal Street in New Orleans.

▪ Fingerprinting as a police technique would not begin in the United States until 1906.

▪ Landscape architect George Kessler was first pointed to the bluffs to create the first piece of Kansas City’s famous parks and boulevard system. The shanties and squalor were an eyesore to travelers getting off the trains below. As the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt recalled: “I glanced up as we entered Kansas City and saw a goat chewing a clothesline and three children tied to a fence so they would not fall over a precipice … their mother washing near by. I was affected to tears and wished myself back in France.”

Part of Kessler’s lovely work on the bluffs was wiped out by Interstate 35. Nearby a statue of Jim Pendergast today sits in his chair overlooking his beloved First Ward.

▪ Pendergast ward heeler Pinky Blitz was another gambler who had done two years in the Missouri pen.

▪ James A. Reed, who complained about the mayor’s low salary, would be badly defeated in his bid for governor, but in 1910 he won a seat in the U.S. Senate. So Harry S. Truman was not the first so-called “senator from Pendergast.”

▪ The 1903 submersion of the West Bottoms claimed only about 20 fatalities. Bridges were swept off their pilings and most livestock in the yards drowned, although some were moved to the upper floors of the livestock exchange building (a predecessor to today’s). Amazingly, even after being out of commission for more than two months, the depot saw traffic for ’03 well exceed the previous year’s.

About this series

On a research foray to the Central Library, longtime Star editor Darryl Levings noticed a display of old photographs of Kansas City policemen, including a few African-American officers. Thinking of the great stories they could have told, he came across Lafayette Alonzo Tillman. Serving from 1903 to 1914, Tillman surely got his post from the West Bottoms’ boss, Big Jim Pendergast. To better frame the tale with its turn-of-the-century atmosphere and racial inequities, Tillman is set into a four-part serial mystery that paints in real locations, people and events. While the crimes and plot lines are fictitious, many of the details are true, as evidenced in the accompanying fact box.

Look for the future installments of “1904” over the next three issues of Star Magazine.

To reach Darryl Levings, call 816-234-4689 or send email to levings@kcstar.com.

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