The story so far: It is January 1904 in Kansas City. Officer Lafayette Tillman, the only black policeman on Kansas City’s force, has been called in to investigate the murder of a black prostitute at the request of Jim Pendergast, the head of a powerful Democratic machine centered in the West Bottoms. The mystery deepens when Tillman is called to examine another body.
Clearing the table and putting the breakfast dishes in a washtub, Amy Tillman said over the clatter:
“Maddox is at it again. I can hear him coming.”
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“Amy, I am officially not on duty yet. I am not going to harass that poor man,” Lafayette Tillman replied.
“But can’t you convince him to lower his voice?”
“John only has two levels,” Tillman reminded his wife. “Bellowing and window breaking.” People complain, the colored coal peddler gets hauled in again for his noise, pays his fine, then gets back on his wagon and begins bellowing again, Tillman thought. “How are we doing for coal, by the way?”
“Could use some, I think.”
“Then get two or three gunnysacks worth. Any coffee left? No?”
Well, he wasn’t going to solve a murder at his kitchen table, anyway, Tillman thought. It had been two days since he’d been called down to Miss Dottie’s bordello, where the young mulatto, Liddy Holden, had been slain.
Tillman had shown up in this railroad town in 1889 in his early 30s, looking for a living. He was college educated but had started and failed at a restaurant. With few decent options, he tried his hand at barbering, moving up to his own six-chair shop on 12th and Grand catering to a white businessman clientele.
He’d even studied a little law at the local school, never enough for a degree, but black folk came to him for advice, so he got himself a notary stamp. When the Maine blew up in the Havana harbor, he’d enlisted, made quartermaster sergeant, but his unit stayed stateside.
Then the Philippine rebellion broke out in 1899, and he was promoted to lieutenant and sent with the 49th Infantry, a black unit with black officers, to put down the “insurrectos.”
Before he left, the Aurora Democratic Club, of which Alderman Jim Pendergast was a prominent member, presented Tillman with a sword engraved with words like “high personal character” and “fidelity to principle.” Back in the States, he was no longer seen as just another black barber, but as something else entirely. The tide of jingoism and patriotism in Kansas City could sweep over even a black man and cover him with blue, the color of a police officer.
And the respect from his own people was really something. He knew they were proud of him, expected him to represent them before the law and before white scorn.
Tillman also was aware that behind his back, some called him “Big Jim’s boy.” But most seemed to accept it when he occasionally dragged in your run-of-the-mill white crook. In many cities, such an arrangement would not be tolerated. If not lynched, he’d be beaten and run out of town.
Pendergast reasoned that a black policeman would do a better job than his white brethren when it came to the murder of a colored woman, even if she was just a whore. And he was right.
But there was no hope of rooting out the killer. He hadn’t said that to the Boss, of course, but made it clear he had almost nothing to go on. Jim’s little brother Tom, bless him, had said much the same thing.
The sergeant at Station No. 2 had sneered at Tillman’s nearly worthless description of a young redhead, the last person to have seen Liddy, but nevertheless promised to have his men question hack drivers and streetcar men around the depot. Because the Pendergasts were interested, word would be sent to other police stations, including those across the river in Wyandotte County. Still, Tillman knew, his fellow policemen would get a good laugh at the idea of a colored copper chasing his tail through the Kerry patch.
“I’m going to be uptown looking at shoes. Need anything?” Tillman called to his wife.
“Do you need new shoes already?”
“No,” he replied, but he had to start somewhere.
Tillman went over what he knew, or mostly didn’t know: his redhead’s fancy mother-of-pearl-buttoned footwear, the dead girl’s missing gold chain and the crucifix that had dangled from it found in her mouth.
The other girls at Dottie’s place, from what little they’d seen of the john, had confirmed he was young, clean-shaven, shy, just a regular-looking paddy. He’d been there maybe three times, always saw Liddy. She had seemed to expect him when he called.
But Liddy had had other regulars, black as well as white, a couple of swells from uptown, a good-looking blond bohunk from Armourdale. Tillman heard no names and doubted any would help.
It was Liddy’s connection to the Pendergasts, however thin, that nagged at him. In the morning’s Kansas City Times, he had seen: “Elizabeth Holden, age 18, died of tuberculosis at 1227 Michigan.” The address was far from Hell’s Half Acre; in fact, it was the little hospital run by his friend Dr. Thomas Unthank.
Tom hadn’t exaggerated. The boss was being right sentimental, if not strangely secretive, which put Tillman in a bit of a box.
If he went to St. Joseph, the old stomping grounds of the Irish Pendergasts and the black Holdens, to poke around about old relationships, he knew Tom, who was against Tillman’s investigation in the first place, would find out. There might be hell to pay. Nevertheless, Tillman had some contacts in the black community up there that he could tap. He would write some discreet letters.
Was the nearness of the bordello to the depot meaningful? Tillman himself had gone to the station to study the timetables. The number of passenger trains that left after midnight was daunting, and none went to St. Joe.
So had the killer slipped into one of the many dives across the street from the depot? Trying to get any help in there was pointless, certainly for a black copper. He’d asked Torpey, the rosy-beaked beat walker who’d shown him the crime scene, to go around and ask the night barkeeps. More enthusiasm for the assignment could not have been possible.
And, bless his overworked heart, the fat cop had quickly come up with Little Willie Preau — or more specifically the recent lack of him. A product of the McClure Flats, probably the most densely distilled misery of a slum in the city, the runty teen ran errands for the saloon and brothel keepers. He was always underfoot, always at the back doors looking for a scrap to eat or begging jobs for pennies.
Old man Preau, a sot who drove an ice wagon (a product not as much in demand in this bitter January) depended on the kid to supplement his drinking curse and beat it out of him when Little Willie could be cornered, Torpey had said. Preau had come up to the cop to woozily inquire if the cop knew where his “little bastard” had gone to.
“Might be nothing. ’E’s been away before,” the Second Precinct beat walker had bellowed into the station telephone. “But I checked ’round, and the kid was seen ’oldin’ his papa’s horse and wagon a block over from Dottie’s just the evening the lass was killed. Not seen since, though.”
Tillman had thanked Torpey and asked him to go by the bordello to see what they knew of Little Willie.
In the hall, Tillman tugged his constable’s felt helmet into place and shrugged his arms into the heavy copper’s overcoat. He patted the pocket with the holstered .38. Its weight balanced the “come along” in the opposite pocket, a chain with interlocking “T’s” on each end.
As he stepped out onto the home’s modest porch, two white neighbors politely acknowledged him as they headed for the streetcar line. He made his good mornings back.
Once he had started earning his $80-a-month police pay, Tillman had moved his family into a comfortable home on 17th near Lydia, southeast of the business district. Most patrolmen lived in their precincts and his was the Fourth, the station over on Walnut.
The city’s 15,000 African-Americans were sprinkled nearly everywhere, except in some new neighborhoods springing up in the south. Many of the newest African-American residences were clustering with many white neighbors on a corridor running along Vine. He’d heard that the new Lincoln-Coles development hadn’t sold as expected, and the prices there had been lowered, so it was a good opportunity for more colored buyers. Some Negroes were opening small businesses on 18th Street as they had on 12th.
Some of the more desperate colored folk subsisted in the West Bottoms, yes, but far more now lived east of uptown. North of Fifth Street were the Hollows, Hicks and Belvidere, those wooded gullies running toward the river that held many ramshackle homes and shanties, some occupied by under-employed colored and poor white immigrants. One lane was called “Cotton Alley.”
While Tillman had a well and pump out back of his home (away from the necessary), many of the city’s poor still sent their children with buckets to saloons to get clean water.
As he started to walk toward the streetcar line, he recognized the face of a railroad porter going home for some sleep and family time. “Hello, Frank,” Tillman said. Frank Duncan touched his hat. Tillman knew his neighbor was called “George” every day on his Chicago and Detroit runs; white folk called all porters “George.” But he made good money for the indignity.
Tillman had just reached the tracks and spotted a westbound car when, swinging around a corner ahead, was a paddy wagon. “Been sent to fetch you!” called the young man at the reins from at least four houses away. Tillman wondered at his new status, being driven around town by white folk. He could get used to it, if it weren’t so damned cold.
“O’Byrne sent me!”
Tillman blinked. Detective O’Byrne was one of the people on the force who resented Tillman most. The black man squared his shoulders and quickly swung up to the paddy wagon’s bench. The driver flicked the whip at the gelding’s rump, and Tillman grabbed his hat.
“What’s going on?”
“A floater. In the Blue.”
“Not that I know of.”
Tillman mused on this further expansion of his corpse-viewing duties until the driver said, “You were in the Philippines, I hear. I was over there, too, 32 Volunteers.”
“Forty-ninth, north Luzon mostly,” Tillman said.
“What’d you think of all that? My name’s Jim Lillis, by the way. Me, I didn’t care for it much. Felt like I’d been sent over to protect the U.S. of A., but from what? Just a bunch of beaners who wanted to run their own country far as I could tell, and they were welcome to it where I’m concerned, which I ain’t.”
Many of the black troops also had been uncomfortable with their role in the brutal suppression of the “insurrectos.” That the white American soldiers tended to contemptuously characterize all Filipinos with the same slurs as they’d use on blacks back home had hardly gone unnoticed. Tillman just said, “Well, God willing, the worst of it seems over.”
“Damn, I hope so,” the younger man exclaimed. “You ever see them do the ‘water cure?’ Now, that … that ain’t something Americans should be doing.”
“Hmmm,” Tillman said. He’d witnessed it but wasn’t about to share his own doubts on interrogation methods with this talkative young copper.
They were on 15th Street, passing the old Exposition Park. It was empty now. The Blues would be playing at the new Association Field at 19th and Olive.
This stirred Lillis to speak again. “Think Grady will stay another season? I sure hope so, batted .350, ya know? They say he’s stayed sober.”
Baseball was one of Tillman’s guilty pleasures. Although the two minor league teams both barred black players, he was addicted to the game. The colored were relegated to the last 14 rows of seats at Association, but it was no different from going to the theaters, where they always sent “darkies” to the balconies. Anyway, he wanted to take his son Lon to some games; of course, the boy’s mother and sisters could not come. Women weren’t allowed into games. And rightfully so. The profanity, fighting and spitting at the games were not something God-fearing women should be subjected to.
“Grady’s getting old,” Tillman said, “and I’m tired of the way he’s always kicking his opponents. Why does he do that?”
“Well, it gets their attention,” Lillis laughed.
The men fell silent again. The wagon passed through thinning sections of houses and barns, nearing the Blue River. Then the young man spoke again, quietly. “Do you ever have bad dreams about it?”
Tillman was startled out of his reveries about the corpse he’d been invited to gaze upon. “What? Baseball?”
Lillis was embarrassed. “No, no. You know, the jungle at night, the Philippines.” He looked away. “I do. Won’t go away.”
The older man understood perfectly now. “Yes, I’ve had them. But they’re just dreams,” he said kindly. “We’re not there anymore. It’ll get better.”
“Hope so,” Lillis nodded. “As me old mother would say, ‘Even a small thorn causes festering.’” He was turning the horse south down a dirt road and then quickly left onto a lane from which Tillman could see houseboats tied to trees. Several men stood around a sheet covering a body a few feet from a small dock.
When they saw Tillman carefully making his way down the slope between canoes, one of them said loud enough to hear, “Well here’s Big Jim’s boy, at last. Reckon the real police work can begin now.” It was O’Byrne, who then told a man Tillman didn’t know, “Uncover ’im.”
The most noticeable thing about the body was the red hair. The face was blurred by the swelling and a film of ice, but it hardly mattered.
“Heard you were after carrot-tops, so we called you boys in,” said one of the patrolmen. “This your man? No identification.”
O’Byrne gestured to a disturbed patch of river ice. “Shoulda been down to Sugar Creek by now, but he got snagged pretty much where he went in.”
“All right,” Tillman said, “so he’s got red hair. Anything else you think should interest us? You understand we have no idea who we’re looking for?”
“Well, the way I heard it, some colored whore’s business got a little carried away. He came here, jumped in to end his misery. End of story. And end of your deee-tec-tive work, my fine black friend. Oh yeah, this was in his pocket.”
Tillman tried to let nothing show on his face when the hand of the smirking detective unclasped, revealing a heavy gold chain. He nodded, but knelt beside the corpse, which suddenly was more interesting. Plus, he wasn’t about to just walk away as the white men sniggered after him.
Taking in the corpse’s stockinged feet, good woolen suit, shirt slightly dyed by the muddy water, he wasn’t sure what he was looking for. The tip of one finger was missing on a left hand that had suffered a deep, but long-healed slash.
To buy time to think, he turned the young man’s body on its side … and glimpsed a tiny sliver of shirt fabric showing through the back of the soggy worsted. A tear? Easing the body over onto its face, he lifted the frozen coat, bending it like cardboard, and in the once-white shirt saw the corresponding slit. The mud stain could not conceal a considerably darker shade around the small slit in the cloth.
Over his head, the men had been clapping their gloves for warmth and making morbid jokes about a bad train wreck over at Topeka, but they shut up when Lillis whispered, “Look at that!”
Tillman was unbuttoning the braces and tugging the ice-stiff shirt out of the pants. He began humming “The Laughing Song,” his solo number at the White House years ago back when he was young and touring the country with a singing group. It was a silly love song, but it went like this … “so loathe to use your eyes … when you stop and stare … take a lot more care … and closely scrutinize…”
Blood long rinsed away by the Blue, the small, clean-edged stab wound was just under the lowest rib on the dead man’s right side. It seemed to curve a bit, as if to smirk at the staring policemen.
The next day, Tillman found Tom Pendergast at his brothers’ saloon at 520 Main. A step up from the place down near the yards, it kept the family’s fingers on the pulse both in City Hall and the North End. Other fingers were busy here, too. The joint boasted seven dice tables.
“Big Jim” was out of town, the papers said. Down in El Paso for a bit, for a little warmth.
In the dim of the place, the youngest Pendergast did not notice him at first. Just one more copper slipping through the etched doors; two were already lingering over whiskeys, putting off a return to their beats and the inescapable lash of the northern prairies’ winds. But John, one of Tom’s older brothers, slipped from behind the taps and said, “T.J.?”
The pol was dressed in the checkered suit of a just-hit-it-big card sharp. His good boots were surely made at Quinn’s. He looked up from his papers and beckoned the black man with a finger. Tillman knew not to sit down. A young strawberry blonde was sitting at the table, squinting at a fashion page.
“And what do you want?”
“Well, I thought you might want an update on the Holden case, Mr. Pendergast.”
“Update? Her killer’s dead, right?”
“Jumped in the Blue. Killed hisself. Jim’s happy. Case closed.”
Tillman looked at Tom. He lowered his voice.
“He didn’t kill himself. He was stabbed.”
“Naw, he killed hisself…”
“I saw the stab wound and…”
“And nothing, Tillman!” Tom was suddenly reddening, disturbed at being contradicted. “He cut hisself and jumped in. Considerate of him to be so thorough.”
“No, he did not stab himself in the back!” Tillman’s voice was rising. Some turned to listen.
At a table next to Tom’s, a small mountain shifted and almost delicately put down a stein. Oh, Lord, it was Martin Crowe. No copper dared try to tangle with Crowe, who’d single-handedly whipped some railroaders for fun at Cronin’s Saloon and knocked out a half dozen men at a dance in Casino Hall. An enormous Swede teamster had challenged him, only to be beaten senseless and thrown into the back of his rig.
Crowe had been one of Shannon’s “Rabbits” until defecting to the “Goats.” Most of Crowe’s brains were in his scarred knuckles, but he’d figured out who best could butter his bread, so to speak. Tom, who was Jackson County marshal now, had lured him away, giving him the county lock-up bread contract for the feeding of the inmates.
Tom’s voice came in a hiss. “O’Byrne said he killed hisself. And he said you don’t know your ass from a hole in the floor.” Tillman heard chuckles from a nearby table. Tom looked a lot like Jim but had more of a temper. He himself had beaten up a policeman once, they said, but for what Tillman had never heard.
The patrolman had known his discovery of the stab wound had deeply embarrassed the detective in front of his men and only strengthened O’Byrne’s bigoted hatred of him. If O’Byrne had dared lie to Tom Pendergast, it was clear that emotion had jelled to a diamond-hard consistency.
Tillman opened his mouth to hotly reply but before he could say something that would do him no good, a saving thought struck him. What if O’Byrne hadn’t lied? Tom hadn’t wanted this case pursued like the boss had. Tillman clenched his teeth and met the scornful gaze of the Irish pol with hard eyes and undamaged dignity.
“O’Byrne has a habit of being an idiot.” And he turned for the door.
Tillman was at the Fourth Precinct station house at 1913 Walnut warming his hands and listening to the other coppers gripe about Police Court Judge Wofford.
Deep in the machine’s pockets, the old Confederate officer tended to let off gamblers and madams who were sweet with the Pendergasts. Now, though, he’d let off a man for the thrashing of a policeman, and that was not going over very well with the lads.
The door opened, letting in a fresh blast from North Dakota and a runny-nosed Lillis, peeling his gloves and heading for the station stove.
“Damn! Only a day like this could make me want to be back in the jungle.” Then he added quietly, “I’ve got some news on that redhead swimming under the ice.”
“The one who got that hole in his back shaving?” replied Tillman.
“Could be, sure, if ya got a hairy back.”
Lillis clearly was being careful. He had driven here from his own station house to avoid using the telephones, with their nosy exchange operators.
“Our damp friend seems to be one Natan Abrams from Chicago. Fits what description we have down to the missing fingertip on the left hand. Jew labor organizer, helping the meat cutters…”
“Wait, the redhead is a Jew? Not a Mick?”
“Yeah, who’da thought?” Lillis finally wrested a wadded handkerchief from under his coats and blew his nose. “They say a strike’s coming in the packing plants.”
What poured from the millions of slit throats of cows, pigs and sheep in the massive slaughterhouses was the life’s blood for the towns on both sides of the Kaw. The meat plants employed at least 10,000, two out of five workers in the area. But the economy was in depression, and knowing more immigrants or Southern blacks were desperate for even scab work, the nation’s meat barons were cutting paychecks again.
“Another labor goon in his boardinghouse, it’s over on James somewhere, reported him gone.”
“Hmmm. That fits with the old wounds on the hand,” Tillman muttered. “He must have worked on the floors at some point. So Abrams was with the Amalgamated bunch? Mr. Armour or Mr. Swift might not be especially sorry to see him gone.”
Lillis nodded. “No love from none of the meat bosses. And the killing weapon could have been a cutting room knife. That stab wound was clean as a whistle.”
Maybe, Tillman thought, but he knew some folks good with sharp, thin blades who did not choose to wade in slaughter-house offal for a living.
“So who is reporting Abrams missing?” he murmured.
“Fella named Bruno Wedemeyer, ’cording to a sergeant I know in one of the KCK stations.”
So Abrams was from Chicago, Tillman mused. That probably eliminates some possibilities, like any St. Joe angle, but creates a host of new ones. He hoped nobody back home wanted the body too bad. That stab wound was the only evidence that showed Tillman wasn’t crazy.
Across the station room, the sergeant stopped shouting into the telephone device, put the earpiece on its hook and stomped over to spit a stream of tobacco juice into the ash box.
“Patrolman Laa-faaa-yette Alooon-zoo Tillman? Yer beat does go a wee bit farther than pissing distance to this stove, does it not now? They need you up on Campbell, some lady goin’ ta St. Pat’s, God luv ’er, runned over in the fog by one tha cars. Go up now and get the ’ticulars.”
The sergeant turned to Lillis. “And you, boyo? Off yer patch, ain’t you now?”
“Here to ask if you been seeing any wire thefts?” Lillis answered smoothly, not offering a name. “Another copper gang is at it. Ran off with the line that connected Blossom House, they’re in the dark over there…”
“All the better not to see the wee bedbugs,” the sergeant interrupted. “Nah, not so much wire around here to be stealing.”
“Best keep an eye on what you got, Sergeant,” Lillis laughed. “They’re bold ones. Cut that wire and rolled it up in broad daylight. Ah, well now, you been warned.”
The young copper turned to mock whisper to Tillman, who was bundling on his coat: “Me mother always told me, ‘Neither give cherries to a pig nor advice to a fool.’”
The sergeant snorted. “‘Put a fine police uniform on a goat,’ me mother told me, “‘and it’s still a goat.’ Right then, I’ll be takin’ over the stove huggin’ duties now.”
And another amber stream strafed the ashes.
Fragments of true life in 1904 Kansas City
▪ Detective O’Byrne is fictional, but officers named Torpey and Lillis were on the force. John W. Wofford was a corrupt criminal court judge of the time. In one case, a North End saloon keeper got a $500 fine in one court for beating up a policeman and appealed to Wofford, who knocked it down to $50 and then canceled all but $10. The Kansas City Evening Star led an election effort to root Wofford out, but Jim Pendergast had the votes to keep his helpful old pet on the bench.
▪ Little Willie Preau, his father and Natan Abrams also are figments of the author’s imagination, but McClure Flats was a desperate warren of one-story slums on Grand between 19th and 20th streets. A hundred of the one-room apartments, without heat or plumbing, jammed on one block behind storefronts on Grand. Many immigrant Jews, who could pay $10 a month, got their start here, leading the United Jewish Charities to provide a bathhouse at 1820 Locust St. For a penny, a child could get a tub of water and a towel; it was a nickel for an adult. At this time, only 14 percent of U.S. homes had an installed bathtub.
▪ Businesses and residential areas existed on a non-segregated basis until more formalized Jim Crow rules gained a footing by the 1920s. The Kansas City Real Estate Board was formed in 1900 and promptly began writing racially restrictive covenants for the subdivisions marching south.
▪ Mike Grady, a catcher turned third baseman, was a wild, mouthy character who started with the Phillies and played for the Browns, Senators and Giants before his heavy drinking interfered with his batting. After he straightened out in KC’s AA Blues, the Cardinals picked him up, and 1904 would be a good year. The old story that Grady made a record-setting four (some say five or six) errors on a single play at third is a myth. He is said to have coined the word “lalapaloosa.”
▪ A proposal to allow ladies to watch baseball games one day a week was voted down by the City Council in 1908.
▪ In a few years, the Kansas City Yacht Club would have facilities both at the foot of Delaware Street on the Missouri River and on the Blue River before the industrialization of the tributary overwhelmed it.
▪ Tillman sang bass with several groups after his talent was noticed at Wayland Seminary School in Washington, D.C., where he was studying to become a Baptist minister. He had already attended Oberlin College in Ohio. He performed with several African-American groups, touring the East Coast and Europe, and discovered the growing Kansas City during a Midwest swing. At the White House in 1884 with the New Orleans University Singers, he performed his solo for President Chester Arthur.
▪ Martin Crowe was the local champion hammer thrower at Irish picnics. Later this year, during the excitement over the mayoral election, he would be shot in the butt after knocking down a Shannon man.
About this series
At the Central Library, longtime Star editor Darryl Levings noticed old photographs of Kansas City policemen, including a few African-American officers. Thinking of their potential stories of their eras, he came across Lafayette Alonzo Tillman, who surely got his post from the West Bottoms’ political boss, Big Jim Pendergast. To better frame the tale with its turn-of-the-century atmosphere and racial inequities, Tillman has been written 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.
This is the second part of a four-part series. Look for the third installment of 1904: Murder in the West Bottoms in next week’s Star Magazine.