The story so far: It’s early 1904. Officer Lafayette Tillman has little to go on in a prostitute’s murder except the vague description of a young red-haired man wearing fancy shoes. Then a shoeless carrot-top is pulled from the Blue River with a gold chain the girl had been wearing. The police, and more importantly, Tom Pendergast, seem to want the man’s case closed as a suicide, although the corpse had a decidedly non-suicidal stab wound on its back. Find a special presentation of the story here.
~ CHAPTER 8 ~
The shawl worn by the old Negro hack driver to soften the bite of the unrelenting wind was a saddle-thinned horse blanket that someone at the livery had tossed out as not good enough for a horse.
Lafayette Tillman often got useful information from the fellow. For instance, the policeman was now learning that Kansas City’s hack drivers would soon be walking off the job, and any scabbing, especially around the depot, would surely be met with violence.
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The working man of America was restless, it seemed. Wages were not keeping up with inflation.
Tillman reached into his pocket for something for silver-stubbled “Uncle” but got a shake of the head. “Naw. Jest buy me a mug at ’Lectric Park come summer.”
Tillman erupted with a deep bark of laughter. It was understood that no Negroes were welcome at the Heim brothers’ twinkly amusement wonder next to their brewery in the East Bottoms. Just white folk got to lift a mug there in the beer garden or listen to John Philip Sousa in the bandstand.
Speaking of white folk, here came young copper Jim Lillis, the collar of his civilian overcoat pulled high. Both men were off duty and wanted to draw no attention with uniforms. That didn’t mean they didn’t have their badges, guns and white-ash billy clubs about them, though.
“1329 Ninth,” Lillis said, climbing into Tillman’s hansom. “Thorpe’s.”
“Knows it,” the driver said. “Done been dere. Mostly railroader trash.”
Ignoring the driver’s rants about watered whiskey, Lillis sat back and said quietly. “We’re meeting a fellow named Bruno Wedemeyer. He may have some people with him, for protection. Union leaders are getting beat up in Chicago, and now Abrams shows up dead here.”
Natan Abrams, like Wedemeyer, had been sent down from Chicago to help organize the expected strike against the big meat plants. He was the last person known to have been seen with Liddy Holden, the young black girl with a gaping throat at Miss Dottie’s bordello three days ago.
“Did you tell him Abrams was stabbed?” Tillman asked.
“No, but us wantin’ to talk to ’im is a wee hint the Jew’s death may not be just a sad coincidence.”
“Especially if he were killed in the Bottoms.”
“How do you figure?” Lillis asked.
“Well, I don’t know, but it does seem like someone’s gone to some trouble to make it look like it’s not connected to the Bottoms. If Abrams was supposed to look like a drowning suicide, the Kaw was just down the street. Why not just jump in there?”
“When was the last time you crossed the Kaw, Lieutenant? It’s a sewer. I’d rather dive into a privy, meself.”
“I take your point. Anyway, what if the body was transported over to the Blue in a certain ice wagon?”
It was a leap in the dark, Tillman knew. Just because Little Willie Preau was seen near Dottie’s that night with his daddy’s ice wagon and then disappeared added up to almost nothing, except ….
“I don’t see Little Willie mixed up in any of this,” Lillis frowned. “Whad be the point?”
“Of course, the slum kid isn’t the killer, but he still could be involved. He might have borrowed his old man’s rig.”
“What? That’s a bit of a reach, isn’t it?”
“Maybe,” agreed Tillman. “But the kid’s finally turned up.”
“What? Where?” Lillis asked, then added, “Aaaand?”
“Sam Moon’s opium den over on Sixth. He wandered in with a $5 gold piece the morning after they found Liddy dead. So, where’d he get it? It bought him a lot of dope, and he burned through it all. He’s been there for days, mostly out of his head…”
“He wants out of his misery, whiskey’s cheaper. So why go there?”
“Maybe it was the only place his papa wouldn’t hear of him and his gold piece? Also, I hear Moon’s got a pretty daughter helping keep the pipes filled.”
Torpey, the friendly Second Precinct patrolman, had sniffed out Preau’s hidey-hole. He was as clever as he was fat, Tillman was realizing.
“The kid’s up at headquarters. I’ll go see him tomorrow morning.”
“I’ll see if I can find my way there, too, if that’s all right,” Lillis said.
Tillman appreciated the young Irish cop’s enthusiasm. At first, perhaps, the older man’s lieutenant rank in the Army had cut some ice with the former Corporal Lillis. But it was more than that now.
“I really thank you for all you’ve done on this, son, but at some point you’re going to have jump clear, you know. This case can turn ugly anytime, be better off raiding the chief’s ‘chuck-a-luck’ game.”
Lillis smiled at the thought of an angry Police Chief Hayes. “Me mother always said, ‘Two shorten the road.’”
“Cut the Irish homilies. You know as well as I do that the Pendergasts may be losing their grip on the police board. You could end up driving a beer wagon tomorrow, so why are you doing this?”
“Well, first, there’s a whole bunch of hicks on this force, and you ain’t one of them, Lieutenant. I like the way you do things. Two, this is my first murder. Interesting.
“And thirdly, I’ve got no quarrel with beer. But I could ask you why you’re still wrestlin’ this pig after Tom warned you to stay clear?”
“Tom don’t rule the roost … yet,” Tillman said. “It was Big Jim that put this cross on my back, and he’s the one to take it off.”
~ CHAPTER 9 ~
A sticky corner table at Thorpe’s held the two plainclothes policemen, Bruno Wedemeyer and a couple of big fellas, bodyguards, he brought along. They hadn’t particularly wanted to be introduced but grudgingly surrendered last names, at least somebody’s last names: Johansen and Jenkins.
The union men had all laughed about how “dry” Kansas was and how they’d appreciated the opportunity to come across the line for some Missouri brews.
So the second round of Imperials was just about gone. Feeling for nickels in his pocket, Tillman reckoned he’d have to buy the next set, too. Of course, this only seemed fair to the union men as they were about to go on strike, and cash would be short.
The policemen had quickly learned that Wedemeyer had no warm feelings for Abrams. He was seen as a pain in the butt up in the Chicago offices, spent too much of his time trying to get the kids out of the packing plants.
“No real cutter, wouldn’t touch pork,” the gruff German said. “Wot kind of butcher don’ cut pigs, eh? Gots hisself nice job off der floors.”
Wedemeyer also saw the Jew as a dandy; his confirmation that Abrams wore pearl-buttoned shoes came with a disdainful snort into his stein. Surprisingly, one of the bodyguards drawled that he thought they were “right purdy,” reckoned he might get a pair just like them.
The labor organizer looked at the fellow, shrugged and continued answering questions: Yes, he’d visited Dottie’s resort a couple of times, never had no black girl. Tillman asked about the date Liddy was murdered.
“Didn’t know there been a murder,” Wedemeyer responded. “Tot this was all about der Jew.”
“They’re connected,” Tillman said. “Where were you that night?”
At first, Wedemeyer couldn’t recall, but then he came up with a poker game in the back room of an Armourdale joint. No, he couldn’t remember which one. Johansen, the Swedish lug, picking up on his cue, said: “Ya, I been dere, too.” But no, he couldn’t remember where the place was, either.
“What about you?” Tillman asked the other muscle, Jenkins, the lover of fancy shoes. “Were you there at this mysterious card game?”
“Where I were ain’t none of yer business, colored boy,” he said, blowing a fleck of foam from his drooping mustache.
No more beer for you, Tillman thought. He’d recognized the accent from his singing days around the South. The cracker wore a derby screwed on so low it affected the posture of his ears; he also wore a leer that contained a thousand unspoken slurs.
Tillman was about to reframe the question when over Jenkins’ hunched shoulder, the black policeman noticed a baby-faced brunette, tipsy, stumble down the stairs. There was a never-ending faro game in the room above, he knew, but she’d probably been playing the slots.
The well-dressed white girl was followed by a young pale man, who obviously was no better at holding his liquor. They found a table amid the cigar smoke and male laughter and sat. The man sagged immediately into his chair, put his head on his arms on the table and didn’t move. The girl shrugged, then waved at the barman and held up two fingers and her painted lips mouthed “gin.”
“Copy editors,” he heard her say disgustedly. “Can’t hold their liquor.”
A couple of men — train conductors by their uniforms, Missouri Pacific boys, he thought — detached themselves from the bar to pull up chairs at the young couple’s table. Then another joined them, a brakeman by the missing thumb on the right hand. Tillman could hear clearly his braying suggestion that she dump the drunk and go with them for some fun, a hell dance, going on down the street.
The girl told them loudly that she was not interested in “more fun,” but the men crowded closer to her. One put his hand on hers and would not let her pull it away.
She called to “David,” but her escort was unmoving.
Tillman suggested that the labor boys finish their beers and take off if they wanted to avoid some unpleasantness. The Swede bodyguard wiped his gap-toothed mouth with his sleeve and noted that he didn’t mind unpleasantness. The girl was clearly becoming more panicked, and Lillis reached inside his coat to free his club from his belt.
Wedemeyer, however, hissed that Chicago had not sent him to be thrown in some crappy cowtown police cell, at least before the labor action got underway. He curtly told his guards to come with him and left. Despite himself, Tillman wished the thugs had stayed. He could use the numbers.
The two coppers rose as one and approached table where the terrified girl was whispering, “don’t, please don’t.” She was using her free hand to fend off the conductor’s groping high, very high, on her thigh. Lillis shifted around the group, giving every indication he was going to order more drinks at the bar.
“Why don’t you listen to the young lady?” asked Tillman, pulling out his badge with one hand and using the other to grab the collar of the thigh-grabber and jerk him back from the girl. He did not release his grip and tried to keep the shifting man in his chair. The other two looked at this in amazement. One, beginning to rise with clenched fists, sputtered, “Who the bloody hell are you talkin’ to, you black son of…”
That was when Lillis laid his club sharply across his temple from behind. The fellow went down like a gunny sack of rocks. The other jumped up, but Lillis shifted and neatly kicked his chair back under his knees, causing him to fall back into it, and the white ash kissed his skull as well. His face slammed into the table, making the steins and the sleeping kid’s head jump a bit, before he slid to the floor with his mate.
Deft as a dancer at the Follies, Lillis spun to face the bar, where a couple of drunken engineers realized their friends were having a hard time. But they had only gotten their feet off the bar’s rail when they saw the young copper had out his police issue .38. The bartender, reaching for a scattergun maybe, froze. When Lillis motioned putting a slug into the pride of the saloon, a huge mirror behind the bar etched with naked goddesses and nymphs, the server put his hands where they could be seen.
“Alright, lad, no need for the Gatlin,’” he suggested with a thin smile.
Tillman and his captive were an amazed audience to this. Then his man flailed an arm, broke the copper’s grip on his coat and got to his feet, swinging around at the black man. Tillman barely blocked the clumsy blow; thankfully the man had been off balance. The copper realized his left hand stupidly still held the heavy star, so it was useless unless he wanted to shred his fingers throwing a punch with it.
He jerked back, jamming his badge into his pocket and using his right to throw a chair in the way of the enraged conductor. With his left free for defense, he could use his right to pull his own revolver.
And the bastard ignored it, just like he’d ignored the badge, and kept coming. A spittoon clanged across the floor, emptying its contents. Tillman knew that if he shot the man, there’d be hell to pay, of all sorts. Suddenly, a fist was rushing at him, but Tillman got his left up and took only a painful graze across his ear. He was nearly losing his footing in the tobacco juice now. He defensively swung his right and felt his revolver barrel connect with a crunch.
His foe finally halted with a howl. Before he covered his bloody face with his hands, it was clear the nose was crushed at the bridge, but that would not have stopped him. No, from the curses, Tillman understood that the pistol had also made contact with an eyeball.
He looked over at Lillis, who shrugged. Tillman suddenly felt he had lost some of the younger man’s respect with his clumsy performance; he didn’t like the feeling.
More men were coming into the room, and Tillman sensed they were MoPac crews, too. Three rushed to his attacker to give aid. Tillman retrieved the badge and waved it.
One of the men pulled his own badge. “Missouri Pacific detective! What the hell is going on? Henry, whad he do to ya?”
“Black sumbitch blinded me, Jack! Can’t see outta my eye!”
The room seemed to shrink.
Tillman backed to the table and hauled up the girl. Lillis picked up a beer and poured it down David’s collar. The kid jerked up his head. “David, wake up!” the girl screamed. Lillis grabbed the youth’s blond hair and pulled him out of his chair.
“White slavery ring!” shouted Lillis, trying for confusion, motioning at the men at his feet. “These men are vampires! Let us through!”
He was now beside Tillman, who found himself sidling for the door — Sweet Jesus! More railroaders were coming in? — with the brunette in one hand and waving the nearly worthless badge in another. Lillis’ weapon was keeping everyone just respectful enough, though. They were gaining momentum, until the girl slipped to the filthy floor. When Tillman got her up again, he saw a Colt Standard had appeared in Jack’s fist. Hammer back, it pointed steady as a road sign at Tillman’s privates.
“Henry ain’t no white slaver, and he ain’t no vampire,” the railroad bull barked to the room. “I ought to know well enough my cousin from Maryville. But you, you I don’t know, colored boy. Where you goin’ with the girl?” And the room began to shrink again. Drunks were getting vocal; one muttered that a rope was needed here.
In America, a black man was considerably safer holding a lit stick of dynamite than a drunk white girl. Tillman had heard talk about some lynching in the West Bottoms in the ’80s, didn’t know the particulars. But he sure as hell knew about Fred Alexander, burned at the stake up in Leavenworth just three years ago.
Tillman was sweating profusely, his throat was drying up. “Let us pass. We want no more trouble.”
“What you want don’t much concern me, boy,” Jack retorted. “Henry, pull that girl away from him,” he said, flicking the barrel of the big revolver.
And then the room rocked with the explosion of Jack’s Colt before he sprawled in the wet sawdust. Tillman was stunned, wondering if he somehow had taken the slug. In the Philippines, he’d seen a charging insurrecto hit with a bullet with no seeming effect until collapsing long seconds later at the soldier’s feet.
But no, it was Henry screaming again. In the space where Jack had just loomed was a wide copper’s uniform, a copper’s pistol that had just smashed down onto Jack’s hat, and a copper’s fat face with a glowing nose and smiling eyes.
“Torpey!” Tillman exhaled. Lillis was barging toward the door with the stumbling boy. Tillman hitched up his hold on the girl and quickly followed, slapping Torpey hard on the shoulder as he went by. The man was becoming indispensable.
Tillman glanced back into the saloon one more time before the door closed. Henry apparently had caught cousin Jack’s errant slug in his knee.
Bad night for Henry. There’d be some explaining to do up in Maryville. He’d probably say 10 black foundrymen had caught him in an alley. And he’d have to say he’d whupped them, of course.
~ CHAPTER 10 ~
The hack’s horse clattered up a long carriage drive and stopped at the address the girl had given.
Now she opened her eyes and moaned, either from the drink in her stomach or from realizing she had awakened back in the oppressive fiefdom of Baron Bill Nelson, her father and publisher of The Kansas City Evening Star and The Times.
Not all the gin had remained in her belly on the ride. Grateful for the fresh air, Tillman got out and rang the bell. Sadly it did not drown out the muttering of the angry driver who’d have to clean out his rig tonight. A few moments passed before the door opened and a skeptical face looked out at him.
“Whatever you want, you need to go around back,” he said.
“Is that what you always tell Miss Nelson?”
The houseboy’s eyes widened and then he leaped to help as Tillman pulled the nearly liquid form of the publisher’s daughter out of the cab.
“Was you and her … did you … was she…?” he stuttered in a panic.
“No, we did not go out together. We just ran into each other in a place her father would not want to know she’s been.”
Between the two of them they got the woozy girl into a front sitting room and stretched out on a love seat. Closing the oak-grained pocket doors on the scene, the servant shook his head. “Lord, what we gonna do with that girl?”
“Sure I don’t know,” Tillman said. “Listen, I don’t have the spare change to drive damsels home at night when their daddies are rich. Pay the hackman, would you, so I can get home … and give him a good tip?”
At that moment, a door opened down the hall and a haughty old bullfrog stuffed into a too-tight waistcoat strode down the hall. His legs were oddly short for the mass they carried.
“Who is this, Ole?” he demanded.
“He brought Miss Laura home, Colonel,” the servant answered, nodding toward the closed room. Nelson looked in, slid the door shut and turned to Tillman, his face registering disgust and anger. And the flush of a few whiskeys, too.
Tillman decided enough was enough. He pulled his badge out of his civilian coat. “I’m Patrolman Tillman, and I was on an assignment when I came across your daughter on Ninth Street in the Bottoms.”
“Ninth? Laura was in the Bottoms? She was going uptown to the Willis Wood, to see the ‘Sultan of Sulu,’ she told me … wait, who was she with?”
“She was escorted, Colonel, by a fine-looking young gentleman.… Oh yes, he was white, but I didn’t get his name.” Tillman had decided to let the copy editor keep his job for now. “He was indisposed so I took the liberty of making sure Miss Nelson got back to Oak Hall safely.”
“And you want money?”
“Nope, just cab fare.”
Nelson squinted at him. “A policeman. Then you must be the fellow the First Ward’s proprietor got installed on the force last year, am I correct?”
Tillman nodded as Nelson’s face changed again. “So do the Pendergasts own you like the rest of the police?”
“Big Jim owns the First, yes, but he does not own me, Colonel.”
The scowl barometer lifted slightly.
“A decent fellow in his own way, I suppose, no boodler,” the publisher conceded of the councilman. “So you’re not Big Jim’s … man. And you said your name was, what again, Tillman? I just heard of you a day or so ago, but assumed you were white. One of my reporters has come across the rumor that a Tillman was looking into something vile in the Bottoms. So that would be you?”
“Ole, fix me another Dutchman,” Nelson ordered, keeping his squint on Tillman’s face.
“A Negress, a prostitute killed … and somehow connected to Jim. I know Tom plays around with some of the saloon girls, but Jim’s supposedly a happily married man. You know anything about that? It’d be quite a story.”
“No story there, far as I can see, sir,” Tillman replied. “Am I going to get that hack fare or not?”
“And you also were seen over on the Blue looking at a body of a labor man. Did he drown?”
“You’d have to ask the detectives that, sir.”
“Ah, right, you’re not a detective, are you? No, they’d never allow that.”
Tillman looked at him levelly, then began to turn for the door. Hack fare be damned. But Nelson wasn’t through.
“I heard he was stabbed, but the police are saying he drowned. How do you explain that?”
Tillman hesitated. Nelson was far too well informed for his taste.
“And the ‘official’ cause of the girl’s death was listed as consumption. Why was that, do you think?”
Tillman expected to hear next how his wife had fixed his eggs that morning.
“Two murders covered up? And you say that’s not a story? Well, read about it in tomorrow afternoon’s paper, and tell me then that it’s not. And yes, Big Jim and you, too, will be featured in it.”
He paused to sip from the crystal Ole had fetched.
“Sure we don’t have anything to talk about?”
Tillman had to blink at how quickly Nelson had slipped the noose over his neck, not just figuratively. If his name were linked to such a story in the Star or Times, he would not be safe in this town.
He gazed around at the rich oak furnishings, trying to think, and heard the girl’s moan behind the door. And Tillman breathed again.
“Perhaps I offer you a better story, Colonel. A poor little rich girl goes to the theater. Somehow she ends up in a Ninth Street joint, drunk with a bunch of pawing railmen.”
The slightest flinch.
“Oh yes, a man ends up getting shot over her. And she leaves with a Negro fella, too. Lots of witnesses.”
The scowl had turned stormy again. But fear slipped out from under the hooded eyes.
“Not a story you want to print?” Tillman asked. “Perhaps, then, I could take it to the Journal?”
“That won’t be necessary, Officer. I understand you.”
“Glad of it. Guess both papers will have to fill that empty space with some more pieces making all us colored folk look stupid or criminal. I’ll leave now, but, really, next time your daughter can find her own way home.”
Nelson reached into a pocket, pulled some silver and gave it to Ole, who hurried outside.
“You’re not like all Negroes, are you?” he said, and turned to mount the home’s grand stairs.
“Don’t know all Negroes,” Tillman said to his back.
Fragments of real life in 1904 Kansas City
▪ Electric Park, built next door to the Heims’ brewery in the East Bottoms, was wildly popular, especially with the Heim brothers’ 3-mile electric trolley line connecting it with uptown. The name came from the hundreds of light bulbs, a rather new innovation, strung around — even in a fountain. The park featured a 2,500-seat theater, roller coaster, water flume, bowling alley and a German Village with a beer garden to which the brewery’s lager was freshly piped.
In 1907, the Heims would move the park to an even bigger and brighter location at 45th Street and the Paseo. While this time city fathers did not allow beer to be served, this expanded version was the inspiration for a certain other amusement park, according to Walt Disney, who spent his formative years in Kansas City. The city’s African-Americans were banned from the park, so their own “Electric Park” later operated at 20th Street and Woodland Avenue.
▪ In the summer of 1904, in a depressed economy, workers for the “Big Seven” meat packers would strike in nine cities under the somewhat disorganized leadership of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen. The packers offered 16.5 cents an hour for the common “knifeman.” The average wage in the United States was 22 cents an hour. This strike, mentioned in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” was crushed by September.
▪ Police Chief John Hayes was accused of personally protecting certain gambling operations, but the police commissioners exonerated him. Chuck-a-luck is played with three die.
▪ Thorpe’s was a real place, one of more than 500 saloons in the 1904 Kansas City directory.
▪ Yes, Sam Moon did operate an opium den at 125 W. Sixth St. He occasionally would be fined and released.
▪ “Vampires” was slang for pimps, who in popular parlance came out at night to prey on women.
▪ A black man named Harrington was lynched April 3, 1882, from the Fifth Street cable car bridge after the killing of a policeman. Harrington was innocent, having found the officer’s body on St. Louis Avenue only minutes after a fatal shot. He was seized from a squad of six policemen trying to get him to headquarters. Two of the policemen tried to cut the rope hanging the struggling man, but one of the mob leaning off the bridge shot the victim in the top of the skull.
▪ The January 1901 Leavenworth lynching, fanned by the local Kansas newspapers, involved a mob estimated in the thousands. The accused, Fred Alexander, was taken from his cell, wounded with a hatchet, mutilated, soaked from a Standard Oil kerosene wagon and burned at the stake. Pieces of his burned body allegedly were taken as mementos. Later, most agreed he was innocent of the allegations of rape and murder of a white woman.
▪ At age 11, Laura Nelson had been shipped off to Boston finishing schools. Miserable, she was forced to stay there except for 1896 to 1898, when she attended Barstow School, then at Westport Road and Main Street. By this point in the story, she would have been back in Kansas City for a year. By 1910, she had married Irwin Kirkwood, a real estate man from Baltimore, against her father’s wishes. He did not attend the wedding. After Nelson’s death, she and her husband directed The Star for a dozen years, during which she introduced comics and photographs — previously banned by her father — and created this Sunday magazine. An alcoholic, she died in 1926 alone in a Baltimore hotel room. She was 43.
▪ A boodler was one who sold his vote. As alderman, Jim Pendergast supported Nelson’s push for parks and even advocated the railroads’ move uphill to Union Station, as well as a Sunday closing of saloons, although both hurt his interests in the West Bottoms.
▪ At this time, Nelson ran The Star and The Times (purchased in 1901 to act as the company’s morning editions) from its offices at 11th Street and Grand Boulevard. Like many prominent men of the time, he was called Colonel Nelson. “Not that he was ever a colonel of anything,” explained William Allen White, an editorial writer then. “He was just coloneliferous.”
▪ Nelson also was called “Baron Bill,” in part for his imperious manner and in part because of his creation of a Brush Creek neighborhood below his hilltop estate. Oak Hall, Nelson’s always expanding mansion where Tillman’s fictitious meeting with Nelson took place, was torn down to make way for what is now the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
About this series
After the Central Library displayed old group photographs of Kansas City policemen, longtime Star editor Darryl Levings noticed the few African-American officers. One of the first was Lafayette Alonzo Tillman, who surely got his job from the West Bottom’s political boss, Big Jim Pendergast. To better frame the tale with its turn-of-the-century atmosphere and racial inequities, Tillman is presented through 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 third of a four-part series. Look for the last installment of “1904” in next week’s Star Magazine. Visit Projects.KansasCity.com/2014/tillman for parts one and two.