Star Magazine

1904: Murder in the West Bottoms, Part Four: The Missing Mother of Pearl

The Kansas City Star

The story so far: It is January 1904 in Kansas City. Officer Lafayette Tillman, Kansas City’s solitary black policeman, has been whittling away at two murders, one a prostitute, the other her red-headed client (or lover?), who was a labor organizer in the packing houses. While many seem to want the case closed, Tillman pursues his assignment at the behest of the West Bottoms political boss, “Big Jim” Pendergast. Find the full four-part series here.

~ CHAPTER 11 ~

Damn if the runty slum rat had not disappeared again!

Shock, anger, suspicion and then depression ran through Lafayette Tillman as he stood outside the lockup at police headquarters in City Hall.

Somebody had posted bail on Little Willie Preau, currently the copper’s best chance — and it was still a long shot, no doubt about it — of getting to the bottom of two murders. One of Liddy Holden, a colored West Bottoms prostitute found in her bloody bed, her throat opened. The other of her last client, or maybe, lover, Natan Abrams, pulled days later from the icy Blue River.

Liddy was how Tillman got into this whole mess; she and Big Jim Pendergast, who had some history with her family and seemed to consider himself her protector — a failed protector.

While her murder was not in Tillman’s precinct, the big boss had tapped him, figuring the patrolman, because of his race, would work the case harder. Pendergast was always a canny judge of men; besides, he’d given Tillman his patronage job, the only police position given a Negro in the town. Now it was time for the favor to be returned.

He was mocked by the force’s real detectives, who resented the boss’s faith in him and considered him a walking insult. Tillman had heard that Chief Hayes wasn’t happy, either. And Big Jim’s brother Tom was no help. He was determined that the potentially embarrassing case evaporate.

Now one of Tillman’s few leads was out of the coop. The product of McClure Flats, those shocking slums down on Grand, Little Willie had been seen near the brothel the night of Liddy’s murder but then dropped from sight.

Finally run to ground, it came to light that he’d been spending a gold piece. Where would the little beggar have gotten it? Not old man Preau, the ice peddler. If it meant a nickel saved for a shot of rye, the sot would leave his son in the cooler ’til Gabriel woke the dead.

No, it figured that whoever gave the kid the coin was the same person who’d just bailed him out. Tillman tried to read the signatures on the release book at main lockup, but several seemed deliberately smeared. He questioned the gruff turnkey about who’d been in posting walk-out money that morning and got two names, although there were clearly more on the book. One Tillman didn’t know, but he was informed it was a Shannon man looking out for the lads of that rough Democratic gang; the other was Max Joffy, whom Tillman knew as a porter in Big Jim Pendergast’s saloons.

On top of this frustration, he’d heard, that Abrams’ body, its knife wound the only physical evidence of a murder, not a suicide, was being dug out of Union Cemetery’s frozen sod to be sent back to Chicago.

Marching against the unrelenting winter wind to the Walnut Street station house, Tillman recalled a phrase from the “Key to Heaven” prayer book he’d carried in the Philippines. The tiny tome was Catholic, but the words he’d turned to often in those nights were universal: “Deliver me, oh Merciful God, from the evils of this day and guide my feet.…”

His numbing feet had just gotten through the door when the sergeant jerked his head at a box and said: “You got a letter.”

It had no return address, but it smelled of perfume. Unfolded, it had no signature, but none was needed.

“I have seen the shoes again.”

That was all. Six words, but they were from Miss Dottie, the West Bottoms brothel keeper, the one who’d found the dead girl in one of her beds.

Forty minutes, three streetcars and a hack later, Tillman was at her door.

“I saw the fellow wearing the shoes,” she confirmed excitedly. “He was right where you are now. Late last night. Came to visit Opal. It was the shoes, all right.”

“Or some just like them?”

“No, the same ones, the left shoe had one of the mother-of-pearl buttons gone,” Dottie said. “One of the low ones.”

“What? The redhead’s shoes had a button missing? You didn’t tell me that!”

“I didn’t? Thought I did! Goodness, I’m so sorry.”

“Never mind. I know now, and it could be a big help. When can I talk to Opal?”

“Well, that’s the point. She’s been gone two days, moved up to Lovejoy’s resort. I shouldn’t have told him, I wasn’t thinking. He turned right around, maybe going up there! It’s up on…”

“Fourth, yes, I can find it. Thanks so much.”

He started out the door, but Dottie reached and grabbed his arm.

“Wait! He wasn’t redheaded!”

“I know.”

~ CHAPTER 12 ~

He caught a car going back up the incline and got a welcome waft of something sweet baking at the Loose-Wiles factory. It made him hungry.

Uptown, a gaggle of young clerks holding their hats tight got aboard. He heard one, a youth with specs, say the lady at his boarding house had promised chicken and dumplings tonight.

Yes, it would be a good night for dumplings. His hunger deepened.

He jumped off and quickly passed Annie Chambers’ odd little pagoda porch. Concrete bamboo stalks, impossibly fat, supported the carved screens and tiled roof. Lovejoy’s bordello was much different, a large, fine, red brick house with a turret.

Madam Laura Lovejoy accepted Tillman’s request without comment and sent up a girl to wake Opal. Before long, a big girl, moon-faced and heavy-bosomed, came down, her long blond hair freed from its bun.

From her, Tillman learned that the client called himself Ted and that he had paid calls maybe three times at Dottie’s, always asking and waiting for Opal. Her room had been across from Liddy’s. Ted might have been with Opal the night Liddy died, but she wasn’t sure. It had been busy. She was popular.

Ted could be a bit rough. And, odd. He would shush her and try to listen through the door, even peek out into the hall, which was a rude thing to do, when she was waiting and had more customers downstairs. And he didn’t take his clothes off, always in a hurry. Just took off his coat, even left his hat tightly screwed on his head.

Her description was pretty good: had most of his teeth, no scars that she got a look at and a mustache that reminded her of the Mexican cowboys in the yards. But while ruddy, brown-eyed and dark-haired, he was no beaner, but maybe Texan from his speech.

She had never noticed his shoes, didn’t know if he carried a weapon. She didn’t know where he worked. He had all his fingers, she was pretty sure of that — an indication he wasn’t a cutter in one of the slaughterhouses, a favorite theory of Tillman’s colleague Lillis.

Last night’s visit was the first since Liddy’s death. He’d complained about Lovejoy’s higher prices. Yes, he did stay a little longer, seemed more relaxed but still kept most of his clothes on, even the hat. But he didn’t listen at the door last night.

“What kind of hat?” Tillman asked, and nodded at the answer.

As he was leaving, Lovejoy asked whether there was something she should know about the man who’d visited Opal. Was he likely to create trouble?

Tillman wasn’t sure what to say, and then she asked: “Does this have anything to do with that dead girl down at Dottie’s?”

Well, that cat was out of the bag, Tillman thought. He’d asked Opal not to talk about it, but it was clearly pointless. “Yes, but I’d appreciate it not being spread around at the moment.”

“Didn’t make the newspapers. That’s funny.”

“Yes, well, I don’t have anything to do with the newspapers, but I’m working to figure out who killed her.”

“Be nice if you did,” she said, arms crossed. “Having one of Dottie’s crib girls murdered and not letting the rest of us in the trade know somebody’s out there is a damned cold thing to do.”

“Well, some say her killer’s dead.”

“But you don’t think so.”

“I know he isn’t. If this ‘Ted’ fellow shows up here again, I’d like to know about it pronto. But keep all this between you and me.” He pulled out a pencil and tore a page from a small notebook to leave her the contact information for Lillis and him. He confirmed that her phone was on the old exchange, not the new Home one that had divided the city telephone owners into two, frustratingly unconnected camps.

“So if he were to come through that door, I should run for a patrolman? The headquarters is just down the street. Hell, there’s often a copper here upstairs. Chief Hayes was here two nights ago.”

“Least of all them. They’re not looking for anybody,” Tillman responded, tapping the paper and handing it back. “Only we are.”

~ CHAPTER 13 ~

When he’d left Station 4, his precinct captain, Flahive, had asked Tillman to drop something off at headquarters, so he headed east with the packet and soon passed back under the white stone arch of City Hall. First things first, he was looking forward to enjoying the City Hall’s modern — and warm — indoor plumbing. Beat the devil out the frigid two-holer at home.

Upstairs, he turned over the packet to the harried desk sergeant. Messages were being handed the man from the telephone room, two drunks were loudly charging each other with stealing a bottle of Old Underroof rye — Tillman remembered Dr. Unthank, his friend, saying he wouldn’t pour the stuff on a gangrenous wound — and a lawyer was demanding to see the chief of detectives.

The sergeant was complaining to a patrolman about a call about some “igit hoor” from the Irish Village down on Walnut. She’d taken the hard way out, quaffing carbolic acid.

Tillman grimaced and made himself small as he slid for the door. The bordello was in his own precinct, just two blocks from his station house. He did not want to be enlisted. The far-too-often-used suicide method of the ladies was so dreadful before death finally came that it was an ordeal for everyone involved.

It was turning dark as he caught the trolley south. He felt he needed to show his face in the 19th and Walnut station, let his sergeant know that, yes, he actually was putting in his 10-hour work day.

While the rumbling car parted the sea of buggies and wagons, he gnawed mentally on the hard questions that still would not crack. He was pretty sure he knew the killer now, although the evidence was more vaporous than his expelled breath. But what was the motive? And why the crucifix jammed in the girl’s mouth?

The street car shuddered to a stop. The motorman was cursing, something jamming the rail? Tillman looked out. It was freezing in the car, and the machine seemed dead in its tracks. He decided to walk the rest of the way.

By the time he neared 18th, his brittle ears were questioning the wisdom of being out in the wind after all. It was by the giant Muehlebach “beer castle,” with its vegetative smell of hops, that he noticed the clop of the hooves coming fast up the street behind him. The accompanying racket testified that the wheels of the vehicle had lost their rubber rims. He thought little of it, until he realized in alarm that the horse was practically upon him — on the sidewalk!

Tillman threw himself to the brewery’s brick wall on his right and found the niche of a door, a few inches of safety, not enough. He had no time to fumble for a knob before the hub of the back wheel caught his protruding hip so violently that he was spun out of his shallow shelter and fell into the gutter. His head slammed to the cobbles, his hat flying.

He lay too stunned to move as another wagon approached. He painfully turned his head to detect a team of Belgiums bearing down on him. The driver was shouting and trying to turn the monsters. It was a beer wagon. Tillman, now close enough to peer up, saw the top barrels, emptied and light, tumble off the careening vehicle. Just before one of them rolled over him, he could make out the words “Muehlebach’s Pilsener,” one of his favorite draws. Then he blacked out.

~ CHAPTER 14 ~

Lillis came into his bedroom, smiling at Portia and June fussing over their daddy in his iron-framed bed.

“I came as quick as I heard. You were run down? Can you walk? Is the hip broken? What happened…?”

“In a minute, in a minute. Girls, this is Officer Lillis. Say hello and then see if your mother can scare up some coffee for a fellow hero from the islands.”

Lillis and Tillman had both served in regiments — Tillman’s was black — sent to put down the Filipino insurrection. Both came away with a bad taste for empire building.

He motioned for the young Irishman to take a chair. “Not run down exactly, but knocked down. Hit my head, which hurts worse than the hip, where the thing caught me. Coat gave me a bit of padding, luckily. But as bad as my head hurts, the whole thing has delivered some clarity to my brain.”

“Ah, a hard head,” Lillis smiled. “Makes you an honorary Irishman, does it not, and only one cure for a Mick copper.” He looked toward the door and then pulled out a flask and tossed it on Tillman’s blanketed stomach.

Tillman pulled himself into a better sitting — that is, drinking — position. His head protested, and he felt the room lurch a bit.

He unscrewed the cap and took a short swig of smooth whiskey. He handed it back.

“Oh, I never touch the stuff,” Lillis mock protested. “Me mother said drink is a curse: ’Tis it that makes you shoot at your landlord, and, worse, ’tis it that makes you miss.”

Tillman tried to suppress a head-splitter of a laugh as his friend took back the flask and knocked back a long swallow. Hearing the argument approaching from the kitchen as to which girl would serve the nice Mr. Lillis, Tillman took the container back and slid it under the quilts.

“I’m sure it wasn’t an accident, anyway,” he told Lillis. “No warning and the wheels were on the walk. And what hit me, I’m willing to bet, was an ice wagon.”

Lillis was shaking his head. “What a coincidence. Little Willie Preau was found this morning.”

“Good. See if we can hold on to him this time.”

“Oh, the runt’s been put on ice, so to speak. They found ’im in his pappy’s wagon, stabbed.”

Tillman nodded grimly. Another potential witness dead, this one just an unlucky kid. He wondered if his body had been tossing around in back as the fiend driver had brought the rig up on the sidewalk. Three dead, now, and who was left to testify? Opal, or the madams? They knew nothing that would make the killer sweat in a courtroom. His case was not weak; it was nonexistent!

“I think it’s time we see our union friend, Mr. Wedemeyer, again,” he said.

~ CHAPTER 15 ~

Silence always seemed to make Lillis nervous. Once more he broke into Tillman’s reflective musings about nearly being run down two nights earlier and what was about to happen this evening.

“That sign always makes me smile. Do you think he did it?” Lillis said into the dark of the swaying carriage.

Tillman had no idea what his companion was talking about, then caught the pawnshop’s sign in a streetlight: Jesse James Collateral Loan Co.

Lillis continued: “Well, the way I see it, his daddy never had any collateral for all the loans he got from the banks, so it hardly seems fair that he demands your watch for a few bills, does it?”

“No,” Tillman chuckled. “When I was barbering, I saw young James once or twice, when he had the cigar stand in the courthouse. Seemed nice enough.”

The younger James had been arrested after the express from St. Louis was stopped by robbers in Leeds in ’88. They had moved the train onto a siding but ended up using too much dynamite on the mail-car safe. Some suspicious characters were rounded up, including one with evidence in his pocket incriminating James.

“I don’t know much, either, but the chief was on that case, you know, and he’ll swear to anybody that James was guilty. Good lawyering, I guess.”

Down in the Bottoms, the hack got off St. Louis Avenue and proceeded through side streets until reaching a nearly dark Kansas City, Kan., alley off Bunker, where houses and shacks ruined in the previous year’s flood were being torn down. One of the big plants, either Swift or Cudahy’s just to the south, probably planned expansion there.

Three shadows stepped out of a dark warehouse doorway on the other side: Wedemeyer and his two bodyguards, Johansen and Jenkins.

“Aren’t you a bit out of your jurisdiction, officers?” the German union organizer asked as Tillman alighted. The last time they’d talked — was it a week ago? — it’d been in a saloon just inside Missouri, a drinking establishment that Tillman was pretty sure he wouldn’t be patronizing again.

“Just want to make you fellows more comfortable,” Tillman replied. “I don’t intend to make any arrests but just need a little more information.”

“Hey, colored boy,” Jenkins said, as Lillis got out, too. “I thought you was coming alone.”

“No, I said I wanted to have a little one-on-one talk. You still outnumber us.”

“Whadabout the big fella up there?” Jenkins said, pointing at the heap of a hack driver sitting impassively, derby low, collar up against the wind.

“Him? You have my word he’s not a policeman.”

“I don’t know…”

“Look, I just want to talk. Have Johansen frisk me. I’m unarmed, and Officer Lillis there is just to see me home when we’re done. He’s not coming along.”

Wedemeyer spoke up. “So the idea is that we get in the hack with just you?”

“Yep, although I’d prefer no guns.”

“Hell, then count me out!” Jenkins protested.

“If you’re scared, keep your knife then,” Tillman responded, immediately regretting exposing his familiarity with Jenkins’ armament. “Are you scared of an old, unarmed, colored man?”

A moment later four pistols were in the bag that he’d told Lillis to bring, counting the young copper’s as well. Jenkins made a show of putting his unsheathed blade in his outer coat pocket. He wasn’t happy about any of this, and kept glancing at Wedemeyer.

Neither was Lillis. “Jesus, Tillman,” he protested. “God is good, but you don’t dance in a small boat. This is a bad idea!”

“One of your dear mother’s, correct? It’s all right,” said Tillman, his deep bass soothing his friend. “It’ll be a short ride. I don’t have many questions.”

Tillman sat himself on the hack’s narrow, backward-facing jump and patted the place beside him for Johansen, who gave him a quick nod before squeezing in. Wedemeyer sat across from them with Jenkins. The door windows were glass, but the opening between Tillman and the driver was covered by a rough two-piece curtain that did not keep out the cold.

“Tried to tell the young copper that I know nothing new about any of this,” Wedemeyer said peevishly.

Tillman shouted for the driver to go slow and stay on the Kansas side. Jenkins was watching the scenery as closely as he could by pulling back the covering on his door window.

“I need some answers that may help me better understand those two murders, Abrams’ and the young lady’s. The boys at the top want to know. I suspect your people here and in Chicago might as well. We’ve got no witnesses, no evidence, really. And motive? What could that be?”

He paused for a minute and then played his first card.

“Jenkins, I know you were in the whorehouse when Abrams was and…”

“I’m a bodyguard, ain’t I?” Jenkins snapped.

“Of sorts. He is dead, isn’t he? But Abrams seemed concerned about someone following him. I’m thinking that was you?”

“Bullll …,” Jenkins sneered.

“I sent him to keep the eye on Abrams,” Wedemeyer interjected. “The damned meat bosses seemed to know what we’re doing before we do!”

“So you suspected someone of playing a double game? What made you think it was Abrams?”

“Jenkins ’ere said he saw the Jew uptown vid a Pinkerton.” Before anyone could say anything, the hack was navigating another corner, trying to stay within the few blocks of Kansas City, Kan., east of the Kaw. Turning too sharply, a wheel caught one of the crates stacked outside a warehouse, tumbling them noisily into the street.

“What the hell!” Jenkins snapped. “He drunk up there?”

“Maybe,” shrugged Tillman. He thought he heard a muffled chuckle from the heavily wrapped form above. He looked at Jenkins, played another joker.

“But you’re the scab, aren’t you? Hired by the meat bosses to keep an eye on things? If anybody were talking, working with the detectives, it was you, not Abrams. Clever, frame him as the scab spy, cover your own tracks?”

“You got no proof.”

“Maybe Wedemeyer here can find some, now he knows where to look.”

“You damn right I know vere…,” the German muttered angrily.

“It wasn’t me, boss, I swear…,” Jenkins started.

Tillman cut him off. “Actually, we already started looking, with Johansen’s help.” He held out his hand to the big Swede beside him. “And you, what have you got for me?”

“Jus dese,” Johansen said, pulling from beneath his thick lumber jacket two shoes, pearl buttons barely alive in the gloom. “I look tru his room good, like you say. De vere under some stuff. And dis.” His great pale bear paw held what seemed a pillowcase.

Wedemeyer was transfixed by the shoes, one of which had lost a button. “You killed him for his…”

“No,” Tillman interrupted, “I believe Abrams was tracked down and killed because he’d know who’d sawed Liddy’s throat with her chain.” Looking at Jenkins, he said, “You just couldn’t bear to see those shoes go into the Blue with him, could you?”

Jenkins shrugged. “No, he sold them to me. Look, you can’t get me to say I killed nobody, not here, not in any bull pen.”

The big man turned to Wedemeyer. “You’re not buying this crap from this black fool, are you, boss? Even if he’s got some crap badge, all colored lie.”

“Speaking of colored,” Tillman said, fiddling with the cloth from Johansen. His finger found a hole in the dark, then another. “I’m wondering what happened in the girl’s room? You were across the hall, not for the first time, but for whatever reason you barged in when Abrams was there. I’m beginning to think you were jealous.

“You must have had your knife,” he continued, “but Abrams managed to get out the window. He left Liddy there, but then why would he suspect anyone’d kill a pretty girl? But you did kill her, didn’t you?”

Jenkins was peering outside now, trying to get his bearings. Tillman guessed they had rattled across the paving stones of James Street and were near First, getting ever closer to the Kaw.

“Was it because a Negress wouldn’t have sex with you, but she took Abrams, a Jew, into her embrace?

“You hate coloreds, you hate Jews, you hate Catholics, don’t you?” Tillman flapped the cloth, actually a hood. “What the hell is this? The Klan’s been dead for years.”

Jenkins grabbed it out of his hand. “It was my pa’s and take your damned paws off it.” His mustache writhed as he hissed. “Stupid whore kissed her damned cross, but wouldn’t kiss me…”

The hack stopped. A massive hand swept back the cloth hanging behind Tillman.

“I’ve heard enough,” Big Jim Pendergast said, thrusting a large pistol into the cramped interior. Jenkins uncoiled, elbowing Wedemeyer in the face, pushing the door open.

“No!” The policeman’s shout sounded muted as the gun roared just over his hat. The horses leapt with the shot, throwing everyone off balance. Tillman tried to grab Jenkins, who’d been half out the door when knocked back. Johansen had the same idea, was faster, but pulled back a sliced sleeve, roaring with pain and rage. Tillman felt the warm splatter as the Swede shook his wound. Wedemeyer cursed, his own blood spilling from the cupped hand over his nose.

Jenkins was out and running. Clambering over the knees of Johansen, Tillman stumbled out, too. A second blast from Jim’s pistol. Useless to shoot while trying to restrain the rearing horse.

“Here,” shouted Pendergast, throwing Tillman the heavy revolver. “Take this, I’ll try to cut him off.” Then he was slapping the reins, the cab lunging down the street to the next corner.

Tillman had seen Jenkins beelining for an alley, so he ran that way. He stopped at the mouth, heard nothing, began trotting between the piles of barrels and crates. Suddenly, a scuffing to his left. He almost sensed the hand swing toward him, raised his arm in defense, felt the deflected blade slicing through his heavy collar. Recoiling from the attack, he fell on his right side in the alley muck but pulled the trigger of the gun. The unaimed shot splattered chips of brick off the dark wall.

Jenkins set off running down the alley again.

Tillman pushed himself to his feet and continued the pursuit. Now that Jenkins knew Tillman was armed, he might not try jumping him again. The policeman came out on busy St. Louis Avenue and turned right toward the river, at most a few blocks away. His breath ragged, his motion encumbered by his heavy coat and the icy mud of the street, the copper ran on, feeling every one of his 45 years. And there was Jim and the hack clattering toward him, the two labor men leaning out its windows trying to spot the quarry.

To Tillman’s left were the switching yards that were, even under a three-quarter moon, full of shadows, still and shifting from the rumbling cars and engines. Beyond them, acres and acres of stock pens.

“He got away,” he wheezed, pulling the freezing air into protesting lungs. “I’m getting too old for this.”

“You and me both, Lieutenant,” Pendergast replied bitterly. “You and me both. How in the sweet name of Jesus did I fail to blow his head off?”

The labor men alighted. Wedemeyer, his voice changed by his crushed nose, said, “Johansen, can you get to the plant and bring out some men to look for the bastard?” The Swede jogged off awkwardly, holding his dripping arm.

Tillman looked around. Jenkins would be trying to get out of the Bottoms, head deep into Kansas. “What’s the nearest bridge?”

Pendergast considered. “The Mo-Pac, probably. Over that way is the Southern. But hell, isn’t the river frozen over?”

Tillman cursed himself for being an idiot. Just head straight for the Kaw!

Lillis materialized, accompanied by two Kansas City, Kan., policemen. “We heard shots!”

Told the murder of Abrams might have been committed on their side of the state line, the Kansas coppers agreed to join in the search. One with a Highland burr said he’d call across the river to get more men on the watch.

“Catch ’im, we’ll hold ’im for ya. Kill ’im, tho, we doon know nothin’ aboot it.”

Lillis and Tillman jumped back in the hack, the younger cop shouting, “Can you find Quarantine Alley?” Pendergast allowed he could.

Five minutes later the hack was patrolling the lane between the restless penned animals and the river bank. Even mostly frozen, the smell of manure was overwhelming with the wind mischievously blowing from the northeast. Through watering eyes, Tillman and the others peered at the snow drifted among the weeds, studied the ironwork as they passed under the railroad bridges.

“There he is! Hell, he’s halfway to the other side.”

Tillman followed Lillis’ arm and saw Jenkins, scuttling southwest down the hard channel of river ice.

“Damn, we’ll never catch him,” Lillis said. “He’s headed right for the Cudahy packing plant!”

The Missourians watched helplessly as their quarry slipped literally away, trying to keep his footing. Pendergast stood and roared, “There’s a ticket for hell for you, Ted Jenkins, and I’m gonna punch it! This ain’t over!”

They saw Jenkins stop and straighten. He kept heading toward the looming hulk of the plant but turned his head back to happily shout. “Come on down to Texas, you pukers. Find me there, and we’ll see!”

And then he disappeared.

One moment Jenkins had been moving on the ice, and the next he was gone. But he hadn’t made it to the bank.

On the ground, Tillman and Lillis could make nothing out of it.

“Where he go off to?” called Lillis, already on the ice for a game, but vain, pursuit.

Pendergast, however, was higher and had a better angle. He studied the spot where Jenkins evaporated for a long minute and then a longer one.

“Why, hell, of course,” he said and plopped on the driver bench with a deep and satisfied sigh.

As Tillman climbed up to the driver’s bench to see what wasn’t clear below, he thought Pendergast had put something to his lips and then back into his pocket.

“He went under the ice,” the black policeman reported down to his puzzled colleague. “He went down, and he’s not coming up.” Hard to see, but it appeared Jenkins’ derby, one of the few pointers in the case, had vanished with him.

“But the river’s solid rock, ain’t it?” Lillis argued, stomping his foot on the surface for emphasis. “How’d he go through this?”

Pendergast chuckled. “My guess is that there’s hot water pipes coming from Cudahy’s over there. They scald hogs and such. Got to have hot water running through the place or everything’d freeze. It must be keeping the ice soft on the underside there.”

Tillman shook his head. “I’m sorry. He should have hung.”

“Like you said, evidence wasn’t there. He mighta got off,” Pendergast consoled.

“That’s why I gave it a shot. Can’t figure how I missed the sumbitch. Come on, it’s colder than a well-digger’s arse,” Pendergast said. “Let’s call off the others and get to a nice warm saloon that I believe is waiting for us not a quarter mile from here. I know the proprietor.”

Lillis clambered back up the bank, Tillman handed the revolver to the big man, who turned the hack northward. Their destination — and all the free drinks a man could hold — was on Ninth Street just on the other side of the State Line Road.

“I believe I’m acquainted with the owner, as well,” Tillman said. “He’s not a bad fellow, even if he can’t shoot worth a damn.”

Fragments of true life in 1904 in Kansas City

▪ In about five years, Max Joffy would become Kansas City’s first Jewish policeman, probably with the support of the Pendergasts.

▪ Loose-Wiles Biscuit Co. at Eighth and Santa Fe would later be renamed Sunshine Biscuits. The widow of one of the Loose brothers, Jacob, would buy the Kansas City Country Club south of the Country Club Plaza and give it to the city as Loose Park.

▪ The bespectacled clerk on the streetcar was Harry S. Truman, who worked in the basement vault of the National Bank of Commerce until his folks called him home to work on the Grandview farm.

▪ Lovejoy’s establishment was called the Old Ladies Home because of the older, local businessmen who kept it busy. Her “resort” (as they were termed in the newspapers) actually was just steps away from that of Annie Chambers, the city’s most famous madam. Chambers and at least two dozen houses, some advertising “Wit and Mirth,” “Ladies Congenial to All Minds” and “Elegant Forms of Real Women,” crowded West Third and Fourth, only a shout from City Hall and police headquarters. Chambers’ prices ranged to $10, half of which the girls kept.

▪ In 1904, Kansas City businesses often had two telephones, one for the Missouri and Kansas Telephone Co., called “the Bell,” and one for the Home Telephone Co. This was a result of an early national antitrust ruling against the Bell system. If you subscribed to one company, you could not call anyone using the other, an unhelpful arrangement that lasted until World War I.

▪ Old Underroof was advertised in The Times in 1904. Its distillery seems to have disappeared without a trace.

▪ Drinking carbolic acid was the most common way for women to commit suicide. As Joplin City Marshal John A. McManamy said in 1904, the compound (now called phenol) caused “the greatest of agonies before they finally shuffle. In the event they do not take enough of the poison to produce death, the suffering they undergo while recovering is fearful.”

▪ While Jesse E. James, who went by Tim, ran the pawnshop at 12151/2 Grand, he also was attending the Kansas City School of Law. He would write a wildly inaccurate biography of his bandit father, move to California, help produce a silent movie about the Missouri gang and become involved in real estate and a restaurant. He died in 1951.

▪ This tale’s bordello murder was fictional, but in 1880 a rejected customer returned with an ax to kill another man at a crib at 19th and Broadway.

▪ The Ku Klux Klan had exploded in the Deep South in reaction to Reconstruction after the Civil War but had largely faded by the 1880s as Democrats regained power in the states. While the sentiments behind it always simmered, the organization reconstituted itself just before World War I, espousing hatred of blacks, Jews, Catholics and organized labor.

▪ Cudahy was one of the Big Six meat companies found in Kansas City, Kan. Armour came first, settling on the east side of the Kaw where it meets the Missouri. Swift and Schwartzchild & Sulzberger followed in the valley around the stockyards, and the Dold and Fowler plants rounded it out, although smaller operations also existed. Animals from 34 states and territories were shipped here for slaughter.

▪ Jim Pendergast retired in 1910, moved to a Johnson County farm and died the next year. His brother Tom held the First District seat until 1916 but decided on a different style of “bossism.” Tom left public office, while keeping and expanding on his brother’s Democratic machine, eventually controlling and corrupting city and county government. He moved from his modest home on 13th Street in the Bottoms to a Ward Parkway home around the corner from J.C. Nichols’ residence. Much of the fortune he made in liquor and concrete was gambled away on the ponies before he went to Leavenworth for income tax evasion on a bribe.

▪ Tillman stayed on the force until his death, in 1914, from an intestinal disorder. His son, Lon, became a well-known doctor in the black community; his daughters Portia and June were schoolteachers.

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 Bottoms’ 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 story.

This is the last part of a four-part series. Find the entire series at

To reach Darryl Levings, author of “Saddle the Pale Horse,” a retelling of the Battle of Westport, call 816-234-4689 or send email to

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