Gangster guide

Kansas City gangster tour guide and memorial plaque.

When you think of the golden age of mobsters, names like Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde might spring to mind. You may envision such hotbeds of gangsterism as Chicago or New York.

You probably won’t think of the sleepy little backwater settlement of Possum Trot, which is now commonly known as Kansas City.

My wife and I recently visited our youngest son and his wife, who live in Kansas City. It’s a given that KC is home to some very excellent barbecue, but being the contrarians that we are, our family opted to try something different. Specifically, Thai food.

We went to a restaurant called the Thai Place, an eatery whose name should erase all doubt regarding the cuisine being offered.

My son and I each ordered chicken curry. We were told that six levels of spiciness were available, ranging from “mild” to “Thai hot.” I boldly asked that mine be made “medium.” Our waitress shook her head and clucked her tongue.

“Medium is still very hot,” she said. “Maybe you should try mild.” I compromised and requested that my chicken curry be made “mild+.”

I should have known better. A lifelong Northerner, I grew up amongst people who think that ketchup should be categorized as a majorly hot spice.

The first spoonful of the intensely yellow curry caused my mouth to go numb. My face turned scarlet and I broke out in flop sweat.

“How is it?” asked my wife, who had wisely ordered a non-spicy dish. “Is it too warm for you?”

“It’s great!” I croaked, gulping down a mouthful of ice water. For some reason, I went through a lot of water that evening. Judging from my experience, I’d surmise that the “Thai hot” level of spiciness involves molten lava.

The next day we went on a gangster tour, which meant boarding a bus that motored around Kansas City as a guy stood at the front and pointed out points of gangster-related interest. Our tour guide, who was built like a bouncer, really fit the part. He was decked out in a pinstriped double-breasted suit and a gray fedora. He held an unlit cigar and spoke with an accent that seemed to indicate he was from “Joisey.”

According to our guide, Kansas City was very much an “open town” during the first half of the 20th century. Organized criminals boasted that anything could be had including gambling, bootleg liquor, and deep, philosophical conversations with painted ladies. Such things were illegal, and their purveyors raked in hefty profits. I’m guessing that that none of these ill-gotten earnings were invested in 401(k) retirement accounts.

One of the figures who merited a lot of mention during the gangster tour was a guy named Tom “Boss” Pendergast, who ran Kansas City’s political machine from 1890 to 1939. Pendergast could bestow a mind-boggling variety of favors onto his friends, from securing a job to making a court case go away to getting someone elected. Election Day turnout often hit 100% during Pendergast’s reign. This was partly due to vigorous voting by the residents of local cemeteries.

Pendergast was a civic-minded man. He was especially concerned about improving local infrastructure and constructing new public facilities. The fact that his concrete business always got the winning bids probably had nothing to do with this. Nor did it have anything to do with his company pouring a 36-foot-thick concrete runway at a Kansas City airport.

Numerous colorful characters infested the City of Fountains back in the day. And by “colorful” I mean “the kind of person who uses a Tommy gun to vent his frustration with the legal process.”

A prime example of this happened on June 17, 1933, when “Pretty Boy” Floyd and some accomplices attempted to extricate an associate from federal custody. The ensuing gunfight, which took place on the doorstep of Union Station, left five dead and came to be known as the Kansas City Massacre.

Our tour guide exited the bus and executed a comic pantomime of both sides of the gunfight. He did a great job; I especially enjoyed the extra little twitch of his legs after he crumpled to the pavement and “died.”

At the conclusion of the tour we examined divots in the granite that the spray of bullets had created during the gunfight. You don’t often get the opportunity to stick your finger into the pockmark of history.

Ironically, the guy that Floyd was trying to spring, Frank “Jelly” Nash, expired due to a high-velocity interaction with lead. “Jelly” thus wasn’t able change his nickname to something that would have instantly evoked a deep sense of dread.

My suggestion would be “Thai Hot.”

If you’d like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at jjpcnels@itctel.com. His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at Workman.com and at booksellers everywhere.

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