© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Kansas City Historian's New Book Counts 440 Saloons, 900 Brothels And Thousands Of Vigilant Women

Steve Willis Photography
After moving to Kansas City 12 years ago, Karla Deel fell in love with the city's rich history.

In her telling of Kansas City history, writer Karla Deel made room for people and topics she says wouldn't have a place in other history books — "vulnerable voices that are often hushed," she calls them.

Tales of the city's rampant corruption during the late 1800s until about the 1940s are the main attractions of her new book "Storied & Scandalous Kansas City: A History of Corruption, Mischief and a Whole Lot of Booze." So of course it covers the city's notorious political boss Tom Pendergast. But Deel notes that it was a group of women — even more than a federal charge of tax evasion — that finally unseated him.

Thousands of women formed a division of something called the United Campaign Committee to speak out against him before the city election in 1940, she writes. And then, on election day, 8,000 of them fanned out over the city to ensure the integrity of the of polling places.

"They rallied together under the 'Ballots and Brooms versus Bosses and Bullets' slogan and used broom-shaped lapel pins to show their support for non-Pendergast candidates," Deel writes.

"I just kept drawing on parallels of today and the women’s movements that are gaining such strength and being heard today," she says. "And I just thought, 'Wow, so many years later and it’s still the women at the forefront of fighting for positive change in society.'"

Deel was also intrigued by personal information about Pendergast.

"He was not a drinker," she notes. "He was a heavy gambler, but a lot of people think all these dark, sordid-type figures like Pendergast would be partiers or out doing this or that, but he would just prefer to be home in bed with his wife by 9 p.m."

A Joplin native, Deel first fell in love with Kansas City history after she moved to the metro about 12 years ago, and later created a website called Squeezebox City to share her discoveries.

"For the longest time, we just solely published stuff online, but since then I've been producing events related to Kansas City history, which is primarily its focus now," Deel says. Those events include tours of spots like the 8th Street Tunnel or panel discussions about especially juicy bits of local lore.

For the book, she gathered all new material.

One preson who doesn't make it into many accounts of the area, she says, is Sarah Rector, whose story might seem juicy to many. Rector was among a handful of black millionaires in the United States in the early 1900s. She was commonly referred to by the media as "the richest black girl in the world." 

Rector was 11 when the barren-looking plot of Oklahoma land she'd been given in the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887 turned out to be rich with oil. She moved to Kansas City as a young adult and purchased what became known as the Rector Mansion at 12th and Euclid, which still stands, though in a state of disrepair.

"Which I think is a total injustice to her story," Deel says. "Imagine living that life, from a slave to a millionaire." 

Her research also revealed plenty about one of Kansas and Missouri's earliest border wars. Kansas went dry long before federal Prohibition laws cut off its neighbor's alcohol supply.

Deel writes that one reporter called Kansas City, Kansas, "the cleanest city morally of all the cities in the whole world," in contrast to Kansas City, Missouri, "which was referred to as a little less than a modern Sodom."

Some of Deel's statistics include: 440 saloons that were shuttered during Prohibition in 1919; an election that a leader won with 18,500 votes, even though that precinct didn’t have anywhere near that many voters; and the existence of 900 brothels doing brisk business in 1911.

Thinking about all of those brothels, she says, was a stark reminder of "just some of the ways that women were sort of manipulated to use their bodies," she says. She didn't want to include too much of that information, she says, because much of the material she read seemed like "a celebration of a man’s rule over a woman’s body" and she did not want to duplicate that.

Most of her primary source material, she notes, was written by men.

"A lot of the journalists of the day were men. A lot of the people in power — the police, the judges — were all men. And businesses: men. Mobsters: men."

As far as Deel is concerned, absolutely every story is worth telling. She says she could have written a book many times the size of this one.

"Every single thing that happens here has a domino effect that affects us all and will continue to into the future," Deels says. "So, I just feel like no wrongdoing is without forgiveness, and it's a part of our past and a part of our history, and we can’t escape that, and we can learn from it. So, I'm happy to present all sides of our history."

"Storied & Scandalous Kansas City" book release, 6:30-10:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2 at the Mutual Musicians Foundation, 1823 Highland Ave., Kansas City, Missouri 64108. Tickets are $12 and must be purchased in advance.

Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter, @AnneKniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.