Kansas City is Wide Open Town by Public “Mandate”

Westbrook Pegler

Pittsburgh Press/February 19, 1938

KANSAS CITY—Arriving in Kansas City on a rather indefinite mission to look and listen, your correspondent was greeted by Mr. Otto Higgins, who is famous as a journalist in these parts and not unknown in some quarters of the Old World, where he spent some time writing one word after another about the Great War.

Mr. Higgins is now the Director of Police, and therefore, when he offered to reveal the night life of the Gateway to the West, your correspondent was inclined to hedge, not wishing to put him on the spot.

”What sort of night life?”

“Oh, crap games, keeno, anything that strikes your interest,” he said.

This candor was a little puzzling, because in most cities the head man of the police force would be astonished and furious to learn that such sports were proceeding in spite of his constant watchfulness. Mr. Higgins explained, however, that Kansas City was different, and presently there appeared on the scene Mr. Red Mathieson, a detective lieutenant of the raiding and vice squad, who had a police car and was about to start his nightly round.

There followed a tour of points of various interest, of which you may hear more another day, including a street where the nickels tapping on the windowpanes sounded, as they say, like hail.

Pretense Cast Aside

At 4 a. m. your correspondent had seen the night side of a city which has avoided pretense and is under the government and discipline of a strong political machine, which, either defiant or obedient to a mandate of the people, regards gambling and the vice business as legitimate enterprise.

In the morning there followed an interview with Mr. Bryce B. Smith, the mayor, who is a millionaire, and Henry F. McElroy, the city manager, a tight-fisted little Iowa Scot who quarrels over requisitions and appropriations, with Mr. Higgins present in the office.

In the course of the conversation, which consisted largely of boasting by Mr. McElroy of the city’s credit and the decline of crime and the insurance rate, and statistics offered in support, Mr. McElroy came to the point of stating frankly that Kansas City is a machine or gang town, run by the organization of Tom Pendergast, and of defending her nightlife on the ground of public demand.

The public never had had a chance to vote on a proposition to legalize a trade in gambling and prostitution as open as the grocery business, but the citizens did know what the machine stood for and gave the machine enough votes to indorse the system, even if the fraudulent votes were thrown out. Any time the citizens want to change this, Mr. McElroy said, they can express their preference at the polls, although it must be conceded that the factor of fraud might obscure their desires.

Spoils Everything

Mr. Higgins was sitting by nodding at Mr. McElroy’s statement of administration policy, which amounted to an affirmation of orders to let the boys and girls alone provided, of course, that there be no sticking or shooting and that they stay within certain prescribed zones of operation. Kansas City, it seems, always has been an open town, and a cattle market man remarked afterward that on a few regrettable occasions when efforts had been made to prevent gambling and unchastity the livestock market showed an abrupt decline, as the cattlemen pushed right on past to Chicago to sell their pets and indulge in a little rejoicing.

Mr. McElroy had many facts on his side, and he seemed sincere and honest up to the last of the interview, when he said something that spoiled everything, as one bug may ruin a whole bowl of consommé.

Mr. McElroy said the machine took absolutely no graft from the gambling houses and brothels of Kansas City, at which point Mr. Higgins coughed politely, blinked behind his glasses and looked at the ceiling.

(Source: Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/5839042/westbrook_pegler_column_on_pendergast/)

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