A Burning Cold Morning (Part 14)

Now that the moment was upon him, he was more nervous than he had hoped to be and was a little angry at himself because of it.  Leo wanted to be a cold, hard criminal, part of the Pendergast machine, and getting the shakes because he had to pick a lock in the darkness was no way for such a person to act.  His was, however, trembling as he tried to get the lock open and the picks fell several times from hands which were also starting to lose feeling from the cold.  Frustration building inside of him, Leo took a deep breath and tried again, still to no avail.  Glancing at his pocket watch he realized that ten minutes had already gone by and it was very close to ten o’clock.  Fumbling the picks again, he picked them up and this time, with his eyes squinted up in frustration and foggy breath blowing out in ragged bursts, he managed to get the lock open.  He then quietly pushed the door open, threw his packages into the car and waited for the bells.

Church Tower Kansas City

Church Tower Kansas City

Ten o’clock came and went but nothing happened.  Leo sat there in the vehicle of one of the most powerful men in Kansas City, in possession of two items that were going to be hard to explain, armed bodyguards only a short distance away, and with the the cold creeping into his body and waited in silence.  Ten oh-three, ten oh-four, and still nothing but the cold air and his own breathing.  At ten oh-five something slammed from the direction of the house and Leo almost took off running, but nothing else followed that sound and the silence returned.  Finally, at ten oh-eight the bells pealed in the distance and Leo pushed the button to start the Renault.  Nothing happened, so he pushed it again to no effect.  Realizing that he was going to have to hand-crank the engine, he swore and jumped out.

As he slid the hand crank into the generator unit, Leo could still hear the bells although he knew that was not going to last much longer.   The man he had paid had stated that after a few minutes of them ringing the priest, who lived two houses away, was going to come looking for a reason.  It took two attempts but finally the vehicle fired up and Leo sped out of the storage shed, clipping the edge of the door with the back wheel,  just thirty seconds before the bells stopped ringing.  He could hear the last sounds from them fading into the night as he turned east onto Twenty-Seventh Street headed toward Union Cemetery.

Leo still did not have a solid idea about hiding the car but his immediate plan was to stick to the middle of the city.  The Rabbits firmly controlled everything down by the river and the Goats had most of the southeast portion, east of the KC Rail Line, under their power.  That left a portion of the city, roughly bordered by four schools, where one was least likely to run into an operative of either side.  Turning north off of Twenty-Seventh, Leo took Broadway and then turned into what he considered to be the safe zone on Sixteenth Street.  As he passed the Webster School a small feeling of relief came over him although the adrenaline was still pumping fairly strongly through his body.  His senses were on high alert and several times he thought he caught the sound of a vehicle approaching; however, each time this proved to be false.  Turning north on Oak Street, two blocks later Leo arrived at Central Place, a park area almost directly in the center of his safety zone.  Still without a plan as to what to do for the remainder of the night, he pulled the vehicle over into a dark, tucked away corner of the park and listened for any sounds of pursuit.

As he sat there, finally out of immediate danger, the adrenaline finally left his body and his hands and legs began to shake uncontrollably.  Scolding himself again, Leo tucked his hands under his armpits and clenched his leg muscles in a attempt to get the shaking to stop.  Eventually it did of course and his breathing, which he had not noticed was irregular and fast, also returned to normal.  The night settled in quietly around him again, and although he was getting very cold Leo felt a strong sense of accomplishment.  He was certain that this was going to get him an invite to join up with Pendergast.

It was forty minutes later, around eleven o’clock, when Leo heard the distant but approaching sound of what seemed to be several vehicles.  Knowing that it was extremely unusual for multiple vehicles to be on the road late at night, and especially on Christmas Eve, he had the sudden sinking feeling that the theft had been discovered.  Knowing that these possible searchers would eventually make their way to his location, Leo started up the Renault again and headed back out onto Oak Street.  He was making things up as he went at this point, so he headed south down Oak even though that brought him closer to Goat territory.  Going that direction had to be better than going toward the river where someone was sure to recognize Shannon’s vehicle.  Willing the car to be quiet, Leo eased it down the road, watching and listening intently as he went.  Crossing over Eighteenth he was suddenly lit up by the headlights of another vehicle and a small yelp escaped his lips before he could control it.  As the vehicle went past, two old men who hardly looked his way, Leo fought down the impulse to shout profanities at them.

He could now see two sets of headlights trailing behind him on Oak, and seeming to gain ground.  Making a quick turn onto Twentieth Street Leo pressed the car hard and was soon going almost forty miles per hour.  The headlights turned his way, still seemingly in pursuit, so he turned hard onto Holmes Street and then west onto Twenty Third.  The lights still followed him; however, and he made another attempt to lose them by turning onto Grand Ave and really pushing the vehicle as hard as he could, eventually reaching a speed of forty-four miles per hour.  As he crossed over Twenty-Seventh Leo saw that he was back in the area of Union Cemetery and he impulsively slammed the brakes and pulled in, careening through the open gate and onto the dirt road that wandered among the graves.

Union Cemetery Kansas City

Union Cemetery Kansas City

Although he could no longer see any lights behind him he was certain that the chase was not over, so he drove deep into the cemetery and pulled the vehicle behind a large stone monument.  Shutting it down, he leapt out, taking his packages with him, and ran to a small copse of trees about twenty feet away.  Out of breath and sweating, he sat down and waited.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 13)

Early the next morning, Christmas Eve, he stopped the church’s maintenance man as he was unlocking the side door. Seven dollars later Leo had a promise from him to ring the church’s bells at 10 p.m. that night.  He had hoped for it to cost less, initially offering three dollars, but the man had been insistent, stating that there was a decent chance he would get fired over it and that he would need the additional money to tide him over until he found new work.  Leo also knew that technically the car was supposed to be stolen on Christmas  Day but that had been impossible to convince the maintenance man to go along with as “ringing them bells on Jesus’ day is surely a sin no money can save me from.”  So, it would have to be Christmas Eve, and maybe he could hide the car someplace overnight to make good on the original instructions.

With those things settled, Leo had some time to spare until he needed to start actually acting on his plan later that night.  As he sat nervously in his room that morning he came up with one final detail that he thought would ensure his place in Pendergast’s organization.  For that he needed to take another walk, this one outside the city limits, and go kill some rabbits.

These rabbits would be the animal kind, not their human namesakes that were controlled by Shannon.   Leo had brought a small pistol with him, tucked into his pocket as he made his way past Market Square and then alongside the train depot that fronted the Missouri River near the bridge.  Forty minutes later he was well away from the main part of the developed area in Kansas City and picking his way along the riverbank.  Red Godding, who was country-born and raised before embarking on his criminal career, often talked about killing rabbits down in this area of the river, bringing them back to the Savoy to make into stew.  Leo did not know much about hunting, having avoided it as much as possible during his own youth, but he figured that it could not be that hard to kill a few small animals.  This of course proved to not be true and several other men he ran into, armed with traps and rifles, gave him looks of pity and amusement as they saw him hiding with his pistol in hand.  Leo persevered though and, after two hours of crouching in river weeds and behind trees, he had two rabbits in hand to take back with him.

Stashing his kills in a box, Leo took a nap and woke up around six-thirty in the evening.  Knowing he had a long night ahead of him, he ate a large dinner down at the Savoy’s restaurant and then went back to his room to prepare himself.  He spent a little more time practicing with the lock and then pulled out a map of the city.  Although he had his original route well-planned and memorized, he wanted to be familiar with as much of the city’s layout as possible.  This was especially important now that he was stealing the car early and was going to have to hide out with it for awhile.  He came up with a few general ideas but nothing definite, hoping that he could finalize his plan on the way to Shannon’s house later in the evening.  Setting the map aside, Leo then pulled out a piece of wood that he had picked up out of the scrap bin of a lumber mill a week before while on a walk.  He had given the message some thought, wanting it to be derogatory enough to really impress Pendergast.  Written sloppily in black paint, the message read:

Shannon is a Zozzled Four-Flusher

Who’s The Next Dead Rabbit?

After the paint dried he wrapped it in burlap, cleaned up, and then got ready to depart.  It was cold that day, around twenty-six degrees by evening with the temperature still dropping, and Leo pulled on a sweater before shrugging into a grey wool overcoat and snapping his gloves closed at the wrists.  Shoving the rabbits into a canvas bag and tucking the sign under his arm, he put on his fedora, cocking the brim up just a little over his right eye, and walked out to steal Joe Shannon’s Renault.

As he walked south toward his target’s house, Leo thought again about what to do with the vehicle after he stole it.  He was a little bit uncertain about how Pendergast was going to view the fact that he was stealing the car on the wrong day, but he was certain that displaying it to mock Shannon before Christmas morning was going to result in not getting paid.  Kansas City was a big enough place, but Leo did not have any acquaintances who owned building where something as big as the Renault could be hidden.  All of his friends lived in rooms much like his own if not smaller.  Also, with large portions of the city controlled by one of the two factions, there really were not many places he could go that someone would not report seeing the Renault either to Pendergast or Shannon.  He continued thinking about it all the way to the Orphan’s House, trying to avoid the few people out for a late Christmas Eve stroll as much as possible, but had not come up with anything by the time he arrived at eight forty-five in the evening.

He rested there, in the darkness behind the Orphan’s House for fifteen minutes, stomping his feet to keep the feeling in them and blowing warm breath inside of his gloves.  He then picked his two packages back up and walked briskly toward Shannon’s house.  As he approached he could see two lights still on in the upstairs windows although the bottom floor was entirely dark.  Ducking off the road, behind a large tree and a group of cedar bushes, Leo waited and watched, hoping that all of the lights would be extinguished.  That, however, did not happen and at nine forty-five, with only fifteen minutes to spare until the bells rang, he knew that he had to make his move.  Walking rapidly up to the secured shed door, fedora now pulled down over both eyes, Leo set down the dead rabbits and the sign, yanked off his gloves and pulled out his lock picks.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 12)

Manny Barton was not exactly an appealing example of the human species.  At five foot four and two hundred eighty pounds, little of which was muscle, it was often difficult for people to imagine him stealthily creeping around businesses at night to break open safes.  He also wore clothes that were too big even on his large frame, had a mess of gnarled and habitually unwashed brown hair, and moved at what was described as the “breakneck pace of a lame snail,” by his brother.  Behind his back people called him slovenly although to his face they never used anything other than his name or its shortened form of Man.  He might not catch you quickly if you insulted him, but he would catch you, and then his large, fat hands would wrap around your neck and slowly crush your windpipe while he blew his garlic breath into your face.  That had happened to at least six people in the last few years, all of whom could still vouch for his manner of vengeance because Manny always stoped before he actually killed you.  He was strictly a thief and a robber after all, as his brother would tell everyone who asked about it.

Mickey Barton was a big man also, but in the impressive way, the opposite of his brother.  He weighed about two hundred and eighty also but was six foot six, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested.  He also was a murderer in addition to being a thief and robber, although Mickey did not have much patience for strangling people.  He just walked up and shot you if he thought you needed to be dead.  Both of them always dressed in black suits, Mickey’s well tailored and Manny’s oversized and hanging poorly over his various bulges.  Mickey answered the door to Leo’s knock.

“Got a few minutes to help me?” Leo asked, holding up the lock.

Mickey raised an eyebrow and replied in his usual clipped tone.  “Wh’t’s it for? Not the Shann’n job I hope?”

“It is,” Leo replied.  “I just need to understand how to get a lock like this open.”

By now Manny had walked up to the open door.  “Why?”

“Shut up Man, we don’t want to know.  We don’t want n’thing to do with that job.  It too dangerous.”

“I don’t want your help, well not directly anyway, just to show me how to open this lock.  That’s it.” Leo replied.

“What’s that lock got to do with it?” Manny asked, his small grey eyes peeking out of fat cheeks.

“Man, I told you,”

“It won’t hurt to hear what he’s up to brother, it don’t mean we’re gettin’ involved,” Manny interrupted.

Mickey scowled back at Manny and replied.  “It most certainly will mean that we are inv’lved.  Just knowing anything about that job is g’ing to be really bad for people’s health in a few days.”

“Come on in Lee, come on, I’ll talk to you about it.  Mickey can go hide for awhile so he isn’t privy to any of it.  Make himself feel better.”  Pulling on Leo’s hand to get him into the room, Manny waved his brother toward the bedroom door.  “Go hide Mick, go hide.”

Over the next two hours, interrupted only once by Mickey coming out to get a glass of milk, Manny taught Leo how to get the particular model of Sargent padlock open that Leo had bought with him.  The trick, as explained by Manny, was to be approach the picking of the lock very slowly and carefully, gently even.  Leo needed to “feel the delicate insides of the beast move” as Manny put it and to “understand that it is all just a matter of patience.”  The Barton’s had many different kinds of locks, all kept inside of a worn wooden chest, some of them cut open so Leo could examine exactly what he needed to do to get a lock to open up for him.  Once he had that down, Manny blindfolded him to simulate the darkness he would be working in, and eventually Leo could open the lock easily even with that handicap.  As he left, they shook hands with Manny cautioning him more loudly than necessary to “never mention that you were here to anyone,” a wry smile on his face as he closed the door.  As he walked away down the hallway he could already hear the brother’s starting to argue.

Leo sat around his place the rest of that day, going over as much of his plan as he could until he was sure that he knew every element of it and had planned for every possible contingency.  He drew a map of the route he planned to take with the car and then went out and walked that route, making sure that there was nothing going on in the streets that could cause an issue.  Once he was back at his place, Leo practiced the lock picking for another hour and then tried to figure out a way of getting the car out of its storage shed quietly.  He knew that starting it up was going to cause a problem as it would be nighttime and quiet, the men inside the Shannon house sure to hear the Renault engine firing up.  Letting it coast out of the shed in neutral was also out of the question as the roadway sloped down toward the Shannon property, meaning gravity would work against the weight of the car.  The vehicle was also much too heavy for one man to push along by himself.  So, with the certainty that he was going to have to start the car to get it out of the garage, Leo realized he would need to create some kind of a distraction.  He decided to take one more walk around the area and see what he could come up with as a plan.

Church Kansas City Missouri 1925i

Church Kansas City Missouri 1925

Joe Shannon lived on the southern edge of Kansas City, right off of Summit Street and near the Orphan’s House he had helped to build.  It was a quieter area of the town, removed from the bustle of downtown and also from the noise of the riverside docks and depots that were Shannon’s center of power.  He sometimes felt exposed out in the Summit Street area but his bodyguards made him feel safe enough and he greatly enjoyed the peace and quiet.  Leo could not come up with anything as he strolled along those tranquil streets, at least not until he walked past the Episcopal Church that was only blocks from the Shannon house.  That church had a bell tower and bell towers make noise.  And that solved Leo’s dilemma.

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 11)

Chaz spat on the floor and muttered, “told you so,” while Mickey & Manny, the safe-cracking Barton twins, whistled and swore.  Leo just stared back at Red, who was still rubbing his hands together, which seemed to indicate that the surprises were not over.  Leo asked it again.

“And?”

“That’s not the end of it? How can it get worse?” Chaz asked.

“Well, it must be much worse because Red here sure ain’t done spilling it.  He’s sweating like a pig,” Leo responded while still staring at Godding.

“So, so, well, the rest of it,” Red stuttered a little which was unusual for him, “it, it, well you have to take it on Christmas Day and leave it on the corner of 9th & Jefferson.”  Red still was not done and Leo did not bother asking again.  He just waited and finally the last part of the job was revealed.

“It, it, needs to have a sign on it,  you know, making fun of the Rabbits.”  Little Red shrugged his big shoulders and then continued.  “They didn’t tell me what it was supposed to say, it just needs to be, well, you know, mocking I guess.”  Red stuffed his hands in his pockets and turned away with a final, “That’s all of it.”  He then slumped into a chair and pulled a flask from the inside of his coat, taking a long pull before closing his eyes and leaning back into the soft leather.

Chaz summed up what the rest of them were thinking.  “Leo, you would be an idiot to take this job.  There ain’t nothing good that can come from taking Joe Shannon’s car and then making fun of him right in the middle of his ward.  That corner is right by the stockyards and it’s Rabbit central.”

Mickey and Manny were nodding vigorously and talking to each other about how stupid it would be to get involved.  Leo seemed to have another opinion.

“One thing it would do for sure though is get me in good with Pendergast.  He’d owe me.”

“He’s already paying you and you don’t mean nothing to him.  Your just a small-time sucker getting hired out to take the fall,” Chaz replied, “stay away from it Leo.”

“Can you get me the money up front Red?”

Godding cracked one eye open from the chair.  “You really want this job?”

“I’ll do it,” Leo replied, “just get me that money.”

Red had a smile on his face now, his mission accomplished.  “I’ll go see about it right away.”

Two days later there was a knock at Leo’s apartment.  As he opened the door, Red handed him fifty dollars, stating that there was just no way that he could get any more of it before the job was done.  He also mentioned that there better not be any backing out of the job now or Mr. Pendergast would take such an insult very personally.  Leo nodded in reply and closed the door.  He went back to the small table that was tucked under the window that faced Ninth Street where he had been working on his plan.  There were only thirteen days to go until Christmas and Leo still had a few things that needed to be done.

One of these was to make sure he was familiar with the vehicle he was supposed to steal.  Although Leo was a proficient driver, he had never driven any vehicle made by Renault.  There were enough variations and idiosyncrasies among the wide variety of cars in the 1920’s that one could never be sure exactly how to operate a particular version or model.  As far as Leo could tell from asking around, there was exactly one Renault NN in Kansas City, namely the one he was supposed to steal. He doubted that he could manage to convince Joe Shannon to let him take it out for a drive so he had to find another one somewhere close.  Eventually he did, with several of them available in Independence, and he marked that item off his planning list on the eighteenth of December.  He did find out that the vehicle was more prone than some others to not starting right away, and often needing to be hand-cranked, all of which of course worried him.  Although he had not shown it to any of the Savoy Seven, he was indeed very nervous about this particular job.  He knew it was risky but he had a strong desire to get in good with the main Kansas City crime scene and felt that this was his ticket to accomplish that goal.

The last item that he needed to complete was to scout out the locations from which he might have to steal the Renault.  After a couple  days of observing Joe Shannon around town Leo realized how difficult this job might become.  Everywhere that the Rabbit’s leader went, he always had a group of three to four bodyguards with him and one of them was always left standing by the car.  This even happened when the group would eat, with the man left on guard having to dine from a plate delivered to the vehicle by the restaurant staff.  Then Leo hit upon the idea of taking the car from wherever it was parked at night, as he doubted it was guarded at those times.

He turned out to be correct about that; however, the location of the Renault’s night storage was less than ideal, as it was in a small building directly behind Shannon’s house.  That building, from what Leo observed over two nights of nocturnal spying, also had the large, swinging access door bolted and locked shut every night.  This was going to be a very difficult caper indeed, but one that he was going to have to pull off, both for his own safety and his future.  The main problems were how to get past the locked door, and then how to get the vehicle out of the building without alerting Shannon’s bodyguards, who all slept in the same house as their leader.

Sargent padlock

Sargent padlock

It was time to get a little bit of advice and for the first part he knew exactly where to go.  Manny and Mickey Barton, members of the Savoy Seven, some of the best known and most successful safe-crackers in Missouri, were also very skilled with any kind of locking device.  Leo strolled past Shannon’s house one day, noted the kind of lock used and then went and purchased one at the hardware store.  Twenty minutes later, and with only two days to go until Christmas,  he knocked on the door of the Barton’s second floor room at the Savoy.

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 10)

Joe Shannon

Joe Shannon

Joe Shannon was another political boss in Kansas City, although his influence was on the decline in 1925.   By that time Tom Pendergast had consolidated his power and held influence over several judges in the area and large portions of the city government.  Shannon’s faction, known as the Rabbits to Pendergast’s Goats, held little influence inside the city with the exception of several members of the police force and their original constituency along the Missouri and Kansas River.  Although at this time neither faction controlled the police completely,  there were a few members of it who owed much of their livelihood to the Rabbits and were prepared to make good on that allegiance.

Savoy Hotel Kansas City MO

Savoy Hotel Kansas City MO

Leo’s undoing in Kansas City began with a simple discussion over coffee one morning, just as so many of the days had started for the Savoy Seven, as Leo’s group of criminal buddies had taken to calling themselves.  Ben ‘Little Red’ Godding, a walking contradiction of a man at six foot three and with jet black hair, mentioned there was a car theft job he could not take due to having to head to Omaha to look after an ailing sister.  Everyone passed on picking this job up expect Leo, who took it but noticed that the others were giving him odd looks.

“What?” Leo asked, shrugging up his pointy shoulders and waving a hand at them.  “It’s a simple job and I could use the money.”

“I think Red’s playing you Lee, all of us probably,  and he oughta be ashamed on himself,” replied Bill Fallon who also cast a scornful look at Godding.

“I’m just offering it out there and he took it.  Not my fault,” Godding snapped back.

“What’s the big deal?” Leo asked.  “What’s going on?”

“You missed it last week but Red here made a step up in the world, its almost surprising that he’s even down here still talking to us polecats.”

“Shut up Bill.”

“You denying you got picked up by the Goats?”

“I, well no, I’m not, but that don’t have nothing to do with us here.”

“Sure it does, and besides, if you’re with the Goats now I’m sure it ain’t jake with them to go passing off your work to us cats.  So, that leads to the main question of why you’re down here putting it out?”

Red Godding shuffled his feet a few times, his cheeks blushing red while his brown eyes blinked much more rapidly than usual.  The group was silent, waiting, and eventually he rubbed a big, calloused hand across his face and sighed.

“Listen fellas, they just asked me to take the job and put it out for someone to do, someone from outside the Goats ya know?”

“Oh, so you sister isn’t sick then?  You sure tried to sell us that angle a second ago.  Looks like most of what you picked up from them Goats was how to lie to your friends.”

“No, she ain’t sick, and I’m sorry about all that.  I just, well, I don’t know how to do all this stuff now, stuff they want me to do.  It’s more complicated than I thought it would be.”

“So, why did you go to them Red?” Leo asked.

“I just thought it would be better, more money, more chances to make something of myself.  Instead,” and here paused to look up at the ceiling, “well, they just tell me to do stuff and get mad when I mess it up.”

“So, you came to us because we’re easy and you could get your mission done and not get smacked around by your new bosses ? Or did you think you would come down here and hand out some charity?” Bill snapped back.

“I figured that was the right thing to do after all, you know, because of our relationship.”

“We ain’t got no relationship now that you’re in the Goats, so spare us the pity.”  Bill lit up a cigar and walked away after that, muttering under his breath on the way out the door.  Red shrugged at the rest of the group.

“What’s the job?” Leo asked.

“Like I said, just stealing a car, that’s it.  And it pays really good.”

“Like how good?”

“A hundred.”

Leo and the remaining members of the Seven all blinked collectively at that answer, a large amount for a simple car theft.  Then Chaz Mayfield spoke up in his nasally, Iowa-bred voice.

“I’ll take that action.”

“I already said I would take it,” Leo replied, “so you’re out of the game.”

“Damn,” Chaz whispered back, “I bet it’s some wooden nickel job.”

Leo raised an eyebrow at Red while taking his glasses off to polish them.  Silence filled the room for several long moments and then Leo put his glasses back on and stared at Red.

“Well?”

Red finally spoke but seemed to know that what he was about to say was not going to make him any friends.

“Well, it’s a unique car, a Renault NN, that should make it interesting huh?”

1925 Renault CV NN

1925 Renault CV NN

Everyone seemed to understand that Red was stalling.

“Hey, ain’t that, oh damn, you can’t be serious,” Chaz’s voice tailed off and Red hung his head a little bit.

“And?” Leo asked, an irritated edge to his voice.

Red massaged his hands a few times and answered to the floor.

“It’s Joe Shannon’s car.”

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 9)

I guess it would be more accurate to say that these aliases were born at some point during Leo’s confinement in prison, as it was certainly something about which he had been thinking.  These are the main alternate names he would continue to use throughout the remainder of his life and their origin is fairly easy to determine.  Lee O’Dare is a play on his first name and Robert O’Hara uses the first name of two men who had played a role in his early criminal development.  Leo used those names interchangeably in the years to come, along with a few variations closer to his actual identify, as he traveled along the path of crime that he seemed incapable of escaping.  He also sprinkled in a good number of other aliases, although those were used only for very short periods of time in attempts to mask his identify from local law enforcement.  He would actually be arrested under these various names several times in his life including the first time he was taken back into custody after McNeil.  That was, however, several years in the future and for now he has just emerged from prison.

Leo did seem to make another attempt at legitimacy, applying to the University of Hawaii immediately after his release and lingering for a month or two in Washington State waiting for a reply.  During this time he lived under his real name at a shabby rooming house in Olympia, with a few reports indicating he worked part-time at a nearby hardware store.  Eventually the answer did come, a simple letter expressing the university’s regret that they could not admit him, and he departed the area sometime in early 1925.

Pacific House Hotel Kansas City MO

Pacific House Hotel Kansas City MO

Using a combination of train and bus travel, Leo arrived in the Kansas City, Missouri area in February of 1925, setting himself up at the Pacific House Hotel.  This lodging establishment had previously been the best in town but had fallen from that stature by the time Leo arrived.  Although it could claim that the James brothers had hung out at the bar, and that it had housed occupying Union troops during the Civil War, by 1925 it was a rundown building with seedy clientele.  When Leo moved in he promptly met Chuck Miner, a small-time operator in fencing stolen property.  Miner happened to be in the outlying orbit of a man, Tom Pendergast, who was becoming increasingly powerful in Kansas City and the surrounding area.

Tom Pendergast courtesy vcu.edu

Tom Pendergast courtesy vcu.edu

Tom Pendergast had been making his way up the ladder of Kansas City politics and influence for quite awhile, beginning with assisting his brother James in gaining control over the West Bottoms area of the city.  Much of their influence came from providing vice opportunities to the working class in this poor and rundown area, and their wealth came from the profits associated with those illegal business ventures.  James eventually became an alderman and fought for the working-class residents of his ward, promoting ideas such as citywide garbage collection, parks and the maintenance of fire stations.  The family business, however, remained fixed in the areas of vice that they had always profited from and James used his influence to protect those enterprises.  He also provided jobs, via the political spoils system, to members of his family including his brother Tom who began his ascent as a constable in the court system.  Following James’ death in 1911, Tom ran for and won his council seat and by 1925 was poised to basically take over the political power in the city.  That power, wielded freely and in a wide-ranging way by Pendergast, provided opportunities for some of the criminal elements in Kansas City.

Leo only factors into the history of the 1920’s Kansas City crime scene in a small way.  Chuck Miner struck up a conversation with Leo, who inflated his criminal resume by including several arrests and a prison term in Hawaii that never happened.  These tall tales matched the stories Leo had been telling at McNeil during the latter part of his imprisonment, which was fortuitous for Humbert.  Chuck knew a man who had also been imprisoned there and just been released, and that man verified that Leo was an experienced criminal.  Convinced that he was a like-minded fellow, Chuck gave Leo the name of a person who could provide him with some opportunities to make money.   These jobs were of course illegal in nature, something to which Leo did not object.  Although he proved to have little talent or interest in making liquor runs or strong-arming merchants and voters, he did prove to have skills in car theft and converting stolen property.  He spent almost a year in Kansas City, living well enough to eventually move out of the Pacific House and avoiding arrest mostly through the corruption of the local police force.  Leo also made several more connections on the edges of the city’s criminal world and was known as a competent and trustworthy operator.

Although it is hard to tell exactly when Leo changed his name in Kansas City, the first record available is when he moved out of the Pacific House.  Every reference to his stay there lists him as Leo Humbert and when he moved into the Savoy Hotel in June 1925 he is known as Lee O’Dare.  His room, a third floor corner space that overlooked 9th Street, was fashionable for the time and a big step up from his former address.   There were several other residents at the Savoy who were also members of the city’s criminal element, and this group would often sit around and drink their morning coffee in the hotel restaurant.  It was a small group of small-time operators but they looked out for each other and passed along excess jobs when they could.  The group had no leader but Leo was considered to be smart and well-mannered and he may have eventually risen to a position of influence in Kansas City.  However, this was not to be as one day in December 1925 Leo crossed the wrong person.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 8)

At this point in our story it is early 1922, just after New Year’s and Robert Markword is already gone from McNeil.  Leo has the majority of his sentence in front of him and has settled into the flow of daily life at the prison.  In the complicated social structure of the criminal residents there he is considered to be a small-time crook, a fact with which he is not satisfied.  His interest in the Gardner escape is still prevalent although it does seem that he took the advice of Robert Markword before he left, which was to stop making himself so noticeable to the guards and other inmates.  This fact is known due to a letter that Leo wrote in January 1922 to Robert Lester, apparently believing that his former partner was still a free man.  The letter was intercepted by the McNeil Island guards and, after finding that the addressee was actually also a federal prisoner and known associate of Humbert,  it was placed in Leo’s file as potential evidence of illicit communication between criminals.  The handwriting is legible in an overly-loopy sort of a way, with the words in neat lines on what is now yellowing paper.

Robert – 

It is just past New Year’s 1922 and I have landed at McNeil Island.  You may have heard about it over here, the whole toot about the Gardner escape, it happened just before I arrived.  I asked too many questions about that though and took a good beating for it from a bunch of prison bimbo’s – they broke my cheaters and now I have to wear prison issued ones that don’t have the right prescription.  Guess it’s best to keep quiet and discreet about that now, which is what my cellmate told me when I started showing him my notes.  He’s a good fella, name of Bob, a bank robber he says, and gave me some info on surviving in this place.  He left after a few weeks so I’m waiting on a new one but have the cell to myself for now.  I’ve been thinking about the future and hoping to make the best of it once I get out of this place.  Send me back if you can 

Leo

PS – If you’re wondering, I stayed quiet – L

Why Leo wrote such an explicit note, especially given that he had apparently been warned about being discreet, is not known, although loneliness and his general criminal naiveté may have been a contributing factor.  From the looks of the letter, it would appear that Leo wrote the post-script at least twice, erasing it and then writing it again.  As the rest of the letter has no such corrections, I think he likely thought better of it due to its rather incriminating inference to something that merited silence.  Ultimately, as it was included in what he tried to send, Leo probably could not resist the urge to make sure Robert knew he had not betrayed him to the authorities.

As 1922 went on Leo made efforts to improve his image and reputation among the inmates.  Most of his thinking at this time, up until June of that year, is also known through letters, all of them to Robert Lester and all of them of course undelivered.  His comments show a man who wants to be thought of as an experienced criminal and what Leo references several times as a “hard-boiled guy.”  In the language of that time, this meant a tough guy, someone who other people respected and probably feared.  He went out of his way to argue with the guards, pick fights with other inmates and embellish his criminal history as much as possible, especially to those that came into the prison after his own arrival.  He also continues to make references to the Gardner escape, although they tend to be much more veiled than before, and he complains about getting no replies back to his letters.  The most interesting thing among these seized communications are a few sentences from April of that year.

Still having fun with my hobby – found a good specimen last week.  Hoping to have more to tell later. 

That entry would be less remarkable were it not for the fact that one week later he received the one and only person who ever visited him while he was in prison.  This person, who signed in as Grace Melcher, was very likely a woman name Veronica Stillman, a local of the area known to have also visited Roy Gardner prior to his escape from McNeil.  She was known to have many aliases, most of which she used to visit prisoners, and had used this particular one before.  There was much speculation following the Gardner escape about how he managed to get off of the island, with the most prevalent theory being that someone picked him up in a rowboat.  Nothing else is known of Veronica’s visit to see Leo and she never returned to see him.

By June 1922, likely due to the lack of response from Lester, the letters stop and the only remaining information we have on Leo is what is contained in his prison record.  Those facts are sparse indeed and reflect only a few stints in isolation due to fighting and a trip to the hospital to have his appendix removed.  There is also a mention, in August 1923, that Leo had briefly been a trustee within the prison, followed by a terse note in September of that year, “trustee status revoked for noncompliance”.  By 1924 he had been approved for an early release, mostly due to the non-violent nature of his crime.  The last entry in his McNeil Island record, called the Exit Evaluation, was written by Finch Archer who was the warden at McNeil Island when Leo was released.

finch archer warden mcneil 1922 1934 courtesy digitalarchives.wa.gov

Leo C Humbert #3905 – record of prisoner is mostly unremarkable although early interest in Gardner escape may indicate future plans or inclinations.  Not known to be in league with any large criminal enterprises.  Has not shown interest in vocational training or preparation for return to law-abiding society.  No family visits or communication during incarceration, and only one visit total from a local woman who is known to pursue relationships with prisoners. Letters to former associate R Lester seized as prohibited between prisoners.  Likelihood to offend again is high.

On September 13, 1924, three days after this evaluation was written, Leo Humbert was released from McNeil Island Penitentiary and Lee O’dare, sometimes known as Robert O’Hara, was born.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 7)

This is a good time to take a quick side-journey to learn about another person who had an impact on Leo Humbert, a gentleman named Robert M. Markword.  Although he will not be around toward the end of our story, he did have an impact on Leo’s life.

Robert was born on February 20, 1896 in South Dakota, although some records indicate his place of birth as Ursa, Illinois.  His father Karl was a laborer and often worked far away from home.  His mother Bessie, a pleasant but strictly no-nonsense kind of a woman,  took in laundry to assist with the family expenses.  She was the kind of mother who Robert later described as, “hugging you with one arm and switching your back with the other.”   She often had her only son, a trouble-maker from a very young age, go and cut his own branch off the birch tree in the backyard which she would then use to discipline him.  As that happened fairly frequently, it should probably be no surprise that Karl returned home from a long absence one Sunday to find his wife crying on the front steps and their son gone forever.

Robert Markword possibly at lake setting

Robert Markword possibly at lake setting

Already predisposed to trouble, Robert took up quickly with a loose association of criminals in Alabama, specializing mostly in small-time robbery and extortion over a period of a few years.  He was of medium height and slender build, with brown hair that had a strange tendency to appear black in any kind of low light setting.  His eyes, also brown, had a slightly bloodshot look to them all of the time, and his face was rounded out by protruding ears, a long thin nose and a strong chin with a dimple in it.  It was during these early years of his criminal career that he was tattooed with the image that would eventually be used to identify his body many years later; a cowgirl wearing a kerchief.  It was not very well done and his associates took to teasing him about the “winged mermaid” he had on his arm, but Robert liked it and would often wear short-sleeve shirts to put it on display.   Five weeks after getting that tattoo the gang decided to improve their financial position by banding together to rob a local bank on a Friday afternoon.

That robbery, although successful at first, fell apart as most robberies involving a good amount of cash and too many robbers do, because some of them just could not refrain from spending their loot.  It took about two weeks to round up all the individuals involved, with the very last one being Robert Markword who was quietly hiding out and not spending any of the money.  Feeling betrayed by his companions impulsiveness, he cut a deal to provide off-the-record information that the police would later use to secure the conviction of all the other members of the robbery gang.  This information involved the location of various incriminating pieces of evidence relating to the planning of the robbery, all of which had been rather sloppily concealed under the floor in the house of the gang’s leader.  To try to protect him, the police instructed Robert to plead guilty before the others were tried, resulting in a sentence that had him incarcerated at McNeil Island.  There, in November 1921, he welcomed his new cellmate Leo Humbert.

Robert Markword

Robert Markword

When they first met, with Robert calling a “Hi ya there” in a slow, whispery drawl to the newly in-processed Leo, the latter assumed his cellmate was from the south.  That impression stuck for a few days until they got around to sharing a few things about themselves.  When Robert heard that Leo was from Minnesota he stated they had grown up neighbors, which drew a blank expression from Leo in reply.  It took a little bit of convincing on Robert’s part but eventually he did persuade his cellmate that he was from South Dakota.  His accent was just something he had picked up while in Alabama, his interpretation of their manner of speaking which he much preferred over the plain, midwestern tone with which he had grown up.

They spoke often after that, Leo mostly about the Gardner escape and Robert about his bank robbery.  Although it had been his first he never told Leo that, building himself up to be much more experienced than he actually was, presenting tips and lessons learned as though he had been at it for years.  To further bolster his reputation, he showed his cellmate a scar on his chest, and another on his back, which he claimed had come from being shot during a robbery.  Leo paid attention and it was this misguided advice, delivered in Robert’s slow drawl over the course of six weeks, that would serve Leo poorly in his own bank robbery career.  Their conversations can to an abrupt end one day when two guards and a tall man in a pinstripe suit came and took Robert from the cell.  Leo never knew it of course, but his cellmate had only been placed at McNeil for a short period of time to provide some cover for having sold out his companions.  It seemed like a reasonable idea, putting a snitch in prison just long enough for it to seem real to those he had betrayed, but Robert Markword would learn much later that this trick had not worked at all.

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 6)

Just how Leo Humbert, who at the time of his conviction in the territory of Hawaii was a civilian, ended up as a prisoner at the Pacific Branch, U.S. Military Prison on Alcatraz Island is partially lost to the passage of time.  On October 18, 1921, when Leo was received there, Alcatraz was a prison used to house, with very few exceptions, military prisoners.  The men held there were broken up into two group; those in what were referred to as disciplinary companies, and those referred to as general prisoners.  In the spirit of rehabilitation, the disciplinary companies were used to try to restore men who had committed relatively minor crimes to active duty.  They basically served a four month period of training during which they received military-oriented instruction, more privileges than the general prisoners, the right to be referred to by name rather than number, and the ability to be evaluated at the end to go back onto active duty.  The program proved rather successful in the short period of time it was in place on Alcatraz.  Leo, prisoner number 13267, was not a member of this special company.

mcneil island prison courtesy legends of america

mcneil island prison courtesy legends of america

Although it is possible that the Army had intervened in some way to get him sent there, it is more likely that he was transferred there only as a stopping point on his way to McNeil Island prison in Washington, where he ultimately ended up serving the majority of his time.  Leo spent about three and a half weeks as a prisoner of Alcatraz, transferring out on November 9th, so any additional punishment the Army may have hoped he would receive by being in the general prisoner population there was short-lived.  No other records exist of his time there and the next mention of him is of being received at the United States Penitentiary McNeil Island, Washington on November 11, 1921.

gardner escape mcneil island newspaper

gardner escape mcneil island newspaper

It was a rather tense time at the prison when Leo arrived.  Just a few months before, on September 5th, prisoner Roy Gardner had made good on his escape threat from McNeil, running off during a baseball game while the guards were distracted.  The drama surrounding that, with Gardner recaptured in Arizona just the day before Leo arrived, had everyone at the prison on high alert.  Guards were wary, procedures were tight and even the prisoners seemed to sense that screwing around was not a very good idea, especially with the count of armed guards having been increased over the last few months.  Most of that increase was attributable to the fact that over seventy-five rounds had been fired at Gardner as he ran off, all of them failing to actually stop him.  Things like that tended to be a little embarrassing and every guard was determined to not have a repeat performance.

thomas maloney courtesy digitalarchives.wa.gov

thomas maloney courtesy digitalarchives.wa.gov

None of that seemed to make the slightest difference to Leo, who was fascinated by the entire Gardner escape and constantly asked questions about it.  Guards, prisoners, even the warden Thomas Maloney, none of them were exempt from questioning, with Leo spending his evenings jotting down notes in a small paper pad he kept tucked into his bed frame.  He asked about which guards were on duty, who knew about it beforehand, what everyone thought had happened during Gardner’s time on the lam, and every other detail you could imagine.  He also convinced a few of the prisoners to draw a map, as best as they could remember, of exactly how the caper had went down that September day.  He was vocal about it too, not really bothering to hide the fact that he considered Gardner to be a hero.  Eventually a few of the prisoners, possibly following some prompting from the guards, cornered Leo behind the bakery and gave a him a fairly good beating.  That worked for four days, the amount of time that he was confined to the infirmary, healing up his black eyes, bleeding kidneys and other injuries.  As he walked out of sickbay that day he yelled up to a guard in a tower, “I’m hoping your aim is still lousy” and then laughed before lighting a cigarette.

mcneil island guard tower 1920 1950 courtesy digitalarchives.wa.gov

mcneil island guard tower 1920 1950 courtesy digitalarchives.wa.gov

When he returned to his cell, the notebook of course was gone, and he found that his privilege of even having access to any kind of paper had been taken away.  That did not stop Leo, it just hindered him a bit as he slowly managed to trade away cigarettes and other small items for pieces of paper and eventually an even smaller notebook than he had possessed before his beating.  These items came from those prisoners who were less afraid of the guards and shared some of Leo’s thinking on the relative merits of Gardner’s escape.  He continued to collect information, make maps, and keep notes during the remainder of his time at the prison.  It is also likely that he managed to figure out the identity of the outside accomplice who had aided Gardner in the days immediately following his escape, something the authorities had never been able to do.  That person would play a role in some of Leo’s future endeavors and may have actually been in contact with him while he was imprisoned there.  Although he never actually escaped from McNeil, it is very possible that this is where the first inklings of the idea of prison escape started to form in Leo’s head.

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 4)

There is not any conclusive evidence as to when Leo first started to experiment with changing his name.  He would use several aliases throughout his criminal career and it is likely that he began the practice before he left New Munich for the first time.  There are a few records, old and difficult to accurately assess, that seem to indicate that he used the name Lee O’Dare (a play on his first name) at some point in the mid-1910’s while he was still in school.  These references are on documents from the Sauk Center and Meier Grove areas where he may have been picking up work in the summer.  It would appear from the records available in New Munich that he was still going officially by Hombert when he graduated from Saint Boniface Catholic School in 1918.  After that the trail of the name Hombert stays in New Munich with his family while that of Leo starts to go in a different direction.  Soon after his graduation, Leo enlisted in the United States Army under the name Humbert and served in the Quartermaster Corps until 1920.  During that service he ended up in Hawaii and it is there that he began to commit more serious crimes and where he also met a man with whom he would cross paths again in later years.  That man, Robert F. Lester, would in fact try to kill Leo in the late 1920’s, although they started out as true brothers-in-crime.

The Valley of the Giants poster

The Valley of the Giants poster

It was the beginning of 1920, January 12th, when Leo first met Robert in the mess hall of the Army fort where they were both stationed.  The fort was a large one and the mess hall was always busy, with seating hard to come by during the peak breakfast and dinner hours.  You pretty much had to grab an open space wherever you could find one and on this day Robert did just that, grabbing a open spot next to Leo just after a sergeant stood up to leave.  After a few minutes of silent eating, Robert asked Leo if he was going to attend the movie that night in the airplane hanger.  He was met with silence, which did not discourage him as he was one of those overly-talkative kinds of people who seem impervious to social signals telling them to leave people alone.  Robert launched into a monologue on his opinion about the movie, The Valley of the Giants, which he had seen four times already and which he thought was a terrible film.  He did seem to think that Grace Darmond was quite excellent as Shirley Summer but the rest of the cast “stunk it up.”  Leo did not reply to any of it although a few others at the table jumped into the conversation, most of them agreeing about the general quality of the movie and wondering why the Army insisted on showing it to them every few months.  Somewhere during that discussion Leo slipped away, his tray neatly returned to the kitchen wash line before Robert noticed the vacant seat across the table, one that was then immediately filled by another man.  Ten days later he passed Leo in the courtyard outside the supply office and tried to speak with him again.

“Hey there, you remember me?”

Leo looked over his way, seeing a tall, olive skinned man with jet-black hair and a wide, open face approaching.  The man walked with a small limp and had arms that swung too much as he walked.  Leo shook his head and kept walking.

“Hey there, quiet man, I’m talking to you!” the tall man called out, “you there, stop for a minute.”  By then the man was walking abreast of Leo and pulling at his sleeve.

“What do you want?”

“I’m just trying to talk to you for a minute.  Don’t you remember me?  From the other day in the mess hall?  We were talking about movies and I,”

“Yes, I certainly do,” Leo interrupted, “and I’m hoping to not get another dose of it right now.”

“How about you there, you’re not a very nice egg are you?”

“I’m plenty nice but not to every random person I meet.”

“It don’t hurt you none to talk to people, does it?”  The tall man patted his pockets quickly then continued.  “Butt me, will ya? I’m out.”

Reluctantly Leo reached into his pocket and pulled out his cigarettes, offering one to the man with a look of displeasure.

“See there, you’re not so bad after all.  Robert Lester by the way.”  He stuck out his hand, which Leo took without offering his name in reply.  He started to step away but the man grabbed his arm.

“No rush, what could it be?  Nothing around this place these days needs that much of a hurry attached to it.  Why don’t you smoke with me?”

“Why would I?”

“Well, it’s the friendly thing to do and I might have something interesting to say.”

“Judging from the last time I would doubt that,” Leo replied, although he did have a slight smile on his face now, which Robert picked up on.

“See there, you’re better already.  Now, let’s talk about making a few clams together.”

It was there, in the courtyard of an Army fort, that Robert Lester outlined in a low voice to Leo Humbert a scheme that would ultimately land them both in prison, although it would also make them a good amount of money for a short amount of time.  Robert was a truck driver in the motor pool, a man who drove large delivery vehicles all over the island on a daily basis.  Leo was a part of the quartermaster’s department, and had access to quite a large amount of inventory.  Those items were desired by various groups and organizations out in town and also at ports around the islands, and people were ready to pay for them.  Robert knew those people and could facilitate the deals.  All he needed was a partner on the inside of the quartermaster department.  Leo, who had been glancing around nervously as Robert spoke, shook his head slowly when he finished.

“I can’t do it.”

“Why not?”

“It’s too dangerous.  Besides, you don’t strike me as the safest person to do business with anyway.  You talk too much and too openly.  I mean, look at where we are right now.”

“No one can hear us, there isn’t anyone else here.  Trust me, I know my onions on this, we can make good money.”

“Why ask me anyway?  I could just as easily turn you in.”

“I doubt it.”

“Why’s that?”

“You’re already selling supplies yourself, you’re just not very good at it.”