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 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.