A Promise Un-Kept
By Allan May
On July 13, 1934 Charles Binaggio, tears flowing from his cheeks, helped carry the coffin of his political and underworld mentor Johnny Lazia, to his final resting place in Kansas City’s Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery. Lazia had been assassinated by persons unknown at the age of 37. Sixteen years later, Binaggio, at the age of 41, would die under the same circumstances and be laid to rest less than one hundred yards away.
Charles Binaggio was born in Beaumont, Texas and moved to Kansas City with his family while he was still a youth. Not much is known about his early years. Living on Kansas City’s North Side Binaggio became acquainted with Johnny Lazia who found work for him in one of his downtown gambling operations.
Binaggio was determined to follow in Lazia’s footsteps. He worked at the business of politics seven days a week. He built a following by performing favors for his constituents, finding jobs for them, and most importantly, helping them when they got in trouble with the law. He became an important political organizer and rose quickly through the ranks. Except for Governor Forrest Smith, he was the most recognized leader of the Democratic Party. His detractors claimed that his rise came through his connections to the Kansas City Mafia, who backed him for leadership because of his organizing ability and his minor criminal record.
On his way to the top, Binaggio merged seven Democratic clubs and seized control of the North Side from Jim Pendergast, the nephew of Thomas J. Pendergast, who ran Kansas City’s machine politics for almost three decades before his demise in the late 1930s. Some believe Binaggio’s most brilliant political move was supporting Forrest Smith for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1948. Binaggio and Jim Pendergast had actually worked together until the mid-1940s before splitting on who the Democrats would support for governor.
In 1946, Binaggio and his political organization were involved in a well-publicized voting fraud scandal. In question were the votes that came from the Binaggio controlled North End. On May 28, 1947 while the incident was under investigation, thieves blew open the election-board safe, in which the ballots were kept, and removed the evidence. The irony was that the safe was in the courthouse, which also housed the county sheriff’s office. As a result of the ballot theft, many of Binaggio’s political aides escaped prosecution after the vote fraud cases collapsed.
By the late 1940s, Binaggio oversaw a bloc of 30,000 votes and no other political boss in the state controlled more. Although some politicians were concerned about Binaggio’s underworld connections, they still came to him for the votes he could muster. At least two senators and six representatives were reputed to be under his control in the Missouri State Legislature.
Binaggio’s base of operations on the North Side was the First District Democratic Club. Newspapers gave the following description of the location and the activity that took place there:
“The political headquarters of Binaggio was in a large meeting hall on Truman Road in a neighborhood of cheap hotels and restaurants, second-hand furniture stores and used car lots. On election days squadrons of ghost voters were assembled in that room and dispatched to various polling places to vote in the names of absent or long dead citizens.”
Missouri native son, Harry S. Truman was a close friend of Jim Pendergast and served with him during World War I. Truman’s early success in politics was accomplished under the auspices of Thomas J. Pendergast, a fact that his political opponents would continually use against him. When Truman became president, Jim Pendergast was a frequent guest in Washington D.C. Despite Binaggio’s prominence in the Democratic Party, he was not a welcome visitor at the White House. Binaggio’s enemies claimed it was his arrest record, not his split with Pendergast, which kept him from an invitation to the oval office.
That arrest record began in 1930. Some of his early arrests seemed to indicate that the Kansas City mob could have had a strong influence in Colorado during the 1930s. On January 18, 1930, Binaggio was arrested in Denver along with Anthony Gizzo for carrying a concealed weapon. Their sentences were suspended after they agreed to leave town. One year later, Binaggio was arrested in Denver again, this time for vagrancy. In Kansas City he was arrested twice for bootlegging, in both cases the charges were dropped. In August 1939, he was arrested in Denver for carrying a concealed weapon for the second time.
After three minor arrests in 1940 and 1941, two for speeding and one for disturbing the peace, Binaggio was brought in for manslaughter on November 5, 1941 after a car accident he was involved in left a man dead. A coroner’s jury refused to indict him. In 1940, Binaggio had to pay $2,500 in back taxes and penalties for failing to file returns during 1937 and 1938.
On December 21, 1943, Binaggio and twelve others were arrested for liquor law violations. One of the defendants, Wolf C. Rimann, testified as a government witness at the trial. When Rimann was murdered in 1949 Binaggio was questioned by police.
Another well-publicized arrest occurred in 1945 when Binaggio was involved in operating the Green Hills Country Club, a gambling resort in Platt County, Mo. Also involved with the club were Gus Gargotta, the brother of Charley, Nick Penna, Anthony "Slick" Bondon, Binaggio's father-in-law, and Fred Wedow, who was described as a "veteran gambler."
During the 1940s, Binaggio was reputed to be the man in charge of the Harmony News Service, the Capone syndicate’s race wire operation in Kansas City. The newspapers called Binaggio the “king-pin of state-wide gambling.” Binaggio was also involved in the distribution of the Capone syndicate’s Canadian Ace Beer. He once admitted to a reporter that he received a twenty-five percent “cut” from the profits of the Duke Sales Company, the wholesaling firm that distributed the beer. He then refused to divulge his other business interests stating, “you will only crucify them in your newspaper.”
Binaggio was part of a group of individuals that came to be known as “The Five Iron Men.” Although sources differed at times on who the five men were, the most popular line-up was Binaggio, Charles “Mad Dog” Gargotta, Anthony “Fat Tony” Gizzo, James Balestrere, and Gaetano “Tano” Lococo. Gargotta, whose record included some thirty-five plus arrests, served as Binaggio’s bodyguard.
When Binaggio swung the vote for Forrest Smith and he won the Democratic nomination for governor in 1948, he convinced the gambling interests throughout the state that with their financial support Smith could win in the November election and they could “open up” the state. The amount of money the gamblers put up was estimated to be between $50,000 to $200,000, most of it from the St. Louis/East St. Louis area. Smith won the election, but after he took office on January 10, 1949, “the word” came from Jefferson City, the Missouri State capitol, that the gambling interests would have to wait six months for the new administration to settle in.
By mid-summer the lid had still not been lifted and the restless gamblers who had put up a lot of money were looking for someone to blame. It was Binaggio who had handled the campaign financing and made the promises. Whether he made those promises on his own, or on someone else’s assurances, would never be known.
On April 5, 1950, Binaggio returned home around in mid-afternoon and fussed around with his rose bushes before dinner. Neighbors said he usually got home each day between 3:30 and 4:00 p.m. and was often seen mowing the lawn or tending to his rose bushes. Binaggio often volunteered to take care of his neighbor’s yards when they were away. He was also known to repair lawnmowers and household appliances at no cost to their owners.
After dinner with his wife, Cecilia, and their daughter, Binaggio was picked up by Nick Penna, his chauffeur. The two men drove to the Last Chance Tavern in which Binaggio had an interest with Charles Gargotta, who he planned to meet there. The tavern, a gambling house, was located on the borderline between Kansas and Missouri. Whenever raiders from one state came to close the operation, the players would just move to the opposite side of the room. Law enforcement officers from both states could never seem to synchronize their raids to be able to show up at the same time.
Shortly after Binaggio arrived at the club, around 8:00 p.m., he received a telephone call. He then asked one of the employees at the club if he and Gargotta could borrow his automobile. As the two men started to leave, Nick Penna began to follow.
“You needn’t come, Nick,” Binaggio told him. “We’ll be back in 15 or 20 minutes.”
Penna later told police that when the pair had failed to return, he waited until 4:00 a.m. and then went home.
Binaggio and Gargotta then drove to the First District Democratic Club. Who they met there will never be known, but around 8:30 three residents of the Como Hotel located above the club, heard what sounded to them like gunfire.
The bodies of Binaggio and Gargotta were found around 4:00 a.m. the following morning. Police believed the killers were known to both men as neither one was armed. Binaggio’s body was sprawled in a swivel chair at his desk. His assassin pressed a .32 caliber automatic to his head and pulled the trigger four times. All four wounds bore powder burns.
Police theorized that Gargotta then ran for the front door to escape. The first of four bullets hit Gargotta in the back of the head from several feet away as he clutched at the venetian blinds on the door. After he fell to the floor, his killer stood over him and fired three more bullets into his head at close range.
A strange side note to the killings involves a picture from the murder scene that made the front pages of newspapers across the country. The photograph shows two men sitting under a huge picture of President Truman. One of the men is wearing a raincoat and a hat similar to one a policeman might wear. At first glance, one would guess that it was a police officer and a detective. After reading the caption however, you are made aware that the person in the raincoat is a cabdriver (the hat being part of his uniform) and the other man a bystander. Both were being held by police as material witnesses. What is strange is the fact that stretched out just ten feet in front of the men is the body of Charles Gargotta lying in a pool of blood.
The cab driver, W. A. Gambill, was on his way to an all-night diner to have breakfast when he passed the First District Democratic Club around 3:30 a.m. He noticed water running out under the door and thought someone had left a faucet on in the club so he called police. It was later discovered that the water was seeping through the ceiling of the club due to a running toilet in the Como Hotel located above it.
Gambill told a reporter, “I don’t mind staying here. It’s exciting, watching the police go about their work. Besides, I’ve lost all my desire for breakfast.”
The sensational double murder made headlines across the country, reverberating all the way to the Capital Building in Washington D.C. The day after the killings, Missouri Republican Dewey Short addressed the House of Representatives and inferred that Binaggio had been “bumped off” because he opposed the nomination of President Truman’s hand-picked candidate for senator.
Many theories were advanced for the murders, but the motive, as well as the identity of the killers, would never be known for certain.
On Saturday, April 8, the bodies of Binaggio and Gargotta lay in the Lapetina funeral home. Between the two expensive copper caskets was a single candle which reflected against the plastic domes that covered the open sections of the coffins. The turn out for the two men was larger than the wake held for Johnny Lazia in 1934.
Vincent Gargotta, the twenty-two year old son of Charles, told reporters, “This may sound horrible, but I don’t want to know who killed my dad. It’s done and over with. Dad never told mother or me anything. He never discussed business or politics with us. But he wasn’t as bad as everybody painted him.”
The funerals were held on April 10. Gargotta’s was first at St. Agnes Church. Binaggio’s funeral, like Lazia’s, was held at Holy Rosary Church. More than 1,200 people attended the service although the church only had seating for 500. Over 10,000 people lined the streets to watch the procession which made its way to Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery where Binaggio and Gargotta were laid to rest within two hundred feet of each other.
Foremost among the mourners that day was Frank Costello from New York. Costello was rumored to have been negotiating with Binaggio to place slot machines in Kansas City. Costello was in the company of “several Chicago representatives of the Capone syndicate.” The group was hosted by Anthony Gizzo, the heir apparent to Binaggio.
Editor’s Note: A special thanks to Jude A. Knudson for her research assistance with this article.
Copyright A. R. May 2000