By Allan May
Kansas City’s Little Italy at the turn of the 20th century was a teeming neighborhood on the city’s North Side. The Italian population jammed packed into this district was estimated at 15,000. Hard work, poverty, and crime were the daily norm in this congested area just east of Market Square. Foremost among the criminal activity taking place in Little Italy was the extortion practices of the Black Hand gangs.
Into this despair, Johnny Lazia was born in 1897, the son of a laborer. Although his education ended in the eighth grade, Lazia was a bright youth and found work as a clerk at a small law firm and for a while studied law. However, the bad influences he was exposed to constantly in his environment soon put him on the wrong side of the law.
When he was eighteen he was involved in an armed robbery where he got $250, a watch, and a diamond stick pin. He also got caught. At this early age Lazia had already made a favorable impression on the criminal element on the North Side. The police reported they had uncovered a plot to “shoot up” the court where Lazia was to be arraigned and another plot to break him out of jail. The jury that convicted him received death threats. Lazia was sentenced to fifteen years at the state penitentiary in Jefferson City.
In the mid-teens, while America was preparing to go to war in Europe, it was not uncommon for the courts to allow prisoners guilty of certain crimes to enlist and serve their country as opposed to serving time. Lazia was granted this option after serving just eight months in prison, but instead of heading to boot camp, he went right back to the North Side where he announced that “the wild boy” of recent bad habits “had died in prison.” He then used his political contacts to begin work as an organizer for Mike Ross.
During the 1920s, Mike Ross was responsible for delivering the Italian vote for the Democratic ticket in what was referred to in Kansas City as the North End. An Irishman, Ross was respected in the Italian neighborhoods and carried the tremendous clout of Thomas J. Pendergast’s political machine. Lazia began working for Ross in the early 1920s. In 1927 Ross moved out of the neighborhood but felt he could still maintain control as an absentee boss. The ambitious Lazia was not a great fan of the Irishman and saw this as an opportunity to move up. He made his move during a special election day in 1928 by kidnapping several of Ross’s lieutenants, including Frank Benanti, Anthony Bivona, and Joe Gallucci. After the election these lieutenants decided to join Lazia and Ross gave up his leadership of the North End.
Tom Pendergast soon accepted the fact that Lazia was his new support in the North End precincts. He aided Lazia by having the police department turn a blind eye to his bootlegging and gambling operations in return for a slice of the profits. As boss of the North Side, Lazia put together a formidable crew of gunmen and enforcers including Anthony Gizzo, Charley Gargotta, Charles Carollo, Sam Scola, and Gus Fascone.
As Lazia’s operations became more profitable and his influence in both political and law enforcement circles expanded, he became a sort of unofficial sheriff in Kansas City. He convinced Pendergast and his puppet city manager, Henry F. “Judge” McElroy, to “tolerate the petty violations” of the law, such as bootlegging, prostitution, and gambling, in return Lazia made sure that serious crimes would be held in check by him and his men.
Because of Pendergast’s control of the Kansas City Police Department, where Lazia, Pendergast and McElroy held sway over who got hired and promoted, the city gained a notorious reputation as a “safe haven” for criminals. Two authors describe the situation in Kansas City during the early 1930s. In Jeffrey S. King’s “The Life and Death of Pretty Boy Floyd,” the author states:
“Lazia insisted that he be told what criminals were in the area, what their plans were, and how long they intended to stay. Any crooks from out of town who did not pay him off would be arrested or forced to leave the city. Any money on them would be appropriated.”
Robert Unger, in his recent book “Union Station Massacre,” talks about the pressure Lazia was under to maintain the position he had created:
“Lazia had to fight everyday to preserve the place he’d carved for himself… Lazia’s big threat was always from outsiders who saw the sweet deal home rule and bossism had brought to Kansas City and wanted to muscle in. By gentle persuasion and ruthless action, Lazia kept them all out. Nothing criminal of any consequence happened in Kansas City without the knowledge and consent of Johnny Lazia.”
At the height of his power in 1932, Lazia is described in “Tom’s Town,” by William M. Reddig:
“He drew even more popular attention than either Boss Pendergast or Judge McElroy. His criminal background and racketeer reputation were not the only things that made him fascinating to the curious public. Johnny also had personality. In fact, he had charm. He looked amiable and modest. He spoke good English, told humorous stories, smiled often behind his rimless eyeglasses and chewed gum constantly. There was little about his appearance to stamp him as a gang leader…”
In the spring of 1933, Lazia’s position came under fire when a series of events challenged control of his leadership and caused him to chew his gum much more furiously. The first incident was the kidnapping of Mary McElroy on May 27. Mary was the daughter of Kansas City municipal manager Judge McElroy (at this time the Kansas City had a city manager form of government as opposed to an elected mayor). The twenty-five year old Mary, described as slightly disturbed, was taking a bubble bath when the kidnappers arrived and hustled her out of her father’s home.
The four kidnappers, described as amateurs, demanded $60,000 for her safe return. Judge McElroy counter-offered with $30,000, which the kidnappers accepted. Lazia was then placed in charge of collecting the money from his “loyal followers.” Judge McElroy and his son delivered the ransom and Mary was back home safely just thirty hours after the ordeal began.
A side note to this incident is that the kidnappers were tracked down and captured within days. Justice was swift and the gang leader was sentenced to death and the others received life in prison. The troubled Mary had gained a soft spot for her captors and begged for the life of the condemned man to be spared. With Judge McElroy’s petition, the man’s sentence was commuted to life in prison. In January 1940, Mary used a pistol to take her life writing in her suicide note, “My four kidnappers are probably the only people on earth who do not consider me an utter fool.”
Despite the safe return of Mary McElroy, the kidnapping was a blow to Lazia’s pride and he felt it undermined his importance to the Pendergast interests. Things were not about to get better. On June 17, 1933 five men were shot to death, four law enforcement officers and bank robber Frank “Jelly” Nash, during one of the most sensational killings in America – the Kansas City Union Station Massacre.
For years it was believed that two of the three shooters were Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd and Adam Richetti. However, recent in depth studies of Floyd and the killings have suggested otherwise. In fact, Robert Unger’s book has produced evidence that Nash and several of the officers may have been killed by “friendly fire.”
Verne Miller, a one time war hero and ex-two time sheriff from South Dakota – now turned bootlegger and bank robber – was positively identified as one of the participants in the shootout. Miller reputedly met with Lazia the night before the shooting and afterwards to arrange safe passage out of town. By mid-summer 1933, the FBI was suspicious of Lazia’s rumored connections to the killings. With one of their own dead, the FBI was desperate to pin the Kansas City Massacre on someone. After months of hiding, which included help from Lepke Buchalter and Abner “Longy” Zwillman, Miller was brutally murdered and his body dumped outside of Detroit.
While this was going on a small gang headed by Joseph Lusco was trying to muscle in and create a niche for itself within the local Democratic Party. In addition to these headaches, another local hood, Ferris Anthon, began to intrude on Lazia’s operations. During the early morning hours of August 12, 1933, four Lazia gunmen shot Anthon to death as he was entering his home at the Cavalier Apartments. Ironically, the apartment building was being used by the FBI to safe keep Agent Joe Lackey, one of the wounded survivors of the Union Station shooting. When Lackey heard the gunfire his first thought was that it was a warning to him to keep his mouth shut.
Unfortunately for the murder crew, Sheriff Thomas B. Bash was driving nearby at the time of the killing. The sheriff and a deputy were on their way home from an ice cream social with Mrs. Bash and a fourteen-year-old neighbor girl in tow. When Bash heard the gun shots he slammed on the brakes, grabbed a riot gun, and he and the deputy jumped out and blasted away at the getaway car. In one of the very rare instances when a mob hit team was actually engaged by law enforcement, Lazia gunmen, Sam Scola and Gus Fascone, were killed instantly. Charley Gargotta then leapt from the car and emptied his gun at Bash, missing with every shot. Throwing away his revolver, Gargotta got down on his knees and pleaded, “Don’t shoot me – Don’t shoot me!” Meanwhile, the fourth killer escaped.
Two of Lazia’s top lieutenants were now dead and another was in jail. Making matters worse was another lieutenant, James “Jimmy Needles” LaCapra, Sam Scola’s brother-in-law, who was at odds with Lazia over his stingy control of the gambling rackets in the city. When two of LaCapra’s associates disappeared – one spirited away wounded from a hospital by a Kansas City police lieutenant – Jimmy Needles, a reputed bomb expert, responded by tossing a bomb at Lazia’s North Side Democratic Club headquarters demolishing the front of the building.
While Lazia was busy battling away on two fronts – LaCapra and the Joe Lusco gang – he was also facing charges of income tax evasion. On February 14, 1934, he was convicted and fined $5,000 and sentenced to a year in prison. His lawyers immediately asked for an appeal.
In early July, Lazia’s wife Marie became ill and was spending time at the couple’s vacation home at Lake Lotawana, Missouri, several miles southeast of the city. On July 9, Lazia and Charles Carollo, who was serving as Lazia’s driver and bodyguard, were visiting her when they all decided to return to Kansas City.
The trio, with Lazia in the back seat and Marie and Carollo up front, arrived in the city shortly before 3:00 a.m. on the morning of July 10. Carollo pulled the automobile into the driveway of the Park Central Hotel where the Lazias made their home. Police believed they might have been followed for most of the trip home by killers who then sped ahead of them and arrived at the hotel first. A janitor later told police that a big black sedan pulled into the alley behind the hotel and two armed men, who he believed to be police detectives, exited the car and walked to the front of the hotel while a third man remained behind the wheel.
Charles Carollo stopped the car under a canopy in front of the hotel and Lazia got out. As he reached to open the front door for his wife, the two gunmen, armed with a Thompson sum-machinegun and a shotgun, opened fire from behind some bushes.
“I’m shot,” Lazia screamed. “Get Marie out of here. Step on it Charlie.”
Carollo sped away as the gunmen now moved toward the fallen Lazia in the driveway. Lazia was wounded eight times by machinegun bullets and shot gun slugs. His right arm was broken, his jaw was fractured, but the most serious wound was in his back. He was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital in critical condition where he received two blood transfusions.
While friends and relatives, including Mary McElroy, crowded the hospital corridor, doctors administered a third transfusion. The newspapers reported that nine physicians were in attendance when the final transfusion was given and that, “It was a direct transfusion, the kind resorted to in desperate cases.” The attempt was futile and the thirty-seven year old Lazia died before 3:00 p.m., approximately twelve hours after the shooting.
The night before the funeral an estimated 10,000 people passed through the home of Lazia’s sister to view the body, which lay in a $5,000 silver lined, copper casket. On July 13, 1934, the day of the funeral, 1,000 people crowded around the home while thousands more sat in cars or stood on curbs along the funeral route.
At Holy Rosary Church people began arriving before dawn. By the time the service began police estimated the crowd outside at three to four thousand people. Attending the service was the “power and might” of the Kansas City Democratic Party, including the Pendergast family, Michael Ross the man Lazia had ousted from the North End, and Judge McElroy and his daughter Mary. Future mob bigwigs Charles Binaggio and Charley Gargotta were two of the pallbearers.
After the service, 120 automobiles and four trucks carrying flowers made their way to the cemetery. The newspapers reported that:
“The procession assumed some of the proportions of a parade. People crowded and pushed on the sidewalks, others leaned far out of upstairs windows and there was a craning of necks all along the route.
“Many said it was the largest funeral ever held in Kansas City.”
Police ballistics experts stated that the machinegun used to kill Lazia was also used in the Kansas City Massacre. The police quickly arrested Joseph Lusco and twenty-seven others including two women. When questioned by police Lusco claimed, “Lazia and I did have differences a long time ago, but we have made up and have been the best of friends. I know of no reason why anyone should have killed Lazia.” Lusco and the others were soon released.
One of the theories that police were considering was that liquor dealers who had been operating without licenses blamed Lazia for a series of recent raids that were conducted.
While Lazia’s killers were never identified, it appears as though his gang pinned the murder on “Jimmy Needles” LaCapra. In August 1934, gang members caught up with him outside Argonia, Kansas, just south of Wichita. Pulling alongside his automobile, the would be killers blazed away at LaCapra and two female companions. No one was injured, but LaCapra turned himself in to nearby police in Wellington, Kansas. Ironically, he ran into the three gunmen there who had just tried to kill him. Apparently their car had run off the road and when Kansas State Highway Patrolmen found them, they saw they were armed. In addition to arresting the men the highway patrol officers gave them a good beating.
When the FBI heard about the attack on LaCapra they went to Wellington to question him. They found LaCapra terrified and fearing for his life. In a voice filled with so much panic that the agents sometimes had trouble understanding, LaCapra spewed out a fantastic tale that the FBI claimed tied Lazia, Floyd, and Richetti to Verne Miller and the Kansas City Massacre.
Hoover and the FBI bought the story. They caught up with Floyd on October 22, 1934 in Ohio and killed him under questionable circumstances. Adam Richetti, captured just hours before Floyd was killed, was convicted of participating in the Union Station murders and executed for his alleged role.
Friends and associates of Johnny Lazia always maintained that LaCapra’s statements to the FBI were the “ramblings of a desperate man out to cut a deal.” LaCapra was still in fear for his life when he was released from the Wellington jail in January 1935. He was advised by FBI agents to leave for South America where he had family. LaCapra refused and instead went to New York. On August 21, 1935 his bullet riddled body was found by police on a highway ten miles west of Poughkeepsie.
Editor’s Note: A special thanks to Jude A. Knudson for her research assistance with this article.
Copyright A. R. May 2000