Filled to overflowing with hell broth: Kansas City’s saloons, 1893

 In 1893 over 350 saloons operated in Kansas City[1], ranging from the respectable to the scandalous. Among Hannon and Dixonthe former was a new saloon opened in August by liquor merchants Hannon and Dixon at 915 Walnut. The proprietors aspired to make it “the most palatial, as well as the most select, barroom on the continent.” The Journal lavished praise on “what is probably the most elaborate and certainly the most perfectly appointed gentleman’s resort in America….Entering the inside lobby through a vestibule wainscoted in natural cherry, paneled, the spectator finds himself in a spacious apartment brilliantly lighted by a dozen incandescent electric lights pendant from an oxidized silver chandelier of unusually fine workmanship.”

A mahogany cigar humidor fifteen feet long stood in the lobby; the main bar, thirty feet long, was also of mahogany, “carved with an Egyptian centerpiece, surmounted by a magnificent palm… At the rear of the barroom are five elegantly appointed card rooms.” Even more clearly distinguishing Hannon and Dixon’s new “resort” from the common saloon is “the utter absence of anything approaching the vulgar.”

Not a block from Hannon and Dixon’s palatial bar seven of the city’s most noisome joints clustered around theThe Junction Junction at the intersection of 9th,  Main and Delaware Streets. Robert Dunlop, a policeman, estimated that almost 30,000 people passed through the Junction in an average twelve hour daylight span,[2] making it the perfect location for barflies to hang out. There were constant complaints about “mashers” outside Junction saloons harassing women. In October, Dunlop arrested a man who had spent the past two months at the Junction, “staring at women who pass and accosting and insulting them.” Policeman Dunlop is described in the Star as being “always on the watch for ‘mashers,’ who for a time made the Junction an unsafe place for women in the afternoon, and has arrested and convicted half a dozen or more of the professionals….”[3]

The board of police commissioners was responsible for issuing licenses to saloons. In July, responding to requests from wealthy property owners in the block, including real estate magnate Thomas Swope, who hoped to secure a “better class of business for the area,” the board announced that after all current licenses had expired no licenses would be granted in the block bounded by 9th and 10th Streets, Main and Baltimore. The Journal speculated that the board wanted to wipe out “the habitual horde of loafers” hanging around saloons.[4]  The Times reported that Messrs. Hannon and Dixon, proprietors of the ritzy establishment on Walnut, also ran a less upscale operation at 910 Main, for which the commissioners refused to grant a license extension. “The property owners generally want the saloons removed,” admitted Hannon. “There are a few who don’t care, but I Hannon and Dixon Adknow of none who will work to have them retained.” [5]

Meanwhile, however, the board granted 310 saloon licenses, refusing only six, including one at 15th Street and Kansas Avenue where a patrolman had been assaulted “by a lot of rough stablemen, who had been terrorizing the neighborhood.”[6]

Other troublesome saloons were located near transportation centers, such as at 5th Street and Central in Armourdale, where two street railways, the L road and West Side Street Railway, had a transfer point. A nearby saloon was known for its “gang of loafers of the lowest type,” reported the Times, who “congregate in front and have little or no regard for ladies who are compelled to pass within a few feet of the door to obtain transfer tickets.” A patrolman had been assaulted here as well “by thugs…,” reported the Times, “when he attempted to arrest one of their number.”[7]

The “North End,” referring to streets just north of the Junction, also had its share of disreputable saloons, not to mention cheap lodging houses and opium dens,[8] calling for occasional police raids. In October the police rounded up “a score of men not too good to be highway robbers,” said the Star, and sent them out of the city. The raid was prompted by “the many cases of highway robbery during the past two weeks and this winter the North end lodging houses and saloons will be kept under close police surveillance.”[9]

Some neighborhood women in another part of town took matters into their own hands when they burned down a closed saloon at 2801 Jefferson. The saloon license of the previous owner had been revoked, but after a new proprietor made application for a saloon license there the women “became indignant and open threats against the place were made,” the Times reported. Then the saloon went up in flames.

The people in the neighborhood, “especially the women,” were said to view the fire with satisfaction; one is quoted as saying “Someone thought it was better not to wait for Fleming to open the saloon; better do it now.” [10]

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union also campaigned against saloons. In July they declared war on “ladies’ entrances,” or “the little side door” by which women were admitted to the normally male preserve of the saloons through private wine-rooms attached to many bars. The entrances are, the members of the WCTU said, “”the means of ruining hundreds of girls and women.” A story was recounted at a weekly meeting about a young woman who went for an evening drive with her sweetheart. The lovers dropped into a wine-room for refreshment: “The young woman became intoxicated and was unable to return home until 2 o’clock the next morning.”[11]

Saloon licenses, if granted by the board of police commissioners, were an expensive proposition at $750William Cowherd annually[12]  -- about $19,000 in current dollars, using one method of calculation.[13] Multiplied by more than 350 saloons, considerable revenue was generated, but state law required it to be shared between city and county, with the city getting only a third of the proceeds.[14]  Since most saloons were in the city, Kansas City wanted a larger share, so in January the mayor, William Cowherd, saying “the benefit should go to him who bears the burden,”[15] carried a special legislative bill to Jefferson City proposing that the city receive 80% of income from license fees.  Cowherd complained that the city needed the money “to fight cholera this summer,” a cholera epidemic being anticipated, “and the city is already overburdened with the sick poor, while the county, whose real business is to take care of them, does nothing for us.” Continuing his complaints against the county, Cowherd said that Jackson County was the only county in the country having a large city where the county does not maintain a hospital, so the city must bear that expense, “while the county does nothing but maintain a poor farm that pays for itself.”

Roads were also an issue between city and county: “The city has more miles of streets to maintain than the county has of roads,” said the mayor. “We keep 175 policemen and this force is made necessary largely by the saloons. If the senate does not give us at least half of the dramshop fund it will be an outrage.”[16] 

The Journal editors suggested, without evidence, that the county was misusing the funds. According to the law, half the money from saloon licenses was to be used for roads but, said the Journal, it goes instead into the general fund, and then disappears: “There is no way of telling just what is done with this money, for the books kept by the county are of such nature that it would take an expert to find out just what went with the money.”  The editors proposed an investigation to find out what was being done with the dramshop fund.[17]

The mayor’s bill went nowhere in Jefferson City. “The whole county contingent was there to lobby against us,” the mayor said. “We need more money to protect the city from fire and disease, and if the disease comes the county will stand off by itself and leave us to fight it alone.” [18] County officials – known as “judges” - pointed to their own obligations: a new county court house, a new jail and criminal court building, roads and bridges. They would be “hopelessly swamped,” they said, if the bill gave the city 80 per cent of the dramshop revenue.[19]

The mayor, saying “I don’t see where we are going to get the money to run the city,” then hatched a scheme to separate Jackson County from Kansas City administratively, as was the case with St. Louis County and St. Louis: “The county would thus be relieved of the burden of many expenses occasioned by the city,” and the city would receive all the saloon revenue. [20]

This proposal too went nowhere, but there was one outcome to complaints about peculation and inefficiency in the county roads department: the legislature passed a measure requiring the county to devote two-thirds of saloon revenue exclusively to roads. Since dramshop fees provided its largest single source of revenue, by late summer the county was facing an empty treasury and was considering shutting down the electric plant and discharging janitors and gardeners. According to a Times report, the county “judges” – the administrators – personally went out to a street construction project in Independence that was using chain gangs to hurry the work up so they could save on salaries for guards and teamsters.

The high cost of dramshop licenses had another side effect: druggists took advantage of the situation to sell liquor to their customers -- for “medical reasons” – without paying for a saloon license, over the objections of the saloon owners. The City License inspector in September was described as making “a still hunt for druggists whose prescription cases serve the same purpose as a bar in a saloon.”[21] In December he hauled seven leading businessmen -- three grocers, two wholesale liquor sellers and two druggists -- into court for retailing liquor without a license. Also promised was a “large batch of warrants” to be served on other grocers violating the liquor law. The Times  reported that  “arrests will be made daily until every merchant who sells liquor without a license will either comply with the State statutes or go out of business.”

The arrests were made at the urging of the retail liquor dealers, who had recently discovered that grocers “did not have the right to sell liquors in less than five-gallon lots” – ten gallons in the case of wholesale liquor dealers -- without a dram-shop license, and that druggists not could sell liquor in quantities less than four gallons without a physician’s prescription.

Joseph NewmanThe news that they had been operating illegally for years came as a surprise—“like claps of thunder from a clear sky,” said the Times --  to reputable merchants such as Joseph Newman, a grocer known for selling “the most toothsome delicacies of the season.”[22] They were placed under arrest and marched into court where the prosecuting attorney “with a self-confident look upon his face, which said as plain as words: ‘I’ve got you this time, boys,’” confronted them with an array of witnesses. All pleaded and handed over $64 in fines. “There was a great deal of grumbling, of course,” the Times reported, “about the high-handed outrage of forcing a merchant in these stringent times to deplete his exchequer to the extent of more than half a hundred cold dollars.”

One of the druggists explained that he was a physician as well as a druggist and could therefore both prescribe and dispense whiskey. The prosecuting attorney produced three witnesses ready to swear that the druggist had sold them whiskey without inquiring about their health. Another merchant said of the witness against him that it was the “vilest case of cold ingratitude that I ever encountered. That man has hung around my store for months. I have been treating him to whiskey right along. He never bought but one gallon of whisky from me in his life, and now he turns to sting the breast that has warmed him to life on many a cold morning with a free glass of whisky. I’m going to quit the business. How much do I owe you?”[23]

Saloon dealers were jubilant at their triumph over rivals in the liquor trade, but had less success in their contest with another interest group, the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavour and other groups crusading against doing business on the Sabbath. The pastor of the Summit Street Methodist Episcopal Church kicked off the campaign with a discussion on “Law Breaking in Kansas City and Our City Officers.” The police were accused of tolerating open saloons on Sundays “contrary to the law and the Sabbath….. The question is,” said the Reverend Smith, “’Is there a single saloon in the city which is not open every Sabbath?’ But these officers, elected by the people land paid to enforce the laws ‘do not know’ of any such cases. It is a shame and a disgrace to the church members, the moral men, and even to the respectable, law-abiding citizens of Kansas City that such things exist in our midst.” A successful campaign to close barber shops on Sunday had been waged; grocers were also promising to close, but saloons remained open. “The law-abiding citizens of Kansas City,” Mr. Smith concluded, “without regard to party, ought to organize a law and order league, see the law is enforced and at the first opportunity elect white men to office.” By “white men” he meant, of course, “men of character who cannot be bought or bribed; who cannot be intimidated or flattered.”[24]

A few weeks later the Sunday Rest Association, a union of the Ministers’ Alliance, Knights of Father Matthew, Young People’s Baptist Society and other groups, appointed a committee to visit saloons on Sunday and prepare a report on their findings for presentation to the mayor urging enforcement of the ordinance against open saloons on the Sabbath. Doubt was expressed whether the mere word of all the ministers in town would be sufficient to convince the mayor and Board of Police Commissioners that the saloons were open on Sunday. A member of the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavour claimed he had found ten saloons and one cigar factory open the previous Sunday, “and forty-nine men and boys and one policeman playing cards and drinking. Mrs. Ira Lewis, president of the W.C.T.U. said that many a man had been hung on circumstantial evidence not so strong as that.”

The Times poked sly fun at the deliberations, suggesting that members of the committee did not entirely trust each other to merely gather evidence without indulging in a little libation. One member moved that the committee go in pairs “so that one could watch the other.” Another suggested that “it would be a good idea to have someone on the committee who knew the taste of beer so he could by a glass in each saloon and thus get evidence that could not be disputed. This suggestion was not carried out for the reason that a tippling committeeman might overestimate his capacity for beer, and get too bewildered to give reliable evidence.”[25]

The vows of the Sunday Rest Association prompted the saloon keepers to call a secret meeting and announce they would henceforth be closed on Sundays. The board of police commissioners directed patrolmen to enforce the closing. As a result, said the Journal, “the man with a thirst a yard long and several inches wide will have to suffer or seek prohibition Kansas to cool his parched throat.”[26]

Or he could just go in the back way. A story in the Journal on the following Monday reported that although several saloons “of the better class” did remain closed, their shades pulled up to demonstrate their compliance, most of the saloons only locked their front doors and admitted customers freely through side and rear entrances. Members of the Sunday Rest Association went about gathering evidence but, said a representative, “We do not intend to swear out any warrants – that is, not for the present.”[27]

The following week the Retail Liquor Dealers’ Association discussed the issue of Sunday closings. Some members inveighed against the “Sunday closing cranks” and “religious bigots,” and declared “it was an outrage for the city and county and state to tax them nearly $900 for the privilege of running their saloons and then compel them to keep closed on Sunday, which, with some of them, is the best day in the week for business.” The majority, however, argued that it would be better to obey the law, and a resolution was adopted to that effect. The Association, however, represented only about a third of the city’s 347 saloons; the other two-thirds could continue to open on Sunday if they wished. [28]

On the following Sunday, the last in November, most saloons in Kansas City were closed, reported the Journal. Hotel bars were closed, “something that has not happened for several years,” although drinks were served at restaurants and hotel cafes. “Some men, it seems, enjoy a drink under the rose more than in any other way,” said the paper, “and there were plenty of seekers after the back doors.” Not everyone was admitted; prospective customers were given the once over and if they looked suspicious were told the bar was closed.

The Journal reported on the musings of one man who’d been unable to get in: “This is a nice town,” he remarked. “I had heard about the ‘push,’” he complained, referring to the political machine that ran city hall, “but I did not know that a man had to be in the ‘push’ to get a drink. Everybody seems able to get what he wants except me.” On that Sunday, police arrested bartenders and proprietors of nine open saloons.[29]

On the following Sunday, the first in December, things appeared much the same: saloons appeared to be closed, even if a few side and rear doors were open. The day was quiet for the police who “had almost nothing to do in the way of making arrests,” but were also “shut out of their favorite loafing places,” snickered the Journal. In some instances, said the paper, an officer was admitted through a rear door and “the chill was driven out of his system by a steaming ‘hot scotch’ or ‘Tom and Jerry.’ But these instances were rare, owing to the violation by officers in times past of the confidence reposed in them by the dispenser of liquid refreshments.”[30]

Within a couple of weeks, enforcement of Sunday had eased off. Most down town saloons were opening their side doors “in a quiet way” by afternoon: “There was no indication manifest on the part of constables or others to enforce Sunday closing…,” said the Journal. “It was reported yesterday that the constables had been called off and the tip given to certain saloon men who did not attempt to close.”[31]

Carrie NationKansas City saloons had long since returned to their usual wide open ways of doing business when temperance crusader Carrie Nation came to town eight years later, using her famous hatchet to smash liquor bottles at saloons on 12th Street. Nation was arrested, briefly jailed, and fined $500, the fine suspended on the condition that she promptly leave Kansas City and never return.[32]

Remarking that Kansas City “was filled to overflowing with hell broth,” Nation agreed to the judge’s conditions and promised to leave town. But, she told a reporter later, “I’m going back to Kansas City week after next to speak at the McGee mission…. I had a good time in Kansas City, and will go there again.”[33]

Kansas City was already becoming known as a place where anyone could have a good time, even on a Sunday.


January 5, 2013

[1] “Running without license.” Kansas City Times, January 13, 1893, p. 7.

[2] “Travel at the Junction.” Kansas City Star, June 16, 1893.

[3] “Another ‘masher’ arrested.” Kansas City Star, October 20, 1893, np

[4] “Saloons must go.” Daily Journal, July 4, 1893, p. 3.

[5] “They all must go.” Kansas City Times, December 27, 1893, p. 2.

[6] “Saloons must go.” Daily Journal, July 4, 1893, p. 3.

[7] “Armourdale.” Kansas City Times, August 13, 1893, p. 6.

[8] “Gam Lee Educates the Americans.”

[9] “Raid north end saloons.” Kansas City Star, October 17, 1893, p. 1.

[10] “Women incendiaries.” Kansas City Times, July 21, 1893, p. 8.

[11] “Against “ladies’” entrances.” Kansas City Times, July 21, 1893,  p. 5.

[12] $800, $900, and even $1000 are also mentioned as saloon fees in local papers. The last two are probably inclusive of a separate state fee, in addition to the joint city/county fee.

[13] Measuring

[14] Again, local papers didn’t always agree on the percentage. The Journal in one story claimed the county received 90% of the income. [02-27-1893-DailyJournal-p4-HaveAFairDivide.pdf)

[15] “Many cities demand it.” Kansas City Star, January 1, 1893, p. 1.

[16] “Needed By the City.” Kansas City Times, January 29, 1893, p. 3.

[17] “Have a fair divide.” Daily Journal, February 27, 1893, p. 4.

[18] “Not encouraging.” Kansas City Times, February 2, 1893, p. 3.

[19] “County dramshop fund.” Daily Journal, September 2, 1893, p. 3.

[20] “It may flock by itself.” Daily Journal, Feb 9, 1893, p. 3.

[21] “Kansas City.” The Pharmaceutical Era, Vol 10, p. 319. (Google eBook

[22] Kansas City: Its Resources and Their Development, a Souvenir of The Kansas City Times  1890 KC Library MO Valley collection  p. 94

[23] “No license held they.” Kansas City Times, December 27, 1893, p. 2.

[24] “City officials criticized.” Kansas City Times, August 28, 1893, p. 5.

[25] “Ministers to be on guard.” Kansas City Times, November 8, 1893, p. 3.

[26] “No drinks today.” Daily Journal, November 12, 1893, p. 8.

[27] “Few parched throats.” Daily Journal, November 13, 1893, p. 3.

[28] “Will obey the law.” Daily Journal, November 18, 1893, p. 9.

[29] “Off day for saloonmen.” Daily Journal, November 27, 1893, p. 3.

[30] “Bad for the police.” Daily Journal, December 4, 1893, p. 3.

[31] “It proved a false alarm.” Daily Journal, December 18, 1893, p. 3.

[32] History of the Kansas City Metropolitan Area. Wikipedia.

[33] “Driven from town.” Clinton Mirror, April 20, 1901, p. 6. .