The disappearance of Seņor P.R. Rivero, cigar dealer

In January, 1893, Seņor P.R. Rivero suddenly disappeared from Kansas City. His story appeared in the Kansas City Journal for January 17. Rivero was said to be from a wealthy family in Spain and to speak Spanish with “the pure Castilian accent.” He was, said the Journal, “a recreant at home and made his way to the West Indies, where, after some adventures which the provincial government took umbrage at, he fled to Key West.”

There he worked as a journeyman cigarmaker, and it was in this capacity he had been employed in Kansas City about five years earlier by A. Menendez, a manufacturer with a store at 608 Walnut and a cigar factory at 1304 1/2 Main Street.  “He made himself agreeable and confidential,” the story tells us, “and was by some arrangement admitted by Menendez into a small interest in the concern….” Then Menendez, who had been doing business in the city for over a decade and had a good reputation, went out of town on a business trip, leaving Rivero to manage affairs. In his absence, Rivero placed orders for about $10,000 worth of goods – about a quarter of a million dollars in today’s money. [1]

Menendez’s firm was one of a large number of cigar makers in Kansas City - the 1893 city directory listed 47 of them -  the oldest and most respectable being that ofH.Switzer cigarmaker ad H. Switzer at 509 Main Street, which began business in 1863. The Kansas City Times year-end profile of the Switzer firm says that its trade “extends from Central Missouri to the Pacific coast. His aim has always been to keep the best brands of cigars and tobaccos that tobacco and skilled labor can supply.” Despite the economic depression, “trade was exceedingly good. He has the greatest confidence in Kansas City, and predicts a great future for it.” Since Switzer died in 1880, the civic boosterism can be attributed to Edwin Turner, the firm’s current manager, who has “conducted the business in a most satisfactory manner,”[2] in the Times’ words.

Hale cigarCompetition among cigar makers was intense. One maker tried to gain custom by naming his cigar after the city’s famous fire chief and equipment inventor George Hale.   The James O’Brien Cigar Manufacturing company of Kansas City and O’Brien himself were sued by a St. Louis cigar maker for trade mark infringement, the St. Louis company claiming that the name of the O’Brien company’s “Americanite” cigar was too similar to their “Mercantile” brand. Americanite cigar ad

The judge granted a temporary injunction against use of the name,[3] writing in his judgment that use of the name “Americanite,” as well as the use of boxes “in colorable imitation of plaintiffs boxes,” might be “calculated to deceive the ordinary purchaser.”[4]

Employees of the cigar factories played each other in amateur baseball games[5] and the Cigarmakers’ Union marched proudly behind unions associated with city newspapers but ahead of the Saddle and Harnessmakers and Horse Collarmakers Unions. [6] The union label was valuable enough that one cigar manufacturer had to be taken to court by the union for counterfeiting. He faced a stiff fine of up to $5,000 or one year in jail, or both; the case was of particular interest because it was the first brought in the city under a recent Missouri act to protect union labels.[7]

The cigar business seemed to attract more than its share of questionable operators.  In Chicago, boys and girls under 16 years of age, children of immigrants, were employed in Chicago factories, often working ten and twelve hour days stripping tobacco leaf and packing cigars, despite state laws limiting children’s work hours.

Child Labor TampaOne Chicago factory employed eighty-nine girls and three boys under age 16, many suffering from nicotine poisoning. According to a report of the state factory inspector: “The tobacco has affected the eyes, the skin is yellow, almost green, from the effects of the nicotine, and there are disorders which medical examination has shown to prevail in eight cases out of every ten.” The illiteracy of the children was, she reported, “unprecedented in any other branch of employment. Of twelve boys and girls who have recently applied for certificates, not one could read or write. For the most part, she said, they are of Polish parentage and come from exceedingly poor homes,” though parents had complained of conditions and some employers were facing prosecution under a law limiting children’s’ work hours.[8]

A Kansas City parent wrote to the Mail to complain about another kind of child exploitation, this one by cigar stores. It was a practice in the stores to put out a “dice box” for use as “a little social way of seeing which one is to treat to the cigars when two friends are together.” The box became an attraction for boys “from the age of 14 years up, on Saturday nights when they receive their pay, [to] go into the cigar stores and shake with men, and as a result they go home without a cent....”

This is, he writes, “only a slow way to become a gambler. Just watch our boys that follow this game and I will venture to say that in eight or ten years they are pennyless [sic] and depending on some game of chance for their living.”  Throwing dice was common in the city, but there are business owners who will not allow boys “not old enough to know right from wrong” to play in their place of business. He hastens to add that he has “nothing against the tobacco business; I smoke myself and allow my boys to smoke, but I do not want them to shake dice for anything.”[9]

If smoking was normal for men and even boys, it was disagreeable to women, who had to live in homes suffused with the odor of tobacco. One newspaper ad tried to persuade women that getting their husbands to buy Blackwell’s Bull Durham would prevent “misery, unhappiness and divorce,” as well as preventing that “disagreeable odor that now troubles you” from filling curtains, hangings and clothing. 

Bull Durham ad

Members of the women’s auxiliary to the Keeley league, a faddish organization dedicated to curing male alcoholism and addictions in general, debated the question of whether men should be permitted to smoke in the city’s streetcars, but dropped the matter without action.[10]

Senor P.R. Rivero was therefore not the only dubious operator in the cigar business, but he was almost certainly among the richest, having parlayed his small interest in the Menendez firm into a quarter million dollars worth of cigars for which he had no intention of paying. As the goods had arrived, mostly coming from the East coast, they had been “mysteriously disposed of” by Rivero -- shipped to a confederate in Colorado by the name of P. Martinez, perhaps a pseudonym for Rivero himself.

Rivero’s departure from Kansas City was hastened by the appearance on Thursday, the twelfth of January, of S. Tristan, a journeyman cigarmaker, who wanted his back pay of $300, equivalent to $7000 in current dollars.  Rivero promised to pay him soon. As surety he handed over to Tristan a shipment of cigars with a receipted bill, signed by himself, asking Tristan to forward the cigars to “Martinez” once he’d received his pay.

Tristan stowed the cigars away under lock and key and on Saturday, the fourteenth, went to see a local attorney. It happened that the attorney already had before him several claims against the Menendez firm. Connecting the dots, he immediately set out to claim any company assets he could. He wasn’t the only one: a couple of dozen deputies were out looking for Rivera and Menendez on behalf of a score of creditors from New York to Ohio to Kansas City.

They were too late. On Friday the thirteenth, the day after his interview with Tristan, Rivero had briefly been seen in the afternoon by former employees. Then he vanished. When the deputies entered the Menendez store and jobbing house they found a pile of empty cigar boxes and the ashes of burned account books. [11]

[1] Source:

[2] “Outlook Encouraging.” Kansas City Times, December 31, 1893, p. 8.

[3] “St. Louis and Kansas City Cigar Firms at War in the Courts.” Kansas City Star, December 15, 1893, p. 1.

[4] “Must Change its brand of cigars.” Kansas City Times, December 15, 1893, p. 5.

[5] “Among the Amateurs.” Kansas City Daily Journal, May 7, 1893, p. 2.

[6] Kansas City Mail, August 24, 1893, p. 1.

[7] “He Used Union Labels.” Kansas City Times, November 26, 1893.

[8] “Poisoned by Nicotine.” Kansas City Star, December 23, 1893, p. 6.

[9] “Danger in Dice.” Kansas City Mail, August 12, 1893, p. 1.

[10] “Smoking on Cable Cars.” Kansas City Star, August 10, 1893, p. 6.

[11] “Left Empty Boxes.” Kansas City Daily Journal, January 17, 1893, p. 2.

June 3, 2012