Fee Grabbing and the Kansas  City "push"

For most city officials in Kansas City, Missouri, 1893 began with hard times: “Economy has been the rule all along the line for the year just closed in the management of municipal affairs,” the Kansas City Times reported. There was just enough money to keep the city going through the end of the fiscal year in April as long as monthly expenses didn’t exceed $65,000. Under the city charter, the salaries of a few officials, including the comptroller, could not go up or down during their terms in office, but all the rest, including elective officers, saw their salaries cut.

Jackson County courthouseOne group of officials was doing well, however: Jackson County officials who received fees for their services rather than a salary.  The County court in Independence was investigating “fee grabbers,” as they were known; it demanded that county officials report all fees due in a year, uncollected as well as collected, since they were known to collect “uncollected” fees on the side and pocket them. One judge speculated that an official could double his salary to as much as $12,000 a year – a huge sum in 1893 – by this means. A Times story cited reports that single offices had paid $25,000 a year. An editorial in the Independence Sentinel referred to “the effrontery of these fee grabbers and their hoodlum supporters” who admitted receiving $10,000 a year in fees, while the Vice President of the U.S. was paid only $8,000 and U.S. senators and representatives $5,000. 1

Most “fee grabbing” scandals, however, involved lowly constables extorting money from minor offenders, such as the deputy constables from what the Kansas City Mail called “the notorious Heacock’s district” in the southern part of the city who raided a saloon on the city’s north end at Fourth Street, between Main and Delaware.  Armed, said the paper, “with more guns than warrants,” the constables “proceeded to pull the whole house” – empty the saloon. They fired shots in the air, alarming everyone, before arresting three African Americans for gambling and taking them to the county jail. Kansas City police claimed that such raids were made solely for the purpose of collecting fees: “Every case costs the county from $10 to $20,” the paper reported, “and there are very few convictions.”

Constables were also involved in the arrest of eight barbers at the Midland Hotel barber shop for breaking the law against barbering on Sundays; “feeJoe Shannon grabbing” was the object, the barber shop manager alleged, since the person who entered the complaint was an employee of Joe Shannon, 9th Ward boss and the arresting constable was Shannon's brother.

One constable, Frank J. King, known as the “King of the Fee Robbers” for extorting money from citizens,  threatened to “pull the house”  if the proprietors of two downtown lodging houses didn’t give him $25 a month. One of the proprietors went to a neighbor, Albo Miller, a notorious local figure who owned a boxing school, to get the $25; Miller had only a $20 gold coin to give him. In both cases, King was careful to assure the money was handed over to his sidekick, a bartender named Mulligan, rather than himself.  

Albo Miller drops $20 coin“You can afford it,” King was quoted as telling one victim. “We have had to spend $1500 on the legislature,” he added – presumably in bribes to head off pending legislation against fee grabbing – “and we have got to get it back. How are we going to get it if not this way?” King’s activities only came to light when the two victims hired a lawyer to take their case to a grand jury.

Another low-level “fee grabber” – a city rather than county employee -- was the Public Impounder, W.M. “Red” Stewart, who was suspended for stealing horses, mules, and cows and depositing them in his pound, presumably to pocket fees their owners would pay to release them.  2

Even the Jackson County Marshal, H.P Stewart, was accused of fee grabbing by Judge John W. Wofford, who refused to approve payment to the Marshal of $1.25 a day for guarding jailed prisoners awaiting a hearing.  Wofford questioned whether any “guarding” was done since all the Marshal did was “turn a lock on the prisoner and make out the bill,” as the TimesJudge John Wofford put it. The fee had been a bone of contention between Wofford and Arthur Lyman, state Senator from Jackson County, who had killed a bill Wofford introduced to abolish the fee. Wofford argued the Marshal should not be getting $1.25 a day – amounting to $5,000 to $10,000 a year – for performing a function he was only paid 30 cents a day to perform once the prisoner was committed for trial. Jackson County was the only jurisdiction with such an arrangement, the judge complained.

Lyman, a principal opponent in the Missouri legislature of abandoning the fee-based system, sought a two year delay before any implementation of a salary system. Lyman and his allies on the Jackson County delegation “would like to give a death blow to the obnoxious reform measure,” the Times reported, “but heeding the advice of wise counselors they will try to have a bill passed which will not effect [sic] them during their terms of office and will not bear too harshly upon their successors,” and that would also guarantee bountiful salaries for their county cronies once the fee system ended.3  

Legislation to end fee grabbing quickly became a contest between what the Kansas City Mail called the “push” – the Democratic machine that ran cityMissouri State Capitol Building 1848 and county politics – and the “anti-push,” with Lyman representing the “push” and state senator Richard Love the “anti-push.” In January Love introduced a bill that would put every official, including justices of the peace and constables –the ones mainly responsible for abuses – on salaries. For Lyman, the question was when the bill would take effect: immediately, or in two years, after expiration of the present officers’ terms.

Some members of the Jackson County delegation argued that voters wanted Love’s bill to take effect immediately, but they were outvoted by Lyman and other members uttering slogans like “Fair play by the boys,” referring to officials elected the previous fall. Love’s bill also fixed salaries for county positions, including Marshal ($4,000), Sheriff ($5,000), collector and others. Justices and constables were not included in the proposed reform.

The Republican Journal took a dim view of the majority’s position: the members are in Jefferson City, the paper said, “to further their own interests, and want no one to tell them what the city or county needs. […] In fact, these men who are so puffed up with their brief authority seem to say, as did Boss Tweed, ‘What are you going to do about it?”

The allusion to Boss Tweed was a way of suggesting that Kansas City and Jackson County had their own Tammany Hall of corrupt Democrats, though the two Democratic papers in town, the Star and Times, were denouncing fee grabbing as strongly as the Journal. In fact, the Journal was more resigned to accepting the two year delay than the other papers and warned against instituting an “indiscriminate salary law” in place of the present abuse of fees.  Fees, it said, were less likely to be collected when officials were on a fixed salary while salaries would become: “a permanent charge on the treasury with only a partial reimbursement.”

 The Times described the “glee” of county officials at the proposed delay, and estimated that continuing the fee system for two years would cost Jackson County taxpayers $150,000. In an editorial, the paper argued that the Jackson County members of the legislature should support a salary law that would include justices and constables, since their fees “weigh upon more people” than those of higher officers, and be promptly implemented, since the public suspected that otherwise “some trick or scheme will be devised to postpone it again.”4  

What had been a contest between two state senators turned increasingly contentious and even violent as a vote on the reform bill neared in February and it appeared that an “emergency clause” requiring immediate application of the law might pass the legislature.  Lyman declared that he would oppose any bill – including his own version of the salary bill – with the clause attached. Without the clause, the Lyman bill was being called the “fee-grabbers’ bill.” “Are we to grant [the county officials] the privilege of carrying on this outrageous system two years more?” asked one house member. 

Meanwhile members of the Kansas City “push” -- Prosecuting Attorney Marcy K. Brown, county Collector Elihu Hayes, Marshall Stewart of $1.25 a day fame, and Justice H.J. Latshaw  -- traveled to Jefferson City to lobby against the bill. “Mighty is the ‘Push,’” headlined the Times, continuing: “It Pulls the Strings and ‘Statesmen’ Dance like Puppers. Invidious are its Methods. Through its Henchmen it Thwarts the Will of the People. A Sight to make Men Weep. Fee Grabbers’ Agents in their Great Distortion Act.” The “distortion act” was that of Jackson County legislators Lyman and Joseph Rust, who claimed that “the poor, overburdened, robbed taxpayers of Jackson county” did not want the emergency clause and might end up with no salary bill if the emergency clause were attached.

False, editorialized the Times.   People in Jackson County did want an emergency clause in the salary bill, as did people in other counties who contributed indirectly to Jackson County’s lavish fees through the state treasury, which paid costs in some cases. The Jackson County legislators, Democrats all, were betraying their own party’s pledges, said the paper: “Men who trifle with the honor of the democratic party in this matter,” the editors warned, “deserve to be remembered and they will be.”5 Soon after the editorial a Times correspondent in Jefferson City was assaulted by a member of the delegation: “are they foolish enough to suppose,” asked the paper, “that the democracy of Jackson county is bound to apologize for their sins simply because they were elected on a democratic ticket? […] They are now repudiated by the democrats of the county, and not one of the four lobbying members could be elected to anything. […] The best democrats in the county have been grieved at the spectacle of a county’s politics revolving around the emoluments and patronage of five or six offices.”5

In Kansas City,  the Commercial Club was invaded – or so it was represented by the Times -- by the appearance of “push” supporters, “well-known gamblers, crap sports, poker dealers and law breakers,” as the paper characterized them, including two notorious “push” operatives, “Pinky” Blitz and Reddy O’Brien. Senator Lyman would later describe this event as an “honest one, made up of taxpayers” that adopted resolutions expressing “the sentiments of the people on the salary bill.” Leaders of the Commercial Club had a different view, issuing a call to five hundred “substantial citizens” for a special meeting the following evening “to condemn the disgraceful action of the mob which tried to take forcible possession of our club room last night and to fully discuss and take action on the ‘salary bill’[…].”  

Kansas City Times February 19, 1893The Times represented the salary bill battle as over “what element shall govern the affairs of Jackson county.” The invitation, editorialized the Times, “is an imperative call upon the manhood of the citizens. Every member of the club and every man honored with an invitation should attend in protection of the county’s capacity for self-government.” According to the Times’ accounting, more than 500 gathered at the Commercial Club to support the Love bill, with its provision that a salary system would become effective within ninety days after is passage.  The fee system, resolved the group, had become:

“ a source of political corruption and “an injury to the public welfare; a system of laws which enables justices of the peace in this city to derive more compensation for their services than does the chief justice of the supreme court of the United States; the prosecuting attorney of Jackson county more than the attorney general of the United States; and the marshal nearly, if not quite as much as the president of the United States; a system wrong and revolutionary and a disgrace to our pretended modern civilization as well as calculated to produce mobs and disgraceful riots of the character that was witnessed in our rooms on the evening of the 16th inst., and therefore one whose immediate and unconditional repeal is necessary […].”6

Two hundred pledged to travel to Jefferson City the next day on a chartered train to present their resolutions to the senate committee on fees and salaries, with Senator Lyman continuing to argue that it would be unconstitutional, or at best unfair, to decrease the compensation of the present officials. Members of the Kansas City delegation – only a hundred, but “an exceedingly fine looking body of men” in the Times' opinion – lobbied legislators and spoke before the committee. Attorney John O’Grady attacked the delegation, saying they were nearly all Republicans, a serious accusation in a legislature dominated by Democrats.

Despite their solid front, it was apparent even before the Kansas Citians boarded their return train that the committee would vote to delay application of the Love salary bill for two years. One senator said that those who wanted to end the fee system at once were “pseudo politicians and either republicans or Warner democrats, who were the traitors who stabbed their party in the back at the last election.”  The argument which probably carried the most weight was advanced by the Jackson County officials -- “persistent and indefatigable in their efforts to protect their own pockets” – that it would be unfair to change compensation in the midst of their terms, and that those who favored the change were “republicans and disgruntled officeseekers, whose reason for wishing to end the fee system was born in spite and spleen against the officeholders […]. “

The “fee bill farce,” as the Republican  Journal  described it,  was over,  “and the ‘gang’ once more victorious.” The argument that the bill was a Republican measure “intended to disrupt the local Democracy and rob the officials of their just consideration and emoluments” had been effective with legislators. For the Journal editors, of course, the only solution was to elect Republicans rather than continuing to choose Democratic “’yaller dogs" in the hope they would "turn black-and-tan" after the election. The paper predicted that the Democratic Star and Times would make peace with the “push” by the 1894 election and urge voters to once again vote a Democratic ticket “nominated by the very men they now denounce. The only way to get an honest fee bill through the Missouri legislature is to elect a full set of Republican county officers […].”

The Times was still chipping away at the fee system as 1893 ended, reprinting an article from the Commonwealth newspaper of Ashgrove, Missouri, that suggested it was a national problem. The government, alleged the article, was being robbed of hundreds of thousands of dollars by collusion between U.S. marshals and commissioners to increase their intake of fees.  President Cleveland had issued a message calling attention to such abuses; the paper’s editors called for Congressional action to put officers on salary: “The cry has gone forth from the people for greater economy in all departments of government, and a business management in all public affairs will do much to strengthen the Democratic party in the hearts of the common people.” 7



101-01-1893-KCT-p29-City Finances

01-26-1893-p8KCT-fee grabbers

02-10-1893-p4KCT-salary bill

02-18-1893-Feb18 -KCStar-official salaries



201-09-1893-01-09-KCMail-p. 1-In Cowboy Style

02-14-1893-p8KCT-Fee grabbing constable

12-05-1893-KansasCityStar-p1-MidlandBarbers Arrested

02-28-1893-p5KCT-Constable extortion

09-23-1893p5KCT-animal impounder suspended

305-25-1893-p5KCT-County marshall fees

01-14-1893-p2KCT-Salary bill



01-26-1893-DailyJournal-Jan26  p 1-Salary bill

01-26-1893-DailyJournal-Jan26p2-dictation-2 yrs fee grabbers

02-16-1893-DailyJournal-Feb 16o4-Fee Bill

01-30-1893-p4KCT-Salary law


502-01-1893-02-01-KCMail-p1-Will fight for fees

02-02-1893-p1KCT-Fee bill delayed

02-02-1893-p4KCT-salary bill editorial


602-10-1893-p4KCT-salary bill

02-18-1893-pKCT-Disruption at Commercial club


02-18-1893-p8KCT-Salary bill-people aroused

02-19-1893-p1-3KCT-Fee grabbing


702-21-1893-p1KCT-Salary bill in Jeff City

03-01-1893-pKCT-Feegrabbers win

03-02-1893-DailyJournal-Mar2p4-fee bill farce

12-17-1893p4KCT-Fee grabbing

May 27, 2016