Author reveals KC’s role in mafia
A former FBI agent last week gave Basehor Community Library patrons an inside look at just how deeply the American mafia’s roots run in Kansas City.
William Ouseley, author of the book “Open City” and former FBI supervisor of the Kansas City organized crime squad, visited the library Oct. 15 to talk about his new book, which discusses Kansas City's hand in creating one of the most infamous branches of the American mafia.
The group called itself “La Cosa Nostra,” Ouseley said, and was made up of a 1920s band of Italian immigrants who were quite familiar with the ways of the Sicilian mafia. Because of a language barrier and extreme discrimination in a new country, the group turned to a life of crime, extorting other Italians in Kansas City, preying on their fear the Sicilian mafia had followed them to the United States.
Prohibition was a movement that fueled the power of organized crime, Ouseley said, as it instantly fanned the popularity of alcohol and gave criminals a successful market.
“If (criminals) went to Congress and asked for a bill, it would have been prohibition,” Ouseley said. “The seeds (for organized crime) were there, all we needed was a little water and some fertilizer: prohibition. Suddenly there was this universally desired product, and (La Cosa Nostra) had an edge.”
Their Italian background and knowledge of crime in the old country made La Cosa Nostra a group of deviants unlike America had ever seen before, Ouseley said. The members had the ability to enthrall people, while at the same time taking them for all they were worth. They maintained a keen balance of charisma and intimidation.
“They brought to this country a special form of crime we’d never seen here before,” Ouseley said. “We had gangs, but those were street thugs. That was nothing like these guys.”
Simultaneously, James Pendergast, better known as “Big Jim,” was heading a ring of Irish mobsters that had a political approach to breaking the law. The Pendergast family members were smart, smooth-talking businessmen who traded corporate favors for votes in city, and even national, elections. Around the end of the 1920s, La Cosa Nostra and the Pendergasts combined forces and took control of the city, Ouseley said. They had men working in every arena of Kansas City, including the police department.
“It was an open city,” Ouseley said, revealing the reason for the name of his book. “Anything went. There was nothing illegal. Real criminals like your Bonnie and Clyde, they came to Kansas City for a little rest and relaxation. These people were wanted by the law, and if you needed a little breather, come to Kansas City.”
It wasn’t until 1957, Ouseley said, when a meeting of La Cosa Nostra was raided by police officers in Apalachin, NY. It was the beginning of the exposure of the country’s organized crime and the start of a reform in laws to keep these groups at bay.
“An enormous criminal organization had grown under our noses,” he said. “And before 1957, there had not been one law directed at organized crime. Our beginnings were difficult because we had nothing to prosecute anybody with.”
These days, Ouseley said, the mafia still exists in some form, but its members don’t have any power, and have switched to pulling white-collar crimes.
“These young members don’t have the mafia code or the allure,” Ouseley said. “They’re about the money. The old boys were about the money, but it was also about the prestige. It was about family. There was nothing else like it.”