Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression

Kirby McRill

Author: 

Kirby McRill had no real home. He slept in empty buildings. Few got to know him. Yet when he was struck by a car and fatally injured on January 17, 1950, four hundred people came to his funeral. Not a bad turnout for someone many called a bum.

McRill died as he had lived, pushing his handcart through downtown streets. For almost 30 years, he was a familiar sight to people working or shopping downtown. He collected discarded newspapers and sold them to a paper processing company. He found broken wooden boxes at the City Market, repaired them, and sold them back to the vendors. Kirby McRill recycled before there was such a word.

McRill wasn’t always homeless, but he did always enjoy walking. At one time McRill owned large farm near Tonganoxie, Kansas. In 1919, he was summoned to jury duty in Leavenworth, Kansas and walked 26 miles in a raging blizzard to appear in court. The local paper reported the feat and newspapers across the country reprinted it. McRill liked being a celebrity and took longer walks, even walking all the way to Chicago. Proving too much of a distraction, McRill’s fame caused him to neglect and lose his farm.

Fame is fleeting. McRill returned to Tonganoxie where he met Daisy Belle. They married and he settled down. Daisy became a barber and then ran off with another man. McRill swore that he would never again cut his hair and beard, so he didn’t. His beard and hair, once red, turned gray and got longer. He was tall and gaunt. Rain or shine, hot or cold he always wore a big black overcoat as he stood out on the city’s streets.

At McRill’s funeral the minister said: "Occasionally there lives a man who is different who calls attention, not necessarily to himself, but to the fact that he does not conform. His was a personality that was different."

Primary Sources: 
Acknowledgement: 
KANSAS CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY | DIGITAL HISTORY
Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict,1855-1865.
The Pendergast Years, Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression.
KC History, Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library.