John F. Lazia

University of Kansas
  • Date of Birth: 1896
  • Place of Birth: Brooklyn, New York
  • Claim to Fame: political leader of Kansas City’s North Side Democratic Club and Pendergast machine affiliate
  • Spouse: Marie Lazia
  • Political Affiliations: Democratic Party, Goat faction
  • Also Known As: “Johnny Lazia,” “Brother John”
  • Date of Death: July 10, 1934
  • Place of Death: Park Central Hotel, Kansas City, Missouri
  • Cause of Death: Gunned down by unidentified assailants
  • Final Resting Place: Mt. St. Mary’s Cemetery, Kansas City, Missouri, alongside his parents

Johnny Lazia (born Lazzio) gained prominence in Kansas City’s politics during the 1920s and ‘30s due to his leadership of the North Side Democratic Club, engagement in local organized crime, and involvement with Tom Pendergast’s political machine. Pendergast dominated Kansas City politics not by holding elected offices, but through his machine of alliances and affiliates, or as he preferred to call it, the Jackson County Democratic Organization. He carefully selected candidates for various municipal positions and ensured their success through an interconnected system of favors, deals, and racketeering. Lazia operated similarly, and his extensive network of business and bureaucratic connections yielded many friends, alliances, and enemies; afforded an expensive lifestyle; and facilitated rapid advancement through the ranks of local politics and the criminal underworld.

Lazia was born in 1896 to Italian immigrants in Brooklyn, New York. He did not continue formal schooling after the eighth grade, yet he already exhibited shrewdness in making advantageous connections. His first prison sentence, for armed highway robbery at age 18, was commuted from 15 years to eight months. The lieutenant governor, a friend of Tom Pendergast, intervened on Lazia’s behalf and another machine affiliate, Phil McRory, testified as a character witness for Lazia.  

In the 1920s, Lazia advanced quickly through the ranks of the machine with the guidance of Michael Ross, associate of Pendergast and captain of the “Little Italy” ward of Kansas City. Meanwhile, he maintained a reputation of respectability and generosity; he married his wife Marie in 1924 and led multiple enterprises that provided him a guise as a legitimate businessman. By the end of his life in 1934, though, his record included eight arrests, a prison sentence, a conviction, and suspected involvement in dozens of other crimes.

In 1928, Lazia’s political clout increased significantly when he led a coup d’état against his former mentor, Michael Ross. In justifying his seizure of leadership from Ross, Lazia emphasized that Ross had not lived in the North Side for many years and that Ross was of Irish descent. This overturning of power gave Lazia control of all North Side Kansas City, which was predominantly an Italian American population. He established a new North Side Democratic Club. Pendergast was initially displeased with the forceful change of command, though once several of Ross’s poll workers, “The Big Five,” joined the Club, Pendergast took Lazia’s side. Among the machine’s top objectives was assuring the success of Pendergast’s picks for political offices by stuffing ballot boxes and intimidating voters. Lazia claimed that he could control 7,500 Italian votes, which further aligned Pendergast with the North Side leader.

Lazia was known for his fashionable and ostentatious presence around Kansas City. Among his notable businesses were the Glendale Bottling Company and a night club named Cuban Gardens, where gambling helped fund his lifestyle. To increase his visibility, popularity, and political legitimacy he regularly took meetings downtown.

When Pendergast gave Lazia connections in the municipal police department, Lazia rapidly staffed the force with 70 former convicts. He created an environment in which policemen were paid poorly to incentivize them to accept bribes. Certain crimes and criminals, such as gambling or consuming alcohol by machine affiliates, were protected rather than thwarted by law enforcement.

Lazia’s powerful connections around the city even aided in two high-profile kidnappings in the 1930s. In the evening of December 16, 1931, a few months before the inception of Home Rule (mid-March 1932), the dress manufacturer Nell Donnelly (later Nell Donnelly Reed) and her chauffeur were abducted from the driveway of Donnelly’s South Side Kansas City home (now the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures). Johnny Lazia participated in the search by sending lieutenants to find Donnelly, her driver, and the abductors. Perhaps because of Lazia’s involvement, the captors freed their captives after 34 hours, though they had not collected a ransom. Within three days, the kidnappers were arrested and three were convicted and sent to prison. Similarly, in the morning of May 27, 1933, Mary McElroy, 25-year-old daughter of the city manager, Henry F. McElroy, was abducted from her family home. Lazia became involved with the search in this kidnapping, too. Through his circle of gambling friends, he raised the ransom money and secured her release. Her kidnappers received harsh sentences, with one being sentenced to death. Mary, however, took pity and successfully lobbied the governor to stay the execution.

Lazia was engaged in Kansas City politics and organized crime extensively, but his involvement in the Union Station Massacre may have been the most significant instance. On June 17, 1933, three men attempted to free bank robber Frank “Jelly” Nash from imprisonment. The ensuing hail of bullets left four officers, and Nash, dead. Following the ordeal, Lazia helped hide the perpetrators from conviction by manipulating the investigation. Especially because two federal agents were among the officers shot, the event focused national attention on (and yielded investigation of) the rampant corruption in Kansas City.

Shortly thereafter, on February 14, 1934, Lazia was convicted of federal income tax evasion. In May of that year, Pendergast wrote a plea on Lazia’s behalf, claiming that Lazia was “being jobbed for his Democratic activities.” Pendergast’s efforts were ultimately moot; soon Lazia’s sentence was obstructed by a grim demise.

Lazia was murdered two months later, on July 10, 1934. Unknown assailants shot him eight times as he was arriving home with his wife, driver, and his driver’s wife (the latter three were unharmed). The Columbia Missourian’s announcement of Lazia’s death included the following statement that Lazia expressed to his doctor: “I don’t know why they did it. I am a friend to everybody. I don’t know why they did this to me. If anything happens, notify Tom Pendergast, my best friend, and tell him I love him.” Again, Pendergast attempted to aid Lazia by soliciting his personal physician to save his friend, but Lazia died 11 hours after admittance to St. Joseph’s Hospital. His funeral was said to be the largest Kansas City had seen. Lazia’s driver, Charles Carrollo (“Charlie the Wop”), succeeded Lazia in the machine.

Acknowledgement: 
This essay was developed as part of an Applied Humanities Summer Fellowship, cosponsored by the Hall Center for the Humanities at the University of Kansas.
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.