Know Your KC History: Strange Goings on at Exposition Fair, 1872 pt. 1
T.M. James & Sons was a store in early Kansas City that sold fine china. It was established by Thomas Martin James, who moved here from Kentucky in 1854, about four years after the founding of the Town of Kansas, or Kansas City, as we now call it.
His store became the place in Kansas City at which you could buy both Wedgewood and Spode china.
T.M. was successful in other enterprises, and he and his wife, Sally (or Sallie) Woodward, were an important part of the core group that founded the First Baptist Church of Kansas City. In the 1870s the “& Sons” was added in reality, when J. Crawford and Luther joined their father in running the store. Both became leaders in Kansas City business, Crawford serving as president of the Commercial Club, as well as a member of the Board of Education.
Crawford also became the father of Vassie James, who, after graduating from Vassar (where her mother had gone), returned to Kansas City and eventually married Hugh Ward, son of pioneer Seth Ward. Ward Parkway is named after them. Hugh died just ten years into their marriage, leaving Vassie with three young children. Because of her children she developed and pursued a deep interest in education, especially in bringing the quality of education available in the east to the Kansas City area. This may have had something to do with her second marriage, to Albert Ross Hill, former president of the University of Missouri. It led to her founding what is now the Pembroke Hill School.
Her grandfather showed great courage upon occasion.
During the Civil War he did not join either army. His obituary in the Kansas City Journal though, tells of an incident during the war. T.M. was standing at the corner near his store, when some men started firing upon a Major Ranson of the Union army. The shooters were Confederate guerillas who had heard that Ranson was in town and decided to find him and shoot him.
I have found reference to a Major Ranson who was accused by two brothers, and Union supporters, named Solomon and Andrew Allen, who claimed that Ranson had burned 100 bushels of Solomon’s corn, along with Andrew’s home, when Ranson had mistaken Andrew for a Confederate sympathizer. If this is the same Ranson and part of his duties was the execution of the expulsion order, it would explain the special antipathy directed at him by the guerrillas.
T.M. heard the shots and ran between the shooters and Ranson, yelling at the guerrillas to stop. This interruption allowed Major Ranson enough time to escape.
T.M., along with other Kansas City leaders like Kersey Coates – well-known businessman, opera house owner, and hotelier – was instrumental in getting the Hannibal Bridge built, and in convincing the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad to build an extension to Kansas City.
In 1871, the year that Crawford joined his father in business, Kansas City hosted a large exposition fair, the first of what became an annual event. Coates was president of the association that ran the exposition. The fair was held on a small tract of land and drew enormous crowds.
There were livestock competitions, baseball games, brass band competitions, horse races, a baby competition, and showcases for new farm equipment and other machinery. The sewing machine display seems to have been particularly popular, especially when its ability to sew button holes was demonstrated.
In late September of 1872 the second Kansas City Exposition took place. The grounds that second year were much larger – 97 acres that stretched from 12th Street to 15th Street. The extra room allowed for a grandstand big enough for 20,000 people, as well as a circular racetrack.
They had another baby competition that year.
During the time of the Exposition, the Kansas City Times carried a number of stories attacking President Grant and Reconstruction. There were local and national reports about crimes that had been committed, marriages of celebrities, and the political situation in Texas, where anti-reconstructionists were urging Grant to order Governor Edmund Davis (a Texas native who had served as a general in the Union army) to withdraw federal troops to insure a fair election.
There was also a lot of reporting each day on the fair itself.
The main entrance to the Exposition was through a gate at the 12th Street end of the grounds.
On Thursday, September 26, shortly before dusk, Church White, who was the treasurer for the Exposition Association, stopped at the 12th Street gate and took the bulk of the day’s receipts, about $10,000 or $12,000 (depending on which newspaper account you read), and headed for the Association’s headquarters, leaving $998 in the cashbox at the gate in the care of Ben Wallace, the ticket-seller.
A conversion table on the internet says that an 1872 dollar had the buying power of $18.103 in 2010 dollars. This would make the amount that White took with him worth from $181,030 - $217,236 in today’s money. The $978 would be worth $17,704.73 (rounded down to the nearest penny).
Wallace remained at the gate for about another half hour, when folks in increasing numbers started streaming out in a leisurely flow.
That’s when the excitement began.
The Music of Cracking Pistols
I have found two contemporary newspaper accounts of what followed. The reference department here at the Central Branch has microfilm of the Kansas City Times, and I was able to borrow the microfilm of the Topeka newspaper, the Kansas Daily Commonwealth, through interlibrary loan.
There is some minor disagreement as to the facts of the event—I’ve already mentioned the amount of money taken by White. The Commonwealth account is more succinct and straightforward (though not providing any names), while the Times version injects a fair amount of opinion.
Right at sundown, as Exposition goers were leaving the grounds in swelling numbers, three men rode their horses up to the gate. Their faces were hidden—the Times said that they had “pieces of checked cloth drawn down over their foreheads and below their eyes,” and the Commonwealth called them “masked men.” (The story title in the Commonwealth was “KUKLUX AT KANSAS CITY FAIR.”)
The Topeka paper has the ticket seller moving toward headquarters with the cash box when the “mounted and masked men” set upon him and forced the box from his hands, shooting at him several times when he sought to retrieve it. He escaped the shots by falling to the ground, but “One shot struck a little girl, wounding her severely in the foot.”
The robbers rode away quickly with the money, brandishing their pistols, and “threatening to shoot any one who interfered.” Despite the large crowd, the attack was so sudden that the three “got away unharmed.” The Commonwealth account ends by saying that the robbers intended to assassinate the treasurer of the association. “There is great excitement over the robbery in the city to-night, and no trace of the robbers.”
The Times account is much longer, with much more description and commentary.
…The largest of the three men quietly dismounted, handing the reins of his horse to one of his confederates: and walked up to the ticket-booth, which is a small building located just to the right of the gate as you go in. The till, a large tin box, stood on the counter nearly in front of the arched window through which tickets were sold.
The desperado reached through the window, and
SEIZING THE BOX,
attempted to make off. Meanwhile his two confederates sat on their horses like statues, holding the horror-stricken crowd paralyzed at bay with their drawn navy revolvers and threatening
to the first man that moved a muscle. It was one of those exhibitions of superb daring that chills the blood and transfixes the muscles of the looker-on with a mingling of amazement, admiration and horror. It was one of those rare instances when it seems as though death stood in the panoply of the flesh and exhaled a
from his garments. It was a deed so high-handed, so diabolically daring and so utterly in contempt of fear that we are bound to admire it and revere its perpetrators for the enormity of their outlawry.
This gets us less than halfway through the article. Near the end is the following:
An occurrence of this kind is a rare and peculiar study. Of course it is a crime and must be reprehended and denounced. But one thing is certain. Men who can so coolly and calmly plan and so quietly and daringly execute a scheme of robbery like this, in the light of day, in the face of the authorities, and in the very teeth of the most immense multitude of peoples that was ever in our city, deserve
AT LEAST ADMIRATION
for their bravery and nerve.
The “admiration” expressed by the writer for the three men who performed an armed robbery in the midst of thousands of innocent people, and who threatened “instant death” for “the first man who moved a muscle,” and who did shoot a little girl, whether in the leg or the foot, may strike one as somewhat strange.
But more was to come.
The robbery took place on September 26, and the accounts were published the next day. On Sunday, September 29, the Times published a lengthy opinion piece that grew out of the robbery. Titled “The Chivalry of Crime,” its writing reflects the same style as the article of two days before.
It is an instinct of human nature that he who lifts his hand against his fellow man, or against the things that are his, shall be despised and ostracized. There is no palliation for crime in any shape, and especially more disgusting is it the more sordid its motive or secret its execution.
The author goes on at length about burglar, highwayman, pick-pocket, horse thief, and a certain type of murderer who, like the others mentioned, proceeds with stealth and in secret, saying, finally, “all these are execrated of men and condemned of God and His commandments.” He then continues,
But there are things done for money and for revenge of which the daring of the act is the picture and the crime the frame it may be set in. Crime of which daring is simply an ingredient has not palliation on earth or forgiveness anywhere. But a feat of stupendous nerve and fearlessness that makes one’s hair rise to think of it, with a condiment of crime to season it, becomes chivalric; poetic; superb.
He explains to us that, yes, Kansas City does have thieves and pick-pockets and “garroters” (sic) who “should sleep some night under the still shade of a tree with no ground for the soles of their feet to touch.” At the same time, though, there are a few “who learned to dare” during the Civil War, and have “carried their lives in their hands so long” that they don’t know how to commit them to “keeping the laws and regulations that exist now.”
… they ride at midday into the county-seat, while court is sitting, take the cash out of the vault and put the cashier in and ride out of town to the music of the cracking pistols. These men are bad citizens; but they are bad because they live out of their time. The nineteenth century … is not the social soil for men who might have sat with Arthur at the Round Table, ridden to the tourney with Sir Launcelot or worn the colors of Guinevere; men who might have … shivered a lance with Ivanhoe or won the smiles of the Hebrew maiden….
Such as these are they who awed the multitude of Thursday while they robbed the till at the gate and got away.
What they did we condemn. But the way they did it we cannot help admiring. It was not like other crimes. It was as though three bandits had come to us from the storied Odenwald, with the halo of Mediæval chivalry upon their garments and shown us how the things were done that poets sing of. … It was done here, not because the law is weaker but because the men are bolder….
Which makes me wonder how T.M. James must have felt. Kersey Coates, president of the Exposition Association was a business associate and friend, and the three desperados are generally thought to have been Cole Younger and T.M.’s nephews, Frank and Jesse James.
The robbery took place on September 26.
The next day another player took the stage.
To be continued tomorrow on KC Unbound...
About the Author
Dr. John Arthur Horner of the Missouri Valley Room has a Ph.D. in Dramatic Art from UC-Santa Barbara, as well as a deep love of history. He is an award-winning playwright and member of the Dramatists Guild of America. He lives in Independence with his wife, two pianos, and their multitude of books.