by R.T. Lawton
When people think of the mafia, they usually have a mental picture of Italian gangsters operating in Chicago or some major East Coast city, but in fact, the mafia sprang up wherever they thought they could make a dollar. In popular media, movies such as The Untouchables focused on the old Chicago mob, The Godfather on New York and Las Vegas, and the TV series The Sopranos on New Jersey. But, there was also a deeply entrenched branch of the mafia based in Kansas City.
In 1921, the DiGiovanni brothers, Joseph and Peter fled their homeland of Sicily. Finally settling in the north end of Kansas City, they set up their criminal enterprises which would later make them the founding fathers of the Kansas City mafia. Other criminal entrepreneurs in the north end at the time were Big Jim Balestrere (who would go on to oppose the rise to power of one Nick Civella) and Joe Lusco. With the advent of Prohibition, the competitive factions in the north end decided to work together. They termed their coalition as The Outfit. Peter DiGiovanni became known on the street as Sugarhouse Pete. His brother, Joseph DiGiovanni, a leader of the old Black Hand, acquired the nickname of Scarface after his face became disfigured when he tried to burn down a warehouse during the Prohibition years. Joe denied this event, instead claiming that it was due to a lamp accident in his home. Either way, his face was scarred for life.
When the organization expanded, John Lanzia, AKA Brother John, took over leadership and was given free rein by Tom Pendergrast, head of The Pendergrast Machine. At the time, The Machine controlled the local government and made Kansas City an "open" town. No alcohol arrests were allowed or made inside the city limits.
With the end of Prohibition in 1933, the gangsters continued with their other rackets, but also began shaking down bars for protection money. John Lanzia got assassinated in July 1934 and the game of musical chairs began for succession. Charles "Charlie the Wop" Carrollo, the current underboss, stepped up to the throne, but then he was also suspected of having created his own opening for that position by having ordered the killing of Lanzia. In 1939, Charlie the Wop took a fall for tax evasion and his underboss, Charles Binaggio, became the head man. Binaggio took the family into the area of labor racketeering. With his help, Forest Smith became the governor of Missouri in 1948. They had a lock on politics, but somewhere down the line, Binaggio made the national commission of mafia nervous. They had him whacked in 1950. Three years later, his successor, Anthony Grizzo, expired from heart attack. Seems that assassination, stress and law enforcement made for a constant change in leadership.
Next up in the rotating chair was Giuseppe Nicoli Civella, who became the public face of the KC family and the first boss to represent the Americanized version of the mafia. Big Jim Balestrere is alleged to have made a few assassination attempts on Civella's life, but graciously stepped aside when he saw Nick Civella had the backing of higher ups. Nick went on to make alliances with several mafia families in other cities and thus raised his own mafia family to greater importance. A witness identified Nick as being in the area of the infamous Appalachin meeting of top gangsters, but he was not among those arrested. He reigned for thirty years before his passing in 1983. However, being the CEO of the Kansas City branch of a large criminal organization did have its downside. Nick ultimately found himself the recipient of a couple of federal vacations. From 1979 until 1983, his brother Carl AKA Corky, took over as acting boss while Nick sat in the grey bar hotel.
Side Note: I worked Kansas City during 1971-74 and had the pleasure of meeting one of the agents who surreptitiously entered some of the buildings owned by local mafia members and installed listening devices on the inside.