One-Way Ticket to Kansas, the autobiography of Frank M. Stahl, as told and illustrated by Margaret Whittemore. University of Kansas Press, 1959.

XXI – Gambling Must Go

Daring and quick wits were needed to cope with the wily gamblers. Nothing short of a complete surprise could win. They had secluded rooms, guards, and buzzers. With half a minute's warning, the money disappeared from the tables and all convicting evidence was gone. In place of a gambler's den, we would find a quiet clubroom with pitch games in progress and guests innocently reading or conversing.

They had just such a "hangout" on the top floor of the Copeland Hotel, but how to get there was the problem. The white clerk and four colored boys downstairs had orders to buzz a warning if the police chief or any of his men came in. Fortunately I had a friend at court who brought me information. A chance to play cost each gambler five dollars, he explained, offering this suggestion:

"If you give me twenty-five dollars, I'll get you into the game yourself."

"The money is yours," I replied.

"Meet me this evening at Dexter's parsonage," he said, "and I'll tell you my scheme."

Mr. Dexter, a Methodist minister and superintendent of the Kansas State Temperance Union, was glad to co-operate in such a worthy cause. We met as agreed, and I learned that the first thing required of me was to part with my whiskers.

I had kept company with this facial adornment for many years and was loath to give it up. Finally, I yielded.

"Have it your way," I said.

After shearing my long chin whiskers to a pointed Vandyke, the make-up artist hesitated.

"I hate to cut off your mustache," he said.

The embellishment on my upper lip was wide and heavy, reaching back to my ears. I felt that it was my one distinctive feature and betokened authority. The stiff hairy growth quivered apprehensively as the shiny blades drew near.

"It would take months to grow another, " I pleaded.

To my relief, the other agreed that waxing the mustache and curling the ends, Italian style, would serve the same purpose. After it was blackened, along with my hair and beard, and my skin was covered with a brown cosmetic, the disguise was perfect.

I always wore civilian clothes. These I now exchanged for the preacher's broadcloth suit, since we were of about the same size. I donned his high silk hat—he was a good dresser—and put on gloves to hide my battle-scarred wrist. Mr. Dexter wore my clothes, and we started off together for the Copeland.

As we entered the lobby arm in arm, I played a stiff leg. Seated in chairs along the wall were the four bell-boys I dreaded. One advanced, bowing.

"What can I do for you, sir?"

"Is Senator ---- in his room?"

"I'll go and see, sir. Just wait."

"Thank you," I replied, "but I know his room. I'll walk up."

Dexter and I started up the stairs. With my stiff leg, it was slow going until we got out of sight. Then the stiffness suddenly disappeared, and I dashed up several flights, leaving the preacher behind. I had to act quickly.

My diagram of the upper floor showed but one hall, whereas there were two, branching off from the main corridor. I took the wrong one, ran back to the other, opened the door of the gambling room, and rushed up to the table with an automatic in my hand. This was the only time I used a pistol in seizing goods.

"I'll take the stuff!" I said.

There were about ten men in the game. They did not recognize me, and thought it was a holdup. They stood and put up their hands, while I gathered the money—around $2,500.

"Get yourselves together," I ordered. "You are going to the station."

The legislature was in session, and the group included several Representatives, besides a leading politician and a prominent doctor.

"Great Scott, is that you, Frank?" the politician exclaimed.


"I can't go," he protested. "Think of the wife and girls! They'll go crazy!"

"You are going, just the same."

The legislators insisted, "We are immune from arrest while attending the session."

"I don't know who you are," I replied. "You can talk to the judge."

The next plea was, "Don't book us in our right names!"

"If, knowing your names, I book you in some other," I replied, "I forfeit my office and subject myself to a fine of one hundred dollars."

They then pleaded for non-publicity in the papers.

"It is in your hands," I answered.

Meanwhile two officers had entered the lobby downstairs, according to previous instructions. The buzzer sounded but was too late. The hotel staff wondered what was up. You can imagine their surprise and consternation when I stepped out of the elevator with the group of distinguished men under arrest.

At the station they were booked in their proper names, if I knew them; others in the names they gave. The charge was gambling. Each man put up a cash forfeit and, of course, never came back. The city was two hundred dollars ahead. The Representatives made no fuss, and there was no more gaming during the legislative session. The doctor often had a good laugh over the affair. The prominent politician never mentioned it.

In another hotel, while games were in progress, a colored boy stood by the stairway with a buzzer under his hand. He had orders to buzz if the chief stepped inside.

One evening just after dark I planned a little stratagem. An officer was to run diagonally across the avenue near the hotel with two others in hot pursuit, shooting into the air and creating a great hullabaloo.

It worked perfectly. Everybody, including the clerk and colored boy, ran to the door, while another officer and I walked upstairs and caught the gamblers. Later the proprietor chided the boy for leaving his post.

"Didn't I tell you that chief needed watching?"

"Well, boss," the boy responded, "I did run some to the door; but I never took my eyes off dem stairs. I tells you dat chief never went up dem stairs!"

Nevertheless, the poor fellow lost his job.

Our most dramatic surprise raids were at Mike's Place, a combination saloon and gambling joint with rooms on the second floor. Over the stairway was a heavy "deadfall," drawn up with ropes and pulleys and set so that it could be sprung at the opportune moment. There was another instrument of torture—a large hand bellows filled with red pepper for the special benefit of the chief. The heavy front door had a lock that defied breaking. It was a two-by-six with one end resting on the stairs and the other on the heavy centerpiece of the door. A guard inside permitted entrance only if the proper signal was given. The way seemed completely barred.

It so happened that the main gambling room at the west end of the second floor had a low skylight. I rented an upstairs room nearby, with a window just above the roof of the adjoining building. We had a ladder ready if needed.

One snowy night Hutton, my assistant, and I crawled out of this window. We made our way stealthily along the roofs until we found the skylight. Despite the snow, we could see the movements of the poker players below us. Some fifteen officers were stationed not far from the building, with orders to close in at the sound of a pistol shot.

Hutton tied a strong rope to some framework and coiled it over the glass. I took hold of the rope, pulling it taut. Hutton then fired his pistol and smashed the panes of the skylight to smithereens. As I went down with the glass, I lost my grip on the rope, owing to my game left hand. Throwing up my feet instinctively, I landed flat on my back on top of the table, with bottles, money, and cards, underneath.

Angered by the way I descended upon them, the ringleader shouted with an oath, "That's a confounded way to enter a man's house. Why couldn't you come in at the door like a gentleman?"

He swore that he would not go to the station in a patrol wagon, but he did. Mike may have been the only chronic lawbreaker who held a grudge. His plea was, "I am running an honest game."

The very next night we again took the place by storm. Since the boys objected to my going down the rope, Hutton went instead. Mike took immediate steps to block the skylight entrance by boarding it over.

Although my task as police chief was not an easy one, the excitement and uncertainty of every move held a fascination for me. Most of the city officials were opposed to the "country rube," and the city council refused to confirm me as city marshal, forcing Mayor Drew to swear me in each month. The mayor himself, however, gave me his complete confidence, declaring, "I can sleep of nights now." I understood what he meant.

table of contents next chapter- XXII
back to A Prairie Life home page