Politics and daily events take unexpected turns

Randy Sowell
Truman Library
Randy Sowell

“Thomas B. Bash ... (I wonder what the B stands for – 'Bull' or 'Baloney').” With these words, Harry S. Truman, presiding judge of the Jackson County Court, began another of his unflattering “character studies” of various political colleagues.

Truman filled nine handwritten pages with his complaints about Bash, who had been elected to the County Court in 1928. The document can be seen on the Truman Library’s website at: https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/library/truman-papers/longhand-notes-county-judge-file-1930-1934/undated-5-5

In these private “character studies,” which were probably written between 1930 and 1934, the future president vented his frustration with what he viewed as the greed, corruption, and incompetence of other Jackson County officials while also expressing doubts about his own moral responsibility as an honest public servant who had overlooked or tolerated wrongdoing by others.

Harry S. Truman and Thomas B. Bash were both loyal members of “Boss Tom” Pendergast’s notorious Democratic machine, which dominated Kansas City politics during the 1930s. Truman emerged from this connection with his reputation intact, . . . and so did Bash, although in his case it was personal courage rather than integrity that won him widespread acclaim.

After leaving the County Court, Bash became sheriff of Jackson County. At 1:15 on the morning of Aug. 12, 1933, he and a deputy were driving home from a charitable event in Kansas City. At the intersection of Forest Street and Armour Boulevard, the two officers heard gunshots and a woman’s scream. When they stopped and got out of the car to investigate, a Buick careened from Armour onto Forest and approached them head on, while a passenger in the front seat fired a handgun at them. Bash leveled his shotgun and fired twice through the window of the oncoming car, killing both of its occupants. The Buick smashed into Bash’s car.

Two men on foot also opened fire on the sheriff and his deputy. The deputy pursued one of them, who managed to escape. The other gunman repeatedly fired at Bash and missed. When he ran out of ammunition, he threw away his gun and surrendered to the sheriff.

On the other side of Armour Boulevard, a dead man lay on the sidewalk. He was Ferris Anthon, a local mobster whose criminal activities on the other side of the state line had won him the nickname, “Tony Kansas.” Anthon had been shot eight times while his wife, mother-in-law, and 7-year-old nephew looked on in horror. The sheriff and his deputy had happened upon a typical gangland execution.

The two dead men in the Buick were members of Johnny Lazia’s “North Side gang,” which controlled much of the city’s liquor, gambling and prostitution – with the cooperation of the Pendergast machine. Apparently, “Tony Kansas” had been “put on the spot” because of his affiliation with a rival gang.

The gunman arrested by Bash was Charles “Mad Dog” Gargotta, another member of the North Side gang. As a result of official corruption and political influence, Gargotta escaped punishment for Anthon’s murder, which was never solved. In 1939, Gargotta was finally sent to prison for his assault on Bash but was released after only seven months. A decade later, in 1950, Gargotta was gunned down in the headquarters of the First District Democratic Club on Truman Road, along with another Kansas City mob boss, Charles Binaggio.

Despite his own association with the Pendergast machine, the shootout made Sheriff Bash a local hero in a community that was tired of marauding gangsters and corrupt public officials. One of the many messages of praise Bash received was from Judge Harry S. Truman.

Randy Sowell is an archivist at the Truman Library in Independence.