Black Hand Strawman: The History of Organized Crime in Kansas City
Documentary Film Opens Exclusively at Screenland Crossroads
KANSAS CITY—Kansas City’s colorful history of organized crime is chronicled for the first time in a feature-length documentary film that opened March 20, 2009, on the thirty-seventh anniversary of The Godfather’s premier in Kansas City.
The film’s title suggests the timeframe the documentary spans. The Black Hand era from 1900 to the early 1920s was primarily Sicilian upon Sicilian extortion and was the beginning of Italian organized crime in Kansas City.
“Strawman” is the code name assigned by the FBI in the 1970s and 1980s to the investigation and prosecution of the skimming of casinos in Las Vegas by what was then known as The Outfit, Kansas City’s Mafia Family led by the cunning Nick Civella.
Black Hand Strawman is directed and produced by Terence O’Malley, whose 2006 documentary film Nelly Don: A Stitch in Time was the longest running film at Screenland Theater in Kansas City and remains the theater’s largest box-office revenue-generating film.
Included in Black Hand Strawman are many previously unpublished photographs and film of Kansas City gangsters. Director O’Malley had access to family archives, FBI and police files, newsreels, newspapers, vintage magazines, surveillance recordings and other media and artifacts.
The film’s seven-decade narrative connects the dots to reveal how Kansas City’s Mafia developed to become one of the most efficient organized criminal enterprises in the country. Included in the story is the alliance between the Pendergast (Irish) political machine and the Italian community and its criminal elements.
The film shines a light on Kansas City’s less glorious past when it was a major distribution hub for heroin in the 1930s and 1940s. The somewhat forgotten era of Charles Binaggio as the reigning mob boss in the 1940s is also documented, including the election purge of Congressman Roger Slaughter ordered by then-president Harry S Truman.
Black Hand Strawman explains how Kansas City’s Mafia exercised control over the Teamsters Union Local 41 from the 1950s into the 1980s. Included in the surveillance recordings is the conversation between Nick Civella and bookmaker Frank Tousa two hours before the 1970 Chiefs-Vikings Super Bowl, when the Outfit was about to suffer great financial loss because nobody in Kansas City would bet against the Chiefs.
In the 1970s, the Outfit was waging two gangland wars, the infamous River Quay war and the systematic extermination of the Speros, a family of tough Italian Northside brothers who directly challenged Nick Civella and the rest of the Outfit.
In 1972, as a protest against what it called “cultural prejudices,” the Italian American Unification Council in Kansas City spent $2,500 to purchase all the seats of the premier showing of Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Godfather at the Empire Theatre in downtown Kansas City. While the film played to an empty house, the Council sponsored a benefit dance down the street. “The Godfather” protest is the first story told in Black Hand Strawman, emphasizing that while the Mafia is a Sicilian system of terror exported to and redefined in America, the overwhelming majority of Italian-Americans are not Mafia and have also suffered as victims of organized crime through the years.