Fargo Season 4: A History of Kansas City Gangsters

Out of respect for the dead, we guess at the real life rogue’s gallery behind Fargo season 4 and find a central true crime event.

Fargo Season 4 Gangsters
Photo: Elizabeth Morris | FX

The following contains spoilers for Fargo season 4 episode 1.

Loosely inspired by Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 film, the FX series Fargo also gets loose inspiration from real events, cryptic though they may be. They say the names are changed out of respect for the living, but everything is told as it happened out of respect for the dead. Season 4 is set in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1950. Chris Rock plays Loy Cannon, the boss of an African American crime family. He’s got an eye to the future, because “Italians, they’re the past.”

The season opener gives a detailed history of Kansas City’s organized crime, from the Hebrew mobsters who put money on the streets and skimmed the profits off the top of most vices in the city. The Moskowitz Syndicate ran the underworld, we learn from young Ethelrida Pearl Smutney (Emyri Crutchfield), who is writing a paper on local history for school on the show. We are shown a mug shot of Liev Moskowitz, arrested on March 27, 1894, for extortion. “Then came the Irish,” she says as the screen flashes the year 1920, and we are introduced to The Milligan Concern. The mug shot of Owney Milligan, taken the day after Christmas in 1914, lists his crimes as buggery and perversion, not something you can make bank on.

The history report then skips to 1934 when the Donatello Fadda (Tommaso Ragno) comes to town to represent the Italian mob. He engages in a ritual with the Irish mob, which they performed with the Moskowitz Syndicate. The heads of the two families trade sons. The history report says this is to foster understanding between the two different cultures, but we all know it’s really the guarantee of mutually assured destruction.

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Kansas City does indeed have a rich criminal history. It was called the “Paris of the Plains” in the early 1900s. By the Jazz Age, Kansas City was nicknamed “Tom’s Town” after political boss Tom Pendergast. It had places to drink, to gamble, which was illegal, and over 100 cathouses which are now cultural landmarks. The police department had been under the corrupt political rule of the Pendergast Machine, started by the “King of the First Ward” in 1892. The Volstead Act in 1919, which ushered in the age of Prohibition Act, did not stop the party. 

The first organized criminals in the area were the Irish-America gang the Combine, according to the book The Mafia and the Machine: The Story of the Kansas City Mob, by Frank R. Hayde. But Fargo casts its net over the entire Midwest, and what happens on the show in 1920, was happening in Minneapolis at that time. Most of that city’s crime was being done by local gangs of the Irish mob, who rose up in a world run by Jewish gangsters not ready to step down. Isadore “Kid Can” Blumenfeld, a Romanian-Jewish immigrant gangster was an associate of both the Chicago Outfit and the Genovese crime family. He had rival gangs run by David Berman, Thomas W. Banks, and “Big Ed” Morgan. In Kansas City, crime was run by Solomon “Solly” Weissman, according to Americanmafia.com, who was also known as “Slicey Solly,” “The Bully of Twelfth Street” and “the Cutcher-head-off Kid.” They all lived under national commission rules.

The Italian mob was in Kansas City when the series’ history report says there were only two criminal players in town. At the turn of the 20th century the Black Hand terrorized Kansas City’s North Side. By 1919, Little Italy was under its own rule and cops who came looking to enforce laws ended up being ex-cops. Italian-American political figure and future Kansas City mob boss Johnny Lazia beat an agent who was investigating him for tax evasion charges to death. He also kidnapped men from Pendergast’s political machine to make sure they knew he had what it takes to grease the gears.

Lazia couldn’t derail the Union Station Massacre of June 17, 1933, though. Convicted murderer Frank “Jelly” Nash had been caught after escaping from Leavenworth Penitentiary. His partner-in-crime, Verne Miller, asked Lazia to help snatch Nash when he passed through Union Station on the way back to prison. The head of the Kansas City crime family was more of a politician than a gangster, and Lazia allegedly farmed the job out to Adam Richetti and Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, who earned the FBI distinction of being Public Enemy No. 1 after the grab became a bloodbath.

Lazia was shot to death in front of his wife at the Park Central Hotel on July 9, 1934, one week short of the first anniversary of the massacre. His underboss, “Charley the Wop” Carollo took the top spot for a short while but did time for income tax evasion before being deported to Italy. Carollo’s underboss, Charles Binaggio, who was one of Lazia’s North End lieutenants, became the Kansas City mob’s boss in October 1939. Binaggio was arrested for the first time at age 21. He was one of Kansas City’s best earners. Binaggio was also arrested on July 20, 1931, after a shootout that killed a Bureau of Prohibition agent.

As boss, Binaggio came up with a scheme to control the police forces in Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri. The mob ran a nationwide drug ring in the 1930s, which was busted when the Bureau of Narcotics pulled in mafiosi from St. Louis, Tampa, Florida, and Kansas City. Binaggio didn’t get caught, but top lieutenant Joe DeLuca was sent up after being ratted out by a low-level associate. Like his predecessor, Binaggio was the political arm of the mob in Kansas City. By the early 1940s, Binaggio formed the First Ward Democratic Club and took on rival Jim Pendergast, the nephew of Tom Pendergast.

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Meanwhile, the syndicate was growing impatient with Binaggio’s plan to control the Kansas City and St. Louis police forces. Binaggio threatened some top cops and tried to bribe a Kansas City police commissioner, but he couldn’t get things moving. On the night of April 5, 1950, Binaggio and his underboss, Charles “Mad Dog” Gargotta, were called into the First Ward Democratic Club. Police later found their bodies. They had been shot in the head four times with separate .32 caliber revolvers. Binaggio was seated at a desk, Gargotta was lying inside the front door. Over 10,000 people watched Binaggio’s funeral procession. New York City-born Anthony Robert Gizzo, a close friend of Binaggio who was arrested with him in Denver in 1930, assumed leadership of the Kansas City family.

Rock’s Loy Cannon is partially based on James (Doc) Dearborn who, along with Eddie David Cox and Eugene Richardson, controlled Kansas City’s East Side. They were called the Purple Capsule Gang, named after the color of their heroin bags. The Italian mob was under orders to stop heroin trafficking after recent heat, and the Purple Capsule Gang filled in the gap. Dearborn had an alliance with the Civella crime family, and partnered with “Shotgun Joe” Centimano on drugs, gambling, extortion, and prostitution.

Another figure on the scene who straddled the worlds of crime and politics was African American nightclub and newspaper owner Felix Payne. One of the cogs in the Tom Pendergast machine, Payne controlled the numbers rackets and got blacks to vote for machine candidates. Born in Marshall, Missouri, in 1884, Payne ran a tavern in Kansas City and co-owned the all-Black baseball team the Kansas City (Kansas) Giants by 1906. Payne set up gambling joints and nightclubs like the Subway, the Sunset, and the East Side Musicians Club, all of which attracted top jazz players who did after-hours jam sessions. The kind of place one of the sons of Chris Rock’s mob boss character occasionally plays in Fargo. Blues singer Big Joe Turner name dropped Payne’s partners, gamblers Big Piney Brown and his brother Little Piney, in the song, “Piney Brown Blues.”

Payne was just as successful politically as he was culturally, often fusing civic duties. In 1928, he organized 75 black Democratic clubs in the state of Missouri and started the Kansas City American newspaper with Dr. William J. Thompkins. In January 1929, Payne was kidnapped, blindfolded, robbed of his jewelry and $3,000 in cashiers’ checks, stripped naked and left in Kansas City’s Central Industrial District in subfreezing temperatures, the city’s main African American newspaper The Call, a rival to Payne’s newspaper, reported at the time. The Republican-leaning paper was very critical of the flamboyant underworld figure and his effect on the community.

Segregation in Kansas City was systemic and multifaceted. Residential discrimination denied access to better housing, unions closed their books on black membership. African American voters in Kansas City were swayed from the Republican Party associated with the end of slavery to Pendergast’s Democratic Machine with criminal associations. Middle class whites formed a racist and segregationist voting bloc. Kansas City’s red-light district was racially segregated. Fargo captures the tensions of the time while playing loose with the specifics. Out of respect for the dead, it’s fun to keep looking.