The Union Station Massacre

Union Station in Kansas City has a unique ghost. Completed in 1914, Union Station has seen many dramas played out in its vaulted halls; during World War I it even housed a morgue in the basement to store the caskets of the soldiers transferring between trains on their solemn journey home. The station saw more than 200 trains a day in its hey-day. In retrospect, the giant Beaux-Arts structure has been witness to almost every human saga one can imagine. It is no surprise that it houses a ghost, but this ghost is a little different than most, it has no head.

Witnesses claim that a headless man has been seen haunting these historic halls. Many have speculated that it is the ghost of none other than Frank “Jelly” Nash, gangster and victim during the Kansas City Massacre on the front drive of Union Station in 1933. To understand why Frank is sans-cranium, you have to understand that the blame lies in one on time train on a tragic June morning.

Frank “Jelly” Nash was an expert in cracking safes, with explosives.  Nash is thought to have participated in roughly 200 bank robberies and was often considered the “mastermind” of several groups of criminals. He planned various escapes from prison, both from within the prison and while free. He was sentenced to 25 years at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, but Frank wasn’t going to let that keep him down. He wasn’t the kind of guy to let opportunity pass him by so one afternoon with his Shakespeare novel under his arm, Frank strolled right out the front door of the maximum security prison in 1930 and headed for the cover in the criminal underworld.

Frank was well liked by most everyone he met.  His nickname, “Jelly” (shortened from “Jellybean”), began during his childhood, due to his poise and his well-groomed appearance.  He is described by people that knew him as charming and fun-loving, the kind of guy that you could count on.

The long arm of the law finally caught up with Frank three years later in a cigar store in Hot Springs, Arkansas where he was being sheltered by some associates of questionable integrity. The summer of 1933 the nation was in the depths of the great depression and firmly in the grip of an unparalleled crime wave. Two G-men and an Oklahoma Sheriff apprehended Nash at gunpoint in front of White Front Store shortly after 2pm and took him into Federal custody.

Frank Smith and F. Joseph Lackey, both federal agents, and Sheriff Otto Reed were not ignorant to the fact that Hot Springs was a hotbed for criminal activity, Dick Tallman Galatas ran gambling and vice there andthe police were more on his payroll than that of the average citizen. Nash had been in Hot Springs under Galatas ‘protection’ and it wasn’t appreciated when the arrest was made in broad daylight by G-men where they weren’t welcome.

Galatas had his men and the police set up roadblocks on the road to Little Rock (the closest train station) looking for a kidnapped man (Nash) with orders to shoot to kill his captors. Smith and Lackey were tipped off by one of the locals and instead, took Nash out of town in the opposite direction,  towards Fort Smith, to catch the red-eye train there bound for Kansas City.

It was a nerve racking trip, and the men could feel death’s hand reaching for them as they drove hurriedly towards destiny.  Sheriff Reed kept his hand on his faithful Winchester Model 12 shotgun, a model known to the WWI soldiers as a ‘trench sweeper’ – fully automatic 16 gauge. He packed the shells himself, with solid steel ball bearings instead of the usual lead shot. He loaned Agent Lackey a pump 12 gauge for protection. At the time, FBI agents were not issued weapons, as a matter of fact; the agency was not authorized to carry weapons at all (although many carried their own personal weapon). They also could not arrest anyone, but were permitted to make ‘citizen’s arrests’. Both those facts would be changed after the events of the next day unfolded.

Once at the train station in Fort Smith, the men relaxed and waited for the 8:30pm Missouri Pacific bound for Kansas City. They contacted Special Agent Reed Vetterli who was in charge of the Kansas City FBI and made arrangements for back up to meet them at the train after they escaped a deadly fate on the first leg of the journey leaving Hot Springs with Nash. Weapons in hand, they sat down in the waiting room and passed the time anticipating the train’s arrival. As chance would have it, a reporter for the Associated Press passed them by and noticed the shackled man and the big guns. He questioned them and they, believing  that danger had been averted in Hot Springs and that they were now safe, only too gladly opened up to the young reporter and told him the story.

The reporter, not knowing of the sensitive nature of the information, hit the wires before the agents had stepped off of the platform and left the depot. “Frank Nash…was recaptured…today in Hot Springs…being transported back to Leavenworth by three justice agents…on train from Fort Smith.” With that, death’s icy grip was back on their shoulders.

They traveled through the night, scheduled to arrive at the Kansas City platform at 7:30am. If the train had just been a little late, maybe things could have been different. Maybe the agents from the Kansas City office would have noticed the three men waiting in a Chevrolet behind a green Plymouth. Maybe the men would have gotten anxious and given themselves away on accident. Unfortunately though, the train was punctual; efficiently delivering an FBI agent, 3 local cops and one gangster to their final destination, Union Station, Kansas City.

When Galatas learned of their escape, he turned to his friend in Kansas City, Johnny Lazia, an under boss for the Pendergast machine. At the time, Kansas City was known as Paris on the Plains – so coined when a local newsman was quoted saying, “You want to see sin? Forget Paris, go to Kansas City.”

Johnny only too gladly offered his help. At Mulloy’s Tavern & the Monroe Hotel, next door to the Pendergast office at 1908 Main Street, a plan was put together. Vernon Miller, an ex-South Dakota Sheriff turned bank robber is put in charge of freeing Nash. He contacts two men to help him. While the identity of these two men is still debated, it is commonly accepted that he teamed up with Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd and Adam Richetti.

*The names of William Weissman & Maurice Denning continue to surface as possible players in the massacre for the Mafia. Weissman has close and long-standing ties with Miller and had worked with him in the past. Denning was another thug will strong ties to the Kansas City mob, which set up the plan to free Nash. A lot of others have been named from the Kansas City mob, Jack Griffin, Al O’Brien, Jimmy ‘Needles’ LaCapra, but there has never been any proof to anyone other than Miller.

The G-men and Sheriff with prisoner Nash in tow were met by Special Agent Vetterli and his men and escorted to a waiting unmarked Ford sedan. Nash was seated in the passenger seat and Lackey, Reed and Smith climbed into the back. Here’s where the confusion starts. According to the official story on the FBI website, two men stepped from behind a green Plymouth. Lackey claims he heard one of them say, “Let them have it” as he struggled to draw his weapon, and they opened fire on the car with Thompson submachine guns before Lackey could manage to fire his shotgun (which he claimed jammed). In the blistering hail of gunfire, three police officers, one Bureau agent and Nash are killed on the site, two other FBI agents are seriously injured.

Upon approach of the vehicle, one of the gangster exclaims, “They are all dead. Let’s get out of here.”   The entire exchange lasted 60 seconds in broad daylight, in front of witnesses and other police officers.

Harry Orr, a Yellow Cab driver was just feet away from the agent’s car and described a much different scene than that of the FBI. He remembers the gunman saying “Up! Up”, and motioning for the occupants of the car to raise their hands, when a blast was fired from the back seat. Others also spoke of at least one blast from inside the car before the outside gunmen began firing.

Intrigued with this information, Pulitzer winner Bob Unger conducted more research into the matter, poring over old case reports and witness accounts. His book, “The Union Station Massacre: The Original Sin of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI” asserts that Agent Lackey, recognizing an attack was imminent, grabbed the wrong weapon and mistakenly fired first, killing Nash instantly, blowing his head off with a point blank shotgun blast intensified by steel ball bearings.

As the men stepped from around the Plymouth, Lackey reached for the 12 gauge shotgun loaned to him by Sheriff Reed. On accident, he grabbed Reed’s weapon; a mistake that set off a chain of events that would cost six men their lives and forever change FBI weapons policy. The gun he foolishly grabbed was Reed’s Winchester Model 12. This model 12 had 3 features unique to it and not usually found in a shotgun:

  1. It had an unusual safety lock; it would not fire if the hammer was placed in a half-cocked position. There was no traditional safety on this gun.
  2. It was constructed so that the recoil from a fired shot slid the pump’s forearm grip slightly forward. When manually pulled back, it ejected the spent round and seated a live shell.
  3. It would fire like a machine gun. If the trigger was held back, the gun would automatically fire, eject, re-seat a round, fire, eject, and repeat.

Whether Lackey heard the command or saw the gunman, he reacted. As he pulled he gun from between the seat and the door, he instinctively tried to pump a shell into the chamber and set off a deadly sequence; a set of improbable circumstances that led to the untimely death’s of all that were in its line of fire. Just as the gun came up, it discharged directly into the back of Nash’s head, effectively dismembering him. The shot also blew a hole in the front windshield, as witnessed in the photo here, and struck another agent in the head as he moved across the front of the vehicle.

Agent Lackey must have panicked at that moment, not knowing how the gun fired and kept the trigger depressed, not knowing the automatic capabilities of the weapon. As he swung the barrel to the right front passenger window in the direction of the approaching gunman, the weapon fired again, killing another agent and shattering the left side window.

Before the gun fired for a third time, the gunmen, probably very surprised at the blasts but assuming the agents were resisting, opened fired with their Tommy guns. But they only added to the mayhem, Agent Lackey had already lost the battle for the FBI by taking out several of his own men and the prisoner with his inability to control his weapon.

Much evidence remains confused and controversial to this day, but autopsies revealed that Nash, Agent Herman and Agent Caffrey (both from the Kansas City office) died from shotgun balls, not the bullets pulled from the other victims.

A manhunt was launched for Miller, Floyd and Richetti. Miller’s body was found mutilated and dumped in a ditch just outside of Detroit, Michigan in November. Floyd managed to retain his freedom until October of 1934, where he took two bullets in a fire fight with federal agents and died shortly afterward in the hospital. Richetti was with Floyd when the FBI overtook them and he was arrested and returned to Kansas City for trial. Despite his lawyers appeals regarding Richetti’s sanity, he was sentenced t death  in the gas chamber at Missouri State  Penitentiary of JeffersonCity, Missouri. He was executed on October 7, 1938. Several others including Galatas and Frank Mulloy were indicted and sentenced for their part in the conspiracy.

The incident galvanized the Department of Justice to formalize its relationship with firearms. The following year, Congress gave the FBI statutory authority to carry guns and make arrests. In June of 1934 the FBI acquired their first government issued Thompson submachine guns.

Despite which version you choose to believe, or who the actual culprits were; the end result is the same. Frank “Jelly” Nash, by all accounts a charming fellow, found himself missing a head; one story claiming he was dismembered by a blast from a tommy gun to the neck, another that a shotgun blast eradicated his cranium, in effect ‘blew his head clean off’ . There’s a saying, ‘Every man is put on Earth condemned to die, time and method of execution unknown.’ Perhaps this is how it was just supposed to be for Frank.

The wild and rowdy days of Kansas City’s youth are gone. But the Kansas City gangsters who survived did well. They ran a skimming operation in Las Vegas and were the model for Martin Scorsese’s mobsters in the movie Casino. But in the end, that was pretty much it. The FBI eventually broke the skimming operation and rolled up most of the Kansas City mob. They went to jail. They died.

And Kansas City got respectable. Union Station after falling into decay in the 1970 and 1980s, was renovated just before the millineum in 1999. Its once beautiful architecture fully restored and its massive halls filled with life once more. The downtown US Post Office has relocated to inside its west wing and restaurants, cafes and exhibits make it a destination for young and old alike. It is host to wedding receptions and small venue concerts. Amtrak still provides rail service and the trains still run past.

Should you ever visit Union Station, give a thought to poor old Frank Nash, a victim of an on time transit in a world of late departures and missed connections, who just may be still wandering the halls, wondering what happened to his head.

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21 responses to “The Union Station Massacre

  1. Well done Chloe!! I like your style and humour. Are you a writer, a teacher, a film director ? I really loved this post, thank you!

  2. Really excellent blog post. When i only came on your weblog in addition to needed to say i always have really really liked reading your site articles. Anyway I am going to possibly be subscribing on your feed in addition to I really hope people write once again soon enough.

  3. I enjoyed that very much. Ironic, I just watched ‘Gangland’ on Netflix & the events you described were spot on. Though I suspect the writers used ‘poetic licence’.

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