Crime in the ragtime era

By Pat Pratt

June 8, 2014

Local law enforcement has undergone many changes singe the days of Scott Joplin and with Saturday’s close of the festival, Pettis County Sheriff Kevin Bond discussed some of the unique local history in regards to crime and punishment dating back to the ragtime era.

“I think we have a tendency to look back on the ‘good old days’ and see the romantic side of it or the good times, but you fail to look at the bad times,” Bond said. “Look at racial segregation. And not only segregation, but the oppression and violence that occurred that we may not even realize.”

To get a true picture of how the boomtown of Sedalia formed, one must travel in time back to the days of civil war. The railroads were the way to travel back in the late 1800s. The tracks were constructed in sections and with the Civil War erupting, construction stopped in Sedalia for almost three years. This allowed the town to stabilize and grow more than others.

“You had the addition of the Rock Island Railroad that crossed here, so you started getting shops here and the maintenance areas and terminal hubs and all that. So that made Sedalia a stopping point and you had all the people that wanted to have fun or come and party. So that created a reason for Scott Joplin, because you had the ragtime Maple Leaf Saloon in the red light district that had popped up there,” Bond said.

With the advent of a business district, a booming population, saloons and all the other niceties that could be had in the late 1800s, crime was on the rise.

“As far as crime that was going on, you had some white collar crime that was going on, because of the business district and being a boomtown,” Bond said. “Thievery, you had some violence, and we had some hangings here in Pettis County.”

And the red light district thrived. Drugs were not the problem they are today, except for alcohol. Perhaps Sedalia’s real claim to fame in the criminal world was the houses of prostitution. Now being a major hub for travelers heading across the state, many of them soldiers, railroad workers and single men, a red light district was quickly formed.

Sedalia’s history of prostitution is well documented. In the late 1800s crimes of the flesh were rampant, according to the sheriff and historical records.

“Prostitution, as late as the 1970s, was illegal in the state of Missouri, except in Sedalia,” Bond said. “We had two open houses of prostitution and in the summer months, you could even go over the viaduct and they were on either side of the street. The gals would set out on big benches out front and you could just go down and pick the girl you wanted.”

So how did local law enforcement deal with these problems — mostly by turning the other cheek?

“So while prostitution was illegal, and I don’t know what year it became illegal in Missouri, that type of red light district flourished here. So law enforcement kind of took a blind eye to that type of going on,” Bond said. “Obviously they had to deal with the residuals, bar fights, knifings. The ideal of the Wild West gunslinger was few and far between, but you had some of those individuals.”

When the cheek was not turned, and a person was taken to jail, it was unlike the experience it is today.

“The jail was the garrison house that had been used by the union troops during the war. They called it the ‘cooler,’ because it was made of logs and the inmates would knock the chinking out. So they said the cool prairie winds that blew would cool the tempers of the partiers that were placed in there because of the revelry that took place about a block away on Main Street,” Bond joked.

Today’s police officers have DNA databases, crime labs, the Internet and other tools at their disposal, but in the late 1800s detective work was very different. Locating a suspect in the vast plains was nearly impossible.

“They relied on wanted posters, which they distributed and posted. It might have been a drawn picture, if there was a picture,” Bond said. “It might have just said ‘wanted dead or alive’ with a reward and the name of the person. Fingerprinting was in its infancy. I think the prisons took them, but I don’t know that the small local police departments did much.”

The most heinous crimes, now investigated in a forensics lab by scientists and criminal justice experts, were often concluded by a handful of locals with little or no experience in law enforcement.

“They took great use of the coroner’s inquests, where they would call a coroner’s jury if somebody died and that jury would meet and determine what the cause of death was,” Bond said. “They would actually go to the scene and view the body and make a determination as to what went on and who was responsible. Then the magistrate would swear out a warrant to follow up.”