Gangbuster: The story of one Colorado man's battle against crime, corruption, and the Klan
In his new book, Gangbuster: One Man's Battle Against Crime, Corruption, and the Klan, Alan Prendergast writes about Denver District Attorney Philip Van Cise, who in the 1920s busted up a crime ring that had been thriving in the city. Van Cise then turned his attention to an even greater threat—the Ku Klux Klan, which was in the process of taking over state government.
Maeve Conran: Why was this somebody that you wanted to write about?
Alan Prendergast: Well, in part because he wasn't well known. I was rather baffled that he isn't better known. I first came across the name when they were trying to decide what to name that (Denver) jail after. And his name came up and all I knew at that point was that he was a DA in the 1920s, but he had two really memorable battles going on then against criminal elements in Denver, of which there were quite a few.
And the first battle is pretty well known, at least among historians, which is that he sort of cleaned up an organized crime group of confidence men that were fleecing rich tourists in Denver, and did this in a very interesting way.
But the second battle is, I think, the reason he isn't better known, and it has to do with him standing up to the Ku Klux Klan at a time when the Klan was in the process of taking over state government in Colorado, and that didn't win him a lot of friends at the time.
But in retrospect, of course, looking back now, we can see that he was doing some remarkable things, and it made me really want to write more and find out more about who this guy was.
Conran: Well, what I found interesting was just your description of what was going on in Denver with all of these cons that we're having and these grifters as you write about them, and it's called the Big Store.
What was that name as it pertained to Denver, and why was Denver and Colorado such a hub for organized crime and particularly this type of, you know, con men, these grifters?
Prendergast: Yeah, this is something that if you've ever seen the movie The Sting, you would have some idea what I'm talking about. It's really the long con where it's not the sort of thing you do on a street corner in a minute; it's a series of very talented confidence men, all playing different parts, luring a mark into an investment that is going to basically disappear.
This takes place over a process of weeks or months, and it involves very large sums of money.
Denver was important for this kind of work because, number one, every summer, there were a number of tourists coming to town; Denver back then was a real attraction, a new place to go for a lot of the bored wealthy in other parts of the country.
In the summer, they would come to Denver and they would go up to Red Rocks and go up to Pikes Peak and things like that.
But more importantly, Denver was a protected town. It was a fixed town, that's what the Big Store refers to, a town where you can operate without worrying about the law because the police have been bribed.
And Denver was incredibly corrupt at this time. That's the part that I think people don't realize when they go into history, is just how pervasive this sort of corruption was and how it affected the ability of these con men to operate.
Conran: He cleans up Denver of these grifters, essentially, and then the Klan becomes an issue. Give us some context as to what was going on because the Klan was emerging nationally or reemerging because it had emerged before that and then there was a little bit of a resurgence. What was going on nationally, and then why did Colorado become such, once again, a hotbed for Klan activity?
Prendergast: That's a great question. The interesting thing is the original Klan, the one we know about from movies and so on, was right after the Civil War. And this was a very violent terrorist group trying to stop Reconstruction, basically.
The one that came up in the 20s is a whole different animal; even though it has the same roots in white supremacy, it is essentially soft-pedaling that message and trying to do other things it's interested in. It's a political movement and really almost a populist movement trying to gain power.
And it manifests itself in different ways. In Colorado, it started out as a kind of secret fraternal society, and then bit by bit, it becomes out of the shadows, and we find them running for office, and sometimes they're running openly as a Klan member, but a lot of times not.
In the mayor's race in 1923, Van Cise was, a lot of people wanted him to run for mayor, he declined, and this guy Stapleton ran instead and became mayor and he had denied being a Klansman, but if you go look in the Klan ledger books, which survived from those days, you'll see that he was already a Klan member at the time that he started running for office and he started putting other Klan people in power.
So Van Cise had just gotten rid of this other group of corrupt officials, and now suddenly, he's got Klan policemen, a Klan manager of safety, and a Klan judge. So, to me, the two investigations are very closely related. And what the Klan was doing was a more sophisticated kind of con in a way than what he had seen with the grifters.
Conran: You mentioned the rapid rise but then the rapid decline of the Klan. And that came in around 1926 or so. There were a lot of other factors for that. It wasn't just Van Cise.
Prendergast: And some of it was happening nationally, and a lot of it, as I say, was self-destruction. There were exposés and scandals involving the corruption of the leaders.
Some of the leaders went to jail. There was embezzlement. There were schisms. And the Klan just sort of fell out of favor almost as rapidly as it had arisen. It's really remarkable to see how completely it collapsed.
Conran: So, what about the legacy then of the Klan?
Prendergast: Well, I think what's interesting is the Klan never completely goes away. We've seen resurgences here and there. Maybe the Black Klansman is about a Klan activity in Colorado Springs in the early 70s.
There was certainly another Klan that was causing trouble in Denver in the early '90s.
These are much smaller and more fringe groups than the one in the 20s, though. In some ways, the legacy of the Klan is their own erasure at some point because of their internal problems as well as the people who stood up to them.
And Van Cise was not the only one doing that, clearly. I mean, there was resistance to the Klan from the Black community. There was resistance in the Jewish community and among the Catholics, all of which is pretty notable in its own way.
So I mean, yeah, that keeps coming back, but I don't think it's anything like this crazy mass movement we saw in the twenties.
This story was shared with KSUT via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico, including KSUT.