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My Grandfather's Prison

A Story of Death and Deceit in 1940s Kansas City

Richard A. Serrano

Publication Year: 2009

James Patrick Lyons abandoned his family for a life on Kansas City’s skid row. A town drunk, he was arrested eighty times for public intoxication. On the night of his last arrest, he was taken to the city jail and held in solitary confinement. The next morning he was dead. Officials said it was natural causes—yet they could not explain his broken neck.


            When Richard Serrano learned of the grandfather he had never known, the longtime journalist embarked upon a search that led him deep into the city’s wide-open and ignoble past. He stumbled upon his maternal grandfather’s death certificate from 1948 and discovered that the evidence pointed to murder in that basement cell. That revelation triggered a blizzard of questions for Serrano and provided the impetus for this engrossing story.


Part memoir, part historical mystery, My Grandfather’s Prison takes readers back to a crossroads year for Kansas City. The Great Depression and World War II were over, yet vestiges still lingered from the corrupt Pendergast political machine. The city jail itself was a throwback to the old lockups and rock piles of popular fiction, while the sheriff’s office was dishonest and inept—and tried to cover up the death.


Much has been written about Tom Pendergast and the iron hand with which he ruled Kansas City until his fall. Serrano’s personal journey into that time takes the story further into those crucial years when the city tried to shake off the yoke of machine politics and political corruption and step into a new era of reform.


In his quest to uncover the details of his grandfather’s life, Serrano re-creates the flavor of mid-twentieth-century Kansas City. He shows us real-life characters who broaden our understanding of the city’s history: sheriffs and deputies, political bosses and coroners. And he also discovers a city filled with lost souls like James Lyons: the denizens of Kansas City’s skid row, a neglected area near the river bottom that once housed the city’s gilded community but now was home to derelicts and drunks.


As Serrano gradually comes to terms with the darker side of his family history, he traces a parallel reconciliation of the city with its own sordid past. James Lyons died just as the old ways of the city were dying, and this spellbinding account shows how one town in one time struggled with its past to find a brighter future.

Published by: University of Missouri Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-viii

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Chapter 1

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pp. 1-5

The guard shined the flashlight along the wall, searching through the predawn darkness for the prisoner in the basement, finding him crumpled on the floor. For twenty-five hours the man had been held in solitary confinement, in what the inmates called the Hole and the guards the Dungeon. The jail staff had given him a bare mattress for ...

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Chapter 2

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pp. 6-23

I grew up in a family without grandparents. My father came from Mexico, and his father, a poor, devout Catholic, died before I started school. I never set eyes on him. My father’s mother, who lived well into her nineties, I met only three times in rare family visits to the Old Country, and I can recall her in mere fleeting images, small and ...

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Chapter 3

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pp. 24-37

I started with his death certificate. It listed my grandfather’s parents as Joseph P. Lyons and Mary Connors and noted that they had 1893, and settled in Kansas City, Kansas, five years later. I also found a ship manifest from the Britannic, in its day the fastest sail on the tracts placed her in the Kansas City area just before the turn of the ...

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Chapter 4

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pp. 38-54

In the spring of 1948 when my grandfather was killed in his prison, the Lyons family plot was full, so they buried him down a long slope in Mt. Calvary’s old section. Alone much of his life, he lies join his family for visits to the cemetery on Decoration Day. “We’d leave flowers, and I’d ask my dad, ‘Who was James Lyons? Why ...

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Chapter 5

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pp. 55-71

If you died on the streets, they more than likely delivered your body to the potter’s field next to the Kansas City Municipal Farm. The pauper’s cemetery was a sloping two-acre tract, and over the years more than a thousand metal markers were shoved into the yellow clay, each carrying a slip of paper bearing a name and a number ...

Photo Section

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pp. 72-82

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Chapter 6

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pp. 83-108

When the guard’s spotlight landed on James Lyons the jail announced that officers had looked in on him several times down there in the Hole and that he seemed to be fine, and they suggested that even though he was not yet forty years old, he must have had ...

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Chapter 7

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pp. 109-118

On Wednesday, May 26, 1948, there appeared in the morning paper a small four-paragraph item that ran deep in the inside pages. Headlined “Dies at Municipal Farm,” the Kansas City Times reported that James Patrick Lyons, thirty-nine, of Fifth and Main streets, had...

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Chapter 8

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pp. 119-130

Once the guard’s flashlight spotted my grandfather’s body in solitary confinement, the word quickly began to make the rounds. It spread fast, real fast. It circled first among the guards and then up around the jailhouse cell blocks above the basement Dungeon and then swiftly out onto the streets of the city, too. The news landed ...

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Chapter 9

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pp. 131-139

It is the house that Truman built. He was presiding judge of the old administrative court then. That was back in 1934, and Truman dedicated the new Jackson County Courthouse in downtown Kansas City just days before he left for Washington as the freshly elected Democratic senator from Missouri. ...

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Chapter 10

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pp. 140-143

Every day before noon Charles B. Wheeler arrives for lunch at the Westport Flea Market restaurant. Now swallowed up by the city, the Westport neighborhood is actually older than Kansas City. It was the stepping-off point for settlers headed west to Texas and the Oregon Territory. The town of Westport was here long before there was a Fifth ...

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Chapter 11

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pp. 144-152

The guard with the flashlight, Frederick H. Coleman, worked the overnight shift. He went out to the Farm in his khaki-brown uni-until the sun was up the next morning. He was already in his late sixties by 1948, and this was just a job in retirement that he took after years toiling as a housepainter and wallpaper hanger. He was a big ...

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Chapter 12

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pp. 153-BC

And then I knew I was done. Because even though I never quite realized it, it was some kind of an inner peace that I been searching for all along. I had embarked on a journey hoping to find a grandfather and maybe his killer too but had instead discovered something ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780826271983
E-ISBN-10: 0826271987
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826218643
Print-ISBN-10: 0826218644

Page Count: 162
Illustrations: illus
Publication Year: 2009

Edition: 1