The 1920 murder of a socialite exposes a corrupt Kansas City
By Diane Euston
On a crisp, cool October night, the brown-haired socialite tied a green sash around her waist and straightened out her black dress in the mirror of her room at the Ormond Hotel off Linwood and Troost. Her fiancé had called and wanted to take her on a late-night ride around the beautiful boulevards of the city.
The beautiful young woman looked in the mirror as she put on one more coat of lipstick and touched up her hair under her fashionable hat. She smiled at her sister, Hattie and kissed her on the cheek before grabbing her fiance’s hand. “Don’t wait up,” she laughed as they headed out the door.
Little did Hattie know this would be the last time she saw her sister alive.
Florence Barton (1896-1920) was born in Kansas City to a well-known wholesale boots and shoe dealer named Kimber Barton (1854-1927). The youngest of six, Florence grew up at 25th and Forest in a large, comfortable home. She was well-known in social circles, and after attending college in Pennsylvania, she moved back to Kansas City and volunteered at the Junior League. Her mother had passed away ten years earlier, and her father had taken up residence in high-end hotels. In 1920, she shared spacious rooms with her father and her sister.
Her fiancé, Howard L. Winter, had been a friend of hers for years and only recently they had decided to tie the knot in the Spring. He came from a well-to-do Kansas City family and was involved in local real estate. They hadn’t yet announced their engagement, but Florence was working on monogrammed tea towels with her future initials on them when she agreed to take that fateful late-night ride with her fiancé.
Around 9:30pm, Howard and Florence piled into his dark green Dodge Coupe and headed down The Paseo and took the boulevard to Swope Parkway. After a slow drive through Swope Park, the happy couple drove past Hillcrest Country Club and headed east down 87th St. Around Blue Ridge Blvd., Howard stopped the car on the side of the country road and got out of the coupe so he could light his cigar when a black Buick with three passengers pulled up to the side of them.
Howard glared curiously, his only light the moon above, at the three dark shadows inside the vehicle. The young man in the back seat jumped onto the running board of Howard’s Dodge and politely asked, “Can you tell me the way to Lee’s Summit?”
As Howard began to rattle off the directions, his eyes glanced down to the stranger’s side. There, a .38 caliber pistol was pointed directly at him. Howard’s instinct was to take his left hand and put it up to shield his face. Before any words were uttered, the bright flash of a gunshot erupted into the countryside and tore through Howard’s left arm near his elbow.
Several more shots shattered the glass in the driver’s side and screams from inside the Dodge Coupe filled the night. 24-year-old Florence Barton grasped at her chest as blood oozed from a fatal wound. “My God, I’m hit!” she shrieked in pain.
Within seconds, the bandit wearing a dark brown suit and hat leaped into the back seat of the Buick as the driver headed west down 87th St. and disappeared into the night.
Howard, wounded in his arm, jumped back into his car and headed east a quarter mile up the road to the nearest home owned by Roy B. Garvey. He gingerly took Florence out of the car as he screamed for help. Garvey was awoken by the yells and emerged to see a young woman lying in a pool of blood on his driveway.
Garvey didn’t have a phone in his home, so he piled the two strangers into his car and drove to the home of Dr. Hobbs in Raytown. Seeing her dire condition, the doctor knew there wasn’t much time, so he jumped in the car and they drove to the nearest hospital in Independence. Howard stayed in the back seat with Florence who had fallen to the floor of the car. Resting her head on his knee, Florence weakly wrapped her arms around Howard’s neck and whispered, “It hurts.” By the time they got to the hospital, the beautiful Florence Barton had already died from the gunshot wound in her chest. The time of death was estimated to be 11:45pm on October 2, 1920.
Police Spring into Action
No one called the police until 2:30am on Oct. 3. Kansas City police were notified By Howard Winter’s father of the murder and quickly went to the scene of the crime. They found Howard’s unfired .45 caliber pistol in the car and found two .38 caliber bullets lodged in the upholstery of the coupe.
The police searched for the “three night raiders” and correlated the murder with six different robberies that had occurred in the prior weeks in the vicinity- yet nothing had been stolen at this crime scene. Florence’s father, Howard, and others gathered a $5,000 reward for the apprehension of the suspect that Howard described as around 30 years old, 5’11”, 160 pounds wearing a brown suit and hat.
In the following days, several suspects were arrested but released when Howard couldn’t positively identify them. Florence’s father, Kimber Barton hired a private investigating team from Midwest Secret Service to hunt for the men who killed his youngest daughter.
Eight days later, three suspects looked promising, and they had police records a mile long. Denzel “Denny” Chester, Lonnie Affronti, and Fred Roberts appeared to be a perfect trio to commit such a crime, and Fred had been seen with Denny in a Buick the night of the murder. Denny was called “a police character” who “has a record as a stick-up.” Lonnie had already been sentenced ten years for robbery in Clay Co. and seemed to be connected to the mafia. He was appealing his sentence and was out on bond. Known as “Big Fred” Roberts by police (even though he only weighed 127 pounds), the third man was already in jail in St. Joseph for an unrelated crime and was a local car mechanic.
All three men were charged with the murder of Florence Barton. Howard Winter positively identified Denzel “Denny” Chester from a mugshot as the man who killed his fiancé.
On the Run
Before he could be picked up, 24-year-old Denny Chester left town, fleeing a possible murder charge and an $11,000 bond for stealing a car. 21-year-old Lonnie Affronti was arrested and charged with murder. At his bond hearing, the Kansas City Star reported, “The courtroom began to be filled with young Italians. . . Among them was Johnny Lazia, convicted of a holdup and later paroled at the insistence of north side politicians.” Charges were later dropped against Affronti, but the political and mafia connections of these criminals certainly had an ongoing influence on this high-profile murder case.
Midwest Secret Service was able to track Denny Chester to Montana where he was masquerading as an Army officer at a hotel. At the hotel in Great Falls, officers broke down the door of his room on Nov. 8th and found him lying in bed with a gun within his reach.
On Nov. 15th, Kansas City policemen along with agents from Midwest Secret Service escorted Denny Chester onto a Burlington passenger train. As the train took off from a depot at Broken Bow, Nebraska, Denny sat next to one officer- without handcuffs. When the officer moved to avoid a draft coming from the window, the sound of smashing glass alerted him to turn around. Denny “plunged through the window” and landed outside the moving train unharmed. The officer fired five shots at him, and one shot was said to have knocked off his hat as he ran away. How Denny was able to break through the glass remains a mystery.
Denny was on the loose for five days until he was captured 22 miles from where he had jumped from the train. He was escorted by the local sheriff to the jail in Broken Bow where officers in Kansas City were wired of his capture. That evening, Denny twisted up his cot blanket and used it to hang himself from the ceiling. The sheriff’s wife found him before he could complete the suicide.
Hours later, Denny Chester stood on top of his cot “and dived head-first into the cement floor,” thus trying to take his life for a second time. He was unconscious for eight hours and suffered from a severe concussion. Regardless, Denny was brought back to Kansas City- his feet shackled and ordered to sit as far away from the window as possible.
In December 1920, Denny Chester was under the care of doctors at General Hospital where he refused to speak. Doctors were concerned that he may be mute due to the injury to his head, but further treatment indicated he was choosing not to speak.
Denny’s defense lawyer, Joseph Aylward, entered a plea of not guilty but the trial was delayed to May 25 due to Chester’s fragile condition. 5,000 eager Kansas Citians were said to have crowded the streets to “get a good look at Chester.” The two star witnesses against Denny were his former roommate and Howard Winter. 22-year-old Blanche Ryan testified she noticed that her roommate matched the description in the newspaper. She told the jury that she had a conversation with him the day after the murder. “Why Denny, that sounds like your description,” she recalled telling him. Blanche then told the jury that he warned her, “You must never tell that you saw me wearing a brown suit or brown cap.”
There was a credibility issue with Blanche Ryan and other witnesses for the prosecution. She was tied up in several illegal dealings, and it was speculated that the Midwest Secret Service may have paid her to implicate her old roommate. It came to light during the trial that the detective agency was paid $9,500 for their services by Florence’s father.
“Big Fred” Roberts testified that he had been with Denny that night in a Buick but neither of them ended up that far south. He also claimed that one of Florence Barton’s relatives “offered him a garage” for him to run a business if “he would say he was with Chester when he fired the shot that killed Miss Barton.”
Even though Howard Winter positively identified Denny Chester as the man who killed his fiancé and shot him that fateful night, Chester’s attorney Joe Aylward worked to try to discredit him. When Chester took the stand, he still was on crutches and claimed he was mute. He wrote all his answers down and claimed that police had thrown him from the train and doctors had tortured him in General Hospital. He claimed police knocked his front teeth out and slapped him in the hospital and doctors lit fire under his legs, stuck him with needles, put acid under his toenails, and put turpentine in his food.
Closing arguments by the defense two weeks later were described by the Kansas City Times as “little short of disgusting,” and included the weaknesses of the prosecution. The shady dealings of the Midwest Secret Service were brought up along with lack of motive. With that, the jury was left to decide the fate of Denzel “Denny” Chester.
Less than twenty minutes later, the jury announced their “not guilty” verdict at 2:08 pm on June 4th, 1921. The horrific murder of Florence Barton had gripped Kansas City for eight months, but 500 people cheered on the streets when the verdict was read. Jurors later reported that the lack of motive and conclusive evidence was what led to their decision- and they believed Denny’s story of mistreatment.
Defense attorney Joe Aylward left the courtroom with hundreds of cheers from the crowds. He climbed into his car that pulled up with his chauffeur behind the wheel. Since the trial had begun, none other than Lonnie Affronti was acting as his driver.
Denny Chester may have been found not guilty, but he still had two felony charges for stealing cars. He was released on bond- and the person who signed the bond was Lonnie Affronti’s father, Antonio. Antonio was a well-known Italian grocer who was connected closely to “Democratic circles.” The Kansas City Star announced, “This verdict probably means that whoever was the murderer of Miss Florence Barton will go unpunished.”
Chester wasn’t free for long; he was arrested multiple times on charges ranging from assault to robbery. In one arrest, the police asked where he lived, and he responded, “Jail, most of the time.” Apparently, Chester got his voice back. He moved to California with his mother and died there in 1964.
Howard Winter (b.1892) married three years later and had one son. He ran a successful real estate company and died in Sarasota, Florida in 1983.
Charges against Fred Roberts were dropped. One year after testifying, Fred was shot and killed by officers after he resisted arrest. He was found with loot in his pocket from a safe he robbed at 15th and Lydia.
Lonnie Affronti continued to be known as a “notorious Kansas City gangster and peddler” who was arrested multiple times for bootlegging and narcotics dealings. He was tried for the 1932 murder of a woman near Richmond, Mo. He died in state custody in 1960.
Other players within the Midwest Secret Service who testified for the prosecution also met uncertain deaths. Jack Ferrell, a former detective and employee of Midwest Secret Service who was accused by Denny for throwing him from the train, was shot and killed in 1926.
Denny’s former roommate, Blanche Ryan, who was the prosecution’s star witness, married the head of the Midwest Secret Service John G. Hagan months after the trial ended. Hagan was questioned on the murder of Jack Ferrell and was arrested for multiple crimes. His detective agency became defunct after police investigated the organization for illegal activities.
In the end, corruption on all sides seems to have gotten into the way when trying to find justice for the senseless murder of a beautiful 24-year-old socialite. Despite nationwide coverage, no one was ever convicted of Florence Barton’s murder, and so many questions remain almost 100 years later of what really happened that fateful night.
- The next few stories published will be connected to the criminals introduced in this article.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.
October 4, 1920 headline in the Kansas City Star
June 4, 1921 headline in the Kansas City Times
Denzel “Denny” Chester (1892-1964)
A drawing of Howard Winter’s testimony- Kansas City Times May 28, 1921
A drawing from the Kansas City Star shows the position of the car and where the murder took place.