Hagan’s heists, the Mafia and the Midwest Secret Service Detective Agency
By Diane Euston
It was bad enough when socialite Florence Barton was murdered while on an evening drive with her fiancé nearly 100 years ago (see this story in The Telegraph, April 28). But matters took another dark turn when her father hired a shady detective agency to look into her death. The investigation that began in 1920 involved a crooked P.I. who employed ousted policemen, a thrice-divorced woman, stolen cars and bank robberies, and a final not-guilty verdict–all set against the background of a violent and corrupt Kansas City.
The Midwest Detective Agency
The son of a lawyer, John Giles Hagan was born around 1891 and found honest work at the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency in Kansas City. He quickly rose to captain of a patrol. By 1919 he and a partner founded Midwest Secret Service Detective Agency, which was financed heavily by insurance executive William Drennon. A private investigating team was an asset for insurance companies, especially with the newly-popular automobile that wasn’t too difficult to steal.
Hagan hired many former police officers who had been fired from KCPD for numerous offenses, and they often had a checkered past. They were hired in part to work as night watchmen over businesses and private residences, and they also were tasked with recovering stolen property. From records, it appears the police department was not too fond of Midwest’s business practices. In fact, in order to not confuse officers with these private agents, the department forced Midwest to buy identifying uniforms for their officers.
When Florence Barton was murdered, her father chose Midwest and its vice-president Hagan to investigate what happened. It was likely Hagan’s biggest case yet, and he wasn’t about to let this one go without an arrest and witnesses to testify.
Florence Barton’s Case
Denny Chester seemed the best suspect for Barton’s murder, so police and agents from Midwest Secret Service were hot on his trail when he fled the area. Both were present when he was arrested in Montana – and when Chester escaped their custody by jumping from a moving train.
The star witness implicating Chester was his former roommate, Blanche Ryan (b. 1898). Court records indicate that Blanche married at 14 and then again to a man named Joseph Ryan. She moved to Kansas City while her husband worked out of town. To help with the bills, Blanche rented a room to Chester. She claimed he told her he had killed Barton, but there was much suspicion surrounding this; Blanche was tied to “illegal dealings” and may have been paid by Midwest Secret Service for her eyewitness testimony.
Even before the murder trial began, the detection agency was in the hot seat. In December 1920 the police commissioners wanted the agency’s license revoked due to their shady practices attached to the Barton case, but a judge’s order blocked it. Police commissioners were angered and took the decision all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court.
When a new board of police commissioners was “elected” into office, the case was dropped and Midwest Secret Service continued business as usual.
During the Barton murder trial in spring 1921, defense attorney Joseph Aylward claimed the agency offered many witnesses cash for their testimonies. Conveniently, Jack Farrell, a private investigator with Midwest, claimed he happened to be near the scene of Barton’s murder looking for a stolen car when he saw a car pass by with Chester in it.
In all actuality, Chester may have been convicted of the murder if there hadn’t been so many questions surrounding Midwest. In closing arguments, Aylward shook his finger at Farrell and Hagan and proclaimed, “Those cowards and those murderers would stoop at nothing–those buzzards live off dead bodies.”
On June 4, 1921, Chester was found not guilty. In 1922 Hagan married newly divorced Blanche Ryan, the star witness he swore under oath that he never paid to testify against Chester. In total, Hagan received $9,500 from Florence Barton’s father for his detective work.
Corruption Closes Midwest’s Doors
Midwest Secret Service was said to have employed 25 patrolmen and had 35 operatives. By April 1922 the agency was in the headlines again when eight operatives were arrested for robbery of the very places they were paid to protect as night watchmen. One agent admitted robbing four stores while another said in a statement after he was arrested, “In all the time I worked for the Midwest, the lieutenants and superior officers gave me the impression they desired me to be crooked.” In total, agents admitted to 23 robberies.
Hagan met the police at their headquarters. He denied knowing anything about the robberies and stayed quiet as he puffed on his cigar. On April 10, 1922, Midwest Secret Service’s license was formally revoked and Hagan walked away with no direct charges.
In the Hot Seat
In August Hagan had a warrant for his arrest in Kansas City, Kansas, after he was implicated in a confession for robbing a bank. The witness called Hagan “the brains” behind the operation.
Things got even worse when federal agents slapped him with violation of the Dyer Act. This act prosecuted individuals who crossed the state line with stolen vehicles, and Hagan seemed to be the head guy in an operation that may have been the largest stolen car ring in the Midwest.
Hagan was delivering stolen cars as far away as Denver and was paying crooks in stolen Liberty bonds from a bank heist in Wyandotte County. The scam was one that federal agents had never seen before. Hagan would telegraph the Marmon car factory and ask for the names and addresses of people who had bought cars with certain ID numbers (the modern-day VIN number). He used the cover of his defunct detection agency so the car company thought he was tracking stolen vehicles for return to owners.
In reality, Hagan was making bills of sale to himself using the names supplied by the Marmon car company, thus giving him clear title to the cars.
After being charged with the Dyer Act, Hagan’s attorney claimed he was out of town and said he’d bring him into court the next day. Deputy U.S. Marshal Lindsey laughed and asserted, “He’s always out of the city when wanted.”
The next day Hagan was nowhere to be found. He had skipped down to Mexico.
Paying for the Crime?
After an acquaintance spotted Hagan and his wife in Mexico and reported it to federal officers, Hagan offered to “clear up many crime mysteries in Kansas City” in trade for immunity for his outstanding charges. He claimed to have information about gangs stealing cars and could “expose a giant arson ring” that operated in the city. The offer was declined.
After five months on the run, Hagan was arrested in El Paso, Texas. In May 1923 he was given one year and one day in Leavenworth for transporting a stolen car and selling it. His lawyer immediately appealed and Hagan was released.
While out on bond, Hagan was held in connection to a November 1924 bank robbery in North Kansas City, but again was released. By March 1925 he had fled Kansas City and was living under an alias at the Washington Hotel in St. Louis when a bank there was held up for over $34,000. A tip led police to Hagan’s hotel room where they found the box used to “scoop up the money.” Hagan and his wife were both arrested and released once more on bond. Before anyone could put the pieces together on his trail of crimes, he was long gone.
Farrell Murder and Justice
Over a year after the Hagans were on the run, a longtime accomplice was gunned down in Kansas City. On May 26, 1926, 45-year-old Jack Farrell, former corrupt police officer and agent of Midwest, visited Hagan’s mother just hours before he met his death. He seemed nervous and said he was being followed. A few hours later, Farrell drove toward Thompson and Benton Boulevard in his new Ford coupe and a passing car with unidentified men inside fatally shot Farrell twice.
The Kansas City Star reported that Hagan “may have directed the slaying of his former companion.” It was speculated that Hagan and Farrell had a disagreement after splitting the loot from the robbery in North Kansas City.
The police got a good laugh when Hagan took time to write them a letter while on the run. Postmarked from Washington D.C. it professed, “The whole thing appears to be just another attempt to fasten something on me.”
A month later Hagan’s $7,000 bond was forfeited for failure to appear to his federal appeal case for violation of the Dyer Act.
After three years Hagan and his wife were found in Chicago when he was arrested in a liquor raid. He had been living under an alias and working as a salesman. With a cigar clamped between his teeth, he declared, “I knew they would get me. When the law is after you, it’s just a question of time. But I thought I was sitting pretty in Chicago.”
On March 23, 1928, Hagan was finally sent to Leavenworth to serve his one-year sentence. After his release, Blanche filed for divorce, citing “cruelty, indignities and nonsupport.” She moved back home to Topeka, remarried and died in Colorado in 1982.
Hagan the Hero?
Hagan, the new bachelor, left the area and returned to Chicago shortly after he was released. To no surprise, he found himself again plastered across national headlines when he became involved in a Mafia hit. But this time, he was working against them.
On June 9, 1930, a Chicago Tribune reporter named Alfred Lingle (1891-1930) was shot and killed gangland style. Speculation immediately fell to the mob led by notorious “Scarface” Al Capone. Many believed the reporter may have been targeted because he wrote about the infamous mob boss. The Tribune offered a hefty reward leading to the arrest and conviction of his killer.
In an odd turn of events, none other than Hagan offered to work undercover to find out who killed the reporter. According to the Tribune, Hagan was assigned by the chief investigator and the state attorney “to mingle with the gangs of Chicago. . . in the hope that he might learn why and by whom Lingle had been killed.”
Shortly after Hagan’s involvement, Leo V. Brothers, a member of an organized crime ring in St. Louis (called Egan’s Rat) who had fled to Chicago when he dodged a murder indictment, was arrested and put on trial. It was said that when he arrived in Chicago, he found work under Capone.
Hagan became the state’s “ace-in-the-whole witness” and testified against Brothers, who was found guilty and sentenced to 14 years. In June 1931 the Chicago Tribune posted a proud picture of them handing over a $25,000 reward check to Hagan. They wrote, “In the carrying out of his assignment, Hagan braved many perils, and always, while he lived with the gangsters and learned their secrets, he stood in danger of being exposed.”
A Quiet Ending of a Life of Controversy
Iolene Stone, vaudeville and circus performer who “did a shooting act from a wire,” became Hagan’s next wife shortly before he moved back to Missouri. He needed an isolated place where he wasn’t easily identified considering his involvement in implicating the Chicago and St. Louis Mafia.
He bought a 385-acre farm outside Humansville, Missouri, near Springfield, where his mother and siblings had settled. The local newspaper claimed, “John Hagan has changed. Now he lives on his quiet farm near here, thoroughly domesticated, content to raise cattle and hogs and other fancy livestock.”
People knew of his past, and he had a large collection of guns. “Rumor has it that he is always ready to protect himself on a moment’s notice from any enemy who might wish to take revenge upon him for some incident in his vivid past,” the Macon Chronicle-Herald reported.
His happiness was short-lived when his new wife passed in 1932 after a short illness. He then married a woman named Julia, settled in Springfield, and worked as an independent owner of a truck company. His new calling took him to Norfolk, Virginia, where he died on July 13, 1954.
Corruption in Kansas City and Beyond
Hagan hung around in circles that put him in compromising situations with some of the most notorious characters of our country’s underworld. Starting with Pinkerton Detective Agency and likely fixed on leading a squeaky-clean life, Hagan fell into the corruption readily available in Kansas City. He was willing to use frowned-upon tactics to place convictions on others, but when under attack, he fled the scene and escaped capture. In his eyes, no one was off-limits; he used his investigative skills to implicate people and receive an extensive payout.
We can all learn from stories like Hagan’s about how dirty Kansas City was during its heyday and how high-profile crimes of the time seem linked to a rather small network of players hellbent on running a city under their own terms.
Diane writes a blog about the history of the area. To read more of these stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.