Entertainment

The Surprising Real Mob History That Inspired 'Fargo' Season 4

From Kansas City's overlooked mob past to the Black gamblers who funded their communities while staving off both the mafia and the cops.

chris rock, fargo season 4
Elizabeth Morris/FX

“Here’s the thing about America: The minute you relax and fatten up, somebody hungrier is gonna come along looking for a piece of your pie,” the precocious teen Ethelrida Pearl Smutney (E'myri Crutchfield) narrates during the first tense face-off in the first episode of the fourth season of FX's irreverent crime anthology series Fargo, set between Don Donatello Fadda (Tommaso Ragano) of the Italian Fadda Family—the fictional stand-ins for the Kansas City Mob—and Loy Cannon, the patriarch of a Black migrant crime family deftly portrayed by Chris Rock. Besides dipping south to switch out one Midwestern locale for another—swapping the scenic backdrop of small-town modern Minnesota for the seedy underworld of 1950 Kansas City, Missouri—all the familiar elements of the show are there. 

A new cast of eccentric personalities vie for our attention this time as tensions rise between Cannon's crew and the Fadda Family after Don Donatello dies and his rambunctious son Josto (Jason Schwartzman) takes over. What separates this season from Fargo's previous three is just how intertwined the social atmosphere of the setting is with the motivations and mannerisms of the characters. It's there in every cringe-inducing, off-color comment Jessie Buckley's murderous nurse Oraetta Mayflower says to Ethelrida the minute her Blackness is brought to her attention. 

fargo, E’myri Crutchfield, Ethelrida Pearl Smutney
E’myri Crutchfield as Ethelrida Pearl Smutney | Elizabeth Morris/FX

This long-awaited season of the show joins an unfortunately small list of prestige TV shows and movies featuring Black characters willing to get a piece of theirs by any means necessary, even if it means breaking the law. Outside of other recent entries like Epix’s Godfather of Harlem and seminal hits like The Wire and the 2007 film American Gangster, the exploits of a charismatic white crime boss tend to win out as they’re given ample leeway to push the character’s arc into darker places without losing the respect of the audience. in The Sopranos, Tony Soprano shoots the shit with the rest of the boys at Bada Bing! after offing the competition while still being able to air out his traumas during his therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi; in The Godfather trilogy, the trials of Vito and Michael Corleone are just as much about making it in America as they are the relentless pursuit for power. While their fatal flaws add texture to these three-dimensional men, their non-white counterparts haven't always been afforded the same depth.

But things seem to be changing, with a little help from history this time around. The second episode of this season declares that many of these events are true stories as a prison break goes down on screen. Like most television that claims to be semi-historical, Fargo takes ample creative license with the phrase “based on a true story.” While it's a far cry from the turf war unfolding, the real-world inspiration behind a few key elements are thrilling in their own right. From Kansas City's overlooked mob past, to the Black gamblers who funded their communities while staving off both the mafia and the cops, and politicians on the mob's payroll, the bits of reality Fargo borrows hold their own when pitted against this strange and fascinating fiction.

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Jason Schwartzman as Josto Fadda | Elizabeth Morris/FX

Kansas City does have a curious criminal past

Even though it's in keeping with the show's Midwestern motif, Fargo's version of Kansas City and its branch of the mafia pales in comparison to the real-life mobsters who ran the streets of the mid-sized city. As with other metropolitan hubs in the early 20th century, the Kansas City mafia, known as the Black Hand, developed within the burgeoning Italian immigrant population that flocked to the city for jobs. By the time Prohibition had ended, the city’s Little Italy neighborhood had 30,000 residents with 66% of them hailing straight from Sicily. 

"Prohibition was a gift to Kansas City criminals as much as it was to Chicago or any other big city you want to choose," Terence O’Malley, author of Black Hand Strawman: The History of Organized Crime in Kansas City and director of the documentary of the same name, told Thrillist. At any given time, there were a couple dozen major players in the Kansas City mob during its heyday in the 1910s and '20s.

As a rotating cast of criminals like John "Brother John" Lazia, Charles Binaggio, and Charlie "Mad Dog" Gargotta profited off Prohibition and other vices like gambling, prostitution, and later drug trafficking, they hid their illicit activities through legitimate local businesses and abetted by local politicians and law enforcement. While the beginning of this season has the Italian mafia nix their Irish rivals, the real Kansas City mob thrived thanks to Irish American political boss Tom Pendergast who pulled strings for them within the city and state government. Pendergast had so much sway in Missouri politics that he even had a hand in jumpstarting the political career of Missouri native and 33rd U.S. President Harry S. Truman. 

The city's literal split personality—half is in Missouri while the other is in Kansas—also helped mobsters evade police departments in both states. One notorious gambling site, the Last Chance Saloon, straddled state lines to the point where they could avoid police raids on either side of the border by just moving their activities depending on who was coming.

“It literally had painted on the floor a diagonal line separating Kansas and Missouri," O’Malley said. "So when the Missouri cops would raid the place, they would just simply move all the gambling equipment over to Kansas. They would push all the crap and roulette tables all the way to the other side of the room, and then when the Kansas cops would raid, they'd shift it back onto the Missouri side."

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Karen Aldridge as Zelmare Roulette, Kelsey Asbille as Swanee Capps, and Anji White as Dibrell Smutney | Elizabeth Morris/FX

Black businesses thrived America’s underground economy

The grit and grace that Rock’s Loy Cannon shows as he deals with his prejudiced adversaries in the KC mob mirrors the Black numbers runners who wagered their way to success in major cities across America during the first half of the 20th century. An early precursor to the state-run lotteries we have today, the system behind the game that originated within Harlem’s Black community was simple: Players placed their bets into a pool and would then come up with a set of numbers that, if lucky, would come up during a routine drawing. 

The rules and mechanics differed slightly between cities like New York and Chicago, but the popularity remained strong. At its peak during the late 1920s, the Harlem numbers racket and its derivatives were worth around $90 million with 100,000 regular players and about 1,000 people employed at least part-time behind the scenes, according to Shane White, a historian at the University of Sydney and co-author of Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars

"Every person running every bloody state in America, when they come around to balancing their budget and they're getting god knows how many hundred billions out of the lottery, should tip their hat towards the Blacks who created the business in the first place," White told Thrillist.

It wasn't just an important cultural institution within the community, but an economic one as well. Just as the white bank owner rejects Loy Cannon and Doctor Senator's credit venture in the series, Black people were systematically shut out of getting loans or other types of financial assistance through official channels. More often than not, it was Black numbers runners who were ready to foot the bill for a local business owner looking to spruce up shop or a young kid heading off to college, using funds obtained by running and playing the game. When no one else would invest in their communities, the numbers were there to fill the need. 

"That is the American way. They all did it through this illegal means because they knew that was the only way to get a foothold in a society that was going to be discriminating against them because of who they were," Bridgett M. Davis, author and journalism professor at Baruch College, told Thrillist. In her book The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother's Life in the Detroit Numbers, Davis chronicled her mother Fannie Davis’ career running her own numbers operation out of their Detroit home during the 1960s while raising her and her siblings. 

After discrimination hindered her father’s chances at a decent factory job, her mom supplemented the family’s income by operating the only woman-lead numbers game that she knew of in the largely male-dominated game. Despite being too young at the time to realize it, Davis’ mother was a regional icon, quickly becoming the highest-ranking woman working in the Detroit numbers racket at the time. She and others in the game didn’t just use their winnings to support their families, but the community too; they funded Black-owned businesses like newspapers and insurance companies and even donated to the newly formed Detroit chapter of the NAACP

"Numbers men did things like building a hotel in Detroit so that Black folks would have a nice place to stay because they were not allowed to stay in the downtown hotels in Detroit," Davis said. As time went on, the originally majority-Black enterprise gained favor among other groups; besides the Jewish, Italians, and Irish who participated, Davis recalls hearing back from family members of Greek, Polish, and Panamanian immigrants who had some kind of stake in the game.

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Tommaso Ragno as Donatello Fadda and Chris Rock as Loy Cannon | Elizabeth Morris/FX

Fighting over new opportunity was less organized in real life

As much as the tension between Cannon’s newcomers and Fadda’s men makes for some great on-screen chemistry between actors like Salvatore Esposito and Glynn Turman, the actual Kansas City mob remained pretty much uncontested for much of the 20th century. The city did see a sizable growth in the Black population during the Great Migration, but an organized Black mob never really took hold. 

On the East Coast however, Black numbers runners like Harlem gambler and socialite Stephanie St. Clair and her enforcer Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson had to guard their business from both the law and rival gangs. Once Prohibition ended, mobsters such as Dutch Schultz tried to make up for the loss in profits by muscling in on the lucrative Harlem numbers racket. Although St. Clair retaliated, she was eventually pushed out due to Schultz’ extensive connections within the police department.

"It's hardly the first time there's been a Black achievement which has been taken over or made more popular or used more broadly by whites for their own benefit. It's happened in music, it's happened in all manner of things," White said. St. Clair later went on to expose the crooked members of the NYPD who took bribes from gamblers in Harlem.

Once states started to adopt legal lotteries, Harlem lost out on the riches afforded to it by the numbers racket. The informal economy St. Clair and contemporaries like Caspar Holstein operated put them in a small class of wealthy Black philanthropists that bankrolled the careers of many artists and writers during the Harlem Renaissance.

"The impotence to get involved in the numbers operation was often a quest to have something beyond the ceiling that was there in front of you. As an intelligent smart Black person, you didn't have many options," Davis said.

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Dalvin Aboagye is a contributor to Thrillist.
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