Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story and historical events that informed Fargo Season 4.
“This is a true story” is a familiar phrase to Fargo fans. It appears on the screen in the movie and each episode of its TV spinoff, suggesting that the events being depicted also happened in real life. While the TV series’ creator, Noah Hawley, has denied that he’s based his take on the Coen brothers’ 1996 film on true events, history has informed every season to some degree. The next one is no different.
Season 4 of Fargo takes place in Kansas City, Missouri, in the 1950s, toward the end of two great migrations in United States history. Europeans from countries such as Italy arrived near the turn of the century and settled in northern and midwestern states. Elsewhere, African Americans left the South to escape hardship and traveled to many of the same places.
Following the US Civil War in 1865, the Midwest was an attractive prospect for disenfranchised people seeking change and opportunity. This was especially true for African-Americans. The 1859 Kansas Constitution opened the state of Kansas to all settlers regardless of their race and ethnic backgrounds. Black Americans saw it as an escape from the racial and economic oppression that still existed in the southern states. A place where they could truly be free, as the end of slavery didn’t stop the Ku Klux Klan and White League from causing more terror.
Dubbed the Exoduster movement, the African-American migration was initially sparked by a false rumor. In 1879, word spread through the South that the government was giving away free land to ex-slaves in Kansas. Naturally, this inspired people to pack up and set out to build a better life for themselves. By the end of the year, an estimated forty-thousand people had made the trek to the Midwest.
Similarly, Europeans who moved to the state did so looking for prosperity. With regard to the Italians, most of them came from rural areas in their native land where they found economic opportunities hard to come by. The country was overpopulated, the wages were low, and the taxes were high. When Kansas opened an underground coal mine in 1874, many Italians viewed it as their gateway to living the American Dream.
Many travelers who set out for Kansas never quite reached their desired destination. So they set up shop in Missouri and other neighboring states instead. For many settlers, staying in Missouri was easier as the boats that brought them from their previous locations mainly touched down in St. Louis and Kansas City. The journeys also left people poverty-stricken by the time they arrived in these cities. They didn’t have the resources to go any further.
The influx of settlers to Kansas and Missouri saw the population of the region’s main metropolitan areas grow quite significantly. In 1889, 130,000 people called Kansas City their home and this helped usher in a new era of vibrancy and economic growth for the metro area that covers parts of both Kansas and Missouri. The shipyard, railroad, nightlife, and baseball brought a lot of money into the city. It also didn’t hurt that the citizens were allowed to get drunk. More on that later.
While the majority of the migrants sought law-abiding opportunities, some decided to gain their fortunes through more questionable methods. The early 20th century saw organized crime rise in Kansas City, much of which was caused by mafioso members. The DiGiovanni brothers, Joseph and Pietro, fled Sicily and arrived in the city in 1912. It didn’t take long for them to engage in a variety of criminal activities, including racketeering, gambling, and bootlegging. In doing so, they helped shape the city’s shady underworld with their Black Hand organization.
The brothers ended up working for Johnny Lazia, who became the head of organized crime in the city during the Prohibition Era. Lazia and the DiGiovanni gang were in league with Tom Pendergast, head of the “Pendergast Machine” that controlled the city’s government at the time. He gave them free rein to push illegal booze and make some bank. Under Pendergast’s control, no alcohol-related arrests were made in Kansas City during the entirety of the Prohibition. This also helped the Mafia establish a strong foothold in the city.
By the time the 1950s rolled around, organized crime was widespread in much of America. In Kansas City, Anthony Gizzo and Nicholas Civella were the most prominent mafiosos. Their influence was so powerful that they even caught the attention of the US Senate. During the Kefauver hearings of 1950, they were officially identified as two of the most notorious figureheads in the nation’s criminal underworld.
Gizzo became somewhat of a media sensation during the hearings. He was asked how much cash he carried around with him. He subsequently pulled a roll of $100 bills from his pocket and counted the money on the witness table. He had twenty-five bills on his possession that day, which was pocket change to Gizzo. Senator Estes Kefauver equated the gangster’s boastful performance to showing off, but he certainly captured people’s attention with his antics.
Civella, meanwhile, was responsible for forging alliances with other crime syndicates and consolidating the power in his favor as a result. The gangster held power until he was eventually arrested in the 1970s. That didn’t exactly ensure peace between crime factions, though. During Civella’s tenure as a crime boss, he went to war with other gangs. Lives were lost in the process. The conflict culminated in the 1970s with a bloodbath that erupted in the city’s River Quay district.
Civella has actually been alluded to in Fargo before. Season 2 features characters inspired by the Kansas City crime family in the 1970s when Civella was reaching the end of his reign of terror. With this in mind, Season 4 can be interpreted as a prequel of sorts. It’s evident that Hawley has a fascination with this particular mobster.
Meanwhile, African-American organized crime also rose during the great migration and beyond. It began with a focus on the vice and bootlegging industries. While most of the academic research states that Black criminals played a minor role in these criminal activities — mostly working alongside more dominant crime syndicates — history has shown that there were complex organizations that existed independently and made an impact in their own right.
In Fargo Season 4, Chris Rock plays the leader of a rising Black criminal sect that wants to run organized crime in the city. The most infamous African-American gangsters in the history of Kansas City were known as the Black Mafia, whose rise to power is most commonly associated with the 1960s and 1970s. While the show’s storyline doesn’t coincide with their dominant years, the initial inception of the Black Mafia may have informed Fargo.
Also known as The Purple Capsule Gang, the group — allegedly led by Eddie David Cox, Eugene Richardson, and James “Doc” Dearborn — controlled the East Side of the city and were known for drugs, prostitution, and loan sharking. According to Gangland Wire, the syndicate emerged in the 1950s and gained a foothold in the drug community after the Italians ordered their members to stop heroin trafficking. The organization is perhaps more known for its branches in Chicago and New York, but they did leave a mark on Kansas City’s criminal underworld.
The rise of organized crime in the North and Midwest toward the end of the Great Migration period is a complex and sprawling story. However, 1950 was a notable year for crime in the region and that makes for a perfect backdrop for a story of this ilk. It’s a tale of crooks from different backgrounds whose corrupt pursuit of the American dream boasts plenty of similarities. Even though their cultural experiences are vastly different in many ways.