Conference Context: Corruption and Consequences in Kansas City’s Pendergast Era

Conference Context is a blog series discussing local history and contemporary topics in our next Annual Meeting destination: Kansas City, Missouri. We hope this series provides insight into the complex history and issues of this and future host cities so readers have the background to better understand and explore the perspectives and challenges of local historical institutions during the conference.

By Jason Roe, Ph.D., Digital History Specialist, Kansas City Public Library

Harry Truman, Tom Pendergast, and others at the 1936 Democratic National Convention. Courtesy of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum.

Looming large over a span of Kansas City’s early twentieth-century history is a figure who built a domineering political machine, dragged the city through unprecedented (and so far, unrepeated) depths of corruption, and simultaneously managed to preside over a climate of economic prosperity and artistic and cultural achievements in the Jazz Age. This figure, “Boss” Tom Pendergast, assumed leadership of the local Democratic political machine in 1911 after the death of his elder brother, James F. Pendergast. Tom led his so-called “goats” in bitter competition against rival machine bosses, including Miles Bulger, Casimir “Cas” Welch, Michael Ross, and especially Joe Shannon, leader of the “rabbits.” In 1915, Tom Pendergast gave up his seat on the city council and focused on his un-elected role as leader of the Jackson Democratic Club, the formal party organization of the Pendergast machine. From his office (located after 1927 in a building that still stands at 1908 Main Street), he worked to ensure the election of favorable candidates to city positions, from which they could award lucrative contracts to Pendergast-owned or affiliated businesses or extend patronage—chiefly in the form of jobs—to individual machine supporters.

Fifth annual dance program of “Pendergast’s Organization of the Fifth Ward.” The Pendergast faction was known as the “goats”; their chief rivals as Joe Shannon’s “rabbits.” Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library.

By the time of the passage of a new city charter in 1925, Pendergast had little serious competition; rival bosses and their machines were integrated into the larger Pendergast machine network, displaced completely, or bought off with other opportunities. Between 1925 and 1939, Boss Tom ruled Kansas City with virtual impunity. In those years, at least, corruption was able to flourish without consequence because, in many other respects, Kansas City was enjoying the fruits of a golden age. Its central location in the continental United States enabled extensive railroad connections, the second-busiest stockyards in the world, a world-class garment industry, a plethora of national conventions, innovative suburban communities, and a rapidly growing population. Its Old-West “cowtown” cultural roots gave way to a modern built environment of Art Deco skyscrapers and avant-garde cultural institutions.

Kansas City’s machine-dominated police department and courts, however, turned a blind eye to vice in its various forms, which gave Kansas City a reputation as America’s “wide-open” town, replete with gambling, bootlegging, embezzlement, election fraud, bribes, and prostitution, but also cultivating an environment where all forms of entertainment and culture could thrive. A flourishing nightlife grew up around the African American community at 18th & Vine Streets, where a unique “Kansas City style” of jazz emerged. Additionally, Kansas City attracted or raised famous individuals: author Ernest Hemingway, who wrote for the Kansas City Star; Walt Disney’s first animation studio; painter Thomas Hart Benton; pathbreaking female lawyer Tiera Farrow; architect Nelle Nichols Peters; and President Harry S. Truman, who got his start in politics thanks to Tom Pendergast. Famous jazz musicians included bandleader Bennie Moten and saxophonist Charlie Parker. The Negro Leagues’ Monarchs team featured pitcher Satchel Paige. At the “high-brow” end of the cultural spectrum, the University of Kansas City (now the University of Missouri-Kansas City, or UMKC) was founded, as was the Kansas City Art Institute, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and Liberty Memorial.

Corruption and its consequences, however, would form the ultimate legacy of the Pendergast era. The Sanitary Service Co. was the city’s sole refuse collector; Tom owned nearly half of the company’s shares. He was also vice-president of Ready-Mixed Concrete Co., which supplied concrete to the prodigious construction projects that made up Kansas City’s $50 million Ten-Year Plan—a 1931 Depression-relief program that resulted in the construction of the Jackson County Courthouse, Municipal Auditorium, City Hall, Police Headquarters, streets, sewers, water works, parks facilities, signs, and sidewalks. Tom’s other businesses included the T. J. Pendergast Wholesale Liquor Co. (renamed Pendergast Distributing Co. during Prohibition), Atlas Beverage Co., City Beverage Co. (sole distributor of Anheuser-Busch products in Kansas City), the W. A. Ross Construction Co., and dozens of others in the industries of construction, insurance, quarries, industrial machinery, coal, restaurants, and hotels. Even businesses not directly associated with Pendergast routinely had to make payments, often as much as five or ten percent of gross revenue, to the machine in order to do business in Kansas City without harassment from police or city regulators.

Postcard depicting the Jackson County Courthouse and City Hall, both of which were part of the Ten-Year Plan and constructed with Pendergast’s Ready-Mixed Concrete. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library.

In terms of political corruption, the Pendergast machine “produced” votes by wielding his influence in the form of job appointments and other incentives, intimidation of voters, and outright ballot stuffing. His successful endorsement of Guy Park, a relatively unknown Democrat, for Missouri governor in 1932, among other appointments, gave Pendergast considerable influence at the state level. The November 1934 election made Harry S. Truman a U.S. senator. In Kansas City, that same election brought thousands of fraudulent votes, four voters murdered at polling stations, and eleven other voters shot and wounded. The machine’s election fraud peaked in the November 1936 election, when it is believed that the machine produced 70-80,000 “ghost” votes for local, state, and national offices.

Like Al Capone, Pendergast ultimately ran afoul of federal tax collectors. With payments starting in May 1935, he received an astonishing $440,000 in kickbacks relating to an insurance scandal involving industry executives and the Missouri superintendent of insurance, R. Emmet O’Malley. The payments themselves survived legal scrutiny, but Pendergast failed to disclose or pay income taxes on them. On April 7, 1939, he was indicted for income tax evasion and served twelve months at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, before being released on parole, on condition that he could not engage in any form of politics for five years. Throughout the long decline of the machine, its prominent affiliates had a tendency to turn up mysteriously dead, or be murdered in sensational fashion, or be indicted for myriad crimes.

Tom Pendergast’s mugshot from his inmate file, May 29, 1939. Courtesy of the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

The “Clean-Sweep” campaign, led in large part by women’s civic organizations, resulted in the election of a new mayor, a new majority on the city council, and a new professionally trained city manager, L.P. Cookingham, who worked to root out corrupt employees and contracts, and restore the city’s finances. Attesting to the reform efforts that were required in just one department, Chief of Police Otto P. Higgins went to prison for income tax evasion, the police department was placed under the authority of a state board appointed by the governor (where it still remains today), and around half of the city’s police officers were fired during the reform efforts. At the same time, much of what had defined Kansas City culturally during the Pendergast years—its wide-open nightlife, jazz, and open vice—were swept away. Tom Pendergast himself lived just long enough to witness the reform efforts sweep away the last vestiges of his political organization, dying of heart failure on January 26, 1945, at the age of 72.

Learn more about the Pendergast Era at PendergastKC.org and on our Saturday tour of the 18th and Vine Historic District.