The Pendergast Machine of Kansas City, Missouri (1900-1939)
by John E. Hansan, Ph.D.
Introduction: Political bosses and their “machine organizations” operating in large American cities at the turn of the century enjoyed strong support among the poor and immigrants, who returned the favor by voting for the bosses’ preferred candidates. Many immigrants saw bosses and political machines as a means to greater enfranchisement. For immigrants and the poor in many large U.S. cities, the political boss represented a source of patronage jobs. To urban reformers of the early 20th century, the bosses and their organizations personified political corruption. For example, a notable political machine at the turn of the century was the Pendergast machine of Kansas City, Missouri. It was built and led by two brothers, who controlled Kansas City politics for nearly 40 years. It was also famous because an early beneficiaty of the Pendergast machine was Harry S. Truman, who eventually became the nation’s 33rd President. (Note: At the end of this entry there is a “Memorandum Regarding Relations with Pendergast Machine” written by Harry S. Truman on January 10, 1952)
The Pendergast Brothers: Early in the 20th Century, the most powerful force in Missouri politics was the Pendergast machine. Jim Pendergast was a Kansas City alderman who for 18 years reached out to his fellow Irishmen and to various other immigrant groups. During the peak of his power, he not only hand picked his own mayor, James A. Reed, but every other key office at City Hall. In 1900 the Pendergasts elected their first mayor and replaced Republican city workers with their supporters. This allowed Jim’s brother Tom to become the Superintendent of Streets, which allowed him to hire 200 workers and buy material and equipment for the street-paving program.
The Pendergast brothers sought to control Kansas City and its surrounding area, Jackson County; however, early on, they were opposed by two others, Joe Shannon who sought the allegiance of the same populations groups that supported the Pendergasts and “Baron Bill” Nelson, the publisher of the The Star, the major newpaper of Kansas City. Nelson sought to improve and beautify Kansas City and his natural following was the middle and upper classes. He opposed the Pendergasts as supporters of the saloon and gambling interests. The Pendergasts and Joe Shannon were both bosses in the Democratic Party. They adopted labels to distinguish their factions. The Pendergast’s faction was called the Goats and Shannon’s faction was known as the Rabbits. The Goat faction was larger but Shannon was the shrewder strategist and often got the better deal in political maneuverings. Jim Pendergast feared the rivalry between the Goats and the Rabbits would help Republicans win back political power so he negotiated an arrangement with Joe Shannon to share equally the spoils of political control of Kansas City.
When Jim Pendergast died in 1911, his brother Tom took over the machine. Thomas J. Pendergast came to Kansas City from St. Joseph’s MO in the 1890s and he worked in his brother Jim’s saloon in the West Bottoms which had been bought with winnings from the horse track. Here, Jim, who at the time was serving as a member of Kansas City, Missouri’s city council, taught Tom about the city’s political system and the advantages of controlling blocs of voters. Jim retired in 1910 and named Tom his successor. Following his brother’s death the next year, Tom Pendergast served in the city council until stepping down in 1916 to focus on consolidating the faction of the Jackson County Democratic Party.
Back when Tom Pendergast took over the First Ward from his brother Jim in 1910, Kansas City was a center for Ragtime music and “saloon politics.”
Tom Pendergast became very popular in Kansas City, because he fed the poor and provided thousands of jobs, and those people he helped often repaid him by voting “early and often” on election day. From his Democratic club headquarters, Tom Pendergast promoted a wide-open town where every form of vice was well organized and easily obtained. However, Big Tom himself was not exactly a barrel of fun. He was an ambitious, intimidating figure who drank little, went home to his wife and three children early and attended Mass religiously. He did have one, all-consuming vice, which was gambling. When Tom was at the height of his power in the mid 1930’s, he was one of the biggest “whales” in the racing circuit, wagering huge amounts of cash.
A sense of the power wielded by the Pendergast machine is contained in a personal letter written by a prominent social worker: Jacob Billlikopf, one of the founders of the Kansas City Department of Public Welfare. The letter was addressed to Harold Swift, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of Chicago and dated December 16, 1946. The letter covered a range of topics, but in one paragraph Jacob Billikopf described how he and William Volker, another board member, helped protect the Board of Public Welfare from becoming “politicized” by elected officials looking for patronage positions:
“…Miraculous to relate neither the Goats (the so-called Pendergast wing of the Democratic Party) nor the Rabbits, headed by Joseph Shannon ever disturbed the Board which had a large number of employees. To such an extent did we have public opinion back of us that the politicians left us serenely alone with the result that missions from various parts of the country came to Kansas City to study our activities; above all how we managed to operate without interference from either or both most powerful factions of the Democratic Party….”
The Demise of the Pendergast Machine
In the election of 1932 Thomas J. Pendergast was able to name the governor, Guy B. Park; and in 1934 his machine was primarily responsible for the election of United States Senator Harry S. Truman. A short time later, after the Kansas City election of 1936, the Kansas City Star published detailed evidence of illegal registration of voters; and Federal Judge Albert L. Reeves charged a grand jury to investigate election procedures. The U. S. District Attorney Milligan began prosecution of machine workers charged with election frauds. In a series of 19 trials, 287 persons were convicted in Federal court without a single acquittal. Governor Stark thereupon appointed a non-political election board for the city, which succeeded in removing some 60,000 illegal registrations from the poll-lists.
The fatal break in the power of the Pendergast machine came early in 1939. Federal Judge Reeves had instructed the grand jury called to investigate the 1936 election to extend their investigation to those higher up and in February a county grand jury under Judge Southern returned 93 indictments of county officials and other machine workers, including the presiding officer of the county administration, Judge David E. Long, and the county prosecutor, W. W. Graves. In the meantime the United States Treasury Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been looking into income tax evasions.
In April a Federal grand jury indicted Pendergast himself on charges of tax evasion in the sum of $443,500. In May 1939 Pendergast pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to 15 months in the Leavenworth federal penitentiary and a fine of $10,000. His total indebtedness to the Government, in taxes and penalties, was computed at $841,000. After serving 15 months in prison he lived quietly at his home until his death in 1945. In 1945, Vice President Truman shocked many when a few weeks before he succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt as President, Truman attended the Pendergast funeral. Truman was reportedly the only elected official who attended the funeral. Truman brushed aside the criticism, saying simply, “He was always my friend and I have always been his.”
Memorandum Regarding Relations with Pendergast Machine By: Harry S. Truman , January 10, 1952
“There has been much speculation about my relationship politically with T. J. Pendergast (Tom). He became a powerful political boss in Missouri after 1926. His career ended in the early 1940’s.
“…I became very well acquainted with young Jim (Pendergast) during the war and when I came back I married and established my residence at Independence.
“In 1922, it became necessary to elect an Eastern Judge for the County Court, an administrative body similar to County Commissioners in other States.
“Along in July or August 1921 Jim Pendergast brought his father M.J. to see me at the little store Eddie Jacobson and I were operating on West 12th Street in Kansas City.
“Mike Pendergast was head of the “goat” organization in the old 10th Ward of Kansas City and was recognized in the country part of Jackson County as the head of the Pendergast organization outside Kansas City.
“M.J. asked me if I would consider the nomination to the County Court from the Eastern District. I told him I would. I had been road overseer in Washington Township where the family farm is located and Postmaster of Grandview before World War I came along.
“Well, to make it short, I filed for Eastern Judge at the proper time in 1922. There were four other candidates…I was nominated and elected Presiding Judge of the County Court in the fall election and took office Jan. 1, 1927. …Then I had my first contacts with T. J. (Tom) Pendergast and Joseph B. Shannon. They were interested in county patronage and also in county purchases. The Court appointed the purchasing agent, a county welfare officer, a county auditor, heads of homes, approved the budgets of elected officials of the county, such as Treasurer, County Clerk, Circuit Clerk, County Collector, County Assessor, County Highway Engineer. The Court also appointed road overseers and various other officials. There were about nine hundred patronage jobs and they could be the foundation of a political organization.
“T. J. Pendergast was interested in having as many friends in key positions as possible but he always took the position that if a man didn’t do the job he was supposed to do, fire him and get someone who would. I always followed that policy and I never had a cross word with him….On no other occasion did T. J. Pendergast ever talk to me about my actions in the Senate. He was an able clear thinker and understood political situations and how to handle them better than any man I have ever known. His word was better than the contracts of most men and he never forgot his verbal commitments. His physical breakdown in 1936 caused all his trouble.
“I never deserted him when he needed friends. Many for whom he’d done much more than he ever did for me ran out on him when the going was rough. I didn’t do that and I am President of the United States in my own right!
“Because Pendergast was persecuted over his financial difficulties and was convicted of income tax fraud and went to federal prison at Leavenworth, he has been used by people opposed to me in an effort to discredit me. The opposition people whether in the Democratic Party in 1940 or in the sabotage press or the lying columnists or the poor old wrecked Republican Party and its present day character assassination methods have never been able to hurt me politically by slander and abuse. They never will.
“After I was through in the County at home several Grand Juries both State and Federal went over my career as a County Judge with a fine tooth comb, and they could only give me a clean bill of health. That’s the answer.“
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Resources: More information on Political Bosses and the Pendergast machine can be found at:
“Bosses” — The Pendergast Machine of Kansas City, MO