The Pendergast Story


Thomas Joseph Pendergast (July 22, 1873 – January 26, 1945) was a political boss who controlled Kansas City and Jackson County, Missouri from approximately 1925 to 1939. Though only briefly holding elected office as an alderman himself, "T.J." Pendergast, in his capacity as Chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party, was able to use his large network of family and friends to help elect politicians (allegedly through voter fraud in some cases) and hand out government contracts and patronage jobs. He became wealthy in the process, although his addiction to gambling, especially horse racing, later led to a large accumulation of personal debts. In 1939, he was convicted of income tax evasion related to those debts and served 15 months in a Federal prison.

The Pendergast organization helped launch the political career of Harry S. Truman, a fact that caused Truman's enemies to dub him "The Senator from Pendergast."

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1889

Tom Pendergast comes to Kansas City to work at his brother’s saloon and make his place in the city.

Harry S. Truman Library

1908

Tom Pendergast serves as Superintendent of Streets, a high-profile position, and begins to emerge as Jim Pendergast’s likely successor.

1911

Pendergast founds the T. J. Pendergast Wholesale Liquor Company along with two gambling associates, John J. Pryor and Philip H. McCrory.

State Historical Society of Missouri

1920

The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibiting manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors goes into effect on Jan. 16.

Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri

1922

Tom Pendergast chooses Harry S. Truman, a downtown haberdasher, to run for a post on the administrative court of Jackson County. He wins.

Harry S. Truman Library

1924

The Kansas City Monarchs win the first Negro Leagues World Series.

Black Archives of Mid-America

1925

A movement succeeds to reshape city government, creating a smaller City Council, a weak mayor, and a powerful city manager. Pendergast co-opts enough power to name Henry McElroy city manager.

Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri

1927

Pendergast moves the headquarters of his Jackson Democratic Club - the real seat of power in Kansas City - to the nondescript second-floor office at 1908 Main Street.

Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri

1931

Kansas City and Jackson County voters approve the 10-year plan aimed at moderating the effects of the Depression. One of the projects involves paving Brush Creek in Pendergast concrete.

La Budde Special Collections, UMKC Archives

1931

Construction workers complete construction of The Kansas City Power & Light Building, the city’s first large modernist structure. It is built with Pendergast concrete.

La Budde Special Collections, UMKC Archives

1932

People line up daily at 1908 Main St. seeking patronage from Boss Tom, but they have to get through his muscle, Eli Matheus, first.

Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri

1932

Under "Home Rule," Pendergast controls the police force. He replaces Republicans and Democratic "rabbits" with machine-friendly "goats."

Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri

1933

On December 5, the nation repeals Prohibition.

La Budde Special Collections, UMKC Archives

1933

Four law enforcement officers and bank robber Frank Nash die in the Union Station Massacre.

Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri

1933

Kidnappers release the daughter of City Manager Henry F. McElroy, after he pays a $30,000 ransom.

Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri

1934

With strong support from Pendergast, Jackson County Presiding Judge Harry S. Truman wins a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Harry S. Truman Library

1934

Election-day disputes among political factions lead to four slayings on March 27.

 

1934

Unknown assailants murder Johnny Lazia, the chief of Kansas City’s underworld.

Kansas City Museum Archives

1935

The Pendergast Machine’s Christmas giveaways draw 12,000 children to Convention Hall for gifts, apples, and entertainment.

Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri

1935

According to KC's Future newsweekly, "There are more nightclubs in Kansas City per capita than in any other city. Three hundred or more clubs, saloons, hotels, joints and dives – a numerically impressive collection – gives Kansas City its reputation as a 'hot, wide open town.'"

Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri

1936

Painter Thomas Hart Benton finishes his famed mural, "A Social History of the State of Missouri," at the state Capitol, featuring Tom Pendergast.

Missouri State Capital Museum

1938

The St. Louis Post Dispatch exposes Kansas City’s wide-open nightlife, including more than 500 bars in an area of 15 blocks.

Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas

1939

US Attorney Maurice Milligan forces Pendergast to plead guilty to income-tax evasion. He is sentenced to 15 months in the federal prison at Leavenworth, halting his political machine.

Maurice M. Milligan, Missouri Waltz, 1948

1940

After reformers take over, many residents missed the way Kansas City was. The downtown slot machines were trucked away. The jazz clubs lost their crowds. The cleanly operated city was no longer "Tom’s Town."

William M. Reddig, Tom's Town, 1945