By Bjorn Skaptason, Tom's Town Historian
KANSAS CITY, 1920s/30s: Tom Pendergast showed up early for federal prison. The guards didn’t expect Tom until after 9:00 a.m., but Pendergast did an end run around the press and showed up early at Leavenworth Penitentiary without escort. The harried federal marshal had to race up from Kansas City to play his part in Tom’s introduction to federal service. Apparently, it was customary for powerful men to dance when Boss Tom called a tune. Even the frowsy-headed marshal had to skip breakfast to accommodate The Boss of Kansas City. Why? Because, from the day in 1894, when young Tom Pendergast arrived at the West Bottoms saloon run by his big brother, Kansas City played by rules set by the “Pendergast Machine.”
It’s difficult to comprehend just how powerful a city machine was in Tom’s time. The machine wielded the combined power of government, labor union, and crime syndicate. Bosses and ward heelers, now animals extinct from the political landscape, called the shots in all aspects of political life. Mayors, aldermen, and union officials were mostly irrelevant, except insofar as they did the bidding of the machine. For the most part the machine ran itself, with police, garbage collectors, and streetcar conductors going about their daily duties while waiting for instructions from the machine boss. City officials let out no-bid contracts to connected businesses while mid-level managers approved stacks of time cards for employees who never came to work. The gangsters went about their business with hardly a thought about police interference.
However, every machine needs an operator, and in Kansas City that was Boss Tom.
There was a time when Tom had to fight for power in Kansas City, but once he got power he kept it, and he kept accumulating it. Eventually, nothing happened in Kansas City without approval from the modest office at 1908 Main Street. Anything that made money for Boss Tom thrived, and the best money-making racket was sin – booze, sex, gambling, and music.
So, who was Boss Tom Pendergast? Boss Tom was booze, sex, gambling, and music. Boss Tom was power, and anybody in Kansas City could tell you that. Everybody knew Tom, while few people knew exactly what he did. He was the Boss.
Photo credit: ©State Historical Society of Missouri