By Bjorn Skaptason, Tom's Town Historian
KANSAS CITY, 1925 - 1939: “Judge” Henry F. McElroy learned his politics and his public accounting as a young boy in rural Iowa. When Tom Pendergast engineered his appointment as City Manager McElroy was over sixty years old, but stood tall, slim, and muscular, with the wiry frame and evangelical scowl of a country preacher. He rose to prominence in The Machine as an administrative judge for Jackson County – the same office where Harry Truman got his start.
Eschewing the science of public accounting, the Judge instituted a financial system he called “country bookkeeping.” The city government, previously teetering on bankruptcy, now ran a healthy surplus. Only a few puzzled reformers seemed disposed to ask questions about the flood of black ink obscuring the city ledgers. The Judge made sure that nobody who counted would ask any questions by spreading the boodle liberally among powerful business interests as well as to the street-level apparatchiks of The Machine.
For fifteen years Judge McElroy was the face of Tom’s Town. He met with Tom every Sunday morning at the Boss’ house on Ward Parkway and got his marching orders for the week. He pushed bond issues through the city council, and made sure Tom and “the boys” got their cuts. What was left over went into city projects, large and small – skyscrapers, auditoriums, and sidewalks. Even the legit expenditures went to companies owned by Pendergast or his friends.
Since he was completely attached to Tom Pendergast and The Machine, the Judge’s fortunes came crashing down with Tom’s when the Boss was indicted for tax evasion in 1939. Facing an indictment for tax problems of his own, plus the inconvenience of explaining a shortfall of tens of millions of dollars in public funds, the country bookkeeper quickly and quietly resigned from his position of civic dictatorship.
McElroy never did face a court, and he never got a chance to explain how his magical “country bookkeeping” transformed a crippling deficit into a mighty surplus, and then back again. Within three months of his resignation the Judge died of a heart attack. The scandals McElroy left behind were as ephemeral as his auditing systems. The better and more tangible relics of his work remain, sculpted from Pendergast Ready Mixed Concrete in The Country Club Plaza, Brush Creek, Municipal Auditorium, and the Power and Light Building, along with many other Kansas City landmarks.
Photo credit: ©Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri