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The Political Machine of
Tom Pendergast of Kansas City, Missouri

The story of the Pendergast Machine starts with Jim Pendergast, an older brother of Tom. The Pendergasts came from St. Joseph, Missouri. First Jim came to Kansas City. He worked in an iron foundry for five years with no prospects for a life other than that of a workman. Then one day he made a large bet on a long shot in a horse race and won. With his winnings he bought a combination rooming house, restaurant and saloon in a working class area. As a bartender he not only listened to the troubles of his customers and gave advice but he began to help those who needed jobs find them and sent food and clothing to those in the neighborhood in need. When a friend of his ran for mayor Jim asked his customers to vote for his friend. His help seemed so effective that other politicians came to him asking for his support. Soon Jim himself ran for alderman and won. He opened another saloon near the courthouse and city hall. Jim brought the rest of his family from St. Joseph, including his youngest brother, Thomas Joseph -- known to the family and close friends as "T.J."

Tom served as the cashier and bookkeeper for Jim's first saloon. Tom also helped with political matters in the first ward for which Jim was the alderman. Tom's style more often involved the use of force whereas Jim's was characterized by persuasion. Jim often admonished Tom that a saw was needed to shape wood, not a hammer. But Tom later told a New York Times reporter he learned the wisdom of Jim's way:

I know all the angles of organizing and every man I meet becomes my friend. I know how to select ward captains and I know how to get to the poor. Every one of my workers has a fund to buy food, coal, shoes and clothing. When a poor man comes to old Tom's boys for help we don't make one of those damn fool investigations like these city charities. No, by God, we fill his belly and warm his back and vote him our way.

Tom also adopted Jim's cardinal rule that a man must always keep his promises.

The Pendergasts sought to control Kansas City and its county, Jackson County. They were opposed by two leaders, Joe Shannon who sought the allegiance of the same populations groups that supported the Pendergasts and "Baron Bill" Nelson, the publisher of the major newspaper of Kansas City, The Star. 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.

Joe Shannon

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.

In 1900 the Pendergasts got their first mayor and replaced Republican city workers with their supporters. This included Tom becoming the Superintendent of Streets, which allowed him to hire 200 workers and buy material and equipment for the street paving program.

Jim Pendergast feared the rivalry between the Goats and the Rabbits would enable the Republicans to win back political power so he negotiated an arrangement with Joe Shannon to share equally the spoils of political control of Kansas City. It was called the Fifty-Fifty deal.

But Jim retired from public office in 1910 due to illness and died in 1911. Tom won his seat as alderman. The shift of power to Tom changed the operating rules. Jim would not sanction voting fraud but Tom rule was, "The important thing is to get the votes--no matter what."

The Pendergast holdings were extended by Tom from saloons to a wholesale liquor company, a hotel, a delivery service and later, after Prohibition in 1920 forced the closure of the saloons and liquor business, a ready-mix concrete company.

The Fifty-Fifty arrangement broke down in 1916 when the Rabbit mayor appointed mainly Rabbit supporters to city jobs. A Republican governor sent a representative, Tom Marks, to Kansas City to breakup city corruption. Since the Goats had lost out on the division of the spoils Tom joined forces with Republican Marks to drive Joe Shannon's faction from power.

There was a reform movement to replace the city council form of city government with a city-manager form. Under the city-manager form a council of nine would be elected under nonpartisan voting. The winning candidates would select a city-manager who would run the city. There would still be a mayor but the mayor's duties were largely ceremonial. The city-manager was supposed to be a professional chosen without political consideration. This plan was supposed to destroy political bosses like Joe Shannon and Tom Pendergast. Shannon opposed it but Tom Pendergast realized that it would make his politcal control of Kansas City even easier than before. All he had to do was get five council members elected whereas under the old system of a two-house council of 32 it would take far more.

Tom Pendergast

In the election four Goat supporters were clear winners and a fifth won by a small margin of 304 votes. Tom now controlled Kansas City thanks to the efforts of the reformers to establish the city-manager form of government.

At this point it necessary to note the political situation in Jackson County outside of Kansas City. This portion of the county was governed by three judges who were administrators who ran the county agencies, levied taxes and supervised the county road building program. In 1922 the Pendergast Machine got two of its supporters elected. One of those two was Harry Truman, later President of the U.S. The other Pendergast judge was Henry McElroy. Truman lost the 1924 election because Joe Shannon had his Rabbits vote for the Republican candidate. But in 1926 Truman won re-election and Pendergast control continued in the County for the next eight years.

Henry McElroy

When the Goat-dominated city council met in 1926 they chose Henry McElroy as the city-manager, the man who, with Harry Truman, ran Jackson County for the Pendergast machine. The figure-head mayor elected was not one of the Goats and McElroy took over the office space in city hall that was supposed to be the mayor's. McElroy then gave jobs to six thousands Goats. About two thousand of these jobs were ones that involved pay but no duties. McElroy then lowered the assessed value of property of Goat supporters and raised it for critics of the Pendergast machine.

The Pendergast machine began increasing their social welfare functions and creating social club parties, dances and games. Tom Pendergast spent each morning from about six o'clock until noon hearing request for assistance. The net effect was to destroy the allegiance of the public to the Rabbit faction.

The machine did not initially have control of the police department because the director was appointed by the governor. But after McElroy held up the pay of policemen for four weeks the governor-appointed police director resigned. Gambling, saloons and prostitution were then allowed to flourish.

In the 1930 city elections the Pendergast machine won all eight council seats and the mayorship. Tom Pendergast then announced a "Kansas City Ten-Year Plan" of public works. The $40 million bond issue passed with 80 percent of the vote.

In 1932 the Pendergast machine was able to swing elections in Missouri for state and national offices. Harry Truman wanted the machine to back him for governor. Tom Pendergast declined to do so and Truman did not run.

When Franklin Roosevelt created his New Deal he channeled a major share of the patronage and funds through Tom Pendergast. Tom Pendergast treated this aid like the funds his machine distributed to the poor in the past, the only difference is that there was a lot more of it. As Tom expressed it, "You can't beat $5 billion."

By this time the ethnic composition of the north side of Kansas City was changing. Some of the wards were becoming predominantly Italian in character rather than Irish. The Italian residents were willing to be part of the Pendergast machine but they did not want Irish ward leaders. The local machine leaders tried to establish their authority by physically battling with the emerging leaders under the control of the Sicilian, Johnny Lazia. Lazia had quit school in the eighth grade although he was quite bright. For a while he was a clerk in a law office, but at 18 he decided to turn to crime. He was caught and sentenced to 15 years for robbery. Mike Ross, the Pendergast lieutenant for the north side of Kansas City won a parole from the lieutenant-governor when the governor was out of Missouri. Lazia thus only served eight months of a 15 year sentence. Mike Ross gave Lazia political assignments for the machine and Lazia carried them out effectively. But on the side Lazia was building up a bootlegging and gambling business. In 1928 Lazia moved to take control of Little Italy away from Mike Ross' people. Lazia's gang battled them successfully for control of the polling places. Tom Pendergast was forced to replace Mike Ross with Lazia in the north side. Lazia was a very efficient organizer and soon Pendergast made him his top lieutenant. Lazia controlled slot machines, the numbers racket, bootlegging, gambling and nightclub speakeasies. He started demanding a share of the profits of other racketeers. Gangsters from other parts of the country began to spend their vacations in Kansas City where they had protection from the law.

About this time Tom Pendergast's racing bets for creating a financial problem for him. Apparently his gambling obsession became uncontrollable after he bet $10,000 on a long shot and won $250,000. Ultimately that piece of luck brought his downfall. Pendergast needed his cut of Lazia's income to cover his horse racing losses.

Meanwhile the Federal Government targeted Lazia for prosecution for income tax evasion. The Pendergast regime had to use all of its influence to protect Lazia. In effect, the Pendergast machine went from being a corrupt political machine to a gangster-controlled political machine. On the positive side, Lazia came to the rescue of City-Manager McElroy when his daughter was kidnapped. Lazia put together the ransom and returned Mary McElroy to her grateful father. Lazia then led the hunt for the kidnappers and their capture. One was executed.

But in the election of 1934 the gangster element of the machine was clear. Gangsters in black limousines cruised around with no license plates intimidating voters. Seven shots were fired into the political opposition's headquarters. One man was killed trying to stop a gang from beating an election judge. People were beaten with baseball bats. The Associated Press sent out the story: "Big Tom Pendergast's Democratic machine rode to overwhelming victory today after a blood-stained election marked by four killings, scores of sluggings and machine gun terrorism."

Johnny Lazia was machine gunned himself as he stood holding his car door open for his wife. He died twelve hours later. He was just 37 years old.

Harry Truman

In the wake of the 1934 election Tom Pendergast had to name his choice for U.S. Senator for the Democratic Party primary. The first three individuals he offered his support to turned it down. The fourth was Harry Truman.

Truman had an uphill battle in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat because of his past association with the Pendergast machine. The vote for Jackson county was not announced until after the vote for the rest of the state was in. Outside of Jackson County Truman was 96 thousand votes behind his principal competitor. The vote reported for Jackson County was 137 thousand for Truman and 1,500 for his principal rival. Truman had the Democratic nomination and went on to win the Senate seat in November.

When Lazia was killed Pendergast could have cut his ties with the gangster element but his racing losses prevented him. Even the organized crime profits were not enough. Tom Pendergast got caught taking a $750 thousand bribe. He was sentenced to 15 months in the Federal prison at Leavenworth in 1939 but got out after a year on good behavior. The conditions of his parole forbid him from engaging in politics. He lived to see Harry Truman become the Vice President of the U.S. He died in January of 1945 and Vice President Truman came to his funeral. Truman said of Tom Pendergast, "He was always my friend, and I have always been his." Had Tom Pendergast lived until April of 1945 he would have witnessed one of his Goats become President of the United States, a President who is generally acknowledged to have been a near-great if not great president.

For the story of other poliical bosses and their machines click on Bosses

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