The man who ruled Kansas City politics

Cyrus Manian

The Pendergast Machine could be described as one of the key allies of the Kansas City Mafia. Early in the 20th century, Jim Pendergast became the founder of the most powerful political machine in Missouri by forming alliances with his fellow Irishmen and other immigrants. With this political power, the Pendergast machine handpicked every key office in City Hall.

Jim Pendergast taught everything he knew about politics to his younger brother, Thomas J. Pendergast, who, after Jim’s death in 1911, would be infamously known as “Boss Tom.” He sought to control the Kansas City area and Jackson County.

The Pendergast brothers feared their rivalry in the Democratic Party with Joe Shannon would contribute to the Republicans’ rise to power, and therefore chose to share the spoils of political power.

After Jim’s death, Tom served on the city council for five years until stepping down in 1916.  “Boss Tom”  gave jobs to thousands and fed the poor. In return for his kindness and generosity, his supporters voted his way on Election Day.

However, he purposely guaranteed that the police were underpaid so bribery could be used to leave the speakeasies, bars, and saloons alone.

The Pendergast machine was responsible for appointing Guy B. Park  as governor in 1932 and was influential in the election of United States Senator Harry S. Truman in 1934.

The downfall of “Boss Tom” Pendergast began in 1936 when the Kansas City Star published an article providing precise evidence of illegal voter registration. While many were convicted, a non-political election board removed 60,000 illegal registrations.

In 1939, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Department of Treasury and some federal judges began investigating many of the county officials and other machine workers. In May 1939, Pendergast pled guilty to tax evasion of $443,500 and was sentenced to 15 months in a federal penitentiary and fined $10,000. Once released, he lived quietly in his home with a debt to the federal government of $841,000. After “Boss Tom’s” death in 1945, Vice President Harry S. Truman shocked many by being the only elected official at his funeral and controversially speaking of their friendship.

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