Boss Tom Pendergast: The Rise and Fall of Kansas City’s Corrupt Machine

Kansas City Public Library

Between the years 1926 and 1939, political machine boss Thomas J. Pendergast, or “Boss Tom,” exerted tremendous influence over almost every facet of political, business, and cultural life in Kansas City. 

Tom Pendergast took over the political machine when his older brother, James Pendergast, died of natural causes in 1911. James had built the machine out of the revenue from saloons, gambling, and prostitution. These vices fueled a political machine that offered patronage—chiefly jobs and government contracts—to its strongest supporters.

Pendergast constituents were diverse and more likely to be working class, Catholic, first- or second-generation immigrants of Italian, Irish, or Mexican descent, or African American. The Pendergast family itself was Irish-American. The image shows part of the Columbus Park neighborhood—an Italian-American part of town—and the Catholic Holy Rosary Church.

In 1915, Tom gave up his seat on the city council and focused on his unelected role as leader of the Jackson Democratic Club, the party organization of the Pendergast machine. From then on, he did not hold formal office, but was nonetheless the most powerful political figure in Kansas City.

By 1926, the Pendergast faction of the Kansas City Democrats had consolidated power by co-opting followers of rivals Joseph B. Shannon, Casimir (or “Cas”) Welch, and others.

In 1928, Tom moved with his wife Carolyn and three children to their new mansion at 5650 Ward Parkway, an expensive proposition even for someone with Boss Tom’s burgeoning wealth.

Pendergast encountered more financial difficulties as his addiction to gambling, specifically horseracing, grew out of control. This led to a potentially profitable ownership, through surrogates, of a Platte County racetrack called the “Riverside Jockey Club” and a Clay County farm he outfitted as a stud horse breeding facility. However, at one time in the late summer of 1935, it was reported that Pendergast wagered over $2,000,000 and lost the tremendous sum of $600,000.

It would take many years of profits from all his companies to cover such liabilities. In expanding the machine, Tom Pendergast had developed a large array of business connections, beginning with the T.J. Pendergast Wholesale Liquor Co. and continuing with the Atlas Beverage Company, City Beverage, Ready-Mixed Concrete, and W. A. Ross Construction. At least ten more prominent businesses appear to have been operated by Pendergast surrogates and allies.

Still, Pendergast needed other sources of income that might be generated through his control of the city government by way of his right-hand man, Henry McElroy, the city manager from 1926 to 1939. The two concocted a scheme to leverage proceeds from a huge bond issue called the 10 Year Plan, as well as federal funds via the Works Progress Administration to award lucrative contracts and appoint loyal city employees, who in turn kicked back to Pendergast’s bookkeeper.

By the end of 1932, Pendergast affiliates sat in the governor’s mansion, the U.S. House of Representatives and in the local police chief’s office. This allowed the machine to further consolidate power and profit mightily from gambling, prostitution, and bootleg liquor during the 1930s. Widely considered a “wide-open town” during this period, every establishment trading in vice made regular payments to the police or machine enforcers.

Citizens and leaders of Kansas City did take note of the corrupt state of affairs during machine rule. Numerous letters decrying election fraud, graft, vice, and cronyism in Kansas City made their way to the governor’s office. Women’s groups took a leadership role in vocalizing calls for reform. Local Rabbi Samuel Mayerberg rose to prominence as a strident critic, while anti-machine publications sprung up and proliferated in the mid-1930s.

Soon enough, Pendergast provided his critics with an opening. Between May 1935 and April 1936, Pendergast received $440,000 from a consortium of insurance companies for services rendered in obtaining a settlement from the state. He remitted $62,500 to his friend R. Emmet O’Malley, a former insurance company partner and then-Missouri insurance commissioner, who signed off on the deal. Another $62,500 went to A. L. McCormack, a St. Louis insurance company representative who facilitated the transaction.

While the dubious transaction withstood legal scrutiny, Pendergast’s decision not to pay income taxes on the windfall did not, and the IRS soon took interest. A three-year investigation was conducted and ultimately Tom Pendergast paid the price. In 1939 he was indicted and sentenced to 15 months in prison, along with his co-conspirator, R. Emmet O’Malley.

As Tom went to the Leavenworth Penitentiary, the reform movement further coalesced around the Citizens Association, which initiated the “clean sweep” movement to rid city government of machine influence. John B. Gage won the mayor’s office while seven reformers joined the city council. Within five years the remnants of the Pendergast machine had been eliminated.

Credits: Story

Exhibit copy adapted by staff of the Kansas City Public Library from articles by Jason Roe and William Worley.

Images come from the following institutions:

- Diocese of Kansas City - St. Joseph
- Harry S. Truman Library & Museum
- Jackson County Historical Society
- Kansas City Museum
- Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
- National Archives Kansas City
- National Archives College Park
- State Historical Society of Missouri - Kansas City

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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