Kansas City is in the spotlight this week with a look at Tom J. Pendergast. When Pendergast was born on July 22, 1872, he was the youngest in a family of nine children. His parents were Irish immigrants and worked hard to provide for their large family.
Controversy surrounds his educational background, and despite claims of a college career, it is believed he only held a sixth-grade education. Despite this detriment, he learned much about politics and other civic duties from his older brother, James, who owned a tavern by the Missouri River. James held the position of alderman on the city council in Kansas City, and when he retired, Tom was named his successor.
Tom was married and had three children. He was active in his faith, which included being a Knight of Columbus in the Catholic Church. With this new position, he gained control of the city and began his reign of corruption. The tavern he owned with his brother enabled him to mingle with the underworld. Guns, prostitutes, gambling, and liquor all became commodities in his rise to power. Within these influential groups, politics also became fair game. Voter fraud and intimidation were used to ensure certain politicians were elected. Under these conditions, Tom and his brother were able to manipulate the system by providing care in the form of food and money to needy families in the area. These charitable contributions made them very powerful with voters and in political circles.
James died in 1911, and Tom married the same year. He and his wife Caroline had three children. His family life did not preclude him from corruption, however. He appointed Henry McElroy to City Manager, and this bolstered his political power. Throughout the next few years, Pendergast rose to the top of a very organized criminal organization. Among these shady individuals was Johnny Lazia, an Italian American with connections, whose reputation for kidnapping was known. Pendergast’s association with Lazia gave him infinite power in the mob world. In return, he gave Lazia the task of hiring police, which resulted in unchecked gambling and bootlegged liquor sales. By 1927, the city was called “Tom’s Town.”
During this same time, Pendergast began to clean up his image. Portraying himself as a religious family man, he became friendly with Harry S. Truman. The Pendergast party heavily influenced the election of Franklin Roosevelt, who conveniently did not rally to investigate such corrupt enterprises. Things began to change, however, in 1934. It was found that several voter ballots were fraudulent, and many people were threatened and murdered at voting polls.
By 1936, things were coming to an end for Pendergast and his powerful posse. He suffered a heart attack and seemed to take stock of his losses. He realized he was close to being prosecuted and began to defend himself by using his health as an excuse. In truth, this health crisis did nothing to squelch Pendergast’s love of gambling. He had a special wire installed in his office, which allowed him to gamble freely from afar. He lost hundreds of thousands in the process, bringing his financial and political world to a standstill.
In January of 1939, a grand jury was held, which resulted in an investigation of the “Pendergast Machine.” During this time, his bookkeeper Edward Schneider was found dead in what was deemed a “suicide.” Schneider had already rolled on him, however, and Pendergast was indicted on tax evasion. He was sentenced to fifteen months but served only twelve. After his release, Pendergast was a social outcast. After his wife, Carolyn, left him, his health deteriorated. After several heart attacks, he passed away from heart failure on January 26, 1945. He was seventy-two years old.
Pendergast’s corrupt politics began to fade after his death. However, much of what he built still stands. Many of his concrete business endeavors created the infrastructure seen in Kansas City today.
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Check out my friend Gary Jenkins’ podcast episode about Tom Pendergast HERE: Gangland Wire: The Mob & the Politician
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