Thomas Joseph Pendergast (1872–1945) was the powerful and notorious political boss of Kansas City, Missouri, which, with a population of 400,000, was the largest city in the United States west of the Mississippi River during the Depression. "Tom's Town," as the media dubbed Kansas City, was wide-open and utterly corrupt: In 1939, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called the situation in Kansas City more dangerous to American institutions than world communism.
In 1911, after a long apprenticeship, Pendergast assumed control of a local political faction, the Goat Democrats, which had been started in the 1880s by his brother, James Pendergast. By 1926, he had combined several Democratic factions in Kansas City into the all-powerful Pendergast machine. (To be on the safe side, he also held sway over the small local Republican Party.) The Pendergast machine had block captains—political workers who handled relations between neighborhood residents and city hall—on every block in Kansas City. Under its rule, there were no free elections in Kansas City. As many as 60,000 illegal ghost voters helped keep the invisible machine in control. Enforcers stifled dissent—during the 1934 city election they killed four people at the polls.
Pendergast, a short and brutish former saloon bouncer, lived lavishly in a large mansion with his wife and three children and ran Kansas City as if it were his own personal business. He dominated the construction and wholesale liquor businesses and had a forced presence on the boards of numerous corporations. The local underworld, which had considerable influence in the police department, was allied with Pendergast's machine, and Pendergast claimed to have 20,000 informants. He required all legal and illegal businesses in Kansas City to pay a percentage of their annual gross to machine collectors; he received over $30 million a year in tainted money from gambling, prostitution, and narcotics. Pendergast never held public office after leaving the city council in 1915, but he was a major force in the Missouri and national Democratic Party and started Harry S. Truman, a member of his machine, on the road to the presidency. Inside Missouri, he had so much power at the state level that he controlled almost all the New Deal relief jobs in the state.
Pendergast experienced serious health problems in 1936, from which he never entirely recovered. In 1937 and 1938, the federal government moved against the Pendergast machine, convicting 259 campaign aides of voter fraud. Pendergast, addicted to gambling and purportedly the biggest better on racehorses in the country, became reckless in his need for ready cash. In 1939, he pled guilty to income tax evasion and served a year in the federal penal system. His machine collapsed at the municipal level and he died in disgrace of heart trouble on February 25, 1945.
See Also: DEMOCRATIC PARTY.
Dorsett, Lyle W. The Pendergast Machine. 1968.
Larsen, Lawrence H., and Nancy J. Hulston. Pendergast! 1997.
Milligan, Maurice M. Missouri Waltz: The Inside Story of the Pendergast Machine by the Man Who Smashed It. 1948.
Reddig, William M. Tom's Town: Kansas City and the Pendergast Legend. 1986.
Lawrence H. Larsen