Thomas Joseph Pendergast (July 22, 1873 – January 26, 1945) was a political boss who controlled Kansas City and Jackson County, Missouri from approximately 1925 to 1939. Though only briefly holding elected office as an alderman himself, "T.J." Pendergast, in his capacity as Chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party, was able to use his large network of family and friends to help elect politicians (allegedly through voter fraud in some cases) and hand out government contracts and patronage jobs. He became wealthy in the process, although his addiction to gambling, especially horse racing, later led to a large accumulation of personal debts. In 1939, he was convicted of income tax evasion related to those debts and served 15 months in a Federal prison.
Thomas Joseph Pendergast, also known to close friends as "TJ", was born in St. Joseph, Missouri. He was raised Catholic and had nine brothers and sisters. The family's name is misspelled as Pendergest in the 1880 census and is listed accordingly.
It has been claimed that Pendergast attended St. Mary's College, a boarding school for boys as young as nine and as old as eighteen, conducted by the Jesuits in St. Mary's, Kansas, but records of the school, kept in the Jesuit archives in St. Louis, disprove this claim. (St. Mary's College was not connected in any way to the girls school of the same name in Leavenworth, Kansas, conducted by the Sisters of Charity.) It is sometimes claimed that he earned a football scholarship to St. Mary's College, but that also is untrue. There were no athletic scholarships awarded at that time, and there were no intramural games.
In the 1890s young Tom Pendergast worked in his older brother James Pendergast's, West Bottoms tavern. The West Bottoms were at that time an immigrant section of town located at the 'bottom' of the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River, above which spread the more prosperous sections of Kansas City. James Pendergast, an alderman in Kansas City's city council, tutored him in the diversities of the city's political ways and systems and in the strategic advantages of controlling blocs of voters. Jim retired in 1910 and died the next year, naming Tom his successor. Following his brother's death, Pendergast served in the city council until stepping down in 1916 to focus on consolidating the factions of the Jackson County Democratic Party. After a new city charter passed in 1925, placed the city under the auspices of a city manager picked by a smaller council, Pendergast easily gained control of the government.
Chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Club
Pendergast ruled from a simple, two-story yellow brick building at 1908 Main Street. Messages marked with his red scrawl were used to secure all manner of favors. He was unquestionably corrupt and there were regularly shootouts and beatings on election days during his watch. Some apologists have tended to be kind to his legacy since they allege that the permissive go-go days gave rise to the golden era of Kansas City jazz (now commemorated at the American Jazz Museum at 18th and Vine) as well as a golden era of Kansas City building. Pendergast tried to portray a "common touch" and made attention grabbing displays of helping pay medical bills, provide "jobs", and hosted famous Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for the poor. Often due to fraud and intimidation Kansas City voter turnout tended to be close to 100 percent in the Pendergast days.
Despite Prohibition, Pendergast's machine and a bribed police force allowed alcohol and gambling. Additionally many elections were fixed to keep political friends in power. In return, Pendergast's companies like Ready-Mixed Concrete were awarded government contracts. Under a $40 million bond program the city constructed many civic buildings during the Depression. Among these projects were the Jackson County courthouse in downtown Kansas City, and the concrete "paving" of Brush Creek near the Country Club Plaza. (A local urban legend, that bodies of Pendergast opponents were buried under the Brush Creek concrete, was finally put to rest when the concrete was torn up for a renewal project in the 1980s.) He also had a hand in other projects like the Power and Light Building, Fidelity Bank and Trust Building, Municipal Auditorium, and the construction of inner-city high schools.
Pendergast was able to place many of his associates in positions of authority throughout Jackson County and also exercised strong influence in determining the Democratic candidates for statewide office, as when he picked Guy Brasfield Park as Deomcratic candidate for Missouri Governor in 1932 when the previous candidate, Francis Wilson, died two weeks before the election. Pendergast also extended his rule into neighboring cities such as Omaha, Nebraska and Wichita, Kansas where members of his family had set up branches of the Ready-Mixed Concrete company. The Pendergast stamp was to be found in the packing plant industries, local politics, bogus construction contracts and the jazz scene in those cities.
Downfall and the later years
Pendergast's downfall is related to a falling out with Missouri Governor Lloyd C. Stark. Pendergast had endorsed Stark (heir to an agricultural fortune and famed for developing the Golden Delicious variety of apples) for Governor in 1936. Pendergast was out of the country during the election, and his followers were even more obvious and corrupt than usual in Stark's successful election. With Mafia-related shootings and election violence underway in Jackson County, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau went after Mafia boss Charles Carrollo and Pendergast as part of his crackdown on corruption and organized crime. Despite Pendergast's history of delivering votes for Roosevelt and other leading Democrats, Morgenthau directed his subordinates to 'let the chips fall where they may'. With investigations looming, Stark turned against Pendergast, prompting federal investigations and the pulling of federal funds from Pendergast's control.
Another factor in the downfall was Pendergast's failing health. Shortly after attending the Democratic National Convention in Philidelphia in 1936, Pendergast was taken ill and later diagnosed with colon cancer.
He would be in poor health for the remainder of his life. In 1939 Pendergast was arraigned for failing to pay taxes on a bribe received to pay off gambling debts. After serving 15 months in prison at the nearby United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth, he lived quietly at his home, 5650 Ward Parkway, until his death in 1945.
The Truman connection
During his military service in World War I, Harry Truman had become close friends with Jim Pendergast, T.J.'s nephew. When Truman's attempt at a clothing business failed in 1922, Jim Pendergast suggested that he run for a "judgeship" in eastern Jackson County (actually an administrative rather than a judicial position). With the help of the Pendergast organization, Truman was elected to this and later to a similar county-wide position. In 1934, after several other potential candidates turned him down, T.J. was persuaded to support Truman (whom he considered something of a lightweight) for the Democratic nomination for a U.S. Senate seat. Truman prevailed in a close primary and went on the win in the general. Although Truman was derisively named "the Senator from Pendergast" by his opponents, he does not appear to have had a close personal relationship with Tom Pendergast himself. The two men met on only a handful of occasions, and were only photographed together once, at the 1936 Democratic Party convention.
After Pendergast was convicted of income tax evasion, Missouri governor Lloyd C. Stark sought to unseat Truman in the 1940 U.S. Senate election. It was a very bitter campaign that made both men lifelong enemies. Truman was re-elected after U.S. Attorney Maurice Milligan, who had prosecuted Pendergast, also entered the race, causing Milligan and Stark to split the anti-Pendergast vote. In his second term as Senator, with Pendergast out of power and World War II underway, Truman was finally able to shake his association with the Pendergast machine and build a national reputation as a military spending reformer. In 1945, Vice President Truman shocked many when, a few days after being sworn in, he attended the Pendergast funeral. Truman was reportedly the only elected official who attended the funeral. Truman brushed aside the criticism, saying simply, "He was always my friend and I have always been his."
- McCullough, David (1992).Truman New York:Simon and Schuster, Ch. 6
- "SOS, Missouri - State Archives Publications". Sos.mo.gov. Retrieved 2012-02-10.
- Repetto, Thomas. The American Mafia: A History of Its Rise to Power. Henry Holt & Company, 2004.
- McCullough, op. cit. Ch. 6
- Kansas City Historic Register Individual Properties
- McCullough, op. cit. Ch. 5
- McCullough, op. cit. Ch. 6
- McCullough, op. cit. Ch. 7
- Oshinsky, David M. (2004). "Harry Truman", in Alan Brinkley and Davis Dyer: The American Presidency. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 365–380. ISBN 0-618-38273-9.
- Missouri's Most Important Politician - history essay at Secretary of State office; includes photos and cartoons
- Truman Library FAQ on Truman-Pendergast
- Kansas City Police Memorial on Pendergast
- Kansas City Public Library biography on Pendergast
- Men Who Made Kansas City: Thomas J. Pendergast
- Thomas J. Pendergast at Findagrave
- Byte Out of History - FBI Involvement in Early Election Fraud Case in Kansas City (FBI)