Kansas City in the 1920s and '30s was a wild place. “If you want to see some sin, forget about Paris,” wrote the Omaha World Herald. “Go to Kansas City.” The jazz district on 18th and Vine promised the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams for musicians in search of work. Policemen were often seen betting their luck alongside customers at gambling halls that lined 12th Street. The laws of Prohibition simply didn’t apply to the area, at least in the sense that they weren't enforced. And the person at the center of it all was Thomas J. Pendergast.
Politics ran in the Pendergast family. In the late 1800s, Tom moved to the city from nearby St. Joseph, Mo. (about an hour north) to work in his older brother’s tavern in the West Bottoms, a rough neighborhood that was home to a large population of immigrants. James Pendergast taught his younger brother everything he had learned about politics while serving as the first ward’s Democratic committeeman and alderman. When James died in 1911, Tom won James’s city council seat and began building what would become one of the largest political machines in the country at the time.
Boss Tom made his money two ways: in liquor and concrete. Running the T.J. Pendergast Liquor Distributing Co. right up until Prohibition, Pendergast would often comment about how he could make a fortune if he sold bootleg alcohol, but he followed the law. Thanks to his influence, however, he had the police ignore the Volstead Act, with the result that not a single felony conviction for its violation was ever filed in Kansas City.
Instead, Pendergast concentrated his time on courting politicians and negotiating his Ready Mixed Concrete Co. into winning millions of dollars worth of municipal contracts. His concrete was poured into City Hall, the Jackson County Courthouse, Municipal Auditorium and the Kansas City police headquarters.
Later, he would win the contract to pave the bed of Brush Creek, a small tributary of the Blue River that runs through the city, where it would become rumored that he had sunk the bodies of his political enemies. (However, during renovation in the early 1990s, it was found that the concrete was only 10-12 inches thick—not nearly enough to hide a body.)
In 1922, there was nothing Pendergast wanted more than the contracts from the $6,000,000 annual municipal road fund. Contracts from the fund were distributed by the county court, so Boss Tom went about finding a nominee for the judgeship that he knew he could trust but who could also carry the rural parts of the county. Those outside the city were were fed up with the inefficient, corrupt judge Pendergast had gotten elected earlier. He found the perfect candidate in former postmaster, current store owner, and future president of the United States, Harry Truman. With Pendergast’s support, Truman was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1934, but then tried to distance himself from the crime boss.
Elections under Boss Tom and his "goat" party were something of legend. The actual ballot boxes were switched out with ones stuffed with the name of the machine-backed candidate. Voters who insisted on supporting political opponents were beat up. Voter turnout never had and never will be higher (sometimes topping 100 percent) and included, miraculously, voters who had been dead for years. “Now is the time for all good cemeteries to come to the aid of the party,” went a popular saying during the 1936 election.
Despite all his corruption, Boss Tom and his machine took care of the people of Kansas City. By pushing through municipal contracts, Pendergast helped create jobs in the area during the Great Depression. The machine would also participate in small acts of kindness, such as handing out buckets of coal or turkeys on Thanksgiving to needy families.
However, things started to unravel during the election of 1936. Pendergast was out of the country and his followers took too many chances in rigging the election. Their activities were noticed by federal criminal investigators and eventually led to an indictment of 278 people. In 1939, Boss Tom himself was convicted for tax evasion and sentenced to 15 months in prison in Leavenworth, Kansas (though he only served one year and one day).
When his older brother James died, Tom had commissioned a statue of him to be built. It was unveiled to a crowd of 3000 in 1913. For years, it was vandalized (thought to be done by Republican political enemies) and then almost forgotten about. But in 1990, 55 years after Boss Tom died, the statue was moved to a more prominent park and was unveiled in a ceremony attended by local officials and descendants of the Pendergast family. A seated James Pendergast now overlooks the city his family once controlled.