Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression

Harry Truman and the Pendergast Political Machine

Author: 
University of Central Missouri

On June 28, 1945, Harry Truman visited Kansas City for the first time as president of the United States to receive an honorary degree from the University of Kansas City. The crowd that gathered in Municipal Auditorium was familiar and comforting to him, particularly as he contemplated the challenges before him, which included the resolution of World War II. "When I come to Jackson County," he said, "I can’t realize that I am the President of the United States. I feel like I am just one of your fellow citizens. I see the same faces, and I try to talk to the same people." He told the crowd that he had attended the Kansas City School of Law for two and a half years, but that his work as a county judge prohibited him from devoting his full-time attention to completing his degree. The time Truman spent as a county official had launched Truman’s political career, as he allied himself with Kansas City’s Democratic machine led by "Boss" Tom Pendergast, or as Truman liked to refer to it, "the Democratic organization."

Truman’s tenure in Jackson County government had a profound impact on Kansas City and Jackson County. As a member of the county court—an administrative, non-judicial body despite the misleading name—he demonstrated a strong attention to detail, as he had to master the county budget. He encouraged Jackson Countians to support bond issues during the Great Depression, which left a lasting legacy on the built environment of Kansas City and Jackson County. His support for these infrastructure improvements came at a time when Truman made a commitment to regional planning, which no other county judge had embraced, and he encouraged city leaders to engage their counterparts in other counties and even the across the state line to plan for the future. Even though he was a member of the machine, he developed a bipartisan strategy that ensured Kansas Citians and Jackson Countians would embrace these bond issues, because he wanted to demonstrate to voters that these projects would not just benefit the machine, but everyone.

Truman also gained valuable political experience as a member of the Pendergast machine that he took with him for the rest of his political career. The machine was racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse, including African Americans, Irish, Italians, Jews, Catholics, and Protestants among its ranks. In 1939 the machine’s leader, Tom Pendergast, was convicted of income tax evasion and was sentenced to serve time in Fort Leavenworth. The Pendergast conviction came at a point when Truman had to decide whether he would seek reelection. He decided to organize a statewide campaign that appealed to a broad cross section of Missourians who supported the New Deal. He was the first Missouri politician to actively appeal to women, African Americans, farmers, and labor groups, who had become important New Deal constituencies.

Truman’s Background

Harry Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri, in 1884; however, the family did not stay long in Lamar and quickly moved back to Jackson County to live near family in rural Cass and Jackson counties. In 1890 the family moved to Independence, Missouri, so that Harry and his brother Vivian and sister Mary Jane could attend the community’s public schools. Truman graduated from Independence High School in 1901 and then moved to Kansas City for employment.

Truman Family Farmhouse near Grandview, Missouri.
Truman Family Farmhouse near Grandview, Missouri. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

In August 1902, Truman wrapped newspapers in the mailroom of the Kansas City Star building located at the northeast corner of 11th Street and Grand Avenue. He only lasted in this position for two weeks and then served as a timekeeper (payroll clerk) for a railroad construction company that serviced the Santa Fe railroad lines. With some bookkeeping under his belt, he applied for a position at the National Bank of Commerce in the Journal Building at 10th Street and Walnut (the building later burned and was replaced with Commerce Tower). Truman worked in the bank vault from April 1903 to May 1905. On his employment application, when his supervisor asked if he had any “tastes or habits extravagant” he replied: “theaters and reading.” His supervisor also noted: “He is a willing worker, almost always here and tries hard to please everybody. We never had a boy in the vault like him before. He watches everything very closely and by his watchfulness, detects many errors which a careless boy would let slip through.” His supervisor observed one important characteristic that seemed to mark Truman for life—his attention to detail—a characteristic that served him later when he managed the family farm books, the county budget, and later as a senator and president.

Truman left the National Bank of Commerce in May 1905 to work for the Union National Bank in the New York Life Building at 9th Street and Baltimore. Truman noted, “The Union National gave me seventy-five dollars a month to do exactly the same kind of work I was doing at Commerce for sixty dollars.”

New York Life Building
New York Life Building. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Truman’s time at the Union National Bank was short-lived, because in 1906 Harry Truman’s father, John A. Truman, called him to work the family’s 600-acre farm in Grandview. He reluctantly went and he and his father formed the Truman and Son farming venture. Truman worked the fields and kept extensive farm records, much as he had done when he worked in the bank in Kansas City.

At this point in his life, Truman traveled to Kansas City to conduct farm business, and in 1910 Kansas City became more of a destination place for him when he began dating Bess Wallace in Independence, who was one of his former classmates in his graduating class. Sometimes the couple would meet each other in Kansas City where they attended theater productions. In 1912 Truman asked Bess if she would like to see an Orpheum road show in the afternoon and then an evening show at the Shubert.

In April 1914, Truman purchased a used Stafford automobile, which made it much easier for him to travel back and forth from Grandview to Kansas City and Independence. Driving the Stafford around Jackson County allowed Truman the opportunity to readily explore the county in detail. He told Bess: "Roads in Jackson County are becoming as familiar to me as the two blocks from Union to Delaware formerly were, and that's a fair acquaintance." The automobile driving also allowed him the opportunity to experience first-hand the challenges one faced when trying to drive on roads that were not built for autos. He was constantly concerned about having a flat and there were many times the roads were just in such poor condition that they damaged his Stafford and caused him significant repair bills. Later, as county judge, Truman called upon these experiences to advocate for a county wide road improvement plan, which had a significant impact on Kansas City.

In 1917 Harry Truman drove his Stafford to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he trained as part of the 129th Field Artillery for the First World War. He deployed to France in 1918, where he was made captain of Battery D, a group of a little over 200 men, mainly composed of Irish Catholics from Kansas City – a demographic group closely associated with the city's Democratic Party. Little did he realize it at the time, but his Battery D members and the contacts he made as captain, including the Tom Pendergast’s nephew Jim Pendergast, would lay the groundwork for his political start in the years after the war.

When Truman returned to the United States, he married Bess Wallace and promptly moved into her family’s home at 219 North Delaware in Independence. He decided to go into business with former army buddy, Eddie Jacobson, and the pair formed Truman and Jacobson, which was a haberdashery in Kansas City. The store provided men’s shirts and ties to clients and was located at 104 West 12th Street in the Glennon Hotel.

Incidentally, the store served as a gathering place for his old Battery D members and other veterans who served in the war, continuing relationships that would later serve Truman well in his political career. Battery D sergeant Frederick J. Bowman recalled: “We used to walk up around there and sometimes you’d see some of the fellows in there that would just come to say hello.” Unfortunately, the venture did not survive, and in September 1922 the store held a going-out-of-business sale. Eddie Jacobson declared bankruptcy in 1925, and Truman, refusing to clear his debts through bankruptcy, eventually paid off his creditors at a deeply discounted rate by 1935.

Into the Machine

One day early in 1922, Mike Pendergast, the younger brother of Tom Pendergast, called on the store and asked Truman if he would be interested in running for political office. There is little doubt that Mike’s son, Jim, who had served with Harry Truman in World War I and had commanded his own battery, recommended Truman to his father. In February 1922 Truman told a friend: “They are trying to run me for Eastern Judge out at Independence and I guess they’ll do it before they get through. It’ll be rather soft for the service men if I am on the County Court and Garrett is Mayor of Kansas City won’t it? I know one thing—the court house will look like a D Battery reunion every day if they are foolish enough to send me down there.”

Mike wanted Truman to run for eastern district judge of Jackson County. At that time the county court consisted of eastern and western district judges as well as a presiding judge. Despite the misleading name, as previously mentioned, the three judges held administrative positions and were responsible for effectively managing the county’s affairs. To the Pendergasts, Truman was their ideal candidate. He was from eastern Jackson County (which the position would largely represent), he was living in Independence (the focal point for politics in eastern Jackson County), and he had also lived in Grandview and been a farmer. Another asset was Truman’s service in World War I, and he joined the American Legion when it formed in Kansas City and remained an active and visible member of the Masonic Lodge.

Truman advertisement for 1924 campaign
Truman advertisement for the 1924 campaign. Courtesy of the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum.

In 1920 the population of Kansas City was 325,000, and the Pendergast machine brought together the interests of a number of diverse immigrant groups, including the Irish, Italians, and Germans. An even larger demographic, African Americans, made up an increasingly important machine constituency. There was religious diversity as well; machine organizers counted Catholics, Protestants, and Jews among their ranks. In contrast, Harry Truman’s city of Independence only contained about 6,000 residents and was predominately white and Protestant.

The Pendergast machine represented only one major Democratic faction in Jackson County. Pendergast’s political rivals included fellow Irishman, Joseph Shannon, whose Democratic followers were affectionately referred to as the “Rabbits” supposedly for their quick political action or perhaps because rabbits roamed the East Side of Kansas City, which Shannon counted as his political stronghold. In contrast, supporters of Tom Pendergast were known as the “Goats” perhaps because his political stronghold included the West Bottoms, where many of his supporters kept goats in their yards.

The two factions usually nominated a person to run in the August primary, and then the faction that did not win the August primary supported the Democratic candidate in the November election. In return for the losing faction’s support, both factions agreed to split the government patronage on a 50/50 basis.

Truman kicked off his campaign in March 1922 at a meeting of the American Legion, organized in Lee’s Summit. In the August primary Truman faced Rabbit candidate Emmett Montgomery from Blue Springs. He won the primary election by a vote of 4,230 to 3,951. After the primary, he told supporters: “The victory was gained without money and without the promise of a single job. It has never been done before and I am hoping to show them a lot of things for which there is no precedent.” In the fall campaign he told voters that his candidacy represented “a decided change from the present,” and that if elected, he would establish “a business administration” and would not mix the county’s business or politics with his private affairs.

He easily won the November election and immediately went to work on his two-year term to implement his “business administration,” because the county had a budget deficit. As Eastern District judge, Truman proposed selling off some of the Jackson County automobile fleet and cutting the number of county deputies. He also commissioned a study to look at the roads in Jackson County.

Truman decided to seek reelection and won the August primary election over Rabbit candidate, Robert Hood; however, he lost the November election to a Republican candidate, Henry Rummel. Apparently the two Democratic factions argued over how the political patronage should be split. Evidence exists that Truman did not want to honor the 50/50 patronage split in exchange for the Rabbit Democratic support of his candidacy in the fall. The Rabbits turned to another Democratic faction that had emerged, the Independents, who were affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan, and forged a coalition with Republican supporters that propelled Rummel into the Eastern District judge seat.

Truman was not alone in his Democratic defeat. The Republican candidates smashed their Democratic opponents as not only the Eastern District judgeship fell to them, but so too did the Western Judge. The defeat must have been devastating for Harry Truman. His Battery D boys, who again turned out to support him in the election, this time held a dinner in his honor to buoy his political spirit. A friend invited him to dinner at the Kansas City Club, a fraternal organizational social elite men of Kansas City. When he arrived, about 65 men, half of them members of his battery and the other half political associates, greeted him. The group sat down to have dinner and then later that evening presented Truman an engraved watch that bore the inscription: "Judge Harry S. Truman from his Buddies and Friends, November 18, 1924."

With Truman’s electoral defeat, he had to find employment quickly. He sold memberships in the Kansas City Automobile Club, which was headquartered at 10th and Central in Kanas City. He became involved with the Community Savings and Loan in Englewood, near Independence, and also with the Truman-Barr insurance company, which was associated with the savings and loan venture. The transition to private life also allowed him to spend more time with his daughter, Margaret, who was born on February 17, 1924.

Presiding Judge

Truman was never too far away from the political arena, and when Pendergast came calling for a candidate to run for presiding judge of the county in 1926, he turned again to Harry Truman. Due to the Pendergast faction recently consolidating power in Kansas City, Truman did not face a political challenge from the Rabbits in the August primary, and he went on to cruise to victory in the November election, which signaled an end to the Republican control of the County Court and the resurgence of the Pendergast machine in county politics during the 1920s.

Becoming presiding judge allowed Truman to have a greater impact on Jackson County and Kansas City. Truman focused on developing a modern road system for the county. He recalled: "The most distressing thing in the county at the time was its road system. There were miles and miles of water bound macadam roads and they were being pounded to pieces much faster than they could be repaired. About this time the City (Kansas City) decided to ask for a bond issue to build new buildings, parks and boulevards and I suggested to my associates that we ask for enough money to build a road system."

Truman and his cohort being sworn in as Jackson County judges
Truman being sworn in as Presiding Judge of Jackson County. Courtesy of the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum.

Within three weeks of taking office, Truman hired E.M. Stayton, a Democrat and former military associate and N.T. Veatch, a Republican, to draft a plan to improve the county road system. The two engineers drafted a plan that called for the construction of 34 miles of asphalt roads and 190 miles of concrete roads, which they presented to the county court on May 14, 1927. Their goal was to create a network of county roads that would allow every farmer in the county to be within two miles of a hard-surfaced road.

Truman’s decision to appoint a Democrat and a Republican to draft the road plan demonstrated his commitment to bipartisanship, which also demonstrated his political skill at appealing to all political parties to accomplish a task in an orderly and efficient manner. It also demonstrated Truman’s effort to show that the roads program was not simply something the Pendergast machine wanted. Finally, Truman’s interest in the road plan also demonstrated his interest in planning—something that most previous county judges had seemingly shown little interest in. In fact, Truman encouraged regional planning with neighboring cities and with the state of Kansas during his time as presiding judge.

In addition to the focus on roads, Truman requested the Jackson County Medical Society study the needs of the Jackson County home. The society reported its findings to Truman and recommended the construction of a new county hospital. The county scheduled a special election for May 8, 1928, along with the county bond issues to fund road construction and a new hospital. Truman also supported a county bond issue to construct a new courthouse in Kansas City and another bond issue to remodel the Independence courthouse.

Harry Truman at his desk
Judge Harry Truman at his desk, 1927. Courtesy of the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum.

The Kansas City government placed eight bond issues of its own on the same ballot on May 8, 1928. Some of the city bond proposals included projects that would have funded the extension of the city’s traffic way system and the construction of a municipal auditorium. When county and city voters went to the polls they approved the county road construction program and the county hospital project but rejected the county courthouse bonds. Kansas Citians rejected six out of the eight city bond issues, including the ones that would have extended the city’s traffic ways and the construction of a municipal auditorium. The city presented another bond proposal to voters in August 1928 to fund the traffic ways project, but voters rejected it again.

City leaders again pursued bond issues after the stock market crash of 1929, because by 1930 the unemployment rate began to creep up in Missouri and Kansas City. If voters approved the bond issues, the result would create much-needed jobs in Jackson County. Mayor Bryce Smith, who had become mayor after the April 1930 election, and Conrad Mann, president of the Chamber of Commerce, believed that the reason Truman was successful in getting voters to support the county bond issues was that he had appointed advisory committees to thoroughly investigate what was needed, and when those reports were widely shared with the public, the public supported them. Both Smith and Mann believed that city leaders should emulate Truman’s model for seeking public support for future infrastructure bond issues for city improvements.

When Bryce Smith became mayor, the city had already established a planning commission under Mayor Beach, and shortly before Beach left office he and City Manager Henry F. McElroy selected about 160 men and women from Kansas City’s civic organizations to draft a program for public improvements to the city. This newly formed citizens’ committee did not have a chair when Bryce Smith was elected in April 1930. In Smith’s inaugural address he said he favored a plan for improvements over the next decade and, no doubt buoyed by the demand for work projects in the wake of the stock market crash—successfully recruited Conrad Mann to chair the committee. Mann agreed only on the condition that the mayor would expand the size of the committee to include more representatives from the city, county, and local school district. Mayor Smith agreed to the expansion and membership in the committee blossomed to 960 and the committee came to be known as the "Committee of 1000" or the Civic Improvement Committee.

The Committee of 1000 held their first meeting on July 3, 1930. At this meeting subcommittees were formed to explore civic improvements in 14 areas. Approximately 585 members participated in the subcommittees and they held more than 450 public meetings over the fall and drafted their recommendations for improvements and sent them to a much smaller Executive Committee, chaired by Conrad Mann, for consideration.

The Executive Committee discussed the recommendations of the various subcommittees in December 1930 and January 1931 and then held a meeting on January 22, 1931, releasing their recommendations for what came to be known as the Ten-Year Plan. The Ten-Year plan outlined internal improvements from every subcommittee. Tension developed between some committee members over the proposed location of a new city hall and over the traffic ways and boulevards improvement plans. In the immediate aftermath of the tension over the plan, Mayor Smith and Judge Harry Truman released strong statements of support for Conrad Mann and the Ten-Year Plan.

Harry Truman wrote:

The interest of Jackson County is inner-woven with the interest of Kansas City, each is dependent upon the other. They must cooperate in their general development. For six months it has been my privilege to meet with the various committees of the Ten-year civic program, and to study the problems confronting our city and county.

The Civic Improvement Committee continued to hammer out the final plan and approved the Ten-Year Plan on February 5, 1931. The plan then went before the city council, which approved a $32 million bond package for city improvements on April 27, 1931. The county bond proposals included $4 million for a new courthouse in Kansas City and $200,000 to remodel the Independence courthouse. An additional $3.5 million was allocated for county roads and $250,000 for a new county detention home and site. Voters were also asked to support a $10 million bond package for the school district.

Conrad Mann organized an effective publicity campaign for the bond issues after the city council approved the city bond package, which essentially established a campaign headquarters that supported the passage of all the city, county, and school bond issues. The publicity campaign involved placing ads in newspapers, organizing a speaker’s bureau, and utilizing the radio to promote the bonds. Harry Truman was one of 56 people who delivered short radio broadcasts in support of the bond issues prior to the election. The publicity campaign worked, and Kansas City voters approved all the bond issues by a margin of four-to-one.

A bipartisan committee was established to oversee the bond issues, and County Judge Harry Truman immediately approached the committee to start the implementation of the county bond projects, which the committee approved on August 23, 1931. The approval of the bond issues came at a critical time in the nation’s history. By 1931 the Great Depression was having a significant impact on the nation’s heartland and Missouri. The bond issues meant critical employment opportunities for Kansas Citians and residents of Jackson County during the Great Depression. Also, significantly, Truman established a reputation for independence and fighting corruption by awarding road contracts to the lowest bidder, even if that company was a competitor to Pendergast-owned companies.

Truman immediately went to work to finish the county road projects that had been started during his first term as presiding judge, and he also went to work on building the Jackson County Parental School and the new county courthouse in Kansas City. The parental school was constructed in 1935 at the southeast corner of 13th and Locust and included not only the judge’s chambers for the juvenile court but also separate segregated dorm rooms for male and female juveniles. Excavation work for the courthouse began on July 17, 1933, and on December 27, 1934, Harry Truman led a crowd of 800 who gathered outside of the assessor’s office of the new building for a Masonic dedication of the building that included pouring wheat, wine, and oil over the top of a miniature courthouse. This was Truman’s last official act as presiding judge of the county, as he left the next day for Washington to be sworn in to the U.S Senate.

Legacy

While Truman left behind a legacy of a strong network of county roads that connected with Kansas City’s streets, a new Jackson County Parental School, and a new county courthouse, his legacy and impact on Kansas City continued to grow even after he became a U.S. Senator. Because Kansas City had already laid down a blue print for its internal improvements in the Ten-Year Plan prior to President Roosevelt becoming president and taking office in March 1934, the city was poised to take advantage of the New Deal building programs, and Senator Truman was in a unique position to support these projects from Washington.

The New Deal programs like the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) did not provide complete funding for construction projects, but rather would pay up to 30 percent and later 45 percent of the cost of labor and material. Since Kansas Citians had already approved the bond issues, the city used the bond money to provide the city’s portion of the project funds to qualify for the federal match. For example, even though citizens approved bonds to fund the construction of the Municipal Auditorium, some of that money was used as a match to secure PWA money that paid 30 percent of the cost of labor and materials on the project, which amounted to $1,290,000. PWA grants paid for 45 percent of the cost of the construction and materials for the new city hall, bounded by Oak, Locust, 11th and 12th streets and additional federal money was used to pay for excavation at the site. Bond money was also used as a match to secure WPA funds for sewer projects in the southeast section of the city and work on the city’s park system.

On February 15, 1938, members of the Greater Kansas City Federal Business Association broke ground on a new federal courts building. Prior to the New Deal, Kansas City and the immediate surrounding region had become an important hub for federal activity, including a branch of the Federal Reserve. Kansas City’s importance as a regional center for many federal agencies only increased after Roosevelt’s New Deal was implemented, and by 1938, Kansas City had become a major federal center with “more than 100 offices located in Greater Kansas City and employing several thousand.” When World War II began, Kansas City industries also obtained a number of war contracts, which put thousands of individuals to work and helped alleviate unemployment in the Great Depression.

Kansas City’s development as an important federal center came at a crucial point in the city’s political history. In 1939 Tom Pendergast was convicted of income tax evasion, and the machine quickly imploded over the next couple of years. The destruction of the machine forced Harry Truman to reassess his campaign strategy for reelection to the US senate in 1940. He put together a campaign that drew upon his experiences working in an urban machine that had been supported by New Deal jobs programs, and he developed strategies to appeal to various constituencies, including women, labor leaders, and African Americans—an approach that he used again in the 1948 presidential election.

While Truman’s strategies to appeal to women and labor evolved after he left Kansas City, he first came to understand the political value of African American votes as a member of the Pendergast machine. As county judge, Truman supported funding for the black public hospital in Kansas City, as well as the county home for orphaned African American children. He appealed to African Americans statewide in his 1940 reelection campaign, and he befriended Dr. William Thompkins, African American doctor and staunch Democrat, who supported him and campaigned for him in 1940. He also befriended the editor of The Call, Chester Arthur Franklin, a strong Republican, who endorsed his political career at various points.

Harry Truman had a complicated relationship with the Pendergast machine. It is certainly true that he owed his political start to the machine; however, the graft and corruption troubled him. He suffered from headaches, and one of the ways he dealt with the stress was to write about it. He would sometimes spend the night in the Pickwick Hotel at 10th and McGee Streets, and sometime in 1931 he described these challenges in notes to himself in what came to be known as the “Pickwick Papers.” He criticized Tom Pendergast for pressuring him to award some of the road contracts to his companies, but he also slightly admired the boss when he wrote: “I am obligated to the Big Boss, a man of his word, but he gives it very seldom and usually on a sure thing . . . He in times past owned a bawdy house, a saloon and gambling establishment, but he’s all man. I wonder who’s worth more in the sight of the Lord?” He extended his criticism to some of his fellow elected officials when he wrote: “Should a man in public office see that his family and offspring are provided for even though ethics and honor have to be thrown over board? One of my predecessors [on the county court] answered that in the affirmative.”

Truman at the funeral of Tom Pendergast.
Truman at the funeral of Tom Pendergast. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Whether rightly or wrongly Truman placed a high value on political loyalty and so too did Tom Pendergast. When Pendergast died in 1945, Truman did not hesitate to travel to Kansas City aboard a military transport plane to attend his funeral. He took much criticism for the effort; however, Truman believed that he owed it to the “Boss,” as he called him - an opportunity to pay his last respects. While many choose to focus on the graft and corruption as important legacies of the machine, there were enduring legacies that have physically remained on the landscape of Kansas City and Jackson County. Many of the county structures and roads that were built during Truman’s tenure as county administrator are still in use. Finally, Tom Pendergast created a diverse political machine that had many different constituencies, and Truman learned to navigate those as county judge. He also learned that if he was going to be a successful politician, he had to appeal to a broad cross section of the public—something he learned as a member of the machine and successfully applied in his 1940 Senate re-election campaign, and again in 1948, when he ran for president.

Acknowledgement: 
Funding for this essay is generously provided by the Missouri Humanities Council with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
KANSAS CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY | DIGITAL HISTORY
Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict,1855-1865.
The Pendergast Years, Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression.
KC History, Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library.