Machine Politics, Organized Crime, and Reform
Kansas City women–members of the Athenaeum, the Woman’s City Club, and other organizations–sought to assert power in their community and beyond. Coming from Republican and independent Democratic backgrounds, and abhorring the influence of the Democratic machine, they embraced a progressive spirit that revered what they envisioned as good government.
One of the defining aspects of “Boss” Thomas J. Pendergast’s “machine” politics was its approach to African American voters. During the early 20th century, at a time when black people were routinely excluded from the vote by Democratic regimes in most of the former slave South, Pendergast’s Democratic organization in Kansas City succeeded in part by attracting considerable black support. While such support was not unique to Kansas City—black Missourians never lost the vote in the same way or degree as their counterparts farther South—historians often point to the city as an example of early black political realignment toward a Northern Democratic Party based in urban, industrial centers and at increasing odds with its Southern wing over the issue of civil rights.
Truman’s tenure in Jackson County government had a profound impact on Kansas City and Jackson County. 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. 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.
When it comes to assessing the trajectory of a political machine such as the one cobbled together over time by first Jim Pendergast, and then by his younger brother “Boss” Tom Pendergast, it is always best to follow the advice of the later Watergate journalists – that is, to “follow the money.” Under Jim, the Pendergast machine seems to have dealt more in dispensing jobs and small favors, with Jim taking a rather small cut of the proceeds. Jim, however, could meet his relatively small personal needs, which included taking care of his bride Mary Doerr (married in 1886) and her young son by a previous marriage. He chose never to live “high on the hog.” Tom, on the other hand, always seemed to need more money, especially after his own marriage to Carolyn Elizabeth Dunn in 1910.
One of the defining political trends of the mid-20th century was the transition of black voters from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party, accompanied by a major shift in the party’s policy platform toward social liberalism and civil rights. Nationally, this change is usually dated to the latter half of the New Deal, roughly around the election of 1936. In Kansas City and the state of Missouri, however, it happened much earlier and in surprising circumstances that greatly influenced national affairs in later years.
He will always be remembered as the man from Independence, Missouri, who became the country's 33rd president. Although Harry S. Truman held the highest office in the country, he was truly a Midwestern native.
For over thirty years, Casimir Welch controlled "Little Tammany," 36 precincts east of downtown, for Thomas J. Pendergast. This area was heavily populated, largely with African Americans. Through the usual ploys of free food and coal to the needy, Welch gained his constituents' trust and admiration, and they repaid him by voting as they were told.
On April 14, 1910, the City Council approved the creation of the Board of Public Welfare to provide aid to the city’s poor. As the brainchild of Kansas City philanthropist William Volker, the Board of Public Welfare was the first modern welfare department in the United States, a groundbreaking forerunner to modern welfare programs, and intended as a counterbalance to the charitable activities of the city's political machines led by Tom Pendergast and Joe Shannon. The board was just one of Volker’s many memorable contributions that included the creation of Research Hospital, the establishment of the University of Kansas City (now UMKC), the Civic Research Institute, the purchase of the land for Liberty Memorial, and reportedly thousands of individuals who received his gifts when down on their luck. He received these callers on an almost daily basis at his private home on Bell Street.
James F. Pendergast, born in 1856 in Gallipolis, Ohio, moved from St. Joseph to Kansas City in 1876 and initially worked in an iron foundry. In the early 1880s, he purchased a saloon and a small hotel in the West Bottoms. Soon his brothers and sisters joined him to help with the business, and his political activities led to the creation of the Pendergast political machine that would be handed down to his younger brother, Thomas J. Pendergast, and dominate the city government in the 1920s and '30s.
Albert I. Beach served as mayor of Kansas City from 1924 to 1930. Under his administration, a new city charter was voted in that established a city manager form of government for Kansas City.
Dr. Logan Clendening, perhaps the most quotable figure in Kansas City history, taunted those of his readers who kept to strict diet and exercise regimens. “What’s the use?” Clendening wrote. “By giving yourself infinite trouble you may prolong your life perhaps a fortnight. Why not enjoy things as you go along?”
Johnny Lazia (born Lazzio) gained prominence in Kansas City’s politics during the 1920s and ‘30s due to his leadership of the North Side Democratic Club, engagement in local organized crime, and involvement with Tom Pendergast’s political machine. Pendergast dominated Kansas City politics not by holding elected offices, but through his machine of alliances and affiliates.
Joseph “Joe” Shannon presided over Kansas City’s Northside Democratic Party from the early 20th century to 1930, after which he relocated to Washington, D.C., for a 14-year tenure as a U.S. Congressman. Shannon’s political career was marked by his Jeffersonian Democratic views and his tenuous relationships with brothers James and Tom Pendergast.
A "Renaissance man" is defined as one who has had a broad education, acquired profound knowledge, has a proficiency in a wide range of fields, and benefits his community. Henry C. Haskell, playwright, author, editor and columnist for The Kansas City Star, musician, civic leader and philanthropist, certainly qualified for that description.
Near the end of his life, Rabbi Samuel Mayerberg told his Temple B’Nai Jehudah congregation that he wished not to be remembered as a fighter for civic justice, but merely as a man of unequivocal faith in God and the Ten Commandments. Historians, however, now write mainly of his willingness to put into action another idea, expressed in his favorite quotation: "Of all the evil done in the world, one-third is due to the vicious people who do it, and two-thirds to the virtuous who let it be done."
Henry F. McElroy was hand picked in 1926 by boss Thomas J. Pendergast to be Kansas City’s first city manager. This gave Pendergast complete control over Kansas City.
Guy B. Park was a rather ineffectual governor bound to Thomas Pendergast's political machine by gratitude for putting him in office. Born in Platte City, Missouri, in 1872, Park received his law degree from the University of Missouri in 1896. He began his law practice in Platte City in 1899.
Politician, gambler, night club owner, newspaper publisher, and bon vivant, Felix Payne was one of the most influential African Americans in Kansas City in the 1920s and 1930s.
James A. Reed, political ally of Thomas Pendergast, served as a Kansas City mayor, senator, and presidential candidate. Born in 1861 in Ohio, Reed grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and studied law at Coe College. Reed arrived in Kansas City in 1887 and began a law practice.
Judge Albert L. Reeves despised Tom Pendergast and his Democratic machine. He felt that Pendergast corrupted the young men of Kansas City, especially those from the heavily Italian North End. Reeves particularly disdained the machine’s underhanded tactics involving voting fraud and eventually brought an end to Pendergast’s control of the ballot box.
Roy Roberts began his lifelong newspaper career delivering The Kansas City Star as a boy in Lawrence, Kansas. When he retired from The Star in January 1965, he had served the newspaper for 56 years as a reporter, managing editor, president, editor, and general manager.
Kansas City, Missouri’s City Hall is located between 11th and 12th Streets and Oak and Locust in the downtown area. This building is the third city hall that Kansas City has had since the incorporation of the City of Kansas in 1853. The first City Hall was built in 1857 between Fourth and Fifth Streets and Main and Walnut on what had been the city’s “public square.”
In the midst of the Great Depression, Kansas City experienced a building boom that produced buildings and improvements across the city, as well as a civic plaza in the heart of downtown. The Jackson County Courthouse was one of several public-use buildings that kept Kansas City architects and construction workers employed while jobs elsewhere were impossible to find.
Nell Donnelly and her chauffeur, George Blair, were kidnapped on December 16, 1931. Donnelly had become famous after her 1916 founding of the Donnelly Garment Company, which sold stylish but affordable dresses for daily wear by ordinary women. Backed by the sales of “Nelly Don’s,” as the dresses became known, the company grew into a multi-million dollar business with over 1,000 employees in the 1920s.
One of Kansas City's most sensational and ultimately tragic crimes began on May 27, 1933 with the kidnapping of Mary McElroy, the daughter of controversial city manager Henry F. McElroy, who had close ties to the political machine operated by “Boss” Tom Pendergast. She was released after 34 hours of captivity, following payment of a $30,000 ransom, but she never recovered from the emotional turmoil that ensued.
On June 17, 1933, four law enforcement officers and their prisoner, Frank Nash, were fatally wounded in a botched rescue attempt outside Union Station. The story of the Union Station Massacre, as it became known, centered on Frank Nash, who had been convicted of three separate crimes of a serious nature: murder, armed burglary, and then assault.