Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression

Prohibition and Vice

“If you want to see some sin, forget Paris and head to Kansas City”
– Edward Morrow, Omaha World Herald

Nationwide, the Prohibition era fueled infamous trade in bootleg liquor, speakeasies, illicit gambling, prostitution, and other criminal activities. In Kansas City, the effects were especially pervasive due to bribery, electoral fraud, and permissive law enforcement on the part of the Pendergast-controlled government. Formerly a rugged frontier cowtown, Kansas City was now known as a "wide-open" town, or the "Paris of the Plains."

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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.

Tom Pendergast mugshot
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.