Joseph B. Shannon

University of Kansas
  • Date of Birth: March 17, 1867
  • Place of Birth: St. Louis, Missouri     
  • Claim to Fame: Leader of Kansas City’s Northside Democratic Party, rival of the Pendergast machine, U.S. Congressman from 1931-1943
  • Political Affiliations: Democratic Party, Rabbit faction
  • Also Known As: “Joe” Shannon
  • Date of Death: March 28, 1943
  • Place of Death: Kansas City, Missouri
  • Final Resting Place: Forest Hill and Calvary Cemeteries, Kansas City, Missouri

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. While he was once a powerful Democratic boss in Kansas City with his own faction, nicknamed Shannon’s Rabbits, his influence waned as Tom Pendergast consolidated control over local politics after 1925.

Shannon was born in St. Louis on March 17, 1867, to Irish immigrants. His childhood was spent in Girard, Kansas, with his seven siblings. When their father died in a train accident in 1879, the family relocated to Kansas City. After age 12, Shannon did not continue formal schooling and worked to help his mother support the family. He was introduced to politics by his older brother, Frank, who participated in local labor unions and the Democratic party. The Shannon family home became the Democratic headquarters of the Ninth Ward, and their environs in northeastern Kansas City were known as Shannonville.

In 1892, Shannon entered municipal government as market master, a city patronage position. That same year he married Cecilia Hutawa, with whom he had three children: Joseph, Helen, and Frank. Two years later when Shannon lost his city position due to a Republican victory in the 1894 municipal election, he became determined to establish a stable political presence. This placed him in competition with the Pendergast machine as he vied for support from members of the Jackson County Democrats.

Shannon became involved in the Democratic party locally and nationally in the first few years of the 20th century. Beginning in 1908, he served as a Democratic National Convention delegate six times, and in 1910 he became chairman of the Missouri Democratic State Committee. Difficulty with James Pendergast, and later his younger brother Tom, would be a recurring theme for Shannon, though, as his Democratic rivals undermined, competed with, and otherwise complicated his efforts. For example, Shannon chose Casimir Welch, a municipal judge, to be his chief lieutenant in Kansas City in 1917. When Welch would not agree to help Shannon defeat Pendergast’s candidate for governor in 1924, the two ended their partnership, and Welch established a political faction of his own in a district of the city known as Little Tammany.

Other Pendergast-related challenges were more direct. Kansas City Democrats were divided in two factions: Pendergast Goats and Shannon Rabbits. One contemporary explanation for these nicknames posited that many of the Pendergasts’ Irish followers lived on the West Bluffs and kept goats as pets, which inspired one of Shannon’s affiliates to name the Pendergast machine the “Goats.” This led Shannon’s followers to be nick-named in turn; they were called the Rabbits because after elections they were supposedly put outside and made to eat snow. Another explanation held that Shannon was said to gather political intel from informants—“rabbits”—around town. A different story claimed that members of Shannon’s faction flocked to polls like scared rabbits. As for the goats, a rumor claimed that Pendergast stuffed ballot boxes by registering a flock of goats to vote.

The competing bosses often enacted elaborate plans to ensure their candidates’ victory in elections, but with mixed success. At the county Democratic convention of 1900, Shannon filled the committee with members of his faction and refused to make space for any of the Pendergast men. The Democratic Party could not reconcile the bosses, and ultimately James Pendergast instructed his faction to abstain from voting in that year’s election. With only the votes of Shannon’s Rabbits, the Republican candidate prevailed.

Shannon and the Pendergast machine also maintained an alliance, if tenuous at times. In 1900, when Shannon and James Pendergast realized they were splitting the Democratic vote, they reached an agreement called the 50-50 rule. They agreed to divide patronage positions equally to pool as many Democratic votes as possible toward one candidate. Observance of the 50-50 rule fluctuated. At times Pendergast pushed for a 70-30 division of positions in his faction’s favor, or the two bosses undercut one another by instructing their supporters to vote for Republican candidates.

Kansas City’s Democratic Party was unparalleled in Missouri in the 1920s, and the Great Depression and New Deal era-politics swung the state government overwhelmingly in Tom Pendergast’s favor. Shannon was no longer on an equal footing with his rival machine boss and was not the powerful leader he had been when James Pendergast was alive or in the earlier years of Tom Pendergast’s regime. In 1930, though, Shannon was elected to the House of Representatives with the help and encouragement of his rival and sometimes-ally, Pendergast.

Upon relocating to Washington, D.C., for his term in Congress, Pendergast’s Goats began taking control of Shannon’s Rabbits. Remarkably, in 1934 Pendergast offered to champion Shannon as candidate for Works Progress Administration director of Missouri; Shannon declined and maintained his tenure in the legislature. Pendergast’s gesture seems to evidence some extent of goodwill and professional respect for his fellow Democratic leader, yet by 1935, Shannon’s faction had been completely absorbed by Pendergast’s men. Shannon seems to have been profoundly shaken by this as he decided never to re-enter Kansas City politics.

Shannon would hold his tenure in Congress until 1943 and maintain the Jeffersonian ideals he had promoted in Kansas City. He opposed big government, and as a representative, Shannon attempted to limit government competition with businesses. He also worked to make Thomas Jefferson’s birthday a national holiday, without success. Unfortunately for Shannon, these political views were largely uncompelling in Congress, as they were at odds with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Only a few months after his departure from Congress, Shannon died in Kansas City.

Acknowledgement: 
This essay was developed as part of an Applied Humanities Summer Fellowship, cosponsored by the Hall Center for the Humanities at the University of Kansas.
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.