Machine Politics, Organized Crime, and Reform

For nearly a decade and a half between 1925 and 1939, political boss Thomas J. Pendergast (or simply "Boss Tom"), an unelected dealmaker and leader of the local "goat" Democratic faction, consolidated control of Kansas City's machine politics and ruled its government and criminal underworld with impunity. Prior to those years, Boss Tom and his elder brother, James F. Pendergast, who died in 1911, had long vied for control with other aspiring bosses. Chief among the rivals was Joseph B. Shannon, leader of the "rabbit" faction of the Democratic party. Boss Tom, the namesake of this website, overshadowed Kansas City and exerted influence on most of the best and worst aspects of its history throughout his reign. As reform efforts swept in and the Pendergast Years faded away, so did much of the city's Jazz Age identity.

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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.