Machine Politics, Organized Crime, and Reform
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.
"They did not try to build something ‘good enough for Negroes’ but something as good as money could buy." This is how Chester Arthur Franklin, the Republican founder of The Call newspaper and one of Kansas City’s most prominent black leaders, greeted the newly constructed eight-story building that housed General Hospital No. 2, serving the indigent African American population of Kansas City. When the new building opened on March 2, 1930, national public health experts joined the local black and white communities in considering the new facility to be the finest black public hospital in the nation, even rivaling some of the best white public hospitals with its state-of-the-art equipment and modern architecture.
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.
H. Roe Bartle was an expansive man. Everything about him was unrestrained: his booming voice, his adherence to the Boy Scout code of conduct, and the enthusiasm with which he served as mayor. Bartle's service with the Boy Scouts took him and his family to Wyoming, St. Joseph, and finally here as the Executive of the Kansas City Area Council in 1929. His accomplishments included establishing the elite Tribe of Mic-O-Say in 1925 and acquiring the Ozark acreage for Camp Osceola (now named the Roe Bartle Reservation) in 1929. Under Bartle, nicknamed "Chief," Boy Scouting in the area flourished and earned nationwide recognition.
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.
Charles Binaggio was a gangster who fought his way to the top of the underworld heap more through politics than crime. A trim, well-dressed "man of lethal calm," as he was once described, Binaggio was a lieutenant in the political machine of Tom Pendergast and had close ties to crime boss Johnny Lazia. When Pendergast fell from power in 1939 and his organization started to unravel, Binaggio emerged as the new leader of the city’s underworld and ran much of Kansas City in the 1940s.
A physician and author who sometimes blurred the line between rake and raconteur, Logan M. Clendening became a folk hero in February 1939, when after repeated diplomatic attempts to silence a jackhammer in use on a construction project near his home at 56th and State Line, he donned a suit, Homburg hat, kid gloves, and button-hole carnation, strolled calmly out to the machine, and attempted to destroy it with an axe. He was arrested and served several hours behind bars. Jackhammers like the one he attacked had been in frequent use on unpopular sewer projects sanctioned by political machine boss Tom Pendergast, and many Kansas Citians cheered the doctor’s symbolic blows against a corrupt City Hall.
In the early, post-Pendergast period in Kansas City government, selection of the city's first professional city manager was critical. The special person chosen, L.P. "Perry" Cookingham, became the "czar of Kansas City." Born in Chicago, Cookingham had worked his way up from being a railroad surveyor in Illinois to being president of the International City Managers Association. A Reader's Digest article about him led to his being chosen from 50 candidates for the job in Kansas City.
Urged to run for mayor during the final years of the Pendergast era, John B. Gage reportedly called his candidacy “the silliest thing in the world.” But the qualities that made him such an unlikely choice—his distaste for politics and devotion to ethical, transparent city government—made him an ideal leader for a generation of Kansas Citians who had come to expect the worst from their elected officials.
A war hero, a lawyer, and a politician, Ruby Dwight Garrett led one of the last attempts to breathe life back into the mortally wounded Pendergast machine after Boss Tom Pendergast was imprisoned in the United States Penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Henry C. Haskell was a playwright, author, editor and columnist for the Kansas City Star starting in 1929, musician, civic leader and philanthropist. In 1938, Haskell was appointed art editor and assembled the newspaper’s first special section to cover music, dance, visual arts, book reviews, criticism, and features.
Henry Jost was a respected lawyer and made savvy political connections, but it may have been his status as an orphan than won him the position of Kansas City’s mayor in 1912. Little is known of Jost’s early childhood. He was brought to an East Side orphanage in New York City at an early age—as an infant, toddler, or five-year-old, depending on the source. By most accounts, his mother had died, and his poor, ailing father could no longer care for him. He stayed in the Five Points Mission for Homeless Children until he was sent on a train westward with other children from the orphanage. He found a home in Nodaway County, Missouri.
William Kemp served for nine years as Kansas City mayor—longer than any other mayor. From 1946 to 1955, the tall, elegant man led the city through a period of growth as city boundaries were expanded to 85th Street, a traffic department was organized, the Paseo and Chouteau bridges were built and Starlight Theater became the crown jewel of the city’s centennial celebration.
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.
Mayerberg would become best known for his vocal and courageous opposition to violations of the city charter—and public trust—by political machine boss Tom Pendergast, his lieutenant City Manager McElroy, and Pendergast’s north side enforcer, John Lazia.
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. Through Park's connection with the Pendergast organization, a great deal of federal money was diverted to Kansas City resulting in high dollar contracts going to Pendergast-machine owned businesses.
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.
Jim presented himself as an advocate for the common working man, which enhanced his political base. He helped people find jobs and provided coal and food to the needy. In 1894 Jim’s brother Tom
, the youngest of the Pendergast siblings, joined the family business in Kansas City. Jim moved Tom quickly into grassroots politics, teaching him how to get out the vote and how to steal elections.
Coinciding with the rapid expansion of Pendergast’s businesses in the 1920s and 1930s, Tom Pendergast consolidated his political power at the end of 1925 and maintained a firm grip until the late 1930s. He gained almost unchallenged control due to a change in the city government that was, ironically, first proposed by well-meaning reformers including the philanthropist William Volker.
James A. Reed, political ally of Thomas Pendergast, served as a Kansas City mayor, senator, and presidential candidate. In 1932 he nearly won the nomination over Franklin D. Roosevelt.
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. Roberts' 56 years with the newspaper took Kansas City readers through the Depression, the fall of the Pendergast machine, and many elections. He developed a national reputation for political savvy and his close acquaintances included Alf Landon, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson.
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.
Bryce B. Smith was a member of the city council from 1920 to 1924 and was elected mayor on the Democratic ticket in 1930, the second Kansas City mayor under the city manager charter. During his campaign, Smith publicly declared his independence from Pendergast-machine politics, but those were empty words. When he won the election, the Pendergast machine gained complete control over City Hall.
Truman entered the thick of local politics when he served a Jackson County judgeship in the 1920s. He was elected U.S. Senator with a landslide vote and was sworn into office on January 3, 1935. Truman had established his record by improving county roads and overseeing the construction of the new Jackson County courthouse. His successful campaign undoubtedly benefited from the support of local political boss, Tom Pendergast. Although he was criticized for his association with Pendergast, Truman stated that Tom Pendergast never asked him to do a single dishonest act, and he never abandoned his friend.
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.
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.
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.