As pictured in the political cartoon, the Pendergast political machine held a grip over Kansas City for nearly four decades. Jim Pendergast, the machine’s first official leader, served as the first ward alderman for roughly 20 years. After Jim’s death in 1911, his younger brother Tom took control of his role in city council and of the political machine. Tom served as an alderman until 1915, when he became an unelected leader of the Jackson Democratic Club. Tom Pendergast’s political power and influence grew rapidly. Kansas City’s infrastructure became bound with the Pendergast machine’s growth as many of Tom’s companies, like the Ready-Mixed Concrete Co., won service contracts across the city.
The true strength of the Pendergast Machine was seen on election day. Over the years, Pendergast created a coalition of working-class and disenfranchised groups including Irish, Italian, and Mexican immigrants and members of the Black community. Through this “Goat” faction of the local Democratic Party, Pendergast ensured a 100% voter turnout and always in favor of his candidates. In exchange for votes, the machine covered medical bills and debts, as well as provided jobs and famous holiday dinners. From this the Pendergast Machine helped the political careers of Guy B. Parks who became Missouri governor, and Harry S. Truman who became a U.S. Senator.
Like all empires, the Pendergast Machine would soon collapse. The fallout began in 1936 with voter fraud investigations. This probe followed Pendergast until 1939 when an extension of the inquiry produced federal income tax evasion charges. Tom Pendergast owed $443,500, about $8.3 million today, in federal income taxes. After serving 12 months in the U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Pendergast was released on five-year parole. He died of heart failure in 1945.
Categories: Politics & Government
Creator: Citizens' League
Contributing Institution: Jackson County Historical Society
Rights: Publication, commercial use, or reproduction of this image or the accompanying data requires prior written permission from the Jackson County Historical Society. Use of this image also requires that credit be given to the Jackson County Historical Society.
Region: Kansas City Metro