KCPD Historical Information   Lest We Forget

The Kansas City Investigation - Pendergast's Downfall 1938-1939
Rudolph H. Hartmann
Edited with an Introduction by Robert H. Ferrell

 

The long reign of Kansas City political boss Thomas J. Pendergast came to an end in 1939, after an investigation led by Special Agent Rudolph Hartmann of the U.S. Department of the Treasury resulted in Pendergast's conviction for income tax evasion. In 1942, Hartmann's account was submitted to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., in whose papers it remained for the past fifty- six years unbeknownst to historians. While researching the relations between Pendergast and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Robert H. Ferrell came across Hartmann's landmark report--the only firsthand account of the investigation that brought down the greatest political machine of its time, possibly one of the greatest in all of American history.

Reading like a "whodunit," The Kansas City Investigation traces Pendergast's political career from its beginnings to its end. As one of America's major city bosses, Pendergast was at the height of his influence in 1935-1936 when his power reached not merely to every ward and precinct in Kansas City but also to the statehouse in Jefferson City and Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. It was during this time that the boss took a massive bribe-- $315,000--from 137 national fire insurance companies operating within Missouri, opening him to attack by his enemies.

Early in 1938, an official in the Washington headquarters of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, a former Missourian, quit his job to accept private employment, but not without first tipping off a reporter from the Kansas City Star about Pendergast's bribe. The reporter immediately phoned Lloyd C. Stark, the governor of Missouri and a known enemy of Pendergast. Stark then went to Washington to inform President Roosevelt. Although the president had been a supporter of Pendergast, he now considered Stark a more important political ally. Roosevelt asked the Treasury Department to investigate Pendergast's income taxes. The intelligence unit of the Treasury Department put Hartmann, its best operative, on the case. Within a year, after the most minute of inquiries into checkbooks, serial numbers on currency, a safe-deposit box, and a telegraphed transfer of $10,000, Hartmann and his agents found enough evidence to convict Boss Tom.

More than a simple account of what the Roosevelt administration did to cause the collapse of the Pendergast machine, The Kansas City Investigation takes the reader through the ups and downs, twists and turns, of this intriguing investigation, all from an insider's perspective. More important, Hartmann's report provides historians and readers alike the opportunity to evaluate the machine era in American political history--an era that, according to the investigation, "proved the old axiom that `truth is stranger than fiction.'"

1999. 208 pp. 6 x 9. Biblio. Index. Illus. ISBN 0-8262-1231-X. $29.95t.

The Fall of Tom Pendergast

Why It's Good to Pay Your Taxes
"We have the theory that if we do a man a favor he will do us one," legendary Kansas City boss Tom Pendergast once remarked. "That's human nature." Pendergast was certainly a man who lived by his word, at least when the opportunity to aid potential voters presented itself. When winter storms struck, his machine dispensed warm clothes to the poor. He helped many find jobs during the depths of the Depression. The machine visited newcomers to make sure they had water, electricity, and gas connections. Those who were sick often went to the machine for free medical care. At Christmas, Pendergast's henchmen roamed the neighborhoods handing out thousands of free dinners. Pendergast himself went door-to-door during the great flu epidemic of 1918-19 to see who needed assistance. Just as Pendergast expected, such activities inspired immense loyalty among the people of Kansas City. "Oh, he was a wonderful man," observed a poor woman for whom Pendergast had found a job. "To me, he was a Robin Hood." When election day arrived, she donned several different outfits and voted, despite being three years too young to do so, at various precincts around town for the man who had assisted her. "Oh, I knew it was illegal," she later noted, "but I never thought it was wrong." This and numerous other forms of voter fraud, which sometimes included violence against political enemies, ensured that Pendergast maintained an iron grip on power for more than two decades. Prostitution, gambling, and organized crime all thrived under his rule, giving Kansas City a well-deserved reputation as "the widest open town in the U.S.A.--anything goes."(p. 13) [1]

Such was the state of affairs until 1939, when the machine came tumbling down following Pendergast's conviction for tax evasion. The federal government had begun investigating Pendergast for election fraud several years earlier, but it shifted focus to his financial dealings in 1938 following a trip by Governor Lloyd C. Stark of Missouri to Washington to visit President Franklin Roosevelt. Stark informed Roosevelt that he had received word from a Kansas City Star reporter about a bribe Pendergast had taken from 137 fire insurance companies concerning eleven million dollars in impounded premiums that the companies eagerly desired. Not wanting to appear indifferent to such illegal activity and believing that Stark could deliver the state's electoral votes in 1940, the president ordered the Treasury Department to probe Pendergast's tax returns. The investigations, which involved dozens of special agents from the Department's Intelligence Division, began in May 1938, and on April 7, 1939 the indictments of Pendergast were returned. The news stunned the city. The Kansas City Star had a full page headline for the first time since the outbreak of World War I nearly twenty-two years earlier. By the end of May, Pendergast had pleaded guilty, was fined, and was sentenced to prison until being released a year and a day later for good behavior. Several of Pendergast's associates also received fines and jail terms. The machine was dead.

The broad contours of Pendergast's downfall have been well known for years, but thanks to Robert H. Ferrell scholars now have a revealing behind-the-scenes look at its operations and demise. Ferrell, who was doing research at the Franklin Roosevelt Library during the summer of 1998 for a book on the relationship between Harry Truman and Pendergast, discovered in box 388 of the Henry Morgenthau Papers a 148-page report detailing the Treasury Department's probe. Written by Rudolph H. Hartmann, who was in charge of the Pendergast case, the document had remained unknown to scholars for nearly sixty years. Would that we could all be so fortunate in doing archival research! As Ferrell aptly notes, "here was what makes it all worthwhile" (p. 5). Why the report had gone unnoticed for so long, especially given the vast number of researchers who have used the Roosevelt Library during the past several decades, remains a source of mystery, but Ferrell plausibly speculates that the enormous size of the Morgenthau collection, the publication of parts of the collection by John M. Blum in From The Morgenthau Diaries, and the microfilming of other parts, prevented scholars from digging deeply enough to find it.[2]

Scholars of urban politics, those with a special interest in Missouri history, and anyone who loves a gripping story of crime and corruption can thank Ferrell for bringing this fascinating document to light. The first several chapters present an engrossing account of the origins, evolution, and culmination of the Treasury Department's probe. The action is fast and furious as the intricacies of the investigation are detailed. Lawrence Larsen and Nancy Hulston's recent biography of Pendergast contains some valuable information on the investigation, but the Hartmann report clearly offers a level of unprecedented detail and thus greatly enriches scholars' understanding of how the federal government caught the legendary Kansas City boss. The final third of the book takes us deeply into the sordid behind-the-scenes daily operations of the machine. It is not a pretty sight. Briberies of police officers allowed organized crime to flourish through gambling and prostitution. Corrupt tax collectors, assessors, and garbage collectors, among others, oiled this efficient operation. Pendergast, of course, received money, often used to finance his expensive gambling habit, through the awarding of city contracts to several of his businesses. Here too, the level of detail in the Hartmann report is of tremendous value. This work, then, nicely complements the existing body of literature on one of the more important political figures in twentieth century America.

NOTES

[1]. David McCullough, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), pp. 154-156; Alonzo Hamby, Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 162-176.

[2]. Robert H. Ferrell, Truman and Pendergast (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999); John Morton Blum, From the Morgenthau Diaries(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959).

[3]. Lawrence H. Larsen and Nancy J. Hulston, Pendergast! (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1997), pp. pp. 139-145.

Library of Congress Call Number: F474.K257H37 1999

Subjects:
Kansas City (Mo.) -- Politics and government.
Pendergast, Tom, 1870-1945.
Political corruption -- Missouri -- Kansas City -- History -- 20th century.

Related: Joseph Bernard Shannon