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) 
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.
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
. 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.
. Robert H. Ferrell, Truman and Pendergast (Columbia: University of
Missouri Press, 1999); John Morton Blum, From the Morgenthau Diaries(Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1959).
. 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
Kansas City (Mo.) -- Politics and government.
Pendergast, Tom, 1870-1945.
Political corruption -- Missouri -- Kansas City -- History -- 20th century.