There is a Reign of Terror in Kansas City.
In this cartoon, St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial cartoonist Daniel Fitzpatrick portrayed Pendergast as a menacing figure looming over the citizens of Kansas City.
[St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Cartoon Collection, February 5, 1938, The State Historical Society of Missouri]
As a city alderman, Tom Pendergast sought to strengthen his control over Democratic politics in Kansas City. James had been prevented from being the undisputed boss of Kansas City by Joseph Shannon, the leader of the Democrats in the city’s Ninth Ward. Pendergast’s followers were known as the “Goats” and Shannon’s were the “Rabbits,” nicknames which, according to one historian, reflected animals popular with the Irish residents of the wards they represented. To prevent conflict between the two sides, they established a compromise by which they split control of political jobs (like deputy marshal) in Jackson County in a so-called “Fifty-Fifty” compromise.
Government of the People of Missouri
In this cartoon, St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial cartoonist Daniel Fitzpatrick depicts Pendergast’s machine keeping one hand protectively on the state capitol and the other clenching stolen votes.
[St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Cartoon Collection, October 22, 1936, The State Historical Society of Missouri]
Over time, this compromise broke down, and Pendergast and Shannon fought for control. By 1925 Pendergast had forced Shannon into a subordinate role. Only a decade after resigning from the city council in 1915, Pendergast had emerged as the most powerful figure in Democratic politics in the city and county.
As the machine grew in power, it continued to attend to the needs of poor and working-class Kansas Citians. Like his brother, Pendergast used his organization to finance the distribution of food, coal, and clothing to needy residents of the First Ward. Perhaps his best known charitable activities were the Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners for the poor. According to one historian, “At a typical holiday meal in 1930, more than three thousand homeless men of all races formed a line of several blocks.”.
Jackson County Courthouse
The Jackson County Courthouse and Kansas City City Hall were built with concrete from Pendergast’s Ready Mixed Concrete Company. They were nicknamed the ‘Pendergast Pyramids.’ Construction projects such as these made Pendergast very wealthy.
[The State Historical Society of Missouri, Photograph Collection, C280_1]
During the Great Depression, when large numbers of the city’s residents could not find work, Pendergast and his associates devised a plan to replace labor-saving machines with people power. Of course, these efforts to aid the poor and working class helped Pendergast, too. Workers repaid the boss with votes, and many of the projects were supplied by Pendergast-run businesses, especially the Ready-Mixed Concrete Company.
Illegal Gambling Den
Gambling flourished in Kansas City during Pendergast’s reign. Here a group of men are seated around a black jack table.
[Joseph H. “Jack” Wally, Jr. (1913-2006) Collection (KC0329), The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Kansas City]
While gambling and profits from other vice industries enriched Pendergast, the city’s nightclubs also provided a home for artists, musicians, and other nonconformists. For example, jazz musicians who would become nationally known—most notably William “Count” Basie, Bennie Moten, and Charlie Parker—played in Kansas City clubs during the period when Pendergast oversaw the city’s nightlife.
Pendergast, however, could not have gained as much political power as he did with only working-class support alone. Kansas City had a large population of clerks and other white-collar employees. Since middle-class workers largely did not require the kind of social service help he provided to the poor and working class, Pendergast organized social events for those people who could not belong to the country clubs that served the needs of the city’s wealthiest residents. The machine organized baseball and bowling leagues as well as social clubs that held dinners, dances, picnics, and various kinds of parties during most of the year. Having built connections between people through sports and social events, the clubs then turned to politics during elections.