Who’s the Boss?
Although many people played a defining role in Kansas City’s early growth and development, one name is synonymous with the city: Tom Pendergast, Kansas City’s political boss, credited with the rise of Harry S. Truman to the presidency. Political machines were common in the 1920s and ’30s, yet Pendergast stood out from the crowd thanks to a propensity for gambling, a deep and unabashed love for the city, and an unexpected compassion for Kansas City’s poor.
On the second floor of a two-story yellow brick building at 1908 Main Street, Pendergast ruled the city—although, ironically enough, he never held an elected position. He used voter fraud and intimidation to fix local elections and personally selected most of the police officers, a move that resulted in law enforcement’s turning a blind eye to alcohol and gambling, even during the Prohibition era.
Pendergast was involved in several city development projects, including the Power and Light Building, Fidelity Bank and Trust Building, and Municipal Auditorium as part of the city’s Ten Year Plan, an ambitiously detailed plan that sought to increase public works projects in a direct attempt to assuage the debilitating effects of unemployment and poverty inflicted throughout the Great Depression.
In the late 1930s, Pendergast’s gambling addiction finally caught up with him and he was convicted of income tax evasion. He served a 15-month prison sentence at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, after which he returned home and lived a quiet life as a divorcé with no money until his death in 1945.
© Katy Ryan from Moon Kansas City, 1st Edition