KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Many historians call Jan. 19, 1920, the best day of Tom Pendergast’s life.
Prohibition had just begun. The Pendergast Machine was booming, and the drinks still managed to flow.
Theo Epstein, Co-Owner of Tom’s Town Distillery in Downtown Kansas City, helps set the scene back then.
“Kansas City. If you think about this little Midwestern town, it’s been a juggernaut for American cultural stories,” he said. “If you think about cuisine, barbecue. If you think about the national pastime, baseball. And if you think about cocktails, it’s the Pendergast story. It’s a wide-open town. Paris of the Plains.
“He (Pendergast) had 10 brands and basically, you had to carry one of those ten brands. It allowed Kansas City to be one of the three great cradles of jazz: Chicago, Kansas City and New Orleans.”
Pendergast’s influence was huge. So big, some credit the mob boss with helping a struggling haberdasher from Independence launch his political career.
“An obscure admin judge and Pendergast kind of plucks him from obscurity,” Epstein said.
So, why Harry S Truman?
Sam Rushay, with the Truman Presidential Library, said part of the reason was religion. Pendergast was Irish Catholic.
“Eastern Jackson County was not an Irish Catholic stronghold,” Rushay said. “It was predominantly Protestant, as Harry Truman was Protestant. So that was appealing to the Pendergast Machine. Harry Truman is a good, ethical face to the organization. Everybody knows Harry Truman is as honest as the day is long.”
Pendergast’s nephew and Truman knew each other and served in World War I. His nephew connected Truman to “the machine.”
As his political star rose, Truman always remembered.
The two even formed a friendship, albeit stressful at times.
“Truman literally had headaches over this situation,” Rushay said. “He knew he owed his career to Tom Pendergast. At the same time, he knew this was not an ethical organization. There was voter fraud, corruption, violence even.”
Kansas City Historian Jason Roe described Pendergast’s heyday simply.
“One-way street, loyalty to Pendergast,” he said.
Even if that loyalty was purchased.
Roe said Pendergast made sure police officers were paid so poorly that he could then bribe them to compensate their salaries. That corruption is part of the reason KCPD currently is under state control.
But Roe said there was at least one good thing about KCPD when Pendergast had the department under his thumb.
“The Kansas City Call said that the reign of police brutality is over during that era. It was a radical change for the better,” Roe said.
That statement came from the city’s black newspaper.
Epstein said Pendergast didn’t see things in black and white. He saw things in green.
“He had kind of a progressive view of the world,” Epstein said. “So, all the jazz greats: Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker was from here, and could play until 4 or 5 in the morning and make a bloody fortune. And that was great for Pendergast because he got a cut of that.”
The Pendergast Machine was on top for 13 years.
It came to a screeching halt when the mob boss was arrested and convicted on tax evasion. His rise, reign and fall sometimes seems unreal.
“I think the most interesting part is he was real,” Roe said. “The more I read about this I think, it just seems like a movie, and parts of it might not be believable in a movie.”
Kevin’s Chronicles of KC is a year-long series looking at the history of Kansas City. You can read more about the project and other stories at kshb.com/chronicles.