“You can’t coerce people into doing things for you, you can’t make them vote for you. I never coerced anybody in my life.”
Political machines were alive and well in the early 1900s, and Missouri had one of the most powerful bosses in the country. Some historians speculate that if there wasn’t a Thomas Pendergast, there wouldn’t have been a President Harry S Truman. His political opponents labeled him a corrupt leader and ruthless criminal, while his powerful allies allowed him to influence politicians across the country. It was this power, and the abuse of it, that eventually brought him down.
THE EARLY YEARS
Thomas Joseph Pendergast was born in St. Joseph on July 22, 1872. He was a part of a large family, which included an ambitious older brother named James, who was a political dynamo in nearby Kansas City when Thomas was a child. Thomas was intrigued by the inner workings of politics, so he left St. Joseph when he was around eighteen years old to move with his brother in Kansas City to experience it firsthand.
James was a dynamic political leader and motivator that changed the course of Kansas City politics. He rallied blue-collar workers to his side and eventually passed those alliances along to Thomas’s camp when the younger brother entered politics. The incredible political machine that James built was primed for bigger things. Thomas now had the experience, desire, and connections to make sure that the power and privilege expanded under his watch.
RISE TO FAME
It only took about six years in Kansas City before Thomas started making a name for himself in local politics. His first position was the deputy marshal of Jackson County, followed by superintendent of streets, and then county marshal in 1902. He lost the marshal’s post a few years later but remained active in Democratic politics.Thomas moved up the political ladder by winning the aldermanic post that his brother had held for many years. Thomas understood how to work the system to gain an advantage, and a political move in 1922 may have proven to be one of the most beneficial in his career. Pendergast allied himself with Harry S Truman in Truman’s bid for a judgeship. That alliance between the two men proved beneficial for both. In Tom’s case, it allowed him to begin securing political dominance in Kansas City and the entire west-central Missouri area.
SHOW ME SUCCESS
Pendergast made it a habit of surrounding himself with powerful men, which helped keep many of his illegal activities suppressed. Truman, at this point, was still just a local politician, so Thomas knew he had to reach out to bigger leaders in order to expand his influence. His handpicked associate, Guy Bransfield Park, ascended to the governor’s office in 1933, which allowed Pendergast to have statewide power.
The Roosevelt Administration also recognized Pendergast’s influence, so they too rewarded him with favors to keep the Democratic political machine churning. Truman was beginning to move up the political ladder as well, winning a seat in the U.S. Senate. This meant that Pendergast had his men in place in local, state, and federal offices, which gave him incredible influence in almost all aspects of government.
His next handpicked candidate proved to be the end of the machine. Lloyd Stark took Pendergast’s endorsement all the way to the governor’s office. Once there, Stark turned on his boss and helped prosecutors bring charges against him. Pendergast was charged with tax evasion for failing to disclose more than $1 million in income. A judge sentenced him to fifteen months in prison on the first charge and five years of probation on the second charge. The fall from power may have been too much for Pendergast to handle, as he died on January 26, 1945, before the probationary period expired.
*Pendergast died just days after Truman’s inauguration as vice president of the United States.
*It’s estimated that Pendergast received over $30 million annually from gambling, prostitution, and narcotics in the 1930s.