In the early years of the twentieth century, Kansas City and the rest of Missouri faced a bit of a crisis situation. No, it wasn’t from the threat of outside invasion, or tyranny in Washington, but from one of our own. Tom Pendergast, who was born in St. Joseph Missouri in 1873, would become an adept Kansas City businessman who owned such companies as “Wholesale Liquor Company”, and “Ready Mix Concrete”. Through utilizing backroom deals, monopolies, crime, strong-arm tactics, and the political experience of his older brother Jim – it wasn’t long before Tom had risen through the ranks of Kansas City Power to rule as “Boss”.
However, not content with Kansas City alone, Pendergast soon sought to exert his will on State Government and beyond through the backing of such figures like Missouri Governor Lloyd C. Stark and Harry S. Truman (See note below). While Pendergast’s considerable influence would help Kansas City prosper during the Great Depression – this came at a cost of increased violence upon the streets. One such incident was the Kansas City Massacre at Union Station in 1933, in which four police officers and their prisoner, Frank Nash, was gunned down in broad daylight.
In 1934, President Roosevelt appointed local man Maurice M. Milligan (1884 – 1959) to serve as U.S. District Attorney for the Kansas City based Western District of Missouri. Mr. Milligan became active in vigorously prosecuting voter fraud in 1936, and would go on to build a case against Tom Pendergast’s political machine. Because of Milligan’s work – which centered on a $750,000 insurance payoff scam and failure to pay federal income taxes from 1927 to 1937 – Pendergast ultimately pled guilty to two charges of income tax evasion, was fined 10,000, and went to federal prison for 15 month. Mr. Milligan would later run for U.S. Senate in 1940 against Harry S. Truman, but lost.
In his book, “Missouri Waltz”, Milligan reflects that upon his appointment to the U.S. District Attorney, he wondered if the Federal Government would step in where the local and State governments feared to tread. “I did not need to be told that Kansas City’s police setup was rotten, that crime was rampant, and that vice was flourishing. Justice, or anything less than a Federal scale seemed blind or inept, or both.”
But, Milligan also notes that Missouri seemed strangely proud of Pendergast.“The stranger to the ways of the West may wonder, as he hears the recital of Pendergast’s record of vicious bossism, how the decent people of Kansas City put up with him for so many years. Why was he not curbed before he got complete control of the city? That is an academic question. One might as well say, “Why did the people of Germany put up with Hitler?” I think it can be said without exaggeration that the people of Kansas City accepted Pendergast as the visible symbol of their pragmatic philosophy of live-and-let-live. They took a certain amount of pride in him.”
So understanding that human nature is what it is, and that corrupt politicians, corporate greed, slavery, shady backroom deals, and monopolies on power will always be a struggle as long as the world continues – can we really afford to damn state sovereignty and limited government to failure because of bad behavior? More to the point, does the Federal Government have any business getting involved in State matters if the people aren’t ready or motivated to deal with a problem like Pendergast? Because honestly. What’s easier? Dealing with problems on a corrupted state level, or a corrupted Federal?
For more information:
Maurice M. Milligan. Missouri Waltz: The Inside Story of the Pendergast Machine by the Man who Smashed it. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1948
Note: Milligan notes in his book that when Tom Pendergast died, then Vice President Harry S. Truman returned to Kansas City to attend the funeral, and was quoted as saying, “He was my friend, and I was his.” Milligan also points out that, “President Truman’s continued affiliation with the political machine Pendergast constructed, and his close personal and political association with James Pendergast, the boss’s nephew and political heir, have kept the founder’s name alive. According to newspaper reports, James Pendergast is frequently a White House guest. He swims in the White House pool, and accompanies the President on flights aboard the ‘Sacred Cow’”.