5 little-known facts about Tom Pendergast on his 150th birthday

Picture of Pendergast

“The people are thirsty,” he said when asked why he ignored Prohibition. | Photo via Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library

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It seems only fitting that the birthday of KC’s infamous prince of Prohibition should fall on the Friday before KCtoday’s Drink Up Week (July 25-31). Tom Pendergast would be 150 years old today, July 22.

Whether it’s paying homage to the high-spirited drink culture cultivated in KC or remembering his nefarious activities through present-day infrastructure, here are five facts you might not know about “Boss Tom.”

His brother, Jim, was the original “Goat”

Nearly two decades before Tom lived in Kansas City, his brother James (Jim) moved here for work. In 1892, he was elected alderman and built the “Goat” faction — perhaps named after the livestock in the West Bottoms where he worked. Tom moved to town in 1894 to learn the family business (booze and politics) from his older brother.

Tom held office in KC

Tom took over as alderman in 1910. He held office for five years before giving up his seat to become the unelected leader of the Jackson Democratic Club. This allowed him to expand his business connections, control votes, and influence the legal system.

He was most powerful at the end of Prohibition

KC’s lawlessness may seem synonymous with speakeasies, but Tom was actually at his peak power in the 1930s with his selection of Missouri’s governor + Home Rule police. The governor essentially directed federal funding straight into Tom’s companies, and his control of police meant lawlessness could continue.

Picture of Pendergast and Truman

Harry S Truman (left) right next to Tom Pendergast at a Democratic convention. | Photo from the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

President Harry S Truman was “obligated” to Tom

Truman’s rise in politics started with an election to the eastern district judge of Jackson County — at the prompting of the Pendergast family. In 1931, he wrote, “I am obligated to the Big Boss, a man of his word…” When he was elected US Senator in 1935, he arrived in Washington with the nickname the “Senator from Pendergast.”

You can see Tom’s work today in a big way

Kansas City’s $50 million Ten-Year Plan — a program approved by voters in 1931 — dealt favorable contracts to Boss Tom, specifically with infrastructure. His companies are responsible for building the 300-foot tall Jackson County Courthouse, Municipal Auditorium, and even Brush Creek.

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