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President Truman’s ties to KC’s Prohibition-era political machine

We’re celebrating the hometown president’s 140th birthday with a peek at his true crime connections.


Senator Harry S. Truman meets with Tom Pendergast (second from left) and others at the Democratic National Convention in 1936. | Photo via Harry S. Truman Library

Cut the cake. It’s President Harry S. Truman’s 140th birthday and we’re ready to celebrate the KC-local with a very special lesson... on crime, corruption, and the former president’s personal friend, “Boss” Tom Pendergast.

The origins of Tom’s Town

In 1910, following the death of his brother, Thomas Joseph Pendergast took over the family’s West Bottoms tavern and discovered that politics kept the money flowing better than liquor did.

Pendergast never held office, preferring to utilize his large network to swing elections in his favor. The businessman, who went on to found both a liquor + a concrete company, would award city contracts to allies. And thus, Missouri’s most powerful political machine was born.

Prohibition dragged on, and as the Irish and Italian mobs of the 1920s + ‘30s operated speakeasies, gambling dens, and brothels, Kansas City’s streets were controlled by Pendergast money. Enter Truman.

KCtoday_Tom Pendergast

KC’s Prohibition-era “boss” | Photo via Harry S. Truman Library

Harry S. Truman Library

“Senator from Pendergast”

Originally from Independence, young Harry Truman worked all sorts of odd jobs in the big city, eventually running a men’s clothing store... that quickly failed.

By 1922, Truman’s old Army buddy Mike Pendergast approached him with a proposition: “Run for western judge of the Jackson County Administrative Court, and my uncle will support you.”

Truman’s reputation for hard work and honesty preceded him + offered Pendergast’s operation an air of legitimacy. With their political relationship cemented, Truman found himself on the right side of a US Senate vote in 1934. You can imagine the rest.

Boss behind bars

When Pendergast was put up at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary for tax evasion in 1939, Truman officially cut ties and moved his campaign office to Sedalia. Pendergast died just five days before Truman took office as Vice President in 1945.


President Truman was still defending his Pendergast ties in the oval office. | Media via National Archives

Snap a pic with his statue and celebrate the occasion at today’s official wreath laying — admission to Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum will be free all day, where you can explore more hidden hometown history.

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