Tom Pendergast’s influence on Kansas City, Part I
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — If you’ve ever been to Tom’s Town in Downtown Kansas City, where “The People Are Thirsty,” you might have wondered, “Who’s Tom?”
41 Action News caught up with Tom’s Town Co-Owner Theo Epstein to find out more.
“He was bigger than a mob boss. For a 13-year stretch, it was unfettered by the law. He was the law,” Epstein said.
*He* is Tom Pendergast. A man some said put Kansas City on the map for jazz, alcohol and corruption.
“Charlie Parker could play in one of the 200 speakeasies and jazz clubs right around here,” Epstein said. “He had 10 brands [of liquor] and basically you had to carry one of those 10 brands.”
Epstein said Jan. 19, 1920, the first day of prohibition, was the greatest day of Pendergast’s life because there were no rules.
In the late 1800s, Pendergast moved to Kansas City to be with his brother, city councilman James Pendergast. In 1910, James died, with Tom taking his position shortly after. Historians said Tom realized he could have more power if he wasn’t in office. So, he eventually stepped down, focusing on the Jackson County Democratic Party, and his business ventures.
Legend has it, under his watch, muscle and a bit of fraud, voter turnout was close to 100% under the Pendergast Machine.
“He was bigger than a mob boss,” Epstein said. “Everyone reported to him; the mayor, the fire department, the police – everyone reported to him.”
This was especially important during the days of prohibition. Pendergast would make money hand over fist during that period. A lot of his money came from two sources.
The first was bootlegging. Pendergast was so powerful, he often put his rivals out of business, including Epstein’s own grandfather.
Pendergast’s other source of income was his concrete company.
“A big part of the story was the Kansas City Concrete Company,” Epstein said. “So, every major project – I’m talking major projects, the airport, Brush Creek, Kansas City Power and Light – all of that went through Pendergast. And he had about 42 companies and some of them would bid against each other, so coincidentally he would get the highest and lowest bid.”
All of the concrete used to build all those places, in addition to Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department Headquarters and the Jackson County Courthouse, came from Pendergast’s company.
Rumor has it, those are some of the sturdiest buildings in all of Kansas City because Pendergast used twice as much concrete. That way, he could bill the city twice.
With that money, historians said, he bribed police, who would then turn a blind eye to alcohol and gambling, during prohibition. He also leveraged and put his friends in positions of political power. During the Great Depression of the ’20s and into the ’30s, when most cities struggled, the Pendergast Machine kept Kansas City rolling.
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.