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British Association for American Studies


Issue 12, Spring 2008: Article 4


Issue 12, Spring 2008: Article 4

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 12, Spring 2008

Political Party Machines, Corrupt Elections in the 1930s and the Press: A Cautionary Tale of Kansas City

John Matlin
© John Matlin. All Rights Reserved

According to David Colburn and George Pozzetta, the best evidence of the manifest power of an American 1930s political party machine was its ability to win elections, ‘a fact of undisputed historical record’.[1] If a machine could not control the electorate within its constituency, it would not survive. Therefore, to ensure victory, numerous corrupt election practices, some dating back to the nineteenth century, became the norm for machines in city, county and state elections. The cavalier attitude adopted by many machines in relation to elections was, possibly, rooted in both the founding of America and its Constitution. Although the founders complained in the Declaration of Independence of the lack of right to representation, Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution limited itself to legislating that ‘the times, places and manner of holding elections…shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof’. The 15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th Amendments to the Constitution provided that rights to vote would not be denied in given circumstances but the laws and processes of elections themselves came within the purview of the states.

Rule by majority is a tenet of democratic societies, yet there was nothing in the Constitution itself to confirm the principle of ‘one man, one vote’, leaving a gap for machine politicians to exploit. At his trial in 1871, Boss Tweed of infamous Tammany Hall said: ‘The fact is New York politics were always dishonest. There never was a time when you couldn’t buy the Board of Aldermen’.[2] Tweed gave a detailed account of corrupt election practices, including ballot box stuffing which, he said, ‘could not have been more brazen’.[3] At least the nineteenth century tactic of ‘cooping’, ‘where citizens were often press-ganged off the streets by political campaigners and forced to vote several times, whilst bribed with drinks and given new clothes to disguise their identities’ had disappeared from Missouri politics by the 1930s.[4]

Successful but unscrupulous machines dominated the local executive, legislative and judicial branches of their city governments, often leaving the press as the sole source of opposition. On average, there were twelve local newspapers serving Kansas City and Jackson County in the 1930s. This article comments on the reporting of elections by some of the local press during the decade. In doing so, it will briefly detail some Progressive reforms of election laws and their effect in machine-controlled cities and, in doing so, highlight the actions of two notorious 1930s machine bosses at election time. It will detail the varied, fraudulent and unlawful tactics used by the Kansas City Democratic Party machine to dominate elections locally, some of which witnessed excessive violence uncontrolled by the local authorities. The article will cite the manifold election laws available by 1930 to city and state authorities, laws designed to prevent corrupt election practices. It will note their successful use by federal judicial authorities against the Kansas City machine operatives when city, county and state judicial authorities failed to act. It will suggest reasons why the local press was ineffectual in preventing machine election wrongdoings and seek to explain why Kansas City voters may well have been complacent about such ineffectiveness.

The press was well represented in 1930s Kansas City. The reportage of five of the local newspapers is reviewed here. Four of them, The Kansas City American, The Kansas City Call, The Independence Examiner and The Missouri Democrat collectively accounted for less than ten per cent of weekly newspaper circulation. Moving from the smallest in sales to the largest in circulation terms, The American was a newspaper for the black Democrat community. It rarely covered local, white politics and was uncritical of the Democratic machine and its boss, Tom Pendergast. The Call was another newspaper for the black community which, too, made scant reference to politics. It had a Republican bias. The Examiner was a mildly pro-Democratic, daily newspaper serving the town of Independence, then some ten miles from Kansas City. (It is now a suburb). The Examiner generally followed principles of fair and balanced reporting, although it was both partisan and Democrat. It had a heavy slant on politics and was a strong advocate of clean elections. The Democrat was entirely partisan, both in its reporting and editorials. For this newspaper, the Democrats could do no wrong and the Republicans no right. The Democrat was overwhelmingly pro-Pendergast and was possibly financed and, indeed, owned by him.

The fifth newspaper to be reviewed, The Kansas City Star, enjoyed a national reputation for fair and balanced reporting. It was pro-Republican but nowhere near as partisan as The Democrat. The Star, whose circulation usually exceeded 250,000 copies daily and accounted for approximately 90% of newspaper sales in the Kansas City area, was respected for its encouragement and support of clean elections.

In the late nineteenth century, Progressives commenced their campaign seeking to nullify corrupt electoral practices by democratizing and reforming government. Changes, such as appointments of election boards were advocated. Election boards were agencies, administered by the state, for the conduct of state elections and the conduct of county election boards. Another significant Progressive reform was the direct primary. Primaries, namely the nomination of candidates for office by the vote of party members, were sought to replace the system whereby only a small proportion of voters attended local caucuses or precinct meetings that sent delegates to county, state or national conventions. In theory, the old system allowed seasoned leaders to sift candidates but, in practice, political professionals dominated the selection process.

Missouri adopted both election board and primary election laws in 1907. The election board law’s effectiveness became limited as a result of machine control. It had been hoped that the direct primary election law would give party members a greater say in the selection process. Regrettably, another ‘law’, that of unintended consequences, soon applied. Raymond Wolfinger observed: ‘The elections most important to organization politicians were obscure primaries held on ward level. Issue-oriented “amateurs” seldom made sufficient strength in those elections’.[5] Edward Banfield and James Wilson agreed that the votes most crucial to a machine were those cast in primaries. ‘In primaries, the machine does not ask the voter to forsake normal party allegiance. Turnout is lower than in general elections, so the votes to be controlled are fewer’.[6] Through the primary system, not only were machine bosses able to choose their slate of candidates lawfully but they would also be assured of easy victories in the primaries themselves. By the 1930s, machine control was solid. A June, 1932, editorial in The Examiner summed up the position:

Candidates in the August primary for US Congress are generally unknown to the average voter. The Kansas City slate vote will probably be sufficient to elect thirteen Democratic candidates. In Jackson County, the only interest lies in votes for state officials. Here the vote is already practically determined.[7]

The voters of any state which adopted primary election laws had the opportunity to vote on four occasions biennially. At the beginning of an election year, primary elections would be held for city and county offices. The election proper would be held in the spring. In August or September, another primary election would be held for state and national office with the election proper in November. Both city and county elections were of paramount important to a machine. A loss in these elections would signify to the local populace a severe reduction of that machine’s power and the boss’s influence. State and national elections were not as important for the machine, although they demonstrated the organization’s ability to elect party candidates, according to the boss a greater standing in the national party.

Some city bosses were visible, especially at election time. Frank Hague, mayor of Jersey City for thirty years between 1917 and 1947, took four basic steps in almost every one of the eight mayoral elections he fought. First, he would announce both his candidacy and the ticket slate at a New Year’s Day reception, thus gaining more publicity than normal in the local press. Second, he would announce a reduction in the local property tax, presumably a popular move in the earlier elections he contested but, probably, thereafter, both a predictable and cynical gambit. Third, he would ‘tune up’ the Democratic organization for the campaign. Ward and precinct leaders would be encouraged to increase their personnel, as voters received regular, personal approaches and offers of help from the Hague organization. Fourth, a central theme would be presented by Hague to both the organization and the public which would be followed through with civic and religious celebrations, for example an ‘Americanization Day’ parade. Endorsements would be received from local newspapers such as The Jersey Journal and The Hudson Dispatch, habitually accompanied by favourable editorials. There would be frequent canvasses of voters and, at the end of the campaign, nightly rallies.

Other bosses, such as Pendergast, adopted a low profile at election time, leaving publicity to others. Unlike Hague, who welcomed the hustings as a sign of personal power, Pendergast shunned the limelight. He ceased to stand for election in Kansas City after 1922, when he signalled his political availability solely as Chairman of the Kansas City Democratic Party Committee. Yet even Pendergast, on occasion, took a leaf out of Hague’s book. In the 1934 City election, The Star reported in January that ‘Pendergast opened the City campaign with a forecast of overwhelming victory in an appearance that was contrary to custom’.[8]

Regardless of their public election stance, bosses like Pendergast and Hague would not leave the outcome of a city or county election to the whims of electors. It was far too important for the maintenance of machine business to leave such matters to democracy. If a machine was not in power, it would not be able to carry out the myriad transactions it needed to fuel its business, as well as making profits for its major stakeholders.

F. A. Hermens suggested probable tactics when he wrote: ‘Wire pullers of machines sometimes use subtle methods to achieve their aims. A frequent device of machine control is election tampering. Subtle is preferred to crude’.[9] Harold Gosnell was far more direct: ‘Frauds in American elections, particularly primaries, are committed with the help or collusion of election boards’.[10] Gosnell’s reference to election boards was insufficient. He should also have been critical of election judges, who were members of the local machine, chosen to referee disputes and disagreements at polling stations and whose impartiality was invariably doubtful.

In his study of political corruption in America, George Benson took the view that corrupt machine politics became ‘the dominant pattern of government for American cities after the last quarter of the nineteenth century’.[9] Benson’s study of election fraud led him to believe that most frauds occurred in areas of one-party dominance, especially in the poorest wards and precincts, and that party primaries, more than general elections, were the ‘principal stage on which tricks and dodges of election fraud were worked’.[10] Such a paradigm fitted well with both the Pendergast and Hague machines. By the 1930s, voting frauds appeared to have become systemic, in that their practice was probably widespread throughout American cities dominated by machines. The similarity in the nature of election frauds, as practised in both Kansas City and Jersey City, are unlikely to have been coincidental. Some frauds were brutal, others sophisticated, but all broke election law.

The nature of voting frauds interacted within three main headings: administration, conduct of campaigns and money. Fraud in the administration of elections and voter registration was multifaceted. It could take the form of bullying, with threats to businessmen concerning their workplaces or future tax investigations, to ensure their support. Civil disorder and intimidation was used by machine operatives with threatened or actual violence outside polling stations.

The 1934 City election witnessed an outbreak of violence, unprecedented even for Kansas City politics. A level of violence was anticipated by The Star in February, 1934: ‘Election officials estimate that 75,000 persons would register today, breaking all records. The New Youth Movement was on the job early. No clashes were reported’. However, The Star reported subsequently that the Citizens Movement (the re-named National Youth Movement) had requested President Roosevelt to intervene in the city election to insure its honesty and to have 500 national guardsmen sent to Kansas City ‘to respond to intimidation, beatings and kidnapping’.

Presumably, Roosevelt denied the request (if indeed it was passed to him) because he assumed the federal government had no authority or jurisdiction in such matters. In any event, he was preoccupied with other problems. As for the Kansas City authorities, it is reasonable to assume they were unduly influenced by the Democratic organization into deciding to take no action. The Star continued the story in March, 1934, reporting that Johnny Lazia, a leader of organized crime and a Pendergast lieutenant, was heading a private army to terrorize and intimidate supporters of the Citizens Movement. Neither the federal nor the Kansas City authorities intervened.

The 1934 violence reached its height on Election Day. In a three page story on 27th March, 1934, The Star reported that a ‘negro Democratic precinct captain’ had been shot by polling station raiders and that another Democratic captain had been wounded. Also, a Star reporter, Justin Bowerstock, was physically attacked in a major breakdown of law and order. The Examiner reported in similar fashion. By the following day, The Star headlined that four victims had been shot dead in the election and that two 16th Ward Democratic leaders would be arrested. The Democrat’s preposterous spin on the course of events was that ‘the attempted assassination of the city’s good name was an attempt to destroy the Democratic Party’.[11] The resignation of Director of Police Eugene Reppert on 29th March, 1934, indicated the comprehensive failure, and possibly unwillingness, of the Kansas City Police Department to cope with the scale of the crisis.

Any expectation that Kansas City elections would be peaceful after the events of 1934 were spoiled two years later, when in September, 1936, The Star reported that fist fights and disturbances broke out on the second day of registration in Kansas City. If nothing else, the volatility of elections in Kansas City in the Pendergast era, coupled with physical intimidation, cannot be doubted. The situation was exacerbated by the Kansas City Police Department’s failure to act to end the violence.

Intimidation was not limited to physical violence. Money in elections has proved a thorn in America’s political side for decades. Today in America, there is routine circumvention of campaign finance laws through mechanisms such as Political Action Committees. In the 1930s, there was no campaign finance legislation. Machine operatives were free to seek or extort contributions from local businessmen. In addition, the Pendergast machine required ‘voluntary’ contributions from persons whose jobs with the city depended on the boss’s patronage, in order to finance elections. In a front page story in February, 1934, The Star reported how ‘the Democratic organization has directed a levy against almost 4,000 City Hall and courthouse job holders to produce a campaign chest in excess of $100,000’. The article set out scales of contributions payable by city employees, including a levy of 10% of salaries from those earning more than $3,600 per annum. The machine characterised the contributions as ‘voluntary’. Certainly, any employee who refused to pay the levy ran a serious risk of losing his or her job. It is likely that contributions of this nature were exacted every two years during the 1930s to fund the Pendergast political campaign chest.

Illegal voting methods included ‘ghosting’, where names appeared on the electoral roll, even though such persons were ineligible to vote. Such practices did not go unnoticed. In the 1934 Kansas City election, the National Youth Movement used cameras to record ‘ghosts’, according to a Star story. There was also ‘repeating’, ‘personation’ and ‘endless chain’, i.e., voters would falsely register themselves to vote, or vote more than once through the use of false names and impersonation of others, or were bribed to vote more than once. The scale of such offences in Kansas City prompted media castigation. In a February, 1934, editorial, The Star alleged:

Registration is out of proportion to previous registrations and there will be large numbers of strike-offs. This is not the time for wholesale challenges that have constituted abuses in the past. Vigilance is needed so every qualified Kansas City voter can vote.

A few days later, The Star reported that more than 88,000 votes were struck off by the Election Board, following a supplemental registration of 95,000. The numbers involved were staggering, indicating the zeal of machine operatives to prove their worth to their superiors by registering large numbers of voters, regardless of legality.

No adverse mention was made in The Star’s February, 1934, editorial of the part played by the Democratic machine, presumably because there was inadequate evidence, often the case in The Star’s reporting. However, writing on the election proper, The Star alleged in a headline story that an Election Board inquiry heard evidence that voters were being paid by Democratic machine operatives as they left polling stations. Money may not only have greased the vote but also have assisted Nelsonian views by Election Board officials, as voting offences were ignored. The Star reported on 13th March, 1934: ‘The police witnessed what was happening and did nothing’. Summing up the election in July, 1934, The Star alleged that more ballots were counted than voters registered, ‘the rankest kind of election illegality’.

Illegal conspiracies occurred when election judges would collude with machine operatives to alter ballot papers, or to indulge in ‘ballot-box stuffing’, namely adding pre-marked ballots to completed ballot papers, or in false counting of votes and false certification of results. Maurice Milligan, U.S. District Attorney for West Missouri, writing about the 1936 state and national elections, told of an eye witness account of ‘the receiving election judge lifting ballots from the box and slipping them unseen to an associate who, in secrecy, changed them to suit the known wishes of the Pendergast machine’. As mentioned below, the outrages of the 1936 elections led to prosecutions of Pendergast’s people.

Fraudulent practices, better known as ‘dirty tricks’, were rife in the conduct of election campaigns in the 1930s. The dirty tricks included espionage and sabotage, the former exemplified by diversion of mail, the latter in planting awkward questions and causing disorder at public meetings. Machines indulged in ‘voter misinformation’, including blackening candidates’ reputations with believable lies. In the 1930 City election, the Republican City Committee took a full page advertisement in The Call in March, 1930, saying that the Democrats had spread lies about Republican candidates, for example that the candidate for mayor was president of a failed Improvement Association.[12] In November, 1930 in the run up to the 1930 state election, Kansas City Republican Mayor Beach, alleged, without any supporting evidence, that city administrators had used intimidation tactics so that Ready Mixed Concrete, a Pendergast corporation, would receive city building contracts. These exchanges may have been greeted with glee in the editors’ suites but they did nothing to further the cause of electoral reform.

Newspaper commentary surrounding claims and counter claims relating to election frauds was widespread throughout the 1930s, commensurate with the high levels of abuse. Naturally, partisanship played its part. In November, 1930, The Democrat reported on efforts by the Republicans to disqualify Democratic voter registrations in the Congressional election: ‘The blunder of the campaign was the Republican affidavits hitting hundreds of legitimate voters. Instantly, the Democratic machine took up the fraud cry, crushing the Republicans’. The Democrat took up the story of election fraud again in the 1932 City election. In May it reported of public comment by Republican Governor Caulfield that the Kansas City primary election would be stolen. The Democrat editorial stated: ‘For twenty years, Republicans have been crying fraud but the evidence is that the crooked work has been done by Republicans’.

The false registration scandal continued through 1936. In an editorial that September, The Star asserted, ‘on the face of total registrations for Kansas City, numbers are suspiciously high, some 50% of the population’. Sometimes, the press itself issued warnings, as when The Star wrote in August, 1932: ‘Missouri voters will find trouble in the primary because of numbers on the ballot. If names not voted are not crossed out, the ballots will be invalid for the office concerned’.

The essential problem with all such newspaper allegations was their factual content. Nothing was provable in law. Securing evidence for a successful prosecution would have been problematic when potential witnesses could have been bribed or intimidated. Thus newspaper allegations were ineffectual. Ultimately, it took a federal grand jury in 1937 and 1938 to turn matters around and convict the guilty.

As indicated above, between 1930 and 1939, the Kansas City press printed numerous stories and editorials about election fraud and reform. In a March, 1930, editorial, The Examiner called for the use of voting machines ‘to make it harder to steal elections’. In October, 1930, The Call offered a reward of $100 for evidence proving fraud in the State election.

During the 1932 city election, independent campaigner Rabbi Samuel Mayerberg’s accusations of city mismanagement and election fraud were aired in the local newspapers. The press continued to report on fraud in the 1934 elections, as demonstrated in The Star’s editorial in July, 1934, which asserted that The Civil Research Institution study of the city election found that more ballots were counted than voters registered. Concern about election fraud in Missouri spread eastwards. It was aired in The New York Times, which reported in May, 1936, that ‘Works Progress Administration politics in Missouri, dominated by the Pendergast machine, have reached the point where persons are denied relief unless they permit their ballots to be marked by Democratic politicians’.[13]

Given that the practice of election fraud was widespread throughout Kansas City, it might seem surprising that no substantial steps were taken by the enforcement authorities before 1936 to challenge the wrongdoings. In October, 1936, The Citizens League of Kansas City demanded that Governor Guy Park take action to clean up vote conditions in Kansas City. This seems to have been the limit of citizen action and nothing resulted from the demand. In 1936, The Star commenced a strong but misdirected campaign against fraudulent election practices of the Democratic machine.

The thrust of The Star’s complaints related to fraudulent registration practices and intimidation. The problem was summarised in a Star editorial of August, 1936, which asserted that ‘many political workers were in fear of losing their jobs if they became known as protesters’. In the run up to the 1936 state election, The Star increased its reportage. On 4th September, 1936, it asked: ‘What action does Stark propose to take on election frauds, given the degree of dishonesty?’ Shortly before election day, The Star reported that Kansas City was approaching the election with thousands of ghosts on the book lists:

The circuit court, designed to safeguard citizens’ right to vote, has been invaded by the system and legitimate voters are outnumbered by ghosts. The fraud system is thoroughly organized by the Democratic machine.

While examples of The Star’s campaign, occasionally supported by The Examiner, have already been mentioned, The Democrat, The American and The Call failed to comment upon the flagrant breaches of election law. Moreover, the effectiveness of The Star’s campaign has to be questioned. Despite its weekly and sometimes daily complaints of fraud against the Pendergast machine, nothing was done by the local political or state legal authorities to end the fraudulent practices until the federal grand jury probes commenced in December, 1936. The involvement of federal authorities is testament to the scale of electoral problems in Kansas City and Jackson County, the need for outside powers to deal with them and the failure of city, county and state authorities to act.

Bearing in mind that The Star’s editors and proprietors would have been well connected in Kansas City, perhaps the answer to the delay in taking legal action to curb machine fraudulent election practice lay in the very nature of the campaign conducted by the Star, one in which the complaints were so repetitive. The many stories and editorials were usually based on generalities, not hard fact. Possibly, The Star proprietors may have been concerned about the damage that might be caused to the newspaper’s business in Kansas City by an ineffective prosecution, not merely in falls in circulation but by advertiser withdrawals. Either way, The Star cannot validly claim credit for the actions of the federal grand jury in 1937 and 1938 in its evidential findings which led to successful prosecutions against members of the Pendergast machine.

Effectively, the legal authorities in both Kansas City and the state capitol ignored what was happening in Kansas City elections until after the 1936 state and national elections. The delay cannot have been caused through insufficient legal provisions to enable prosecutions. By 1929, the state of Missouri had a comprehensive set of election laws on its statute books, sufficient to prevent most, if not all, of the voter frauds and abuses perpetrated by the Democratic machine. The many election laws available to prosecutors under Chapter 61 of the Missouri Statutes included:

Article 4, Section 10239: Making fraudulent returns—penalty:

Any judge, clerk or teller of any primary election held by any political party in this state, who shall make or return a fraudulent statement of the result of such election shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanour.

Article 5, Section 10269: Who entitled to vote:

No person shall be entitled to vote at any primary unless a qualified elector of the precinct and duly registered therein, if registration thereat be required by law, and known to affiliate with the political party named at the head of the ticket.

Article 7: Section 10333: Voter guilty of misdemeanour—when—penalty:

Any person having in his possession any official ballot, except in the performance of his legal duty as an election official, and except in the act of exercising his individual voting privilege shall upon conviction be adjudged guilty of a felony and punished by imprisonment in the penitentiary not less than two years and not more than five years.

Article 14: Section 10473-10475: Who deemed guilty of bribery:

S. 10473: The following persons shall be deemed guilty of bribery at elections and shall be punishable accordingly: First—to give, lend or to agree to give or lend…any money or valuable consideration to or for any voter…to vote or refrain from voting…at any election. Second—every person who shall…give…any office, place or employment to any person…for voting or refraining from voting at any election. Third—gifts , loans, etc to induce the election of a person to public office.

Article 14: Section 10476: Use of threats or violence:

Use of, or threat to make use of violence, etc to compel or induce persons to vote orimpede or prevent voting is prohibited.

Article 14: Section 10480: Personation of another:

Any person shall, for all purposes of this article, be deemed guilty of the offence of personation, who at any election…applies for a ballot in the name of some other person, whether that name be that of a person living or dead, or of a fictitious person, or who having voted once at any election, applies at the same election for a ballot in his own name or any other name, and any person committing the offence or aiding and abetting, etc shall be guilty of a felony.

Article 15: Section 10526: Illegal registrations.

No person shall register in any election precinct other than the one in which he or she resides at the time of registration.

In addition, prosecutors could avail themselves of the provisions of Chapter 30 of the Missouri Statutes:

Article 7: Section 4243: Conspiracy.

If two or more persons shall agree, conspire, combine or confederate: First, to commit any offence; or second, falsely or maliciously to indict another for any offence, or procure another to be charged or arrested for any offence; or, third, falsely or maliciously to move or maintain any suit; or, fourth, to cheat and defraud any person of any money or property, by means which are themselves criminal; or, fifth, to cheat and defraud any person of any money or property by any means which, if executed, would amount to a cheat, or to obtaining money or property by false pretences; or sixth, to commit any act injurious to the public health or public morals, or for the perversion or obstruction of justice, or the due administration of the laws—they shall be guilty of a misdemeanour.

Article 7: Section 4244: What shall constitute conspiracy in certain cases.

No agreement, except to commit a felony upon the person of another, or to commit arson or burglary, shall be deemed a conspiracy, unless some act besides such agreement shall be done to affect the object thereof, by one or more of the parties to such agreement.

Article 7: Section 4431:

Any person or firm, or any person who is an officer or representative of any corporation, who shall conspire or enter into any form of collusion or combination with any other person or firm or with any other person who is an officer or representative of any corporation, for the purpose of restricting bids or limiting the number of bidders on any contract for the construction of a state highway, or levee or drainage ditch, or public building shall be deemed guilty of a felony, and on conviction shall be punished by imprisonment in the penitentiary for not more than five years and not less than two years, etc.

These provisions were available to both state and local prosecutors during the 1930s, yet no prosecutions of note were commenced until 1937, when the federal grand jury brought thirty nine indictments of election fraud against 278 Kansas City Democratic machine defendants, of whom 259 were convicted. The facts of the prosecutions are available both in primary source material contained in contemporaneous press reports and in the 1948 hindsight account of US District Attorney Maurice Milligan.[14] Given the reputation of The Star for fair and balanced reporting, even though partisan and Republican, their press reports are probably accurate.

However, whilst the factual account by Milligan may well be truthful, one cannot ignore his bias against both Pendergast and his organization. For example, in writing about the 1934 elections, Milligan asserted that ‘Pendergast would not be satisfied until he had his own Senator in Washington’, implying that Pendergast wanted a puppet, Harry Truman, as a US Senator. Milligan had an axe to grind.[15] His brother, Jacob, was defeated by Truman in the 1934 US Senate primary election. Truman was not Pendergast’s first choice for this office. Pendergast’s three prior choices for the U. S. Senate turned down the offer for various reasons. As such, Milligan cannot cite Truman’s selection per se as evidence of Pendergast’s ‘ownership’ of a US Senator. Moreover, Truman’s record in Washington gives the lie to Milligan’s assertion that he was Pendergast’s puppet.

Nevertheless, Milligan’s views on the importance of an honest vote were clear: ‘I state one of my deepest convictions that when you corrupt my neighbour’s ballot, you corrupt mine. When you destroy the right of free men to cast an honest vote, you strike at the heart of democracy’.[16] Such sentiments help to explain the zeal with which the prosecutions of Pendergast’s people were conducted by Milligan.

The story of the federal grand jury investigation broke in the press in December, 1936, when The Star reported that ‘Federal Judge Reeves has ordered a new federal grand jury to investigate alleged fraud in the Kansas City vote in November’. The following day, The Examiner’s editorial called for punishment of those involved in crooked elections, as well as asking for an exposure of those election laws which were weak. Strangely, The Star went quiet on the story, whilst The Democrat responded with stories of Republican wrongdoings. It stated, for example, in December, 1936, Kansas City employees had been threatened with job losses unless they voted for Alf Landon, the presidential nominee. This was an unlikely and biased assertion. The vast majority of Kansas City employees owed their jobs to Democratic machine patronage and would hardly have voted Republican.

Once the election fraud trials started, The Star reported regularly whilst The Democrat and The Examiner ignored the prosecutions, no doubt because of their embarrassing content. Occasionally, the reporting was dramatic, such as the story of 2nd February, 1938, when Judge Reeves, sentencing seven people in the tenth fraud trial, described an electoral reign of terror in Kansas City. The Star’s editorial the following day was illuminating:

In sentencing yesterday, Judge Reeves pointed to conditions which honest citizens would not tolerate. Also, fear on the part of businessmen that their plants would be damaged, tax assessments raised, espionage, threatening phone calls and other harassment all deprived citizens of rights.

The best The Democrat could say in a weak editorial response days later was that Reeves had imposed ‘a cruel and unusual punishment’ because he had been told privately of the reign of terror in Kansas City and that the judge himself was intimidated. This assertion flies in the face of the evidence given in court against machine defendants.

Whilst many lower level officials of the Pendergast organization were prosecuted, higher-ups were caught too. For example, Frances Ryan, a 12th ward captain, was sentenced to three years gaol. As The Star reported on 15th November, 1938, ‘[Mrs Ryan] was an arch-conspirator and dominated the precinct’. Most defendants were fined. Pendergast’s reaction was to ensure the Democratic organization paid all fines and court fees for the defendants and to place on salary those incarcerated during their prison terms, at enormous cost to the organization. The damage to the Democratic machine had been done. Although the Democrats won the 1938 elections, by 1940 Pendergast had been jailed for federal income tax evasion, the Democratic organization was in disarray and election reform provisions relating to voter registration were on the Missouri statute book.

The Star first called for election reform in earnest in June, 1936, seeking a new permanent registration law. The suggestion was echoed by The Examiner and The Call. Throughout, both The Democrat and The American remained silent on election reform. However, it was not until 1938 that state reform looked feasible. A Star editorial in January, 1938, stated: ‘The most important business before Kansas City is honest elections. The state controlled Election Board is returning the ballot to citizens’. Shortly thereafter, the state Congress set up machinery for new registration laws, requiring formal applications by potential voters if they wished to register. As The Star wrote in its editorial of 25th July, 1938, ‘Governor Stark kept his pledge for honest elections in Missouri. The governor did not appoint an Election Board to suit the local Democratic organization’.

Apart from personality issues and the day-to-day infighting of elections, the local Kansas City press hardly reported at all on local policy issues affecting Kansas Citizens. The new Kansas City Charter received adequate press attention in 1925 but very little reportage thereafter as to its workings. Henry McElroy, the Kansas City town manager, generally received favourable press throughout his term of employment, except in relation to his connection with Pendergast. McElroy was often praised, wrongly as it turned out, for his management abilities.

Likewise, there was very little publicity, if at all, surrounding the various city departments, whose directors reported to McElroy. Occasionally, there might be an adverse story about, for example, the Parks and Recreation Department because it related to personal use made of a public utility by a councilman. Most reporting of local policy issues related to Kansas City Police Department and the home rule versus state rule debate.

The lack of stories about policy for Kansas City could only have resulted from either the press being disinterested, or that Kansas City policies were little different to those of other cities and that Kansas City departments were managed well. In such event, the voters of Kansas City were well served by public officials, notwithstanding the uncertainty surrounding the validity of the elections of the political masters, but arguably not well served by the press. 

Given the breadth of election laws available to prosecutors before 1937 and given that the campaign of The Star concerning election fraud commenced in earnest in 1936, it is difficult to explain the reluctance of the authorities at state level to challenge the might of the Pendergast machine. Those at city level who were in a position to prosecute Pendergast officers may be excused because they owed their jobs and livelihoods to Pendergast. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that those at city level who might have had the power to effect change did not bite the hand that fed them. Such an excuse is not available to those at state level. Possibly, the failure is attributable to cowardice, to a fear of intimidation and physical reprisal if the machine was challenged, as well as the withdrawal of Pendergast patronage to Congressional members from Kansas City and Jackson County. More likely it was a combination of two factors. First, it was the failure of political will, meaning ‘the commitment to which those in a position of leading others are determined to devote energy, efforts and resources to fight corruption’.[17] Second, perhaps many Kansas City and Jackson County voters were not bothered about damage to their franchise. They were far more concerned about the services provided by the machine which might be impaired if the machine was not in power. Whatever the case, the Pendergast organization found a way to dominate elections systematically and unlawfully in Kansas City for a decade or more.

University of Birmingham


[1] David R. Colburn and George E. Pozzetta, ‘Bosses and Machines: Changing Interpretations in American History’, The History Teacher, 9:3 (May, 1976), 445-463 (p. 446).

[2] Fred J. Cook, American Political Bosses and Machines (New York: Franklin Watts Inc, 1993), p. 12.

[3] Ibid., p. 13.

[4] ‘Fresh clues could solve the mystery of Poe’s death’, The Observer, 21 October, 2007, p. 42.

[5] Raymond Wolfinger, ‘Why Political Machines Have Not Withered Away and Other Revisionist Thoughts’, The Journal of Politics, 34:2 (May, 1972), 365-398 (p. 367).

[6] Edward C. Banfield and James Q. Wilson, City Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), p. 117.

[7] ‘The Primary Ballots’. The Independence Examiner 4th June, 1932, p. 4. Courtesy of Special Collections at University of Missouri, Columbia.

[8] ‘We’ll Win Again’. The Kansas City Star. 27th January, 1934, p. 1. Courtesy of Special Collections at University of Missouri, Columbia.

[9] F. A. Hermens, ‘Exit The Boss’, The Review of Politics, 2:4 (October, 1940), 385-404 (p. 389).

[10] Harold F. Gosnell, ‘The Political Party versus the Political Machine’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 169, ‘The Crisis of Democracy’, (September, 1933), 21-28 (p. 25).

[9] George C. S. Benson, Political Corruption in America (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath & Co, 1978), p. 109.

[10] Ibid., p. 33.

[11] ‘The Democratic Victory’. The Missouri Democrat. 30th March, 1934, p. 4. Courtesy of Special Collections at University of Missouri, Columbia.

[12] ‘Exposing Lies’. The Kansas City Call. 21st March, 1930, p. 3. Courtesy of Special Collections at University of Missouri, Columbia.

[13] ‘Urges a Clean-Up of Missouri WPA’. The New York Times. 23rd May, 1936, p. 4. Courtesy of Special Collections at University of Missouri, Columbia.

[14] Maurice Milligan, Missouri Waltz (New York: Charles Schreibner’s Sons, 1948).

[15] Ibid., p. 150.

[16] Op. cit., p. 239.

[17] Speech made by Miria R. K. Matembe, Ugandan Minister of State for Ethics and Integrity, on 29 May, 1993. Available at URL: [accessed 5th May, 2004].