Lawrence H. Larsen & Nancy J. Hulston
More than a half-century after the death of Kansas City's notorious political boss, Thomas J. Pendergast, the Pendergast name still evokes great interest and even controversy. In this well-balanced biography, the authors examine Pendergast's rise to power, his successes as a political leader, his compassion for the destitute, and his reputation for keeping his word. They also examine Pendergast's character development and how his methods became more and more ruthless. Pendergast! will surely serve for years to come as the most thorough investigation of the life and infamous career of Tom Pendergast.
Q. There are plenty of political bosses to choose from, so why Pendergast specifically?
Thomas Pendergast has been referred to as the most powerful political boss in American history. He ran Kansas City as if it was his own personal business. Harry S. Truman was a high ranking machine official, nudged into high politics by Pendergast. While much had been written about Pendergast, there was no official biography. There was also no body of his papers in any repository.
Living in Kansas City gave us “backdoor” access to other collections of papers that contained considerable information, previously un-mined. For example, the James A. Reed papers in the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at UMKC proved a valuable resource. At the time we were writing the book, a number of people who knew Pendergast personally were still available. Additionally, while a good deal of legal and political information was available, personal information was lacking.
Q. Given that there is a tendency for people to either love or hate Pendergast was it hard to present an unbiased portrayal of him?
As professional historians it was easy to remain neutral and objective, which we feel we maintained throughout the project. To this day, there is hardly a week that goes by when Tom Pendergast is not mentioned in the media. And this is not necessarily negative – many remember him as doing a lot of good for the city.
Q. After all the research about Pendergast, do you see him in a positive or negative light?
On the negative side Pendergast ran what a federal judge once called a “hidden government”; he was openly allied with organized crime; and garnered as many as 60,000 “ghost voters,” to help win elections. On the positive side he basically kept Kansas city immune from the effects of the Great Depression, provided food and employment to those in need, and was largely a good husband and father (until the end).
Q. Was there anything particularly challenging about writing this book?
The lack of personal information was a challenge. With time-consuming perseverance, however, we were able to unearth a good deal of information. We received some help from family members who largely viewed him as a historical figure and successful city builder. The Notorious Offender Files, at the National Archives Central Plains Region, provided great material on the state of Pendergast’s health at the time of his incarceration at Leavenworth Prison. The James A. Reed Papers at UMKC gave insight into the family relationship with Harry Truman, and interviews with those who knew him shed light on his personal and social life.
Q. What would you like readers to take from this book?
We believe that every person is their own historian and should draw their own conclusions about Pendergast and his machine and whether or not he helped or hurt Kansas City in the long-run. The facts speak for themselves – during his downfall, at least 700 other machine operatives went with him, charged with state, local and federal crimes of various severity. We hope that readers enjoy the book and view us as objective and unbiased observers.
Q. What projects are you currently working on? When can we expect to see your next book?
Larry is finishing a complex manuscript on the development and characteristics of 63 gilded-age Midwest cities. Nancy continues to write on local medical history and develop historical exhibits for the Clendening History of Medicine Museum. She was recently given an appointment as associate professor in the history of medicine at KU Medical Center, and has just finished a paper on the first 12 women that graduated from the KU School of Medicine, 1905-1920.
--About the Authors--
Nancy Hulston is the director of the archives and museum at the University of Kansas Medical Center, has taught history, co-authored two books and written and published numerous articles on local history. Larry Larsen, retired UMKC history professor, has written and presented many articles and papers on history, and written a number of books, including A History of Missouri: Volume VI, 1953 to 2003 (University of Missouri Press).