No name is more connected with Harry Truman’s rise to political power than “Pendergast.”
Tom Pendergast, the powerful “boss” of Kansas City, is most commonly associated with Truman. Less well-known are Tom’s brother, Mike, and Tom’s nephew, James M. “Jim” (Mike’s son), both of whom were more directly involved with Truman’s entry into politics than was Tom Pendergast.
In his memoirs, Truman recalled that Jim, a lieutenant, served with him in the 129th Field Artillery before being transferred to the 130th Field Artillery, where he commanded an artillery battery at the front during World War I. What Truman didn’t mention was his own role in defending Pendergast in a court-martial case involving deaths caused by a stove explosion at Camp Doniphan, in Oklahoma. After the war, Truman and Pendergast maintained their friendship through the American Legion.
One day in 1921 or 1922, Truman looked up from the counter of his men’s clothing store – or haberdashery – in downtown Kansas City and saw Jim and Mike Pendergast enter his store. Jim was a regular customer, but what made this visit unusual was Mike’s offer to Truman to run for judge of Eastern Jackson County, with Pendergast support.
As Jonathan Daniels related in “The Man from Independence,” “the whole world looked a little frayed” to Truman at that time in his life. An economic recession would soon end the haberdashery that Truman and his friend Eddie Jacobson began after World War I. Needing a job and finding one that satisfied his longtime interest in politics, Truman accepted Mike’s offer. In “Harry S. Truman,” author William Pemberton wrote that Jim Pendergast “convinced his father, Mike, to support Truman.”
As a veteran, Mason and Baptist with numerous social and family ties in Eastern Jackson County, Truman was an attractive candidate for the Pendergast machine. Truman later recalled that he didn’t meet Tom Pendergast until a few years later, when they discussed what office he should run for in 1926.
While Truman continued his rise in Jackson County politics, Jim Pendergast practiced law and became a banker in Kansas City. He and Truman remained politically close. In a letter that he wrote to Truman in 1958, Pendergast recalled that he had suggested Truman’s name for the U.S. Senate to his Uncle Tom, when another candidate declined.
After Tom Pendergast was sent to prison in 1939 because of income tax evasion, the Pendergast machine was in shambles. In an oral history interview that is available on the Truman Library’s website at https://www.trumanlibrary.org/oralhist/burrusr2.htm, Rufus Burrus, an Independence attorney, remembered that “it fell” to Jim Pendergast to take over the remnants of his uncle’s organization, which was called the Jackson Democratic Club.
Truman and Jim Pendergast maintained a friendly correspondence during Truman’s presidency. There were exchanges of birthday greetings and occasional requests from Pendergast concerning job appointments and matters such as the return of a soldier from Korea so he could visit his dying father.
In one case, it was President Truman who made a request of Jim Pendergast. In May 1946, the president sent a letter to him complaining that U.S. Congressman Roger Slaughter, a fellow Democrat from Truman’s home district in Missouri, had become “insufferable” to his administration and “obnoxious” to him because of his actions on the House Rules Committee. Truman, therefore, demanded his ouster in the Democratic primary.
To satisfy Truman, Pendergast put forward Enos Axtell to challenge Slaughter. Axtell won the primary in an election marred by ballot box stuffing in Axtell’s favor, which resulted in the indictments of 71 people. Those indictments were tossed out, however, when the evidence – the stuffed ballots themselves – were stolen from the Jackson County Courthouse. In the end, Axtell was defeated by a Republican in the general election of 1946.
In 1956, Jim Pendergast made a televised address in Kansas City. Truman introduced Pendergast, who talked about the subject of “Pendergastism,” a word he said no longer had meaning. He also brought up the subject of his late Uncle Tom and called for an end to partisanship in local politics. Ironically, two years later, Harry and Jim’s political disputes with each other damaged – but did not end – their friendship.
– Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.