Alderman Jim Pendergast
Dorsett, Lyle Wesley
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James Pendergast came to Kansas City in 1876 from St. Joseph, Missouri. After working for several years as a laborer, Pendergast entered the saloonkeeping business in the West Bottoms, the heart of Kansas City's industrial and commercial district. He became interested in local politics soon after coming to Kansas City. An extremely generous man, Pendergast, who was always helping the needy, became popular with the Irish, Italian and native American laborers who inhabited the West Bottoms. In 1892, the working class dwellers in the First Ward, which encompassed tbe West Bottoms, elected James Pendergast to the lower house of the city council. Alderman Jim, as Pendergast became known, was re-elected eight times in succession to the lower house from the First Ward. Between his first election in 1892, and his retirement from politics in 1919, Pendergast reigned supreme in the First Ward. His political power, however, transcended the boundaries of the First Ward which he represented in the city council. Alderman Jim's popularity and political adeptness helped him extend his political machine from its base in the West Bottoms, into the North end. By the turn of the century, Jim Pendergast had established himself as the boss of a large area of Kansas City. He sometimes used the large number of votes which he controlled to further his own interests. However, he often threw his political strength on the side of the reformers, to further the general interests of Kansas City. At times Pendergast's devotion to the general welfare of Kansas City was detrimental to his own financial interests, for he was no corrupt, self-seeking politician like so many bosses who wielded their power during the same period. The significance of a study of James Pendergast lies in the fact that he does not fit the stereotype of the "typical" political boss that has been depicted by so many writers. Unlike many city bosses during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there is no evidence that Pendergast was ever in the ranks of the boodlers and grafters who sold their votes when the price was right. Likewise Pendergast was on the side of the reformers on many important municipal issues, not at loggerheads with them as the stereotype often portrays city bosses. James Pendergast also merits study because of the extremely important role he played in putting his younger brother, Thomas J. Pendergast, on the road to political domination of Kansas City. Alderman Jim was the most powerful boss in Kansas City between 1892 and 1910. During those years, the saloonkeeper put Tom Pendergast to work within the organization, and taught him every aspect of managing a political machine. When Jim Pendergast retired from local politics in 1910, Tom Pendergast was well trained by his brother to assume the leadership of the Pendergast machine. From that base created by Alderman Jim, Tom Pendergast was able to build a larger organization, which ultimately enabled him to become as powerful in Kansas City as "Boss" Tweed had been in New York.
Table of Contents
From whence the leader emerged -- King of the First -- Boss of the West Bottoms and North End -- The twilight years and the James Pendergast legacy