Early 20th-century America was shadowed by the Mafia, mobsters and bosses who often ran entire cities behind closed doors. From Al "Scarface" Capone to Johnny "The Fox" Torrio, if there was an opportunity to wheel and deal, a boss was probably on site.

Kansas City had a big part in this history. Tom Pendergast was a political boss who controlled Kansas City and Jackson County from 1925 to 1939.

As chair member of the Jackson County Democratic Party, he used his network to help get certain politicians elected, sometimes through voter fraud, as well as to hand out government contracts and jobs. In fact, his machine was responsible for the political rise of Harry S. Truman.

Pendergast became a rich man over the years, but his horse racing habit almost bankrupted him. He was convicted of income tax evasion in 1939 and served 15 months in a federal prison. Diagnosed with colon cancer at the age of 64, he died in 1945 after living the rest of his life on Kansas City's Ward Parkway.

Although, like many bosses, he had his vices and alliances with criminals, he was also passionate about helping impoverished communities. For these reasons, the boss was a singular personality and difficult to categorize. 

On Kansas City's Gangster Tour, you'll get to explore the Tom Pendergast era along the city's mean streets. The tour explains how Pendergast and his crew ran the city and the business dealings they arranged.

The host, Johnny Holiday with some help from those at Gangster TV, guide the tour via video, audio and photography. Tours also get to visit sites with a rich history, including the speakeasies Pendergast and his crew frequented, as well as infamous murder scenes where Pendergast would manage his dirty work. 

The tour begins and ends at Union Station, and from start to finish, you'll learn the true meaning of a "wide-open town," often used in reference to Tom Pendergast and the role Kansas City played in shaping the nation. 

The Gangster Tour is Kansas City's longest running historical tour, celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2019. 

  • Community reporter, spring 2020 Studying magazine writing Reach me at fmhg97@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700

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