Some of Kansas City’s most colorful—and controversial—history is at your fingertips.
The Library recently launched its newest historical website, The Pendergast Years: Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression, a trove of thousands of photos, letters, and related documents illuminating the wide-open era of the 1920s and ’30s when “Boss Tom” Pendergast ruled city politics. Corruption was rampant. Violence, stoked by Prohibition, was commonplace.
It intersected with the emergence of the Kansas City jazz scene, the far-reaching impact of the city’s fashion industry, and other cultural and economic achievements heralding a golden age. Life here was nothing if not interesting.
“A lot of these subjects, even though they’re prominent, they haven’t had an original scholarly treatment in 20 years—or 40 years in some cases,” says Jason Roe, the Library’s digital history specialist.
The Pendergast site fills that void, drawing materials from archives across the area and commissioning an array of scholarly essays on topics of the day ranging from race relations to the paradox of developer J.C. Nichols.
The hundreds of accompanying images are intoxicating. A young man, wearing a beret, sits jauntily atop one of the stone lions at the Thomas H. Swope Memorial in Kansas City’s Swope Park. It’s Walt Disney. Count Basie leans back from a piano at the old Street’s Blue Room, one hand holding a cigarette, the other working the keys.
A succession of robbers, murderers, and other open-town miscreants stare out from mug shots and prison photos, among them an aging Pendergast in 1939 at the start of his 15-month sentence in the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan. His reign in KC had come to an inglorious end.
Among the scanned documents on the website is a two-page letter from future president Harry S. Truman to his wife Bess, written a week after Easter in 1933 and referencing a conversation with an associate identified only as “T.J.” That was Pendergast, whose support of the onetime haberdasher from Independence had been critical to Truman’s election and then re-election as presiding judge of the Jackson County Court.
“He told me to do as I pleased with the county payroll, make the adjustments I wanted to, and he'd put the organization in line behind me,” Truman said in his neat penmanship. “He also told me that I could be Congressman or collector. Think of that awhile. ... I have an opportunity to be a power in the nation as Congressman.”
The letter itself is housed in the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.
The Pendergast Years website follows in the footsteps of the Library’s highly successful Civil War site, civilwaronthewesternborder.org, which has drawn more than half a million visits since it launched in August 2013 and won a raft of major awards including the Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History from the American Historical Association. Both underscore the scope of digital history resources available through the Library and its research-oriented Missouri Valley Special Collections.
“I think it’s somewhat unusual for a public library to have a robust, professional department devoted to special collections and making all of these resources available online,” says Roe, the editor for both history sites. “There are a few others doing comparable things but, really, they’re major urban libraries—the New York Public Library, (the Free Library of) Philadelphia.
“Universities, when they put out digital resources, sometimes gear them to smaller, scholarly audiences. I think when a public library puts something like this together, we have a sense for what the broader public might be interested in and how to contextualize digital collections with articles that are accessible.
“It’s still scholarly, but it’s ... easy to understand.”