5/25/12 - fraud, bloodshed, and votes

In today's excerpt - the long, hard road to democracy. Decades ago, and for most of its history, political corruption was endemic in America. And not just in Boss Tweed's old New York and the venal corridors of Tammany Hall, but also the towns of America's heartland. And although Harry Truman was as decent and fair as any American president, he got his start in the rampant fraud and bloodshed of Tom Pendergrast's Kansas City political machine:

"[Harry Truman] was not chosen because the people of Missouri wanted him to speak for them in the corridors of power; he was chosen instead because the Kansas City machine needed somebody to fill that office. But he was not Tom Pendergast's first choice for that purpose.

"Did Truman benefit from their ghost votes and repeat votes and riders and sleepers? The fraudulent voting practices of the Pendergast machine in the 1936 election were shown, by investigations after Pendergast's fall, to have been gargantuan. In his biography of Truman, Robert Ferrell has reported that a single house at 912 Tracy Street managed to produce 141 voters, and a vacant lot at 700 Main Street yielded 112 voters. The Second District, with a population of 18,478, brought in 19,202 votes for Pender­gast's ticket, to 12 (who could they have been?) for the opposition. The total Kansas City vote would have been possible legitimately only if the city had had 200,000 more adults than its actual population. Indeed, everything was up-to-date in Kansas City, they had gone about as far as they could go.

"That was in 1936, when the machine reached its apogee of power and seems to have lathered itself in heedless arrogance. Had it been true also in 1934, when Harry Truman was making his first bid for the Senate? Perhaps not on the grandiose scale of two years later, but Ferrell has reported that that dependable Second District gave him 15,145 votes, to 24 for his oppo­nent, and that when that district is joined to two other equally lopsided Kansas City districts, one can account for the entire margin by which Tru­man carried the state. His 'realistic' defense of his link to Pendergast's Kansas City organization might not win over every critic: that 'any politi­cian' who could do so would ally himself with an organization that con­trolled 100,000 votes.

"In the years that Truman was preparing to run for the Senate, Kansas City would come to the attention of the nation and the world because of the spectacular outrages committed by its underworld figures. ... Time magazine, on April 9, 1934, gave the follow­ing report on the municipal election in the city from which Harry Tru­man received his pivotal support, in the year in which he was elected senator:

'Sprawled across the sidewalk in front of a Kansas City polling place lay the body of William Findley, Negro election worker, blood on his face, a bullet in his brain. . . .

'Slumped in a heap lay Lee Flacy, deputy sheriff, pumped full of buckshot. . . .

'A mortal head wound crumpled Larry Cappo, sleek little gang­ster ... in the back of a wrecked sedan.

'A few doors away Pascal Oldham, 78, hardware merchant, was locking up his store when he turned to see a car flash by, to hear guns crackle. A stray bullet drilled clean through his head. . . .

'Slugged and beaten with blackjacks, brass knuckles, gun-butts and baseball bats were a housewife, a Kansas City Star newshawk, a can­didate for the City Council, a chauffeur, a policeman, and five other persons.

'Such was last week's score in Kansas City's municipal election. When blackjacks were pocketed and votes were counted, Kansas Citi­zens knew the worst: The Fusion attempt to break the rule of Boss Thomas Joseph ('Big Tom') Pendergast's Democratic machine had failed. Re-elected by a 59,566 plurality was Boss-backed Mayor Bryce Byram Smith, a mild-mannered baking company official in his spare time. Defeated was Dr. Albert Ross Hill, 64, anti-Boss Democrat, one­time (1908-20) president of the University of Missouri. . . .' "


William Lee Miller


Two Americans: Truman, Eisenhower, and a Dangerous World


Random House


Copyright 2012 by William Lee Miller


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