Foreword: It should be no surprise that a number of whiskey men were involved in political life at the local and state level, nor that a few of them might have been embroiled in machine politics. Such men often had money, local influence and interests to be protected politically. It could be just a short step from there to being a machine “boss” or operative. Four such situations are chronicled here in American cities as diverse as Louisville, Denver, Memphis and Kansas City.
Louisville earned the title “Whiskey City” as the center of the Kentucky distilling industry, a place where many leading liquor producers and wholesalers operated. The Whallen Brothers, John Henry, shown left, and James Patrick, dominated politics in Louisville for many years as well as being whiskey men in their own right.
It was not their liquor trade, however, that thrust the Whallens into the political arena. It was the need to protect their entertainment business. They also were running the Buckingham Theater, shown below, with presentations featuring scantily-clad women who provided “female companionship” and off-stage services to male patrons. John immediately recognized that his theatrical enterprises would be under constant pressure from the more respectable elements in Louisville. Already with wealth and influence, the Whallens decided to flex some political muscle.
By the mid-1880s the upstairs “Green Room” in the Buckingham Theater had become the hub of local Democratic politics and John was dubbed the “Buckingham Boss.” Others called him “Boss John” and some “Napoleon.” In 1885 he engineered the election of Louisville’s mayor and for his efforts was rewarded with being named Chief of Police. No more surprise raids on Whallen theaters. One biography asserted that Whallen “... influenced every Louisville and statewide Kentucky election for the rest of his life. In addition to bribing officials and controlling assistance programs, at his peak Whallen controlled the awarding of 1,200 city patronage jobs.”
The Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Arthur Krock recalled Whallen’s dominance of Louisville politics in his memoirs, describing the Buckingham Green Room as “the political sewer through which the political filth of Louisville runs.” Not all in Louisville shared that attitude. John was noted for his charitable work, providing food to the out-of-work and assisting the poor. As a result he was popular among immigrants, blue collar workers, and Catholics. They saw him as their champion against the Louisville establishment.
When John died in 1913, the levers to the Whallen machine were handed to James, shown right. The brother, although he had been important in the rise of the family fortunes was unable to maintain the power of the political organization John had built. James lacked the charisma of his old brother and gradually the power of the Whallen political machine faded.
By contrast, Wolfe Londoner’s attempt at a political machine were very brief. A well-known liquor dealer and grocer, working from his four story building on Denver’s Arapahoe Street, Londoner had built a reputation as civic activist and decided to take that prestige into the political arena by running for mayor. His “machine” was composed of the city’s local saloon and gambling bosses, who wielded considerable political power in Denver. Londoner was seen as someone who would be sympathetic to their interests against a growing tide of prohibitionism and puritanism in Colorado.
His rowdy crowd of supporters provided Londoner with volunteers that included notorious Western gunslingers Bat Masterson, shown left, and Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith. Led by those “bad boys,” Londoner’s friends stuffed ballot boxes and traded drinks for votes at local saloons on election day. Londoner became Denver’s 20th mayor by a whopping 77 votes.
If Londoner had thoughts about creating any kind of permanent machine, however, they were soon dashed. Even before he could take office, opponents were filing charges against him. It took a while before the legal challenges could make their way through the courts and while they were, Londoner served more than a year as mayor, until forced by court orders to resign. He was Denver’s first Jewish mayor and the only mayor ever removed from office. Wolfe went back to his liquor trade.
Louis Sambucetti, shown falls into the category of machine operative. The child of immigrants, he grew up working in his mother’s saloon, perhaps fantasizing about becoming a wealthy and important figure in Memphis, Tennessee. He would find that path to fortune and recognition in the liquor trade and by cultivating influential friends. Among them was John T. Walsh, a grocer who had become a powerful political figure in Memphis, one known for being able to deliver the Irish vote. Seeing Sambucetti as a leader of a growing Italian population, Walsh brought him into his fold.
In 1906, when a Walsh crony was elected Mayor and Walsh himself was Vice Mayor and Fire and Police Commissioner, Sambucetti was selected to serve as one of several Memphis Supervisors of Public Works. Serving in the same capacity was E. H. Crump, whose rise from that post would be meteoric. In the second term for the Walsh ticket in 1908, Sambucetti had the same position, but Crump, shown right, now had been raised to Fire and Police Commissioner.
In 1911, Crump, right, obtained a self-serving state law abolishing the existing city government and establishing a small commission to manage Memphis, an arrangement he dominated as “Boss” Crump for the next fifty years. Sambucetti never held public office again. Initially his “godfather” John Walsh sided against Crump dooming any chances Louis might have had to stay in office. Seeing the newcomer’s hold on the city, John T. eventually capitulated and threw in with him, supporting Crump’s organization thereafter. Louis made a quick exit from politics and stuck to running his liquor business thereafter.
That brings us to one of the most notorious political bosses of American history — Thomas J. Pendergast. Some say that Tom Pendergast was just a Kansas City, Missouri, saloonkeeper and liquor dealer who came to the rescue of a failed clothing store proprietor. Others say he was a high powered political boss who helped make Harry Truman the 33rd President of the United States. Both are right.
For many years in the early 1900s Pendergast controlled Kansas City, historians say, much like a CEO controls a large corporation. Presenting himself as a businessman, he ran the city, providing jobs for the working population, choosing municipal and state leadership, and directing a political “machine” that helped fill his pockets with kickbacks and bribes. Although he had many business interests, Pendergast was first and almost always (with a partial “time out” for Prohibition) a dispenser of liquor.
In 1924, as Pendergast’s political power was growing, he bought the Monroe Hotel at 1904 Main Street and several years later built a two-story yellow brick building next door that he called “The Jefferson Club.” From that location, shown below, Tom held court, dispensed patronage and controlled city, county and even Missouri state politics. He also was building a business empire of construction and other companies to undertake public works and services that were fertile sources of graft money. Pendergast became known as “King Tom.”
Enter Harry Truman. Truman had served with distinction in World War I but found civilian life more challenging. Co-owner of a men’s clothing store in downtown Kansas City he saw the business go bankrupt within two years, a victim of the 1921 Depression. A comrade in arms of Pendergast’s nephew, the honest and hardworking Truman soon came to the attention of Pendergast himself, who backed Truman’s election for presiding judge of the county court. Truman won and kept the job for eight years. Pendergast became his political mentor and helped elect him a U.S. Senator from Missouri.
But as Truman’s star was rising, Pendergast was on the skids. A strong reform movement in Kansas City eventually kicked out machine politics. King Tom’s gambling habits incurred heavy debts, ones he attempted to pay off with money from crooked deals. Arrested and convicted in 1939, Pendergast spent 15 months in prison. While he was incarcerated and even afterward, his son, Tom Jr., took over the management of the family liquor interests. Tom Pendergast died four years later. Despite many who urged him to do so, Harry Truman never renounced his friendship with the political boss who gave him his start.
Note: For more more complete vignettes on each of the whiskey men featured here, see Whallens, January 29, 2014; Londoner, November 26, 2017; Sambucetti, March 10, 2017, and Pendergast, December 2, 2013.