THE CITY MANAGER’S DAUGHTER
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
Mary McElroy’s smile was beautiful to behold. A contemporary described her as a tall, big-boned, and plain-looking woman with large eyes, wide mouth, and a radiant smile.
She was her father’s shadow and the apple of his eye. His name was Henry McElroy, City Manager of Kansas City, the most powerful man in the city other than Boss Tom Pendergast, the shrewd boss of the Democratic Machine and biggest political boss in the nation, bigger even than Boss Tweed:
The old city council of aldermen used to have two houses – an upper house and a lower house, with a total of thirty-two members – which the two Democratic factions, the Goats and Rabbits, managed to control under a split-the-spoils, fifty-fifty deal. In the winter of 1924-1925, reformers who wanted to rid the city of the boss system drafted and managed to get adopted a nonpartisan charter to reconstruct the city council into a single body with only nine council members, the Mayor being the presiding member. The council in turn hired an expert administrator to serve as City Manager. This so-called nonpartisan structure actually simplified Tom Pendergast’s job; it is easier to control a council of nine politicians than a council of thirty-two. The appointment or council’s “election” of the City Manager was always a foregone conclusion as he was not really the Council’s hired man; he belonged to Tom. Mary and the council members got quite a laugh when, in 1938, her dad was nominated for the last time: he jumped up to give his acceptance speech before it occurred to him that the nomination had not yet been seconded.
Mary called her father “Old Boy,” but most Kansas Citians called him “Judge” McElroy. He sat on the Jackson County Court (county commission) since 1922 as a judge (county commissioner) from time to time.
Another Pendergast man, Harry S. Truman, the future U.S. senator and president, served on the county court with Judge McElroy for awhile. Together they restored the authority of the Goat faction and ran the court like a business, adding to its prestige with their accomplishments. Judge McElroy was pleased to follow Truman’s good advice on many occasions when they sat together on the court. After a margin of 200 votes in November 1925 gave the Democrats control of Kansas City, which they would retain for thirteen years Judge McElroy was appointed City Manager, and the first thing he did was dispose of the nonpartisan tomfoolery and announced that the Democrats were in charge.
The city manager’s detractors were quick to point out that he was a vindictive despot; they did not mention his soup kitchen on the East Side or the poor folk who got handouts from him at City Hall. Mary shadowed her father at City Hall, at dedications, on business trips. As far as she was concerned, he could hardly do any wrong. Not that she was a yes-woman. She was a rebel. He encouraged her to run free, but she never strayed afar. She imitated her dad: she was proud, independent and somewhat self-reliant although socially awkward and unsure of herself in public as she tried to strike a sophisticated pose next to her great father. She knew that machine life had its seamy side, that power corrupts, that the human species can be vicious; wherefore bossism, in her estimation, was a necessary evil, and the despotism of her father was warranted: he was simply a hard-headed realist, a Pendergastian or Goat Democrat who, as they all said of The Boss, “got things done.”
Bossism was a modern version of the ancient patronage system hence based, first of all, on friendship. Friends are loyal. Friends exchange favors. Ingratitude is a mortal sin. Patrons provide bread and circus; that meant plenty of booze, narcotics, floozies and jazz rifts in downtown Kansas City. Napoleon had the right idea: Give people what they want as long as they are obedient, while taking them for all you can get.
Now party organizations were made necessary by the mass politics of universal suffrage, and arose from local roots up to presidential politics. We know the familiar story. Cities had the greatest voting power and city bosses bought votes, sometimes several votes from each citizen, alive or dead. Heads were cracked to keep the voters lined up in the right line. There was plenty of booze even if it was prohibited. Patrons vied for power; political patrons allied themselves with godfathers and such.
Boss Pendergast made his alliances in order to keep Al Capone out of town and to satisfy his gambling addiction. The Pendergast dynasty was established by Alderman Jim Pendergast from the proceeds of a horse race; Tom Pendergast wound up gambling on every horse race in the country in a single day, and what he did to cover his losses got him busted for income tax evasion.
Mary McElroy certainly knew about Kansas City’s wild side. She knew that her dad was the best man around. At least a few people can keep themselves clean while working with political machines. As far as we know, Harry S. Truman was independent, honest, and squeaky clean, although he could have cleaned up to the tune of millions of dollars while sitting on the county court alone. Pendergast let well enough alone because Truman’s honesty handed him a goodly portion of rural Jackson County on a platter. He backed Truman for U.S. Senator, and we know the rest. And President Truman was no ingrate: he was true to his friend Pendergast when The Boss was disgraced by backstabbers whom he had put into power – everybody “decent” was distancing themselves from him.
That is the way it was in those days, when Tom Pendergast “got things done” and people had plenty of fun, so much so that reformers thought law and order had completely broken down.
City Manager McElroy got things done too. His daughter had good reason to idolize him. Even the so-called nonpartisan but Republican Kansas City Star praised him, not realizing they would have to eat some crow when a huge deficit was uncovered along with the Water Leak among other things after the Depression boom. An engineering firm was paid $5,000 a month for looking for water leaks, but that job consisted of submitting bills for unperformed an service: $356,500 was paid out.
Depression boom? Yes, Kansas City was doing relatively great during the Depression. McElroy had proceeds from the 1931, $32 million (Kansas City’s share) Ten-Year-Bond at his disposal, as well as his magic “Country Bookkeeping System” involving an “Emergency Fund” on the side, not taken from the bond fund, which made old debts disappear and rabbits willingly appear among other things. Civic-minded Boss Pendergast, coincidentally, had as much ready-mixed concrete as the city could buy, and his Machine had ample labor to provide to civic causes.
As Kansas Citians can well imagine from the current traffic, roads were a fundamental consideration back then too, hence men were put to work on them; they were advised to leave the paving and other machines behind to increase the demand for labor. There were other products of the Great Depression building boom, the results of which we can still tour as we tick them off. City Hall, Jackson County Court House, Police Headquarters, Power & Light Building, Nelson Art Gallery, and many more.
Mary was especially proud of her dad’s Municipal Auditorium and his fostering of the new air-age at Wheeler Airport. Indeed, legend has it that Henry McElroy fell in love with Kansas City as he looked out over the Bottoms from Quality Hill: wherefore some time later he had cleared an observation area there. A woman held out: she wanted $5,000 for her house; the city offered $1,000; she refused; she came home one day to discover her home was not at home! the house had mysteriously disappeared and was never seen since.
We can hardly blame the City Manager’s daughter for basking in the glory of her father’s deeds. He was really something. He thought a lot of himself too. He claimed that his work was the model for the make-work approach to economic depression, the acclaimed WPA program of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration. McElroy might have been right to take credit for its origination in the boosting Heart of America.
Roosevelt certainly knew what was going on in Kansas City. Pendergast was a national power broker. He knew Roosevelt and had thrown Missouri’s delegates his way at the convention. Roosevelt, however, and his federal money trough eventually spelled the end of the machine system. Among other things, he had Tom busted and hustled off to prison. The machine was flying apart with the continuing investigations. City Manager McElroy put up a hell of a fight, but he eventually stepped down. He died before he could be indicted. Of course Mary was by his side.
Mary never married. She flowered with her dad and approached spinsterhood. She was seen at functions. She stood apart and was rather inept socially speaking. She was somewhat of a rebel – her dad let her have her run, but she did not stray afar. She was seen in the company of men, but none stuck. She was given to dark moods after she was kidnapped in, May of 1933. She had hit it off with her kidnappers, and could not stand the thought of their imprisonment and the death penalty one of them drew.
The kidnappers numbered four. Walter McGee and Clarence Stevens entered the McElroy house, waiting for Mary’s brother to show up – he was the intended victim – while Clarence Click and George McGee stayed at the hideout. When Mary’s brother did not arrive, the kidnappers went upstairs to kidnap her instead, assuming that she must be a little girl. But she was 25 and was taking a bubble bath. Naturally she was frightened, but she soon recovered her composure and asked for some privacy to get dressed. They complied, so she donned a pink frock, tan hose, and a white summer shoes, accompanied them to the car, and sat on the floorboard as they drove away to the hideout on Clarence Click’s farm near Shawnee The young men conversed pleasantly with her along the way, probably glad to have her for company.
Mary was handcuffed by the left wrist to a wall in a garage under a small frame house. The kidnappers were polite and friendly. They brought some clean sheets, an electric light, a radio, food. She was held for less than two days. George McGee, a former medical student who had fallen on hard times, was her guard and her favorite kidnapper. In fact the kidnappers and their victim were so mutually pleased that Mary said she would recommend them as kidnappers, and they said they would recommend her as a kidnap victim. A ransom note asking for $60,000 had been left behind at the McElroy home – they settled for $30,000, and released her.
“It would be foolish to say that I felt no fear at all. At the same time I felt sure that any one of the four men I saw would have been ready to protect me against any other person or danger,” Mary said in an interview. “It is because I knew that and felt that they were not bad at heart that I would hate to see them sent to the penitentiary. I would fight to keep them in such a fate.”
They grabbed the wrong girl, the devoted daughter of the most powerful man around except The Boss himself, and they were not about to get away with it. Clarence Stevens escaped but the others were nabbed forthwith. She visited them in jail, and rumors were bandied about as usual. She did not want to testify against them, but her father convinced her that it was the right thing to do, so she complied. Clarence Click got 8 years; George McGee got life; Walter McGee the death penalty.
It was questionable at the time whether the death penalty could be applied to kidnappers as well as murderers. The case was appealed; the jury’s sentence was upheld. Mary was devastated and fell into a deep depression. Her father complained that the strain had ruined her health. They vacationed in Europe, gave the fascist salute to Mussolini, and so on, but she despaired again upon their return to the Heart of America. In February of 1935 she hopped on a bus with twenty cents and a pack of cigarettes, and disappeared until she was spotted in Illinois and brought home.
Kansas City Star reporter Conwell Carlson interviewed her. She said she just had to get away from the city, where she was seen as the City Manager’s kidnapped daughter. She suffered from nightmares about the kidnappers’ fate.
“I cannot forget them,” she said. “I cannot get away from the feeling for the underdog.” Mary set to work on her powerful father to get the death sentence commuted by the governor. She was not a political activist but she was on the side of the sick and oppressed; she felt that help should come from individuals, by means of personal kindness. She had no political reservations about the legal system. She figured the sentences were just as they stood, that the death penalty should be applied to kidnappers as well as murderers, but she wanted mercy in this case. Her father was opposed at first, but he eventually caved in and they went to see Governor Park in Jefferson City.
“In pleading for Walter McGee’s life,” reads her plea for clemency, “I am pleading for my own peace of mind. Through punishing a guilty man, his victim will be made much to suffer equally. He would not even have this advantage: he would not have to think about his execution afterwards. I do not forget the suffering this has brought in many ways to many people. Walter McGee’s death will not erase nor ease the suffering. Rather, I believe the mercy shown him, and the feeling of warmth and hope any act of mercy brings, will serve as balm to all.”
Governor Park, after pressure was applied by Henry McElroy, and being assured that mercy would not detract from the death penalty precedent for kidnappers, commuted the sentence. Mary’s spirits revived, and she continued her work for the welfare of her imprisoned friends and their families.
Mary’s life had a tragic end. As the Pendergast machine fell in 1939, she was hurt to the quick by the harsh criticism of her visionary father, who had, after all, gotten so much done for the people of Kansas City. At age 72, Judge McElroy had a heart condition and eye trouble. He went to St. Mary’s hospital for a cataract operation, came home, and was cared for by Mary until he died, leaving her alone, virtually a spinster.
On a wintry day in January of 1940, Mary wanted to shake off the doom and gloom, so she invited some friends over for a party. They demurred. She fixed herself something to eat and drink, then retired to the sun room to read. It was two degrees below zero outside early in the morning when she shot herself to death. She left a note.
“My four kidnappers are probably the only people on earth who don’t consider me an utter fool. You have your death penalty – so – please – give them a chance. Mary.”
Notes on Bossism:
“(Franklin Delano Roosevelt) destroyed the old-time boss. He destroyed him by taking away his source of power…. The old boss was strong simply because he held all the cards. If anybody wanted anything – jobs, favors, cash – he could only go to the boss, the local leader. What Roosevelt did was to take the handouts our of local hands. A few little things like Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the like – that’s what shifted the gears, sport. No need now to depend on the boss for everything. The Federal Government was getting in on the act, otherwise known as social revolution.”
(Edwin O’ Connor, The Last Hurrah)
“By 1936 relief scandals, evidence of manipulation of projects for vote-getting, exploitation of distress by a swollen bureaucracy to enhance its own power, were a matter of common knowledge. Charges of extravagance and corruption had become almost routine under federalized relief. Hoover often cited examples of the waste inherent in the new system:
“Recently I had the opportunity to observe comparative morals in the spoils system by a contrast between Tammany Hall and the New Deal. In a Tammany-dominated borough in New York in early 1933, before the New Deal, there were about 11,000 persons on relief. Tammany had appointed about 270 additional officials under their particular spoils system to manage relief at a cost of $30,000 a month for the officials. This job was taken away from wicked Tammany influence and directly administered by the New Deal.
“At a recently date there were in the same borough 2,000 federal officials appointed under the New Deal spoils system at a cost of $300,000 per month for salaries to manage 16,000 persons on relief. Tammany may learn something new in the spoils system. It was only 10 percent efficient. And the same thing is going on all over the country. “
(Herbert Hoover by Eugene Lyons, Garden City: Doubleday 1964)