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Harry Truman’s Remarkably Fraught First Political Campaign

Future President's First Political Campaign Marks its Centennial

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Above image credit: A small theater showcasing Harry Truman's experience as a World War I artillery battery captain displays a field gun used by American troops. “The soldier stuff and the soldier boys won for me,” he once said of his electoral success. (Courtesy | Harry S. Truman Library & Museum)

At the Third Street Social in Lee’s Summit, patrons can stand where Harry Truman first ran.

The restaurant occupies the same site where Truman launched his political career 100 years ago, when he announced his candidacy for eastern Jackson County judge.

“Harry Truman would have stood on our front steps,” said Andy Lock, who opened the restaurant in 2016 with business partner Domhnall Molloy.

Inside, where diners can order the Harry Truman Old Fashioned, featuring the bourbon the 33rd president so famously admired, they could be persuaded the career of Missouri’s most familiar politician had been inevitable.

The Third Street Social restaurant in Lee’s Summit stands on the same spot Harry Truman in 1922 announced he was running for the office of eastern Jackson County judge.
The Third Street Social restaurant in Lee’s Summit stands on the same spot Harry Truman in 1922 announced he was running for the office of eastern Jackson County judge. (Brian Burnes | Flatland)

But the details of his 1922 campaign demonstrate it was not. 

Truman – then 38 years old and co-owner of a failing Kansas City men’s clothing store – was one of five candidates in a crowded Democratic Party Aug. 1 primary. 

He prevailed by 279 votes among some 11,000 cast, a margin of about 2.5%.

“It was the hottest primary fight in the history of the county,” the Examiner of Independence declared.

Truman’s primary victory occurred despite:

  • A lapse in judgment. (He had a dalliance with the Ku Klux Klan that one Truman biographer called “shabby.”)
  • An embarrassing personal display. (After dropping leaflets from a biplane over an Oak Grove picnic, Truman threw up promptly upon the pilot’s landing.)
  • His own unpolished public speaking style. (“I suffered for him,” remembered a friend.)
  • And even the attempted theft of a polling station ballot box which – had it succeeded – might have ended Truman’s political career before it began.

Given all that, the 1922 campaign remains – if not quite as memorable as Truman’s 1948 upset presidential election victory – a hinge in history that could have swung another way.

But the ballot box theft failed, Truman prevailed in the primary, then defeated his Republican opponent that November. The world knows the rest.

Today that attempted ballot theft represents just one election-day outrage in a grim continuum of them that dated to Kansas City’s frontier origins, when shootings and violence prompted the formation of a state-sanctioned Kansas City Election Board in 1895 and a second board in Independence in 1917.

Today, Jackson County remains the only Missouri county with two election boards, according to the Missouri Secretary of State website.

Pool Hall Polling Station

The violence that prompted the formation of the eastern Jackson County Election Board dated to before World War I.

“Hired thugs would come out from Kansas City to beat up voters,” said Bob Nichols Jr., who served 31 years as the board’s Democratic director before retiring in 2017. “It was unbelievable what happened back then – shootings and all kinds of crazy things.

“But that was why the board was established, to keep the city politicians out of it.”

One problem was that prior to the board’s 1917 approval by the Missouri General Assembly, voters were not preregistered across eastern Jackson County.

“The Kansas City politicians were trying to control the county outside of Kansas City by sending in large numbers of bogus voters and by stealing ballot boxes and intimidating election workers,” reads a 1983 history of the Jackson County Election Board. 

Meanwhile, the polling stations themselves could be problematic. In 1916 election officials placed one in a Sugar Creek pool hall. 

That year elections proved especially chaotic, with polling station judges or clerks often under the control of opposing political factions.

“Every man who votes August 1 should watch his ballot from the time he hands it to the judge of election until it is dropped into the ballot box,” wrote William Southern Jr., publisher of the Examiner, a few days before the 1916 primary.

The day before that vote, several men presented themselves at the home of an election judge in Mount Washington district, identifying themselves as county officials and insisting that two boxes of ballots and other election supplies “were not fixed quite right.” 

The election judge’s wife handed them over.

A deputy sheriff soon retrieved the missing boxes from a Pendergast faction election judge.

It would be several days before primary winners could be declared.

For serving on the new Independence election board established the following year, four election commissioners – two Democrats, two Republicans – would receive $200 a year, with a clerk receiving an annual $1,500 salary.

But the new board still would be starved for resources.

Just weeks before the 1922 primary a board official pleaded before county administrators, insisting that some polling stations could discourage women from voting, the Examiner reported.

Women in Missouri had received the right to vote after the state had ratified the 19th Amendment in 1919. By 1922 the Sugar Creek pool hall was out of the election business. Still, the election official fretted that some polling stations “which would be tolerated by the men will not be suitable for the women.”

During the primary voters residing in the seven townships of eastern Jackson County voted at 58 precincts. 

Voters reported to many more traditional locations, such as six schools and 13 banks. But they also voted at other, presumably less gentile spots, including eight automobile service garages.

‘Very Bitter Fight’

Truman had resolved to run in 1921.

Sometime that year James Pendergast, a nephew of political machine boss Tom Pendergast, had dropped by Truman’s downtown Kansas City haberdashery with his father, Mike Pendergast.

Mike Pendergast was in charge of the Democratic Party political organization’s eastern Jackson County operations. The Pendergast machine – whose followers were known as “Goats” – didn’t then have much clout in places like Independence.

Truman, however, had grown up in Independence, and also had helped run his family’s Grandview farm before the war. 

He had been active in Masonic groups and in 1919 had married Elizabeth Wallace, a granddaughter of George Porterfield Gates, co-founder of the Waggoner-Gates Milling Co. in Independence.

“Truman was selected because Pendergast was seeking to move into eastern Jackson County,” said Jon Taylor, history professor at the University of Central Missouri and author of several books about Truman and Jackson County.

“Truman checked a number of boxes. He was a farmer, a Mason and a World War I veteran.”

Boss Tom Pendergast
Boss Tom Pendergast. (Contributed | Terence O’Malley)

The veteran connection would prove crucial. And, as the haberdashery Truman was running with Army pal Eddie Jacobson was close to shutting down, Truman agreed to run.

“The primary campaign was a very bitter fight,” Truman wrote in his memoirs, published in the 1950s.

Both the Pendergast “Goats” and the “Rabbits” of the opposing Democratic Party faction operated by Joseph Shannon coveted seats on the county court (an administrative, not judicial, body), which controlled hundreds of jobs.

“Harry Truman told this audience that he was for a business administration,” the Examiner reported after one speech.

Truman was being mindful of Republican Warren Harding’s 1920 election to the presidency, Taylor said.

“In the 1920s there was a nationwide shift back to the Republican Party, and when Truman talked about this pro-business stance he was going to take, he was trying to counter this Republican wave,” Taylor said.

Truman’s eventual victory reflected genuine voter support, Taylor added.

“He made a good effort and won without any kind of padded votes as far as I know, as Pendergast did not then have a stronghold in eastern Jackson County.”

But efficient political organizations were not called “machines” for nothing. 

A poll book from 1926, when voters would elect Truman Jackson County presiding judge, suggests that party poll workers left almost nothing to chance, canvassing every street and noting the names of those eligible to vote at each address, as well as their party affiliation.

The pages of a 1926 poll book.
The pages of a 1926 poll book suggest how carefully election workers tracked the addresses and party affiliations of individual Jackson County voters. (Courtesy | Jackson County Historical Society)

“They would know, down to the household, how someone would vote,” Taylor said. “That kind of politics Truman would come to learn during his time on the county court and it never left him. He continued to practice that kind of politics for the rest of his life, and it started in 1922.”

Some historians have written that Truman in 1922 gave more to the Pendergast machine than he received.

“Grandpa didn’t get as much help from Pendergast as he might have,” said Clifton Truman Daniel, eldest grandson of the 33rd president.

“It sounds lopsided to me today. But Grandpa staunchly defended Pendergast. He knew the man was crooked but he always said, ’At least Pendergast was upfront about it.’ “

Truman first announced he was running during a March rally organized by a local American Legion chapter.

The evening’s program included a wrestling match, a boxing match and then another wrestling match featuring two brothers, ages 8 and 9.

Then Truman spoke briefly.

In 1956, some 34 years after his appearance that night, Truman attended the Jackson County Fair and Western Horse Show in Lee’s Summit.

“I will tell you now,” Truman said, “that I was more scared then than I was at any time later, even when I was on the front in the first world war in France.”

In joining the Pendergast operation Truman also aligned himself with a political faction already known for growing more aggressive on election day.

For a 20-year period between 1916 and 1936, thugs representing either the Pendergast or rival Shannon factions would rule polling stations.

“Many election judges were patronage employees from the fire and water departments,” wrote authors Lawrence H. Larsen and Nancy J. Hulston, in their book “Pendergast!” published in 1997.

These election workers sometimes switched out genuine ballot boxes with dodgy replicas.

In 1916, Pendergast operatives, using sophisticated counterfeiting skills, fabricated facsimiles of genuine ballot boxes – similar “right down to scratches and chipped paint,” and then positioned them already filled with fake ballots, wrote Larsen and Hulston.

“In a very overt manner, the Pendergast machine moved in the direction of forming an invisible government under which the elective franchise meant nothing in Kansas City,” they wrote.

In 1918, Albert Reeves, a Republican lawyer running for the Fifth District congressional seat, lost that bid because of such tactics, he believed. In one precinct, in which only 30 voters had voted, Reeves allegedly lost by a margin of 700 votes to one.

Reeves would never run for public office again. But he wouldn’t forget, either, as the Pendergast forces would learn.

In 1934 four people died and 11 people were injured in election day violence in Kansas City. Among the dead was P.W. Oldham, a 78-year-old hardware dealer who was locking up his store in the 5800 block of Swope Parkway when shooting began.

“I shall never vote again,” a niece of Oldham said. “Who can we trust? What can we believe in after this? This was not an election. This was war.”

In 1936 a Pendergast candidate won a primary for state office by outpolling his opponent in one ward 19,201 votes to 13.

Tom Pendergast Jr., in a letter written to Margaret Truman Daniel after the former president’s daughter had published a 1973 biography of her father, admitted that machine workers “got carried away and voted the sick, the dying and the dead.”

A federal grand jury convened within weeks of the 1936 general election.

“Gentlemen, reach for all, even if you find them in high authority,” U.S. District Court Judge Albert Reeves – the same frustrated Republican candidate from 1918 – told jurors.

“Move on them,” he said. “We can’t surrender the ballot box to thugs…” 

Jurors returned the first indictments the following spring. Throughout 1937 and into 1938 other juries brought in guilty verdicts on 259 of 278 individuals indicted.

Soon election officials struck some 60,000 bogus names from voter registration files.

In 1940 Kansas City voters elected reform mayoral candidate John Gage in a “clean sweep” vote which diminished the power of the Pendergast machine.

Pendergast himself had pleaded guilty to tax evasion the previous year and had entered Leavenworth federal penitentiary.

Klan Membership Fee

Four years later, after Truman had agreed to run as vice presidential running mate with President Franklin Roosevelt, the Hearst newspaper chain reported that during the 1920s Truman had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Although historians believe Truman never joined the Klan, Truman had flirted with the idea in 1922.

Klan membership across the country increased from 100,000 in 1921 to five million in 1924.

Editors considered Klan rallies newsworthy. In covering one rally, one Kansas City area newspaper found it appropriate to report that the particular cross burned that evening had stood 40 feet high and had required six barrels of oil to properly ignite. 

In Kansas City, in advance of the 1922 general election, the Klan organized rallies in Kansas City’s Convention Hall. There, Klan speakers identified Kansas City’s Democratic Party factions as among their enemies.

Truman’s friend Edgar Hinde briefly had been a Klan member.

“Some of us had joined to see what it was, to see what was going on, you know,” he said in a 1962 Truman Library oral history.

“So they got after me to get Truman to join the Klan.”

According to Hinde’s account, after Truman agreed to consider the idea, Hinde brought a $10 membership fee to a Klan organizer, who then requested a meeting with Truman. 

Truman, according to Hinde, went to a room in the Baltimore Hotel in downtown Kansas City to meet with the representative, who told Truman that if he won his election with Klan support, he couldn’t give any county jobs to Catholics.

Truman, according to several accounts, explained that the Pendergast family was Catholic, as were many of those who had served in the artillery battery he had led during World War I.

“So that was it,” Hinde said in 1962. “And they gave me the $10 back.”

That was not quite it, however, as the Klan still targeted Truman before the 1922 primary. At one meeting Hinde recalled a speaker saying Truman was not “100 percent” American, which Hinde challenged, prompting shouts that he be thrown out.

“Boy, they commenced to mill about there,” Hinde recalled in 1962.

The Klan’s animosity toward Truman continued in 1924. Truman lost his re-election bid for eastern Jackson County judge in part because faction leader Shannon threw his organization’s support to Republicans, apparently because he had resented his faction members being frozen out of county jobs two years before by Truman.

Truman later admitted as much. When he won in 1922, he and a second Goat judge representing Kansas City acted accordingly.

“The other judge and I were ‘Goats’ and we promptly took all the jobs,” Truman wrote in his memoirs.

“We ran the county, but we ran it carefully and on an economy basis.”

Local Klan members also opposed Truman during the 1924 election, and he decided to confront them during a daylight rally in Lee’s Summit.

This encounter is dramatized in “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!”, a theatrical production made popular during the 1970s by actor James Whitmore and carried on in recent years by Daniel, the former president’s grandson.

“Shame on you,” Daniel, representing his grandfather, declares in footage available on YouTube.

“Shame on you – calling yourselves the Invisible Empire. The Good Lord ought to strike you off from the face of the earth.”

Clifton Truman Daniel, Harry Truman’s eldest grandson, portraying his grandfather in productions of “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!”
In recent years Clifton Truman Daniel, Harry Truman’s eldest grandson, has portrayed his grandfather in productions of “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!” (Courtesy | Clifton Truman Daniel)

Truman’s brief flirtation with the Klan, wrote Truman biographer David McCullough, “was shabby and out of character, and hardly good politics.” 

McCullough did detail, however, Truman’s 1924 confrontation.

“I poured it into them,” McCullough quotes Truman as saying.

Daniel, meanwhile, notes that his grandfather did not mention the Klan in his memoirs.

“He didn’t want to give them any legitimacy,” he said.

But Daniel’s mother, Margaret Truman Daniel, did describe the Klan encounter.

“He told them they were a bunch of cheap un-American fakers and then calmly walked off the platform and through the crowd to his car,” she wrote in her 1973 biography of her father.

In a 1986 biography of her mother, Margaret Truman Daniel expanded on her father’s remarks.

“He praised the fighting spirit of the Irish Catholics he had commanded in Battery D and scornfully implied that most of the Klansmen had been so busy hating their fellow Americans, they had stayed home.

“ ‘If any Catholic or Jew who’s a good Democrat needs help, I’m going to give them a job,’ he said.”

A Republican Friend

But in 1922 there had been another accusation about Truman – that, during an election two years before, Truman had voted for a Republican.

That had been John Miles, a fellow World War I artillery officer who in 1920 had been elected Jackson County marshal.

In Jackson County this represented a grave accusation.

The county’s deep Democratic Party legacy can be traced to Andrew Jackson, the seventh president and Democrat for whom the county had been named in 1826.

All four of Harry Truman’s grandparents – who had come from Kentucky – had been admirers of Jackson.

The family’s enmity toward Republicans, meanwhile, dated to at least the Civil War. More than once Union soldiers had stopped at the southern Jackson County farm of Harriett Louisa Young, Truman’s maternal grandmother, and helped themselves to horses and mules.

In 1906 a federal claims court had ruled that the government owed Young $3,800 in compensation. That was about the same time a young Harry Truman, who had just joined the Missouri National Guard, made the mistake of wearing his new blue uniform into his grandmother’s house.

“She looked me over and I knew I was going to catch it,” Truman wrote in a memoir.

“She said ‘Harry, this is the first time since 1863 that a blue uniform has been in this house. Don’t bring it here again.’ 

“I didn’t.”

Such long memories still lingered in 1922. 

One Pendergast faction worker, Henry Abbott, an employee at the Standard Oil refinery in Sugar Creek, lost his election job after word spread that he had been using a Pendergast car to shuttle voters – both Democrat and Republican – to the polls.

Abbott still resented his dismissal almost 70 years later.

“But they didn’t want Republicans riding in a Democratic car,” Abbott said in a 1990 Truman Library oral history.

Truman knew he had to answer the accusation against him and did so in a speech that merited a standalone story in The Kansas City Times.

“My record has been searched and this is all my opponents can say about me and you knowing the facts can appreciate my position,” he said.

“I know that every soldier understands it. I have no apology to make for it. John Miles and my comrades in arms are closer than brothers to me. There is no way to describe the feeling. 

“But my friend John is the only Republican I ever voted for and I don’t think it counts against me.”

On primary election day, when Miles received a tip that a gang of Shannon men had been dispatched to Precinct 20 at Fairmount Junction – listed as “Mrs. Buchanan’s Store, Independence Road” on a Truman campaign flyer – he sent two deputies.

John Miles in his World War I uniform.
John Miles, a Republican who in 1920 was elected Jackson County marshal, helped thwart the attempted theft of a ballot box during the 1922 primary election, perhaps saving the career of his fellow World War I artillery officer, Harry Truman. (Courtesy | Truman Library and Museum)

At about 8:30 p.m. “three cars of men appeared from the Kansas City direction and went toward the polling place where the counting was being done,” according to the Examiner.

Joseph Shannon, faction leader, was already there.

“Four guns appeared on the attacking side and the marshals drew their weapons. It was at this point that Mr. Shannon rushed between and stopped what might have resulted in serious trouble,” the Examiner reported.

The ballots stayed where they were.

And yet still it was not over. Three days after the election, following a challenge by an election board clerk, Truman sat in the election board office with his principal challenger, E.E. Montgomery, a Blue Springs banker backed by Shannon. 

Both watched as ballots from all 58 precincts were brought in from a nearby bank vault.

“Mr. Montgomery and Mr. Truman sat on the same side of the table with a commissioner and a clerk between them,” the Examiner reported.

The final count, recorded the following day, included 4,230 votes for Truman while Montgomery received 3,951.

Almost 23 years later Miles, who had gone on to serve as Kansas City chief of police, mailed a letter to the White House not long after after the April 12, 1945 death of President Franklin Roosevelt resulted in Truman becoming president.

Miles congratulated Truman and wished him luck, adding that he believed “this entire community feels the same as I do, regardless of their political faith.” 

Truman and Bess Tables

Finally, there had been the veterans vote.

Of the five candidates Truman was the youngest, and the only veteran. Somebody thought of a way to remind voters of that.

During that summer, several times a week, Truman would pick up two Boy Scouts and drive them out to places like Oak Grove and Lone Jack.

One scout would be outfitted with a sandwich board, detailing the time and place of Truman’s speech.

The second scout was John Woodhouse, the 15-year-old chief bugler for the Boy Scout Drum and Bugle Corps, who had been promised $2 a performance.

“We would start at one end of the street and I’d blast away,’ Woodhouse said in a 1986 Truman Library interview.

Hearing several varieties of military bugle calls, residents and merchants would  come to their doors and windows.

Members of Harry Truman’s Battery D waited outside the former president’s home in Independence to greet their former captain.
Upon the 1957 dedication of the Truman Library, members of Harry Truman’s Battery D waited outside the former president’s home in Independence to greet their former captain. (Courtesy | Truman Library and Museum)

“They’d look out to see what the racket was about and then read the sandwich board and call their friends,” Woodhouse said, adding “…then they congregated at the appointed place, and then Harry gave them hell.”

Truman believed his veteran status might have made the difference.

“The soldier stuff and the soldier boys won for me,” he once said. 

In a photograph taken after the 1957 dedication of the Truman Library, many then-middle-aged veterans of Truman’s Battery D can be seen lined up on the sidewalk outside the Truman home, waiting to enter an apparent reception held for them

“Rarely did politics enter the realm of 219 North Delaware,” Taylor said. 

“So anyone who got in that house had standing with Truman.”

Many of the 300 people who had crowded into the Lee’s Summit memorial building back in March of 1922 had been veterans.

A Harry Truman campaign flyer on display inside the Third Street Social restaurant.
A Harry Truman campaign flyer is on display inside the Third Street Social restaurant. (Brian Burnes | Flatland)

The building where Truman briefly spoke burned down in 1941, and a manufacturing plant was built five years later on what is thought to be the original foundation. The building was long known as Arnold Hall, named for Joseph Arnold, who bought the building and donated it to Lee’s Summit in 1950.

Today a weathered plaque affixed to the building’s exterior marks the spot where Truman “first declared his candidacy for an elective political office.”

Andy Lock and business partner Domhnall Molloy in 2016 opened their Third Street Station restaurant in the building at 123 S.E. Third St.

“It’s interesting,” Lock said.

“If you sit there and watch – and we like to do this – as our guests come into the building, there are some who don’t notice the big picture we have displayed that explains the history of Arnold Hall and the Harry Truman piece of it.

“But others will walk around and look at everything we have on the walls,” he said.

Then diners can be seated at the Truman Table or the Bess Table, Lock said – although the restaurant requests reservations for those tables be made in advance.

Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City area writer and author. He is serving as president of the Jackson County Historical Society.

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