The Shoot-Out Election of 1934 and Its Red Bridge Connection
By Paul Edelman
Another era in Kansas City took raucous rough and tumble politics to another level. The Pendergast Democratic political machine arose in 1920s KC as a response to Prohibition and Depression economic woes. At the helm sat Thomas Pendergast who ruled over Kansas City with a vice grip, rigging elections through voter fraud and intimidation. Loyal aides, including future US President Harry Truman, received political
Bryce Smith, mayor of Kansas City from 1930-39, owned a farm in Red Bridge. Photo courtesy Missouri Valley Special Collections.
opportunities while opponents saw themselves strong-armed and squelched. One such loyal operative came in the form of Democrat and Red Bridge Road resident Bryce Smith whose alliance with Thomas Pendergast secured his mayoral office from 1930 to 1939.
Smith’s tenure included the building of Kansas City landmarks such as Municipal Auditorium, the Kansas City Power & Light Building, the Nelson-Atkins Museum and the KC City Hall, but also tumultuous events such as the Kansas City Massacre, where renowned outlaw “Pretty Boy” Floyd was involved in the killing of federal officers. As was typical of the Pendergast-era, the elections under mayor Smith were rife with corruption and intimidation, in particular 1934’s voting being referred to as a “bloody election day.” An issue of the Associated Press from that year described thusly: “Big Tom Pendergast’s Democratic machine rode to overwhelming victory today after a blood-stained election marked by four killings, scores of sluggings and machine gun terrorism.” This was the order of the day under Pendergast and Bryce Smith, with Missouri history scholar Kenneth Winn, per the Missouri Secretary of State’s website, generally summarizing Depression-era electoral farce in Kansas City as “Indeed, in some wards voter turnout often approached one hundred percent, when it did not exceed it. Even more miraculously, the dead would rise at each election in numbers that would astonish an expectant Christian.”
Bryce Smith had a South KC connection: a farm that, at the time, lay far to the south of the city proper. It was situated near the modern streets of Red Bridge and Blue River Roads. The city would continue to expand southward, but, at that time, the modern Red Bridge area encompassed largely pastoral enterprises. In our modern city and country, elections have just concluded as the local, state, and federal levels. At times, modern politics can seem chaotic, but less than a century ago, Bryce Smith and the Democratic political machine controlled a city government that utilized fraud, corruption, and violence, but still gained popularity among the struggling working class through philanthropic efforts that gave food and work.