Tennessee’s Boss Crump, 1930s

From The Fighting Bunch, by Chris DeRose (St. Martin’s, 2020), Kindle pp. 47-49:

Athens, Tennessee, is closer to Dayton, Ohio, than it is to Memphis. Memphis, for its part, is closer to St. Louis than Athens—with a hundred miles to spare.

Edward Hull Crump lived in Memphis. He had grown up poor, the son of a Confederate cavalry captain who had died young. He sold peaches at train stations, did backbreaking work on farms, and clawed his way to a low-level bookkeeping job in a small town. This led to a similar job with a Memphis saddlery company. Six years later he bought the saddlery and married into a prominent family. Crump won an upset race for city council, pledging to take on graft and corruption. He was elected to the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners and demanded a midnight closing time for saloons. In a wildly popular stunt, he deputized twenty officers and took them on three raids, to prove to the police and public that the law was enforceable. Crump ran for mayor on the same good government platform and won by seventy-nine votes.

It seemed as though Crump would be good to his word. The police force was professionalized. Two officers were fired for getting drunk and “attempt[ing] to shoot each other and fight bears at the zoo.”

In truth, Crump had discreetly legalized gambling for establishments that kicked back 40 percent of their revenue. A newspaper observed that Sunday closing laws for bars weren’t enforced, and saloonkeepers had taken a sudden interest in politics, registering voters and getting them to the polls. Crump earned supporters in a number of ways: fixing a traffic ticket, getting someone a city job, filling a pothole, or upgrading a school. Every city employee was expected to work on campaigns. The business community went along or faced negative consequences, such as No Parking signs in front of their stores or visits from city code inspectors. Crump once placed a police phalanx in front of a man’s business, searching every potential customer. Cowed by the corruption of Memphis, the owner moved to Chicago.

Tennessee permitted “ouster lawsuits” against public officials for dereliction of duty. If a judge agreed, the public official would be removed from office. The district attorney general went after Crump for his nonenforcement of alcohol laws. It was impossible for him to defend himself—everyone in Memphis knew it was true. Crump was saved by timing: the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that he was ousted as mayor from his previous term, which was about to expire. His new term would begin in a matter of days. And he could not be ousted from the term he had yet to begin. Crump’s opponents announced there would be a new lawsuit immediately after his inauguration. Crump took the oath of office in secret, resigned his position, and convinced the city commission to replace him with his handpicked successor. Crump learned that it didn’t matter what title the boss held, or if he held any at all.

With Memphis under his thumb, Crump set his sights on Shelby County, electing a full slate of officers, including a write-in candidate for sheriff who won despite widespread illiteracy among voters. From this power base Crump set his sights on the rest of Tennessee. Shelby County had the most voters, and by delivering them nearly as a bloc Crump could pick the winner of the Democratic primary statewide. A Democratic nominee was as good as elected.

Crump supported Hill McAlister for governor in 1932. McAlister, who had lost twice before, carried Shelby County by more than three to one, handing him the nomination. One defeated candidate sent volunteers to inspect Shelby’s election books. They were arrested.

Crump identified friendly legislative candidates and made sure they had the money to win. One thousand dollars could tip an election in “a rural anti-Crump county,” while a “bigger county might cost $2,500.” If Crump had plenty of any one thing, it was money, and the craps tables and roadhouses of Memphis paid for election victories all across the state.

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Filed under democracy, economics, education, U.S.

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