It was New Year’s Eve, 1939, and all over town Memphians were preparing to give 1940 a hearty welcome. The public mood was even more festive than usual, given the fact that a gentle snowfall was doing its best to blanket the city.
Crowds were gathering at the usual holiday spots, but the largest of all could be found at an unlikely New Year’s location: the railroad station at Main and Calhoun. The Panama Special was due in at 12:16 a.m. and would pick up hundreds of passengers for New Orleans, where Tulane and Texas A&M would do football battle in the Sugar Bowl on the following afternoon. But most of those who flocked to the station came without suitcases. They came not to travel, but to witness the trackside inauguration of Edward Hull Crump as the next Mayor of Memphis.
Some of the spectators were old enough to remember his last sojourn in the mayor’s office, between 1909 and 1916, but now the man everyone called simply “Mr. Crump” was the Godfather of Tennessee politics, a man who controlled virtually every public office in Shelby County and basically selected governors, senators, and congressmen for the state. Why then was he now taking an interest in holding so “minor” a position as that of Memphis’ city mayor?
Crump had his reasons, reasons which had led to this, the most bizarre election in Memphis political history. He had quarreled badly with the outgoing mayor, Watkins Overton, a former protégé who had “turned” and thus was, needless to say, not a candidate for reelection. Crump’s choice as his successor was Walter Chandler, Memphis’ able young congressman (and the father of Wyeth, a future Memphis mayor). But since the city charter forbade federal office holders from running for municipal positions, Mr. Crump devised an unusual stratagem that would save Chandler the trouble of actually having to run for mayor.
That fall, Crump had announced that he would run for the office, calling himself a “pinch hitter” for Congressman Chandler. After the election he would step aside, and “allow” the city commissioners, all Crump henchmen, to appoint Chandler as his replacement.
This curious election-by-proxy went exactly as planned. Candidate Crump received 31,825 votes; as usual, there was no opposition. Now, on New Year’s Eve, the Boss of Memphis beamed and waved to the crowd as he prepared to take the oath of office. He was 66. His great shock of hair had long since lost the bright color that had earned him his “Red Snapper” sobriquet. But he still had the same bushy eyebrows, standing tall and erect on the station platform, nattily dressed as always.
People in the crowd threw snowballs at each other, while Crump chatted amiably with some of his lieutenants: Ed Hale, long-time master of Shelby County government; Joe Boyle, organization man par excellence; and K.D. McKellar, Tennessee’s senior senator and Crump’s junior partner in the administration of state government.
The ceremonies were over almost as soon as they had begun. “Mayor” Crump took his oath and immediately resigned; he exchanged a few pleasantries with Walter Chandler, his soon-to-be appointed successor. Then, after a last wave and a smile for the crowd, Crump and his “boys” boarded the Sugar Bowl-bound Special. The train was 17 minutes late leaving Memphis.
Congressman Chandler was not among the football faithful; he stayed in town for his official elevation on the day after New Year’s. No doubt he also needed some time by himself to contemplate his strange rise to the city’s highest office. Chandler had enjoyed his three terms in Washington and had never expressed any interest in being mayor. Indeed, he only learned of his “candidacy” for that office after Crump had made the official press announcement.
Perhaps Chandler was already yearning for his old seat on the House floor. But even if he did, he knew only too well that neither position was really his own in the first place. Crump was the straw that stirred the drink in Memphis.
For most of the first half of the twentieth century, Edward Hull Crump was the unquestioned master of Memphis and Tennessee government. Time magazine described him in 1946 as “the most absolute political boss in the United States.” For two decades, between 1928 and 1948, the Crump organization did not lose a single election that it contested on the city, county, or state level.
Memphis had its City Hall, and Nashville had its State Capitol, but over these two decades, no one dared to act in either place without first consulting “the man on the corner” of Main and Adams, where the insurance agency of E.H. Crump and Company had its headquarters.
But all machines are the products of men, and the one assembled by Crump in Memphis was no exception. It did not burst upon the scene overnight; nor did it hum perfectly from the outset. The Red Snapper’s career did have its roller coaster aspects. As time has passed and Memphians by now barely remember his name, most have forgotten that he was the only twentieth-century Memphis mayor forced from office by the courts because of his failure to enforce state laws.
In the end, however, the tall then-redhead triumphed. The big question is how. How did Crump become one of the most powerful political figures in America? How was he able to make his own name synonymous with the political fortunes of Memphis and Tennessee? How was this country boy from Mississippi able to build for himself a Southern political empire?
It all began with business. Had Crump not succeeded in that realm, it is most unlikely that he would have surfaced on the political scene. As it was, the story of Crump’s first decade in the Bluff City is straight out of Horatio Alger. The Holly Springs native rose rapidly from a bookkeeper’s position with a carriage firm to the presidency of the same company seven short years later, in 1903. The young man had talent, no doubt about it. And not just for making money.
Having risen so fast in business, Crump began to dabble in politics. This was the Progressive Era, when reformers across the country were attacking corruption in city politics and advocating more orderly, businesslike approaches to urban government. Crump cast his lot with the reformers, and in 1905 he was elected to the Board of Public Works as part of a clean sweep by the Progressives.
At first the new board member kept a decidedly low profile. But appearances were deceiving. “As a businessman,” Crump remarked years later, “I have always sought to plan my work and then work out my plan.” He took the same approach to politics. Even at this early stage, he had begun laying the foundations for what followed. His first political aide was longtime friend Frank Rice, who would later become his de facto chief of staff. Rice was ideally suited for the rough-and-tumble world of ward politics; an organizational wizard, he knew exactly when to shake hands and when to twist arms. When there was dirty work to be done, Crump always knew he could count upon Rice to do it.
Meanwhile, the rising politico was building a public image that would serve him well in the future. As a newly elected member of the Fire and Police Commission in 1907, Crump hurled invective at the police chief (“I say that you are absolutely incompetent,” he fumed on several occasions) and won a reputation as a staunch opponent of organized crime.
He also came out strongly in support of another important Progressive cause of the times: public ownership of municipal utilities. Over the next several decades, he conducted a running feud with local power companies that ended only when the city bought them all out and founded MLG&W in 1939.
But Crump’s most immediate concern, and the one which gained him the widest popular support, was changing the structure of city government. Like most Progressives of the period, Crump advocated a shift to the commission form of government, whereby citizens elected individual department heads as well as the mayor. It was felt that this would make for less corruption and more efficient government.
Since only the state legislature could change the city charter, the battle for commission government had to be fought in Nashville, not Memphis. The legislature approved the proposal in early 1909, thanks largely to the lobbying efforts of Crump and his colleagues. He returned to Memphis as a conquering hero (one newspaper referred to him as “general in command” of the pro-commission forces), and to no one’s surprise he shortly announced his candidacy for mayor in the forthcoming elections.
Crump’s formidable opponent in 1909 was Joe Williams, a former mayor and leader of the city’s old guard. But the future boss’ embryonic organization was ready to do battle. His boys knocked on doors, they made speeches, and they shook hands. Candidate Crump also made wide use of newspaper advertisements, the first time this had ever been done on a large scale in a Memphis election.
One of the more fascinating aspects of this and other campaigns was Crump’s complete absence from the podium. A poor speaker, he reputedly never made a public speech during his entire political career, depending upon aides to handle these particular duties. But Crump did not remain aloof; in fact, personal contact with the voter was perhaps the key ingredient in all Crump campaigns.
Noted the Memphis News Scimitar in 1909: “Crump knows everybody and shakes hands with everybody. His handshake is so hearty that no man can doubt his sincerity. He can cover more territory and be in more places at the same time than any man that ever entered the political game.”
But the Williams organization also had its share of back-slappers and ward heelers. When the ballots were finally cast and counted, Crump emerged victorious — but only by the slender margin of 79 votes. Cries of “fraud” and “robbery” immediately emanated from the Williams camp.
There was some truth in the charges. Memphis was one of the few places in the South where blacks had not been disenfranchised. Unfortunately, they didn’t vote — they were voted. It was an old Memphis tradition for white politicians to capitalize upon the poverty and ignorance of black electors. Poll taxes were paid for them, and every candidate tried to provide bread and circuses, not to mention hard cash. Beyond that, dead men voted with astonishing regularity.
As a product of its times, the Crump Organization employed many of these tactics, in white as well as black neighborhoods. But when Williams demanded a recount, perusal of the ballots revealed a much higher incidence of fraud on the side of the Old Guard. Williams dropped his suit, and Crump was firmly placed in the municipal driver’s seat.
The new Mayor of Memphis immediately went on the offensive, attacking the more obvious of the city’s problems with the abandon of a whirling dervish. While Crump was anything but a socialist, he did make significant improvements upon the structure of urban government, which won him wide popular support. Fire and police services were streamlined, parks were built, and health facilities were improved, all while the tax rate was being reduced. This was made possible largely by Crump’s wholesale attack upon graft and corruption within city government.
But control of the Mayor’s Office also gave Crump control over an enormous amount of patronage. Memphis had no civil service as such, and virtually every employee from department superintendent to street repair worker served at the whim of the mayor and his staff. During his first term in office, most workers were impressed by Crump’s swashbuckling tactics and became enthusiastic supporters. Those who were merely lukewarm in their support were often asked to step aside, their places taken by organization loyalists.
It was during this period that Crump and Frank Rice put together their famous card file on voters, one that would serve the organization so well over the next few decades. Eventually this contained the name and voting history of virtually every voter in Shelby County. A New York City Tammany Hall stalwart who visited Memphis several years later rated the Crump system as the most comprehensive and efficient he had ever seen.
It certainly produced results. On election days, the Crump organization kept a close record of how many of its supporters had actually cast ballots. As the day progressed, lists were drawn up of those persons who had backed Crump in the past and had not yet appeared at the polls. At that point, cars were sent from house to house, where earnest young loyalists cajoled and pleaded with residents to do their democratic duty. Everything was done to make their trips to the polling stations as quick as possible; in many cases, the organization even took care of paying the $2 poll tax.
No doubt there was always a certain amount of fraud and even intimidation involved in Memphis elections during the Crump era. But by and large such clumsy tactics were unnecessary. At a very early stage, the emerging Boss wisely discerned that he could make voter turnout a powerful political tool. He was able to mobilize many apathetic citizens on his behalf. His opponents, not as well organized, rarely mustered equal support.
By making sure that almost everyone who halfway supported him actually voted, Crump was able to coast to reelection victories in 1911 and 1915. But storm clouds loomed on the horizon. This was the Prohibition Era, but in Memphis, as in most large cities, anti-liquor laws were largely ignored. Mayor Crump made little attempt to enforce them, his theory being that a majority of Memphians opposed prohibition in the first place.
The state courts disagreed. An ouster petition was filed against Crump in accordance with a state law that called for the removal from office of local officials who did not enforce the ban on alcohol. The state supreme court upheld the ouster petition, and Mayor Crump resigned under pressure 100 years ago, in February of 1916.
Crump’s forced exit from City Hall was a crucial turning point in his political career. Perhaps it was a personal affront to him, one which at least partly explains the proxy election circus of 1940 and Crump’s desire to be mayor again, if only for an instant. But his ouster from City Hall also marked a dramatic shift in his political emphasis. From this point onward, the Crump organization became increasingly involved in state politics, as Crump realized just how much his control of Memphis depended upon his influence in Nashville.
Although its master was no longer mayor, the Crump Machine remained largely intact after the 1916 ouster. It retained its almost complete domination over Shelby County politics (Crump himself was elected to the position of County Trustee in 1919), and had the Boss been willing to force the issue, there seems to be little doubt that, from the outset, he could have installed a succession of puppet mayors in City Hall. But Crump chose instead to allow his opponents to fill the municipal stage, albeit temporarily. For the moment, he had bigger fish to fry — in Nashville.
To understand how Crump eventually succeeded in establishing his sway over Tennessee politics, one must first understand how few people actually voted in Southern elections during the 1920s and 1930s. In Tennessee elections during this period, three out of every four adults failed to vote.
In the state’s 1926 gubernatorial election, for example, over 1,300,000 Tennesseans were eligible to vote, but the actual turnout was only 233,000. Between 1922 and 1948, voter participation in state elections averaged a paltry 24 percent.
Voter apathy certainly played a role in a state that was still over 65 percent rural in 1930. Walking two or three miles to vote in a state where automobiles were not plentiful was also was a challenge for many. But by far the biggest factor in low voter turnout during this era was the poll tax.
Tennessee’s poll tax was $2 per person, a hefty sum back when breakfast cereal was 10 cents a box and lamb just 17 cents a pound. An institution in most Southern states during this period, the poll tax was employed specifically to disenfranchise African Americans. Voter participation nationally averaged around 64 percent; in the states of the old Confederacy, voter turnout averaged just 22 percent. Indeed, in pre-Civil Rights era, the poll tax was the major weapon used by political leaders in the South to suppress the black vote, to insure that state legislatures remained lily-white.
In Tennessee, however, the poll tax produced somewhat different results. Not that the state Senate and House were ever anything but 100 percent white. But when compared to other Southern states, Tennessee’s black population was relatively small, only 18 percent of the total in 1930. A majority of black Tennesseans, however, were concentrated in Memphis, one of the few places in the South where African Americans voted — or were voted — regularly, with the encouragement and direction of Crump.
So did thousands of white Memphians. In fact, the efficiency of the Memphis Organization put from 50,000 to 75,000 votes into the pocket of Crump in every state election during these two decades. Since voter turnout was so low in most other parts of Tennessee, Crump could exert a much stronger influence upon state politics than might otherwise have been the case. On election night, many a candidate for state office went into “Big Shelby” leading by a comfortable margin, only to go down to ignominious defeat when 85 percent of the Memphis vote was recorded for his opponent.
An organization that could dominate state politics, of course, could not be built overnight. This, in fact, required the better part of a decade, as the Memphis boss made alliances with rural courthouse bigwigs and all sorts of minor politicos across the state, and jostled for power with the then-dominant forces of Nashville newspaper magnate Luke Lea. But Crump and his boys were playing their cards wisely. Before long they would cash in their chips.
While Crump did not directly control Memphis politics in the decade after his 1916 ouster, his influence remained formidable. Witness what happened in the 1919 mayoral election, when his old rival Joe Williams squared off against newcomer Rowlett Paine. The organization said nothing throughout the campaign, until the night before the election, when the word went out from Main and Adams: “We are with Paine.” Paine won by 3,000 votes. He could justly claim that the victory was his own, but he doubtless felt as if a brontosaurus was breathing heavily down the back of his neck.
Even out of office, Crump continued to wield large blocs of electoral support. His secret? Obviously, he attracted many voters simply on the basis of his own record as a no-nonsense politician. While he could hardly be considered a social reformer, his emphasis upon governmental honesty and civic pride won him many friends. “I’m a Crump man,” said one Memphian with simple eloquence. “He’s nearer right than any man I know.”
But there were deeper roots to Crump’s popular appeal. Much of his success was the result of his ability to win friends in all sections of the community. His was the classic formula for political success: be all things to all men.
From the outset, Crump depended heavily upon black support. As we have seen, much of this was provided by artificial methods, but there were also many black votes given freely and willingly to the Organization. While Crump was as bigoted as most white Southerners of his era, he reached out to blacks in ways that few of his opponents had previously done: parks, public housing, and even a few city jobs. As early as 1911, one black community leader gave this as his reason for backing Crump: “The other candidate promises everything, and I fear he will do nothing. But this red-headed fellow frankly declines to promise some of the things we want, but convinced me that he will fulfill the promises that he did make.”
Crump could also count upon broad support from another group of Memphians: those who were foreign-born or who had parents born abroad. The ethnic vote was a relatively small percentage of the Memphis total (roughly 15 percent), but it went solidly for Crump, especially after the mayoral election of 1923. In that year Rowlett Paine’s bid for reelection was opposed by the Ku Klux Klan. Crump took a firm stand against the Klan, and the support of his organization was instrumental in Paine’s 2,000-vote victory.
Crump had pragmatic reasons for opposing the Klan. The KKK was then undergoing a national resurgence, and his machine was eager to nip in the bud this possible threat to its local power. But whatever his motives, Crump’s stand won him unwavering affection from Memphians of foreign origin, most of whom were Catholic and felt as threatened as blacks by the rise of the Klan. These feelings were reinforced by Crump’s staunch support of the Catholic Democrat Al Smith in the 1928 presidential election, in the face of the massive electoral revolt by Southern Democrats that cost Smith victory.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Crump political persona was that he was able to appeal to both blacks and ethnics without totally alienating their arch-enemies: middle- and lower-class whites of rural origin. This of course was the largest single electoral bloc in Memphis during the first half of the twentieth century; that support made possible the Klan’s impressive revival during the 1920s.
Crump, the Progressive and opponent of the Klan, lost many votes among these Memphians, but he did have one great advantage that made it possible for him to retain the support of a sizable number of whites of rural origin: he was one of them.
Crump never disavowed his Mississippi roots. Indeed, every Sunday afternoon he would dine with his mother in Holly Springs, and afterwards would sit with her for hours on the front porch of her home in north Mississippi. While he made Memphis his political home, he never forgot from whence he came.
Crump’s principles, his patterns of behavior, and even his language remained unchanged. When he quarreled with Gordon Browning in the mid-Thirties, the Tennessee governor, he described the governor as “the kind of man who would milk his neighbor’s cow through a crack in the fence.” In the midst of another quarrel, Crump characterized an opponent as a man whose “mind is as warped and out of shape as a bale of cotton is with three hoops off.” Appropriate imagery for a city like Memphis, which one contemporary observer described as the most densely populated rural area in the world.
There was only one major segment of the Memphis community with which the Boss had no strong ties: the local aristocracy, the established cotton and mercantile families who dominated the city’s economic and social life. But Crump bridged this gap cleverly with his choice of a candidate for the 1928 mayoral election, when his organization decided to reassert its authority on the municipal level. Crump tapped young Watkins Overton, scion of one of the city’s wealthiest families and a Harvard-educated attorney whose name had been identified with Memphis since his great-grandfather helped found the city in 1819.
Entering the 1928 election, therefore, Crump’s organization had footholds in all four major sections of the Memphis community. It could count on overwhelming support from blacks and ethnics, and it could hope for at least a split of the middle- and lower-class white vote. And with Watkins Overton in the saddle, the Machine could start making valuable inroads among the city’s social establishment as well.
All this spelled trouble for Rowlett Paine, at that point an incumbent running for a third term. He was no match for the Crump Machine. Huge newspaper ads extolled the virtues of Candidate Overton. Crump did his share of handshaking, and organization regulars dusted off the index card files for use on Election Day.
The result was never really in doubt; Rowlett Paine was, in a word, stomped. Watkins Overton captured 73 percent of the vote.
After an absence of 12 years, Mr. Crump was back in City Hall. Not in person, of course; in fact, the Boss called officially upon Mayor Overton only once over the next decade. But there was no need for Memphis’ boss to be physically present. His organization was firmly in charge of city government; safely back in power, it could now resume its old policy of using city employees as virtual agents for the cause. It had taken two long decades for the Crump machine to get into high gear. For the next two, however, it would motor along smoothly, purring like a well-tuned Packard.
Crump’s political success in Memphis was matched by triumph at the state level during the early 1930s. From 1930 until 1948, no Tennessee governor was elected without his support. The governors were Crumpets, men who often were little more than figureheads for the Organization. Those few who dared step out of line were given grim lessons in the realities of Tennessee politics in the Age of Crump.
Consider what happened to Gordon Browning, Crump’s choice in the 1936 gubernatorial race, whose victory was largely the result of his receiving 60,218 votes in Shelby County. (Browning’s opponent received 861.) But Governor Browning charted an independent course, a strategy which lost him his friend at Main and Adams in Memphis, and doomed his 1938 reelection campaign almost before it had started. “In the art galleries of Paris,” fumed Mr. Crump, “there are twenty-seven pictures of Judas Iscariot. None of them look the same, but they all bear a remarkable resemblance to Gordon Browning.”
Big Shelby echoed its Boss’ sentiments. In the 1938 election Browning received only 9,214 votes in the county; the Crump nominee racked up 56,302. In barely two years, Browning’s share of the local vote had plummeted from 95 to 14 percent.
Once again, Crump had demonstrated the stranglehold he had upon Tennessee Politics. Not surprisingly, his ironclad control of state government helped reinforce his organization in his hometown. The Boss became an object of considerable civic pride, especially after national publications like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post began running articles about “Mr. Crump’s Memphis.” And after all, how could the local citizenry complain, when the State of Tennessee was essentially functioning as a public corporation run by and for its minority stockholders in Memphis?
As he rode on casual journeys through his domain, he watched the pavement as sharply as a kingfisher hunting shiners; his pink face lighted at the first sign of recognition. If people turned, he snatched a wide-brimmed grey hat from his ear-long white locks, nodded majestically as if thousands cheered, and cranked down the car window with incredible dexterity to bawl, “Hiya, boy!” He beamed as voices lifted in startled salutation.
“They like me,” he said. “To have a friend, be a friend. Some say live and let live. I say live and help live.” — Time magazine, May 27, 1946.
To explain the political success of Edward Hull Crump simply in terms of organizational efficiency and electoral manipulations is a bit too simplistic. As in the case of most major political figures from Julius Caesar to John F. Kennedy, his own character was of crucial importance. “There was really nothing very special about his techniques,” observes Memphis State professor Kenneth Wald. “But he was special in the sense that he had the foresight to use them to maximum advantage.”
Whatever one thinks of Crump’s ideals or methods, one must admit that he was a consummate politician, a man of genius in his chosen field who, for decades, never let his finger slip far away from the pulse of the community.
“Whatever history may say of Mr. Crump,” observed Shields MacIlwaine in his 1948 book, Memphis Down in Dixie, “it must say that in him Memphians were lucky: He was better than they deserved.” While he wielded as much (if not more) power as legendary bosses like Prendergast in Kansas City and Tweed in New York, his intentions were considerably more benevolent. No one ever accused Crump of taking a single dime out of the public coffers, and while many leading citizens found it politically expedient to maintain at least one insurance policy with E.H. Crump and Co., Crump went to great lengths to keep his business and political careers as separate as possible.
The man himself epitomized the classic Anglo-Saxon virtues; his entire life was one prudent pursuit of prosperity. “It is a fine thing to be an important person in the world,” he wrote to his son on one occasion, “but this always takes conscientious preparation. None of us just spring to fame or distinction overnight. There is no royal road to anything worthwhile.”
But whatever Crump was as a private individual, he became something else as a public figure. His benevolence was bestowed only upon those who agreed with him; with his enemies he could be considerably less charitable. A reporter for The Economist visited Memphis in 1943 and described him as “less the traditional American political leader and more the modern dictator.”
But was he? Crump’s rise to power, after all, was not accomplished by the sound of jackboots hitting the pavement. While he did use his enormous power to reward his friends and punish his enemies, there were no Brownshirts required in the Crump ranks, no Gestapo patrolling the three Parkways he built.
But in one respect his success was strikingly similar to that of Mussolini and Hitler. Like them, he was put into office by the people, by a populace quite willing to sacrifice the essentials of democracy for a government that was efficient and orderly, one that “got the job done.” So what if a few rebels got their heads shoved down? So what if a few labor organizers were beaten up in alleys? Weren’t the streets clean? Didn’t the buses run on time?
Memphis during the Thirties and the Forties may have been a dictatorship, but if it was, the fault lay not with Crump but with Memphians themselves. He could not have been anything they did not want him to be.
State Attorney-General Will Gerber spoke for most of the city’s citizens when he said this in 1941:
“Mr. Crump is engineer, conductor, and flagman. He runs the train. He has never run late, never had a wreck, and always been on time. We [in Memphis] are all tickled to death to be riding with him.”
No doubt there was always a certain amount of fraud and even intimidation involved in Memphis elections during the Crump era. But by and large such clumsy tactics were unnecessary. At a very early stage, the Boss wisely discerned that he could turn a potential political enemy — voter indifference — into a political ally. He was able to use money to mobilize apathetic citizens who might otherwise have stayed at home on election days. Less well-organized, his opponents failed to muster equal support. As far as most Memphians were concerned, they were just happy to be passengers on Mr. Crump’s train.