San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The Political Machine of
Mr. Crump of Memphis, Tennessee

Edward Hull Crump, Jr. came to Memphis in 1893 at age 18 from Holly Springs, Mississippi with 25 cents in his pocket. Within a decade he was on his way to virtually running the city. He had dropped out of school at fourteen and gone to work. After working at a variety of jobs he took a course in bookkeeping and was able to work his way up from clerical jobs to a managerial position. He joined social clubs and at age 27 he married the daughter of a socially prominent family. His wife's family provided him with the funds to buy out his employer. He then started to think about going into politics. In 1903 he ran for some minor offices in the local Democratic Party organization and set his sights in securing a paid political office.

Established political elements were displeased with the Memphis government at that time. Tax rates were considered too high and public services such as street repair, fire protection and public safety were inadequate. Memphis was reputed to have the highest murder rate in the nation. Drunkenness, gambling and prostitution were prevalent and visible. An aspiring politician named K.D. McKellar put together a reform slate in 1905 and Crump was a candidate for the Board of Public Works. This board not only had responsibility for street construction, street lights and public buildings, it was the lower chamber of the city council of Memphis. The upper chamber was the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners.

Early in his campaign Crump discovered that he just could not make a public speech. He was personable and charming in small groups but simply froze up in front of a formal audience. He tried to make up for his inability to speak publically by extensive personal contact and it was successful. His red hair made him easy to remember.

The Board of Public Works was a disappointment to Crump. The duties were not notable and all his proposals were ignored by the mayor and the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners. In 1907 a vacancy developed in the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners to be filled by an election in November. Instead of immediately announcing his candidacy Crump first resigned in protest from the Board of Public Works and denounced the inaction of the mayor in carrying out reforms. After newspapers praised his sincerity concerning reform then Crump entered the race for the vacant position on the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners. He won.

Almost immediately he started working on becoming mayor. He publically charged the Chief of Police with ignoring gambling and after-hours drinking establishments. He deputized 18 of his friends and with a newspaper reporter raided several gambling operations. This got him favorable publicity. He also challenged the fairness of the leadership of the Shelby County Democratic Party organizations. Again there was not any change but Crump got favorable publicity as an ardent reformer. Crump also championed an organizational reform in the structure of city government to the mayor-commission form. He also attacked the low assessed valuation of railroad property in the city.

Additionally Crump had the support of W.C. Handy the creator of the "blues." Handy wrote a song called the "E.H. Crump Blues," and led a band which performed on street corners to draw a crowd for Crump rallies. The song's words were not quite an endorsement of Crump but it was still good publicity. The words were:

Mr. Crump won't allow no easy-riders here,
Mr. Crump won't allow no easy-riders here,
I don't care what Mr. Crump won't allow,
I'm gonna barrelhouse anyhow.
Mr. Crump can go and catch hisself some air.

At that time there was a poll tax of $2 that discouraged many people from voting. Generally throughout the South Black people could not vote, particularly in the Democratic Party primary, which effectively was the real election since Republican Party membership was minimal. In Memphis, which was 40 percent Black, Blacks did vote because it served the interest of the White politicians to have a substantial Black vote they could control. The White politicians bought blocks of poll tax receipts which they provided to the Black voters with instructions of how to vote. In return for their voting, Blacks got barbeque, Coca Cola, whisky and watermelons.

Ed Crump won the mayor's race by 79 votes out of a total of about twelve thousand votes. For four decades thereafter Crump was a major player if not a dominating influence in Memphis and Tennessee politics. Crump sent a lobbyist to Nashville, the state capital, to promote changes in the law which would reform the structure of government in Memphis and Shelby County.

Crump brought efficient and economical government to Memphis and in the next election in 1911 he beat his opponent, the same one as in the previous election, by 11,432 votes to 3,536. The state legislature increased the term of office of the mayor from two years to four years.

Crump then made a couple of political blunders. First, he announced he was going to run for Sheriff of Shelby County while remaining Mayor of Memphis. By the time a court ruled that it is illegal for someone to hold two elective offices it was too late to get the name of Crump's choice for sheriff on the ballot. Despite this Crump organized a write-in vote campaign for John Reichman for sheriff. This involved not only persuading literate voters to write in this name but also teaching illiterate voters to write this name. The name had to be spelled correctly to count. Despite the odds, Crump's organization was successful. Years later there were people in Memphis who could spell only one word--"Reichman."

Crump was not able to recover from the second mistake so effectively. The State Legislature voted for prohibition of alcoholic beverages in Tennessee in 1909. The governor vetoed the measure but the legislature over-rode that veto. The law was not popular in Memphis and Ed Crump did not favor the enforcement of the law. The State did not attempt to enforce the law so there was not a crisis. Crump tried to arrange a deal with a new governor which would allow Memphis government to ignore the state prohibition law. The governor refused and Crump tried, unsuccessfully, to defeat him at his next election. The governor retaliated by promoting legislation which allowed individuals to arrange for the closure of saloons.

Nevertheless in 1912 Crump chose to formally announce that Memphis would not enforce the law. This action did create a legal crisis. Prohibitionists demanded that courts oust Crump from the mayorship of Memphis. New state legislation was passed in Nashville which provided for the removal from office of any official who did not enforce the state laws. The situation was complicated by Crump's threat to take over a local electrical power company. Opponents of that move hoped to bring down Crump on the prohibition enforcement issue. The contest between Crump and his enemies dragged on until almost 1916 when Crump was re-elected to a new term of office. The court ruled that Crump was to be removed from office for non-enforcement of prohibition but that applied only to his 1912-1916 term. So Crump was removed from office under his old term but his opposition could not get an order for his ouster from his new term as mayor until he was sworn in. Crump's people got permission to delay his swearing in. Final Crump was sworn in and then immediately resigned.

At this point Crump decided to run Memphis through intermediaries. He set up an insurance company with offices close to city hall and ran things unofficially. People in local government and people wanting contracts with the city found it advisable to get their insurance from Crump's agency. Had Crump had an official position in local government this insurance business would have been a problem.

Ed Crump's influence in state and federal politics came as a result of the special political structure of Tennessee. Politically Tennessee is divided into three parts.

Eastern Tennessee is part of Appalachia and Republican in its political orientation. In the Civil War eastern Tennessee was loyal to the Union even though Tennessee joined the Confederacy. Middle and western Tennessee are predominantly Democratic but nevertheless they are rivals for political power. Nashville dominates middle Tennessee and Memphis dominates western Tennessee. In Crump's career he frequently allied himself with Republican Party bosses in eastern Tennessee in his political contests with middle Tennessee.

Crump next sought the post of County Trustee, a job which had little in the way of duties except collect a fee on all money transaction between local residents and Shelby County. The holder got no salary but received from $30,000 to $50,000 a year in fees when other city positions paid a salary of around $8,000. Crump campaigned and won the post with the considerable help of the saloonkeepers of Memphis. This gave him a substantial and assured income.

When Ed Crump resigned as mayor he left in office a man he expected to be a puppet. When the puppet rebelled Crump promoted the election of another. This one also was independent and so Crump got someone else elected. This one was also a disappointment to Crump and Crump went to Nashville to arrange for Memphis to have a city-manager form of government, which would thus abolish the office of mayor. He was almost successful.

Having failed with his plan to abolish the mayor's office Crump was forced to choose between a candidate, Rowlett Paine, that had criticized him or the candidate supported by the resurgent Ku Klux Klan of the 1920's. Crump chose Paine and got him elected. But Crump was not satisfied with Paine and at the next election, in 1927, ran Watkins Overton for mayor. Overton won. Overton was a Harvard-educated member of the Memphis elite but he was entirely willing to let Crump run Memphis for him.

Boss Ed Crump and
Memphis Mayor Wat Overton
This picture tells it all.

Crump had become a wealthy man. His insurance business was successful and he owned a wide variety of other business interests, such as a Coca Cola franchise for upstate New York.

Crump's control over Memphis was tenuous as long as his political enemies controlled the state government in Nashville. One such enemy was Colonel Luke Lea, a former U.S. senator who owned several important newspapers and many businesses throughout Tennessee. Lea, like Crump, did not now run for public office but promoted candidates who would do his bidding. Lea allied himself with Clarence Saunders, a Memphis entrepreneur who invented the supermarket with his chain of Piggly Wiggly stores. Saunders lost control of the Piggly Wiggly chain but tried a comeback with an automated form of convenience stores called Kadoozles. When these failed he established a chain of stores which carried signs reading, "Clarence Saunders, Sole Owner of My Name." Saunders had a reputation for contrariness and eccentricity. Clarence Saunders had hopes of replacing Ed Crump as the dominant political leader of Memphis.

Crump's candidate for governor carried Memphis by a very large margin (about 24 thousand to less than 4 thousand) and won in Nashville as well but lost by a few percent because of the rural counties' vote for the other candidate, Henry Horton. Although Horton won the governorship Crump was able to use his influence in the legislature to thwart Horton on major issues. At the next election Crump supported another term for Horton and Colonel Luke Lea's papers supported Crump's campaign to become the U.S. representative from Memphis. The Memphis area then gave Henry Horton a vote of over 27 thousand to a little over two thousand; a remarkable turnaround.

Ed Crump had no trouble winning election to Congress in 1930. But his sojourn in Washington was interrupted by financial and political events in Nashville. The economic downturn of 1930 had led to the failure of many banks around the country. The banks belonging to Colonel Luke Lea and his associates seemed to be surviving the hard times. But, in fact, they were not. They were staving off bankruptcy by illegally using state funds on deposit with them. When they finally did go broke there were millions of dollars of state funds lost. Since Governor Henry Horton had been backed by Colonel Lea and his associates the state losses were blamed upon him. There were calls for impeachment. Ed Crump went to Nashville and arranged for his men to be in strategic positions if Horton's government fell. Impeachment failed as it usually does when the official in power can and does use the power of the office to buy off the impeachment proponents. Nevertheless, with the Luke Lea organization destroyed, Crump was unchallenged in Tennessee politics.

Although dominant in Tennessee, Representative E.H. Crump in Washington in 1931 was not an important political player. His difficulty with public speaking prevented him from being active in the floor debates. Nevertheless the press paid some attention to him as a result of his status in Tennessee politics and because Crump was adroit at giving them quotable statements, often maxims. Crump told reporters that as a new member of the House of Representatives his job was to "observe, remember, compare, read, confer, listen and ask questions." His maxim was to "plan his work and work his plan."

Crump did have leadership influence among the members of Congress from Tennessee because they knew he was the key to their re-election. Ed Crump developed a long term political alliance with one of the senators from Tennessee, Kenneth Douglas MacKellar, popularly known as Kay Dee. Crump was an early supporter of Franklin Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination for President.

In Tennessee politics Crump decided to support Hill McAlister for governor. There were two other candidates for governor, Lewis Pope and Malcolm Patterson. Lewis Pope was the strongest opponent but Crump did not neglect Patterson in the campaign. Crump was fond of and adroit at writing political advertisements. One newspaper political advertisement written by Crump said of Patterson, a former governor and reformed alcoholic,

Drunk or sober he is the same Patterson today as of old... the same local and long-distance liar that he has been for years.

When Memphis newspapers charged that Crump would use fraudulent means to win the election for McAlister, Crump came back with a paid political advertisement that said in large letter,

Thieves Don't Work for Something They Intend to Steal.

Crump pointed out the money and effort that had been expended by his organization on behalf of McAlister.

In the election Lewis Pope was ahead in the rest of Tennessee by twenty thousand votes when it came time for the Shelby County votes to be reported. In Shelby County McAlister received more than 31 thousand votes to Pope's 2,318, way more than enough to offset Pope's lead elsewhere. Pope filed charges of election fraud with the Democratic state committee. This committee was controlled by Crump supporters so Pope might as well have saved his effort. The charges were dismissed.

McAlister was somewhat of a disappointment as governor for Crump. Crump reluctantly supported him for re-election in 1934. McAlister supported retaining prohibition in Tennessee after it was repealed at a national level. The 1930's Depression was hitting state finances hard and McAlister proposed a sales tax to support schools. Crump was opposed to this sales tax and used his influence to defeat it in the Tennessee Legislature. Crump said of McAlister that he was the "sorriest governor," one "who kept the sales tax hidden in his stony heart and tried in a sneaking way to put it over us."

After two terms as congressman Crump decided to concentrate on Tennessee politics. In the 1936 governor's race Senator Kay Dee MacKellar supported one candidate, Burgin Dossett, and thought Crump had acquiesced to his selection. But only 19 days before the primary Crump decided to support Gordon Browning for governor. Browning had been part of Luke Lea's group. By this time Crump could deliver a plurality of sixty to seventy thousand votes for his candidates in any state race. Through a political arrangement with Republican organizations in east Tennessee he could obtain another 10,000 votes for his candidates.

A major part of this machine vote came from the votes of Blacks which Crump controlled in Memphis. Memphis was at that time 40 percent Black. Memphis' high proportion of Black population stemmed from Civil War days when the Union Army set up camps for freed slaves in the vicinity of Memphis. When the war was over many of those freedmen stayed in Memphis. Historically there was extensive voting by Blacks in Memphis but the 1890 poll tax law put the price of voting ($2) beyond the means of most Blacks. Crump's organization would buy great quantities of the poll tax receipts which were required for voting. At election times Crump's organization would provide barbeque, drinks and watermelons as well as poll tax receipts to Black voters. The organization supplied these Black voters with not only instruction on whom to vote for but often on whom to vote as; i.e., giving them the names of registered voters. In this way Crump's Black voters could be trucked to several polling stations and cast their votes for the machine candidates.

But the Black vote was not the only source of Crump's election support. There were thousands of people and their families that owed their jobs to Crump. There were other thousands that honestly thought that Crump gave them efficient, economical government.

During Crump's era Memphis won national awards for the quality of its public services; e.g.,

Crump had the support of the church groups in Memphis, the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA), the local American Federation of Labor, the American Legion and the Chamber of Commerce.

Crump wanted personal credit for all of his programs. If any of his underlings appeared to be taking credit for something, even something Crump wanted, Crump would fight against it until it could later be reintroduced by him. Any underling, even the Mayor of Memphis, Wat Overton, who was guilty of appearing to take credit for a Crump project was dead politically. Crump could be very vindictive. He was even vindictive to anyone who did not show him proper deference, such as referring to him as "boss." Crump was fond of forcing his underlings to sing on demand, even if it made them look foolish.

Public facilities such as the municipal stadium were named after Crump. There was an E.H. Crump Day during the Midsouth Fair held every year in Memphis. At sporting events the crowd was expected to cheer when Crump arrived.

Although Crump could assure the election of the candidates that he selected he was not able to guarantee their loyalty once elected. Crump was instrumental in the election of Gordon Browning as governor. But Browning was independent of Crump. Luke Lea had been released from prison and was consulting with Browning. Browning set out to break Crump's power over Tennessee politics. Browning proposed two measures to bring this about. He proposed a county-unit voting system like that in effect in Georgia which would reduce the electoral power of the big city counties. Shelby County's share of state-wide votes would be reduced from 25 percent to 13 percent. Browning was able to secure passage of this measure in the Legislature, but Crump still had an ace up his sleeve. Crump challenged the constitutionality of the act in the Tennessee Supreme Court. This court, dominated by friends of Crump, declared the county-unit system unconstitutional.

Browning ran for re-election as governor in 1938. He tried other means to reduce Crump's electoral power, such as gaining control of the state election board and having it purge the Shelby County registration list of fraudulent names. The board eliminated 14 thousand names out of a total of 117,000 but the stricken names were probably returned to the registration list after the election board left town.

The battle between Crump and Browning continued in the paid political advertisements. Crump said of Browning in one ad, that Browning was "A bigoted boor [whose] heart has beat over two billion times without a single sincere beat." In another advertisement Crump said,

In a certain art gallery in France there are twenty six pictures of Judas Iscariot.
None of them is alike, but they all resemble Gordon Browning.

Browning announced that he had ordered 1200 national guardsmen to police the polling places in Shelby County on election day. Crump had his cousin, the Federal District Court Judge, to issue an injunction against Browning's order.

On election day Shelby County gave a more than fifty thousand vote plurality to Prentice Cooper for governor. Gordon Browning was defeated.

Crump's power continued after World War II but it began to wane when returning veterans were unwilling to accept the dictatorial methods of machine bosses like Crump.

Crump fought a losing battle against organized labor in Memphis. Crump lost prestige in the Senate race of 1948. He referred to Estes Kefauver as being like a pet raccoon and Kefauver capitalized upon this by saying that while he might be a pet raccoon he was not Boss Crump's pet raccoon. Someone gave Kefauver a coonskin cap which he wore to the delight of crowds. Kefauver won the Senate race handily, with Crump's candidate coming in as a poor third.

Crump tried a comeback in 1952. Gordon Browning was running for governor again. Crump was supporting Frank Clement. Crump however was no longer writing paid political advertisements. Nevertheless the Clement organization publicized some Crump comments about Browning:

Frank Clement beat Browning by 47 thousand votes but Crump's friend and political ally, Kay Dee MacKellar, lost the Senate race to Representative Albert Gore, the grandfather of the Albert Gore who was elected vice-president in 1992. On October 16, 1954 Edward Crump died of a heart ailment at age 80.

Personal Anecdote:

I knew a physician who practiced medicine in Memphis during the Crump years. At one time he was told that he had been selected to be the physician who periodically medically examined the women who worked in the brothels run by Crump. He refused to do it. People were aghast and said to him, "You don't say No to Boss Crump!" However he found that nothing happened to him.


For the story of other political bosses and their machines see Bosses

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