Shedding New Light on the 10 Most Corrupt Political Machines in American History

Shedding New Light on the 10 Most Corrupt Political Machines in American History

Larry Holzwarth - December 6, 2017

In the United States, the term political machine usually carries negative connotations – recognized as a device which distorts democracy. This is not entirely true, since a political machine requires a demonstrated ability to get voters to the polls in order to support its agenda. The image of a political machine dominating local politics is an old and well established one in the United States, usually they are depicted as corrupt and operating for the benefit of one or more wealthy individual. The film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington depicts an honest and eager young Senator going to battle against a corrupt machine, its presentation of good versus evil is clear and now classic.

Political machines use the power of patronage and a rewards system to advance the agenda of a political boss or bosses. They have, in the past, controlled local and state governments and have influenced the federal government many times. Machines are built to control successive elections over time rather than influence a single electoral cycle. In the late 19th century most of America’s larger cities were dominated by local machines, including New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Boston, Kansas City, Chicago and many others. The ability to control local politics led to increased influence over national affairs through the control of congressmen and senators, as well as influence in State Houses nationwide.

Shedding New Light on the 10 Most Corrupt Political Machines in American History
Tammany Hall logo in New York. Tammany Hall is almost synonymous with machine politics in America. Wikimedia

Here are ten political machines and their influence on American history, some of which is still felt today.

Shedding New Light on the 10 Most Corrupt Political Machines in American History
Harry F. Byrd Sr. when he was Governor of Virginia. Library of Congress

The Byrd Organization

For over forty years the Byrd Organization dominated political affairs in the Commonwealth of Virginia, operating mainly in the rural areas of the state. It was controlled by Harry F. Byrd Sr. and formed when he became governor of the state in 1925. In 1933 Byrd was elected Senator, a position he maintained until resigning in 1965.

The Byrd Organization relied on poll taxes to establish voter eligibility in rural counties, and Byrd personally approved candidates for the elected offices in each county. With control of all elected and appointed officials in the rural areas Byrd was assured of maintaining a majority of registered voters supportive of his views throughout the state, since the county officials controlled the voter registration rolls.

As a Senator Byrd’s control over state politics was unquestioned. He used the machine to oppose federally mandated school integration in Virginia, specifying a program of “massive resistance” to thwart desegregation. Through the use of his organization, Byrd ensured that Congressmen representing Virginia in the House were friendly to the machine, establishing allies in Congress as well as in the Statehouse in Richmond.

Unlike more well-known political machines, the Byrd Organization drew its strength from the rural districts and did not carry much influence in Virginia’s cities. Byrd strengthened his position in the rural areas through the use of manipulation of apportionment which favored the counties from which he drew his support.

Byrd resigned from the Senate in 1965, and through his influence with the Governor’s office had his son, Harry F. Byrd Jr, appointed to his Senate seat. Byrd died the following year and by the end of the 1960s the longstanding Byrd Organization was beginning to crumble. Harry Jr. remained in the Senate until 1983 when he retired. By then the Byrd Organization was a thing of the past, despite totally dominating Virginia politics for over forty years.

Shedding New Light on the 10 Most Corrupt Political Machines in American History
The Cincinnati Post reports then Secretary of War and Cincinnati native William Taft denouncing Boss Cox. The Cincinnati Post

George Cox

George “Boss” Cox was a son of English immigrants who grew up in Cincinnati working in several different jobs of a rough and tumble nature. By the 1870s Cox had purchased a bar in one of the city’s most notorious neighborhoods, known as Dead Man’s Corner for the number of unsolved killings which occurred in the area.

As a bartender with a reputation for strong armed tactics, as well as being a large man, Cox was soon recruited to help elected officials gain illegal votes. In 1879 Cox, tired of the multiple raids by the Cincinnati Police on his bar, ran for and won a seat on the City Council, which he held for two terms. The raids on his business stopped.

By 1885 Cox held the position of Chairmen of the Hamilton County Republican Committee, making him the most powerful Republican in the County. He never ran for another government office, instead he used money and patronage to keep voters in his pocket, and selected the candidates for elected office which his voters would then support. Once his candidates were in office Cox directed them to award city jobs and contracts to his loyal supporters.

Cox routinely paid voters from nearby Indiana and Kentucky to vote illegally in Cincinnati elections, and sought support from Democrats by appointing 40% of city jobs to members of that party, for which he required a kickback of a portion of their salary to the Republican Committee. The money thus raised was used to pay for the illegal votes when needed.

Cox pushed his officials to enlarge the city by annexing several of the neighborhoods which surrounded it, hoping to enlarge his voter base and his influence. It proved to be his undoing. As more of the outlying areas entered the city he found a greater number of middle class voters who were not dependent on city largesse and could not be bought. In 1905 William Howard Taft, a Cincinnati native who was then Secretary of War, called the Cox machine “local despotism” despite Taft’s brother being one of Cox’s strongest supporters. Cox retired in 1911 after his candidate for Mayor failed to win election, signifying his control of Cincinnati politics was at an end. He died five years later.

Shedding New Light on the 10 Most Corrupt Political Machines in American History
Tom Pendergast ran his political machine in Kansas City Missouri from this hotel. Wikipedia

The Pendergast Machine in Kansas City

Thomas Pendergast used his position as the Chairman of the Jackson County Missouri Democratic Party to control Kansas City and Jackson County from the mid-1920s through 1939, along the way helping a failed clothing merchant named Harry Truman enter politics. Pendergast briefly held office as an Alderman before using his position as party chairman to control the city and county governments, enriching himself in the process.

During prohibition Kansas City was openly promoted as a wide open town, with both alcohol and gambling allowed despite both being outlawed by federal law in the first case, and Missouri law in the second. Bribery of the Kansas City police force ensured that businesses which were friendly to Pendergast remained unmolested by officers. Pendergast routinely fixed elections to ensure those in political power were friendly to him, in return city and county contracts were awarded to supportive businesses, many of them his own.

Pendergast wooed voters, particularly among the poor and unemployed during the Depression, by hosting lavish dinners during holidays, and by arranging jobs with the city or county, often through his own companies. During the heyday of his machine, voter turnout was frequently near 100%, despite many people later claiming to not have voted. Others voted more than once. Walter Cronkite later recalled being driven to the polls by Pendergast men several times and voting repeatedly in one election while working for UPI in Kansas City, each time under a different name.

Pendergast extended his reach into nearby cities such as Omaha and Wichita, through family connections and business cronies. By the mid-1930s some of his supporters were involved with organized crime and election related violence and intimidation became more rampant. When Missouri Governor Lloyd Stark’s (whom Pendergast has supported) election was revealed to have been corrupted by the Pendergast machine Stark turned against him, supporting federal investigations into the machine.

Pendergast’s influence began to wane in the mid-1930s as federal investigations and poor health took their toll on him. In 1939 he was convicted of tax evasion and served fifteen months for failing to report money he had received as a bribe. After completing his sentence he effectively retired from politics. When he died in 1945 then Vice President Harry Truman attended his funeral, the only elected political figure to do so.

Shedding New Light on the 10 Most Corrupt Political Machines in American History
Boss Tweed hated Thomas Nast’s cartoons of him, claiming that most of his constituents couldn’t read but they could see the pictures. Harper’s Weekly

William Tweed and the Tweed Ring

William Magear Tweed was the leader – called the Grand Sachem – of Tammany Hall from 1858 to 1871. It has been estimated that throughout the course of his political career he used machine politics to steal up to $200 million from the taxpayers of New York. Through the use of what became known as the Tweed Ring he placed friends in elected positions in the city, including the office of City Recorder, the New York County District Attorney, and the City Comptroller.

Tweed proposed a new city charter for New York and paid more than $600,000 in bribes to ensure it passed, allowing him to strengthen his hold on the city by electing Tammany Hall members to all of the city’s Alderman positions. The city’s finances were run by a Board of Audit, consisting of Tweed and two cronies, one of which was the Mayor, another Tammany Hall member. Their combined stealing from the city wasn’t even disguised, they directed contractors to multiply their bills by a specific amount. When the check was cashed by a third party and the contractor paid for their work, the amount of the multiple was divided amongst the Tweed Ring.

In one example, a plasterer working on the New York Courthouse was “paid” today’s equivalent of over $1.8 million for two days work. Tweed used his wealth to become one of the leading real estate developers in New York, buying undeveloped property and using City funds to improve it. He became the third largest property owner in New York using stolen money. His control of the city’s Alderman positions ensured that any new business or public improvement in the city required bribes being paid to him before being presented for approval.

Tweed’s control of Tammany Hall, which was a Democratic Political Machine which operated ward bosses – New York City’s smallest political divisions were wards – kept him out of trouble with voters through patronage. The graft and corruption of the machine under Tweed was well known, but such was his power that little could be done to stop him. Tweed became so corrupt that he nearly brought Tammany Hall down with him, but in the end the Hall survived when Tweed did not.

The Tweed Ring’s corruption is unquestioned, but during its heyday while lining their pockets it also provided services to the people of New York. Schools, orphanages, and hospitals all benefited from funds directed to them by the Tweed Ring, and through Tammany Hall Tweed pushed the state legislature to subsidize private schools, including Catholic schools. Despite the positives developed for the City of New York, Tweed – and Tammany Hall, which existed for almost two centuries before and following him – is the symbol of a corrupt political machine.

Shedding New Light on the 10 Most Corrupt Political Machines in American History
Anton Cermak founded the Chicago machine which Richard Daley perfected. Library of Congress

Richard Daley and the Cook County Democratic Party

With Richard J. Daley as its Chairman, a position he held for 22 years, the Cook County Democratic Party was a political machine with power unexcelled by any in American history. For twenty of those years Daley held office as Mayor of Chicago. Officially Chicago has a weak mayor system, with power lying in the hands of city council. Daley’s position as Chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party provided him with powerful influence over the city’s wards and primaries, and thus over who sat on the council.

Under Daley, the machine held sway over a sub-machine which focused on the needs of African American voters and was led by William Dawson. In primarily African American wards, Dawson acted as his own boss, dispensing political patronage and rewards in the form of political appointments just as Daley did throughout the rest of the city. Dawson’s support was critical to the overall machine, yet at the same time dependent upon it, since the patronage he dispensed first had to be dispensed to him via Daley.

When John Kennedy ran for President in 1960 – one of the closest elections in American history – the state of Illinois was critical, with 27 electoral votes available. Kennedy carried Illinois by 9,000 votes. In Cook County Kennedy won by more than 450,000 votes, a victory which has been credited to the effectiveness of the Cook County Democratic Party in getting out the votes in all of the city’s wards.

Daley didn’t create the political machine in Chicago, it was formed in the early 1930s by Anton Cermak. But Daley brought the machine to its highest point, controlling more than 35,000 patronage jobs. Daley circumvented civil service regulations by hiring workers to fill “temporary” jobs, thus keeping them in the hands of Democratic loyalists and reducing the strength of the opposition party. It was common practice when a civil servant retired to fill the position temporarily with a Democrat who needed a job, with a civil service exam to be scheduled sometime in an undefined future.

The Chicago political machine was significantly weakened after Daley when the Shakman Decrees ended the practice of politically motivated hiring or firing of workers. Since Daley no Mayor of Chicago has served as the Chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, limiting the Mayor’s influence on the wards, and the Mayor of Chicago today has little of the power which was so evident under Richard Daley.

Shedding New Light on the 10 Most Corrupt Political Machines in American History
E H Crump was the master of Memphis politics for decades. Wikipedia

Edward Hull Crump

E.H. Crump was a southern Democratic politician who ran a political machine in Memphis, Tennessee for forty years. The Crump machine linked business interests in Memphis to political interests at the local, state and national levels and Crump personally selected each Mayor of Memphis from 1910, when he was elected to the position himself serving until 1915, through 1954. Crump combined a successful career as a businessman with politics to build his machine.

As Mayor of Memphis in 1911, Crump petitioned the state to pass a law which allowed the city to be run by a commission. Crump then retained control of the commission. Crump was solicitous of the African American vote at a time when most large southern cities denied them the right, and kept close contact with African American community leaders, despite Memphis being segregated at the time. During prohibition Crump, through the commission, turned a blind eye towards illegal alcohol, drawing the wrath of state legislators, who passed a law which would allow the state to oust elected officials who did not enforce the law.

Crump prevented those who disagreed with his management of the city by dominating the newspapers, limiting their voice, and dispensed patronage in the form of jobs and city services. Elections were controlled through the manipulation of voter registration rolls and ballots. Crump was an early and avid supporter of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which earned him the gratitude of the President and ample federal relief during the Depression in the form of jobs and building projects. These were awarded to voters who were known to be loyal to the machine.

Crump served two terms in Congress in the 1930s before returning to Memphis, preferring to remain behind the scenes as he used his influence to control the city. In 1939 he was again elected Mayor, although he had no intention of serving in that capacity. He ran solely so that his designee for mayor, then serving in Congress, was not forced to abandon his congressional duties to campaign for mayor. Crump won the election, was sworn in as mayor, resigned, and the next day the commission appointed his designee, Walter Chandler, as Mayor of Memphis.

Shedding New Light on the 10 Most Corrupt Political Machines in American History
Frank Hague dominated New Jersey politics from his position as the leader of a political machine in Jersey City. Wikipedia

Frank Hague and the Organization

Frank Hague was a New Jersey Democrat who served as Mayor of Jersey City from 1917 until 1947. He also served as Vice-Chairman of the Democratic National Committee for twenty-five years, while controlling a political machine known simply as the Organization, which controlled political activities at the local, state, and national levels. He used his political machine to amass significant personal wealth, estimated to have exceeded $10 million by the time of his death, although his salary never was greater than $8,500 annually.

Hague rose through the ranks of the existing Democratic machine in New Jersey politics, serving as a ward boss and building alliances, and joined in the push to change the government of Jersey city from a Mayor and City Council form to one of a five member commission, with the members of the commission selecting one of their group to serve as mayor, a largely ceremonial title. After the charter passed Hague was elected to the commission in 1913. In 1917 he ran again and despite not receiving the most votes of the five elected commissioners was selected as mayor of Jersey City.

After taking office as mayor Hague seized control of the Democratic Party in New Jersey, which allowed him to control candidates for every elected position in the state. Hague also used his position to control voter registration rolls. In the late 1930s Jersey City’s voter registration rolls listed 160,050 voters despite the census reflecting that less than 150,000 residents of the city were over 21 years of age, then legal voting age.

Hague’s control over Jersey City and Hudson County, an area of the state which was heavily populated, gave him influence with the Governor, who needed his votes, and the President, who provided the area with federal jobs to be distributed through Hague’s machine.

Hague used his self-appointed position as public safety commissioner to muzzle dissent in Jersey City, refusing to issue permits for gatherings of organizations which he felt were in opposition to him under the guise of prevention of disturbances. Hague appointed his son-in-law as his successor when he retired as mayor in 1947 and continued to run the machine behind the scenes for another two years.

Shedding New Light on the 10 Most Corrupt Political Machines in American History
Chester Arthur, 21st President of the United States, was a Stalwart who favored machine politics until he entered office. Wikipedia

The Stalwarts

The Stalwarts were a faction of the Republican Party who opposed the idea of civil service reform, in which career government jobs would no longer be dispensed by elected officials, and supported the process of machine politics. The Stalwarts supported the practice of political patronage. Most were from the South following Reconstruction.

From 1877 through 1890 the Stalwarts struggled for control of the Republican Party. In 1877 Rutherford B. Hayes had become president, succeeding Ulysses Grant, and had initiated reforms through executive orders which restricted the spoils system from being the basis for jobs in the federal civil service.

Machine politics is entirely dependent on the ability of officeholders to control voter behavior, and the award of jobs had since the days of Andrew Jackson’s presidency been one of the prime means of retaining control over voters. Throughout his presidency Hayes attempted to persuade Congress to pass significant civil service reform, which Congress refused to do.

In 1880 the Stalwarts attempted to nominate Ulysses S. Grant to run for a third term as President, inspired by the widely practiced use of patronage during his first two terms. The Stalwarts hoped that with Grant as President the influence of the political machines would be strengthened, rather than weakened by civil service reforms and other measures Hayes supported regarding campaign contributions.

The Republican’s instead nominated James Garfield, with Chester Arthur, a Stalwart, as his running mate. Arthur became president when Garfield was assassinated by a self-proclaimed Stalwart, Charles Guiteau. Ironically, Arthur helped to initiate civil service reform, convinced in part that Garfield had been elected to do so, and the Stalwart faction of the Republican party faded into oblivion.

Shedding New Light on the 10 Most Corrupt Political Machines in American History
Bronx boss Edward J Flynn – in hat – talks with a reporter outside the White House. Getty

Edward J. Flynn

Edward Flynn was a Democratic politician from the Bronx, who served in several elected positions in his political career, but wielded his real power as Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Bronx County Democratic Committee for more than thirty years. Flynn became one of FDR’s most trusted political advisors. Flynn ruled the Bronx and the Democratic voters there, ensuring that Roosevelt received the needed support of the borough.

As with all bosses in the world of political machines, Flynn rewarded loyalty with patronage, but was notably successful in avoiding the corruption which prevailed in so many other locales and machines. The New Deal championed by FDR provided ample opportunities for federal funds to be diverted, as happened in Kansas City and elsewhere, but the Bronx under Flynn remained scandal and corruption free.

Flynn traveled to Yalta with FDR, and later met with the Pope at the president’s request, but retained his control over local politics in the Bronx. He ran FDR’s campaigns for his third and fourth election victories, and later worked for Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman.

Flynn’s political savvy and renowned ability to get out the vote, honed in the Bronx over many years, was used to help the Democratic parties of other localities ensure that large numbers of otherwise disinterested voters turned out in November 1948, helping Truman to pull off his upset victory over Dewey.

Flynn later published a memoir describing his career in party politics which describes the operation of the political machine in the Bronx and elsewhere. Entitled You’re the Boss it contains a clear explanation – and justification – of the role and function of the boss of a political machine.

Shedding New Light on the 10 Most Corrupt Political Machines in American History
Lyndon Johnson campaigning for the Senate in 1948, the beginning of his political career. Air & Space Magazine

The Parr Machine of South Texas

The Parr political machine controlled Jim Wells County and Duval County in South Texas through most of the 20th century. The Parr machine used bribery, graft, and coercion to obtain votes from Mexican-Americans. The Parr machine could easily produce large numbers of votes and gradually pushed out most of the white, educated population in the south Texas counties.

In 1948, Lyndon Johnson was running in the Democratic primary for the United States Senate against Coke Stephenson and several other candidates. Stephenson and Johnson advanced to a runoff election against each other. In the runoff, Stephenson carried Jim Wells County by 112 votes, according to initial returns.

County officials amended the returns after the votes were counted, claiming to have found a previously uncounted ballot box. When the box was opened and counted it contained 202 votes, 200 of which were for Johnson, who went to Washington with a new nickname – Landslide Lyndon.

By the 1950s Texas officials and federal officials began investigating the machine and its members for various crimes. Federal efforts were often curtailed by the rising political career and power of Lyndon Johnson.

In the late 1960s Johnson’s political career came to an end, and he and others advised the leading member of the Parr machine, George Parr, to relinquish control. Parr later committed suicide after being convicted by federal authorities of tax evasion. Although the machine largely fell apart after his death the Parr family network still retains significant influence in South Texas politics.