U.S. Senate Committee Begins Investigating Organized Crime Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The U.S. Senate’s Kefauver Committee explored the full extent of organized crime in the United States, holding televised hearings at a time when television was still new. The hearings commanded the attention of the entire nation at the height of the Cold War, bringing to light the country’s own war: domestic crime. The hearings also confirmed what many already knew: Organized crime existed in the United States.

Summary of Event

The American economy surged during the early 1950’s, leading to a rise in criminal enterprises that assumed legitimacy for Money laundering money-laundering purposes behind the facades of burgeoning businesses. Organized crime syndicates expanded their operations from urban centers to suburban areas. In early 1950, a probe of nationwide crime syndicates would be engineered by Estes Kefauver, a former U.S. representative and a Democratic senator from Tennessee. At the urging of Kefauver, the U.S. Senate formed the Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce on May 3. [kw]Organized Crime, U.S. Senate Committee Begins Investigating (May 3, 1950) Kefauver, Estes Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce Congress, U.S.;Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce Kefauver, Estes Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce Congress, U.S.;Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce [g]United States;May 3, 1950: U.S. Senate Committee Begins Investigating Organized Crime[00890] [c]Gambling;May 3, 1950: U.S. Senate Committee Begins Investigating Organized Crime[00890] [c]Government;May 3, 1950: U.S. Senate Committee Begins Investigating Organized Crime[00890] [c]Organized crime and racketeering;May 3, 1950: U.S. Senate Committee Begins Investigating Organized Crime[00890] [c]Radio and television;May 3, 1950: U.S. Senate Committee Begins Investigating Organized Crime[00890] [c]Popular culture;May 3, 1950: U.S. Senate Committee Begins Investigating Organized Crime[00890] [c]Publishing and journalism;May 3, 1950: U.S. Senate Committee Begins Investigating Organized Crime[00890] Graham, Philip

Members of the Kefauver Committee in Washington, D.C. in June, 1950.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

News reports by Washington Post;and organized crime[organized crime] The Washington Post on the extent of organized crime across the United States led to the full-scale senatorial investigation. Philip Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, approached Kefauver for his reputation, political ties, and regional interests. Kefauver’s media savvy, coupled with his experience as the attorney for the Chattanooga News prior to his political career, positioned him as the ideal senator to head the investigation. Kefauver sponsored the probe at Graham’s request, but the investigation was one he had considered prior to Graham’s prompting.

When Kefauver won his Senate seat in 1948, his familiarity with antitrust cases endowed him with the skill to head the Senate’s organized crime probe. His intention was purely to boost the Democratic Party’s image and bring to light the pervasiveness of organized crime in the United States, and yet it also led to his name being considered for the 1952 Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1952 presidential election.

Kefauver’s work on a subcommittee that probed judicial corruption alerted him to the links between the judiciary and organized crime. His contacts with other investigators on the committee kept him updated on crime at the state level, thus increasing his awareness of how often crime crossed state boundaries and thus became a federal issue. As a response to the expansion of criminal activities in the United States, Kefauver drafted bills dealing with interstate crime, but those bills were ineffective because information about how organized crime syndicates operated nationally was not centralized.

Kefauver’s resolution of January 5, 1950, led to the formation of the committee. The first component of the Senate probe addressed gambling, mainly because it had observable interstate implications. The investigation, however, languished at the judiciary-committee level because that committee’s chairman, Senator Pat McCarran, was from Nevada, where much gambling was legal. Kefauver courted the media, and after a month the press forced McCarran to broaden the committee’s probe. On April 6, while the investigation languished, a Kansas City Democratic boss and overlord, Charles Binaggio, along with his chief lieutenant, Charles Fargotta, were murdered. Public sentiment demanded the slayings be investigated, and Democratic interests helped push through Kefauver’s resolution for fear they would be accused of a cover-up.

The Senate brought together members of the judiciary, interstate, and foreign commerce committees. Finally, in May, Kefauver’s resolution from January was approved and the work began. Kefauver’s main objective was to educate the public about the seriousness and insidiousness of organized crime in the United States. He also wanted to out major crime bosses. Public knowledge of and interest in the hearing was minimal in the beginning. The first hearing was held in Miami on May 26 and 27. In June, public hearings were held in Washington, D.C. Interest began to spread across the country as hearings were held in Tampa, Florida; St. Louis, Missouri; Kansas City, Kansas; Chicago; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; New York City; Philadelphia; Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; San Francisco; and New Orleans.

The Kefauver Committee heard testimony from more than six hundred witnesses, including crime bosses, criminal investigators, and petty criminals. Politicians such as New Jersey governor Harold G. Hoffman and New York mayor William O’Dwyer gave candid testimony that ruined their careers. Committee hearings revealed evidence of corruption, bribery, vice, and extortion at many levels, including government.

Impact

Kefauver’s resolution set a precedent for conducting Senate investigations: Probes would first discover the root of an issue and then would develop steps to correct problems. Furthermore, the committee proved to a wide audience that organized crime existed to a significant extent in the United States. Because the hearings were broadcast live into many homes during the 1950’s, during the early years of television ownership, Americans were introduced to the subtle yet pervasive criminal elements of the country, organized elements that extended into their local communities.

A byproduct of Kefauver’s widespread appeal following the hearings was his eventual bid to become U.S. president. As the committee chairman, Kefauver had a name and image that became easily recognizable, thus ensuring his popularity. Supporters believed that he could be the frontrunner for the nomination on the national Democratic ticket in 1952. However, Kefauver’s crusade against criminals alienated the party bosses at the state level, and he was passed over as a candidate. Kefauver, Estes Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce Congress, U.S.;Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Jack, and Fred Blumenthal. The Kefauver Story. New York: Dial Press, 1956. Originally published as a campaign biography while Kefavuer sought the presidency. Highlights Kefauver’s place in U.S. history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernstein, Lee. The Greatest Menace: Organized Crime in Cold War America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002. A history of organized crime in the United States. Includes the especially relevant chapter “’An All-star Television Revue’: TV, the Mafia, and the Kefauver Crime Committee.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doherty, Thomas. “Frank Costello’s Hands: Film, Television, and the Kefauver Crime Hearings.” Film History 10 (1998): 359-374. Examines how the Kefauver Committee hearing affected television viewing and how journalism usurped, for a time, Hollywood’s hold on the public imagination.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fontenay, Charles L. Estes Kefauver: A Biography. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980. First biography to consider Kefauver’s life in its entirety and not on his political career alone.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Homer, Frederic D. Guns and Garlic: Myths and Realities of Organized Crime. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1974. Debunks myths of organized crime networks and places criminal establishments within an organizational framework.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kefauver, Estes. Crime in America. Edited by Sidney Shalett. New York: Greenwood Press, 1968. Kefauver’s work, based on the 1951 hearings and reports of the Senate committee.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lisby, Gregory C. “Early Television on Public Watch: Kefauver and His Crime Investigation.” Journalism Quarterly 62 (Summer, 1985): 236-242. Covers the significant public awareness that television broadcasting brought to several criminal investigations in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moore, William Howard. The Kefauver Committee and the Politics of Crime, 1950-1952. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1974. Deals with the role the Kefauver Committee had in creating public myths about the Mafia as well as the business end of the Mob’s objectives and operations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, Robert North. Ethics in U.S. Government: An Encyclopedia of Investigations, Scandals, Reforms, and Legislation. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. A comprehensive encyclopedia documenting political scandals, ethical controversies, and investigations in the U.S. government between 1775 and 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Swados, Harvey. Standing Up for the People: The Life and Work of Estes Kefauver. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972. An excellent biography for general readers and those seeking the anecdotal. Kefauver is depicted as an independent thinker and a Washington, D.C., outsider.

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