Boss Crump: “The Man” in Memphis…and Tennessee

When the voters of Memphis elected Police and Fire Commissioner Edward Hull Crump (1874-1954) mayor in 1909, they probably didn’t realize that they were in for him being the dominant force in the city for the rest of his life and a dominant force in Tennessee for much of that time. Crump had been highly effective in his previous role, especially in making the city’s fire department efficient. As a Memphis work song went, “The cotton’s up and the river’s down, and Mr. Ed Crump – he runs this town” (Crandlemere, 11).

Crump as mayor, circa 1915.

Crump’s interests in Memphis politics had apparently begun from when he could vote, and in 1905 he ran for his first elective office for a post on the Lower Legislative Council of the Board of Public Works. He was at the start of his career a reformer, and after his election to the Upper Legislative Council as Police and Fire Commissioner, he used his post to lead a raid on illegal gambling. This was an act that Crump wouldn’t repeat, as he did it for publicity and he would come to make arrangements with criminal establishments in his next role: mayor. In 1909, Crump was elected mayor and had illicit establishments pay his machine protection money. His enforcement of Prohibition, which was adopted in the state in 1909, was non-existent. The following year, his friend and partner in politics, Kenneth McKellar, was elected to the House. In 1911, Crump initially sought to consolidate power by integrating the mayor’s and sheriff’s offices, but this was not legal, so he got his friend, John Reichman, to run. However, Reichman had declared his candidacy past the time he was eligible for inclusion on the ballot, thus he had to be written in. The Crump machine proceeded to initiate an intensive voter education campaign, getting the black vote to turn out for Reichman. However, many blacks in Memphis at the time were illiterate due to the poor state of education that existed for them. Thus, Crump had numerous agents deployed to teach masses of black voters to write in Reichman. Reichman won the election by 8,996 votes, and in 1953 it was said that “even today in Memphis there are Negroes who can spell only one word – Reichman – even though they cannot spell their own names” (Crandlemere, 13).

Refusal to Enforce Prohibition Leads to Temporary Setback

By 1915, Republican Governor Ben Hooper had had enough of Crump’s refusal to enforce Prohibition, and managed to get an ouster law passed by a sympathetic Democratic legislature, which was majority Prohibitionist, to permit the removal by judicial procedure of public officials who refuse to comply with the law. Crump resigned in 1916 to avoid court action, and alleged that he was forced out because of the malign influence of private power companies as they didn’t want a supporter of public power in office. Although no evidence was provided to back his narrative, the voters of Memphis bought it and ultimately the city would buy out all private power providers in 1939. In 1916, Crump had a double victory as he got Memphis Congressman and political junior partner Kenneth McKellar a victory over incumbent Senator Luke Lea in the Democratic primary and got him elected to the Senate. In the process, he bested Ben Hooper by nearly ten points. Crump was then elected treasurer of Shelby County, serving from 1917 to 1923. During this time, he also pursued private ventures, including owning a Coca-Cola plant in New York that made him a millionaire and in 1920 he established E.H. Crump and Company, an insurance agency that grew to be the largest underwriter in the South. From this company, he exacted a great deal of influence over Memphis and Tennessee as a whole. Indeed, Crump pretty much picked his successors as mayor.

From 1890 to 1953, Tennessee had a poll tax in place, and this tax was imposed with the purpose of keeping the black vote down. However, Boss Crump worked around this and it ultimately meant that the poll tax bolstered his regime; his Shelby County machine would pay the poll taxes of voters who otherwise couldn’t (or wouldn’t, the poll tax was not cumulative) and thus the voter-dense county would determine statewide elections. You can talk about poll taxes from a history of racism perspective, but the policy also enabled machine control as political machines can marshal the funds to pay poll taxes for their voters. Crump made ample use of two groups that lacked statewide power: blacks and Republicans. The former he allowed and encouraged to vote as his machine paid their poll taxes; most of them voted for Crump and Crump-backed candidates. It was in truth the best deal blacks could get politically outside of East Tennessee, which also allowed blacks to vote both in theory and practice. The Crump machine even trucked in blacks from Northern Mississippi and Arkansas to vote, provided them with poll tax receipts, and were instructed on how to vote. In exchange, they’d get after casting their ballots a “silver dollar, a barbecue sandwich, a coke, a watermelon, and a bottle of local whiskey” (Crandlemere, 12). Racism in Tennessee, it can be said, bolstered Crump’s power as he used black voters while other areas (outside of Republican-controlled East Tennessee) didn’t want them to vote.

Although blacks were a critical part of Crump’s machine, his views on them were a paternalistic racism. Author Alfred Steinberg reported that “To Crump, Negroes were childish, useful for hard, physical labor under strict guidance, and easily given to tragedy and murder” (Crandlemere, 12). Memphis itself was as segregated as anywhere in the South, but he did grant blacks certain benefits that they would have had trouble enjoying in other places. For instance, Memphis was the first Southern city to hire a black police officer, they did have access to the ballot (most voted for Crump and his chosen candidates) and the Ku Klux Klan was kept out as a threat to Crump’s power (Crandlemere, 12). They also enjoyed the same level of police protection as whites. However, any blacks who dared exhibit leadership independent of the Crump machine were cracked down on or chased out. For Republicans, who only had power in East Tennessee at the time, they had to work with Crump to get anything they wanted done statewide.

In 1930, Crump was elected to Congress. While there, he voted as a liberal and was the strongest supporter in the Tennessee delegation of FDR’s New Deal. This got Roosevelt on his side and a lot of money was funneled into Memphis for public works projects. It was said when someone from Tennessee met him he would ask, “Do you know my friend Mr. Crump?” (Candlemere, 13) Crump, however, didn’t care much for being in Congress. He was far from in charge there and he enjoyed being in charge. He didn’t make much of an impact while in Congress aside from his staunch Roosevelt support and chose not to run again in 1934. However, Crump had something better than a Congressional seat, he had the state of Tennessee, and with the election of his picked candidate Henry Horton as governor in 1932, he was without doubt the foremost politician in the state. Crump’s success as a boss, in Memphis and statewide, was tremendous; from 1928 to 1948 his machine didn’t lose a single election. In 1939, Crump ran again for mayor and won, but did so in truth to have his man in Congress, Clift Chandler, be mayor. He wanted Chandler to do his job in Congress rather than campaign.

Honest Graft

When it came to corruption, Crump’s corruption was not in the form of theft…he was wealthy on his own and didn’t steal a cent. However, his machine did steal elections, took opportunities based on access, and was paid protection money from illegal establishments. Businesses in Memphis had to play by the machine’s rules…new businesses had to purchase their insurance policies from E.H. Crump and Company to get licenses. Public employees were also compelled to buy at least one of their insurance policies from Crump. Crump’s power in Memphis was unrivaled. He controlled every government position, and he could lean on city workers and their families to vote for his candidates (Candlemere, 13).

The Benefits of Crumpism

Although Crump was a political boss, it is likely that even if he didn’t steal elections he’d probably win as he was a popular figure, and in his terms as mayor as well as that of his successors, taxes were kept low and city government was kept efficient. Indeed, Crump saw to it that no cent was taken from the treasury, by him or anyone else. City vehicles were painted a bright yellow so it would be clear if they were being used for non-work purposes. Memphis was a relatively safe, clean, and quiet at night city under Crump’s reign and the fire department became known for its efficacy.

A Censorious Regime

Although Memphis residents benefited from a good deal of what the Crump machine did, the residents paid a price in individual freedom. Crump’s rule was a dictatorship (although for many a benevolent one) and free speech and expression were limited. The man Memphis’ mayor, Watkins Overton, a Crump man, picked for chairman of the Memphis Board of Censors in 1927 was Lloyd T. Binford. Binford would lead the board for 28 years and had little hesitation in imposing film bans; he would ban movies from being shown in Memphis over any scenes in which whites and blacks appeared together and if he disapproved of the morality of the actors or actresses in their private lives. For instance, he banned films with Charlie Chaplin given his communist leanings. Binford also banned all films with Ingrid Bergman given her affair with Roberto Rossellini and banned all films that depicted train robberies as he had witnessed one as a child (Nickas). Starting during World War II, Binford banned any films that depicted what he thought of as “unrealistic” portrayals of blacks, such as them having any sense of social equality with whites. This resulted in places in Tennessee outside of Memphis advertising the showing of numerous films as “Banned in Memphis!” Censorship, however, went beyond film with Crump’s reign… a journalist was beaten for investigating vote fraud, a chemist was fired for complaining in the newspaper, and J.B. Martin, a black druggist and baseball executive who attempted to serve as a black leader independent of Crump, was driven out of town (Tucker).

1948: The Year of Change

No man and no machine can continue forever, and Crump and his machine were no exceptions. In 1948, Crump opted to back Strom Thurmond for president rather than Harry S. Truman over his civil rights platform. He also thought he could pick another senator than the incumbent Tom Stewart. Stewart was never particularly secure in his Senate seat, and Crump picked Judge John A. Mitchell as his candidate for the next senator. Chattanooga Congressman Estes Kefauver, however, decided to throw his hat in the ring for the Senate, and he was even worse in Crump’s eyes than Stewart. Kefauver was a crusading liberal populist and distinctly not a Crump man. Crump and his associates campaigned against him, with them claiming that he was sympathetic to communism and that he was pursuing such ends “with the stealth of a raccoon”, which prompted Kefauver to deliver a winning response, in which he donned a coonskin cap and said, “I may be a pet coon, but I’m not Boss Crump’s pet coon!” (Summers) Kefauver’s growing popularity, it turns out, was too much for even the Crump machine to beat, and Kefauver won the Democratic nomination, which was tantamount to election in Tennessee at the time. Worse yet, Crump’s candidate for reelection as governor, Jim McCord, was defeated for renomination by Crump machine foe Gordon Browning.

After Kefauver and Browning defeated the Crump machine, his power became restricted to Memphis. From that time forward, his health declined as he developed heart disease and diabetes. Worse yet for him, in 1952, his close ally in the Senate, McKellar, lost renomination to another populistic liberal in Al Gore Sr. However, this was tempered by his man, Frank Clement, winning the gubernatorial primary over Browning. Crump died two weeks after his 80th birthday on October 16, 1954.


There are some legacies of Crump’s rule that persist to this day. One is a strong noise ordinance, another is a robust fire department, and yet another is Memphis as a Democratic stronghold. The city had but a brief flirtation with Republicans when it voted in Dan Kuykendall to Congress in 1966, but after he lost reelection to Harold Ford in 1974 (a son of N.F. Ford, one of Crump’s black political operators), the district has been the most solidly Democratic one in Tennessee.


Crandlemere, C. (1987). Edward Hull Crump: A Political History. Bridgewater Review, 5(2)

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Hill, R. (2012, March 26). Edward Hull Crump. The Knoxville Focus.

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Neill, K. (1979). Mr. Crump: The Making of a Boss. Memphis: The City Magazine.

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Nickas, L. (2017, October 8). Lloyd T. Binford and the Memphis Board of Censors. Tennessee Encyclopedia.

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Summers, J. (2015, June 21). Summers: Chattanooga’s Kefauver had maverick reputation. Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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Tucker, D. (2017, October 8). Edward Hull “Boss” Crump. Tennessee Encyclopedia.

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Crump, Edward Hull "Boss"

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