Kefauver Hearings

Carey Estes Kefauver was chairman of the Special Committee on Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, referred to as the "Kefauver Committee." He was a Democrat from Tennessee who had been elected to the House 1939-49, and would serve in the Senate 1949-63. The hearings began in May 1950 and lasted for 15 months, held sessions in 14 cities, and questioned 800 witnesses. It was not the first congressional committee to be televised, but it was the first to attract a large audience. Although few homes owned TVs in 1950-51, many people were able to watch in bars and restaurants and businesses. The hearings were a fascinating revelation of the "enemy within" of criminals and their associates who formed a secret "government within a government." For 8 days in New York City, from March 12-20, 1951, over 50 witnesses described the highest-ranking crime syndicate in America, allegedly led by Frank Costello who had taken over leadership from Lucky Luciano. According to Life magazine, "the week of March 12, 1951, will occupy a special place in history. . . people had suddenly gone indoors into living rooms, taverns, and clubrooms, auditoriums and back-offices. There, in eerie half-light, looking at millions of small frosty screens, people sat as if charmed. Never before had the attention of the nation been riveted so completely on a single matter."
Kefauver hearings - senators O'Conor, Kefauver, counsel Rudy Halley, from Life 1951/04/06
watching Kefauver hearings at blood bank 1951, from Life 1951/04/06
George Levy and Virginia Hill at Kefauver hearings, from Life 1951/04/06 - 2
Kefauver hearings - Joe Adonis watches Costello's hands, from Life 1951/04/06

The hearings popularized the legend of a highly-organized crime family called the "mafia" imported from Sicily. In fact, organized crime in America was not centralized or imported only by immigrants. It was decentralized and diffuse at the city and regional levels, as Lincoln Steffens found in his 1904 book Shame of the Cities. It was composed of all ethnic groups who found crime to be a practical avenue of upward social mobility. The real leader of the Cosa Nostra ("our thing") syndicate founded by Luciano in 1931 was Vito Genovese after 1949. After his imprisonment in the 1960s, it was led by Philip Lombardo until 1981, then by Vincent Gigante. It was this syndicate that began as bootleggers and racketeers in the 1920's and expanded into the longshoremen and fish markets and other labor unions in the 1930s, then into casinos and real estate in the 1940s.

Kefauver on the cover of Time 1952/03/24. "I may be a pet coon but I'll never be Mr. Crump's pet coon." (in his 1948 victory in Tenn, over boss E. H. Crump who called him a pet coon)
The hearings had significant results. Legalized gambling proposals were defeated in Arizona, California, Massachusetts and Montana. Over 70 local crime commissions were established in cities across America as public awareness of the danger of crime increased. Kefauver sought the vice-presidential nomination in 1952 and 1956. The Senate established a Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, or the "rackets committee," that held hearings under John McClellan1957-1963. With the help of special counsel Robert Kennedy, Joe Valachi would testify, Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamster's Union would be sent to prison.




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  • revised 11/19/01 by Schoenherr | Filmnotes