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Kefauver Crime Committee Launched


May 3, 1950

Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee

In April 1950, the body of a Kansas City gambling kingpin was found in a Democratic clubhouse, slumped beneath a large portrait of President Harry S. Truman. His assassination intensified national concerns about the post-World War II growth of powerful crime syndicates and the resulting gang warfare in the nation's larger cities.

On May 3, 1950, the Senate established a five-member Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce. Sensitive to the desire of several standing committees to conduct the investigation, Senate party leaders selected the special committee's members from the committees on Interstate Commerce and the Judiciary, including each panel's senior Republican. As chairman, the Democratic majority designated an ambitious freshman—Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver.

The committee visited 14 major cities in 15 months, just as increasing numbers of Americans were purchasing their first television sets. When the panel reached New Orleans in January 1951, a local television station requested permission to televise an hour of testimony, perhaps to compete with a radio station that was carrying the entire proceedings. As the committee moved on to Detroit, a television station in that city preempted the popular children's show Howdy Doody to broadcast senators grilling mobsters.

Like a theater company doing previews on the road, the committee headed for Broadway, where the independent television station of the New York Daily News provided live feed to the networks. When the notorious gambler Frank Costello refused to testify on camera, the committee ordered the TV not to show his face. The cameras instead focused on the witness' nervously agitated hands, unexpectedly making riveting viewing. As the Associated Press explained, "Something big, unbelievably big and emphatic, smashed into the homes of millions of Americans last week when television cameras, cold-eyed and relentless, were trained on the Kefauver Crime hearings."

The Committee received 250,000 pieces of mail from a viewing audience estimated at 30 million. Although the hearings boosted Chairman Kefauver's political prospects, they helped to end the 12-year Senate career of Democratic majority leader Scott Lucas. In a tight 1950 reelection race against former Illinois representative Everett Dirksen, Lucas urged Kefauver to keep his investigation away from an emerging Chicago police scandal until after election day. Kefauver refused. Election-eve publication of stolen secret committee documents hurt the Democratic Party in Cook County, cost Lucas the election, and gave Dirksen national prominence as the man who defeated the Senate majority leader.