In May of 1950, the U.S. Senate established a five-member Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce. This committee became known to the public as the Kefauver Hearings, as freshman Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver, a Democrat, chaired it. The Kefauver hearings lasted from May of 1950 to August of 1951, becoming the first major hearings on organized crime to be broadcast on television. Although historians have noted that much of the information on gambling, racketeering, and the Italian Mafia had been known for many years, Kefauver’s hearings publicized the workings of crime families. Nevertheless, only one piece of legislation came out of these hearings.
Kefauver, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1939 to 1949, was elected to the Senate in 1948. A graduate of the Yale Law School, Kefauver had ambitions to be president. Though Kefauver clearly had an interest in investigating organized crime, he was well aware of the publicity he could generate for himself by leading the investigation. After the April of 1950, killing of a Kansas City, Missouri, gambling leader in a Democratic Party clubhouse, concerns grew about the post World War II growth of powerful crime syndicates and the resulting gang warfare in the nation’s larger cities. The following month the committee was formed.
The investigating staff was small and relied heavily on data gathered by crime commissions and prosecutors in major U.S. cities. However, the committee also gained a powerful investigatory tool when President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order giving the committee the right to examine tax returns of the prospective witnesses.
The Kefauver hearings were unusual for the time because Kefauver took his committee on the road, visiting 14 major cities in 15 months. Though radio stations broadcast the hearings, the increasing popularity of television transformed the hearings into a national event. When the committee reached New Orleans in January, 1951, a local television station requested permission to televise an hour of testimony. When the committee moved on to Detroit, a television station in that city preempted popular programming to broadcast the senators questioning underworld figures.
The hearings reached their zenith when the committee’s proceedings in New York City were broadcast nationally by the major networks. When mobster Frank Costello refused to testify on camera, the committee ordered the camera not to show his face. The cameras instead focused on the witness’ nervously agitated hands, unexpectedly making for dramatic viewing.
The committee received 250,000 pieces of mail from a viewing audience estimated at thirty million. There were over 600 witnesses and 12,000 pages of public testimony. The committee called many organized crime leaders, but it also heard from governors, mayors, and police officials. The hearings revealed the relationship between crime and politics at both the national and local levels. Among many conclusions, the Kefauver hearings popularized the term, Mafia, to describe their notion of a corporately structured, Italian controlled crime cartel. Only one piece of legislation was passed as a result of the hearings, a tougher law for narcotics offenses. However, the hearings spurred local communities to clean up illegal gambling.