Crooked: Interview about a Corrupt 1920’s Attorney General

Retired Intelligence detective Gary Jenkins interviews Nathan Masters about his new book Crooked: The Roaring ’20s Tale of a Corrupt Attorney General, a Crusading Senator, and the Birth of the American Political Scandal. We learn about a corrupt U.S. Attorney General named Harry Daugherty, the puppet master behind President Warren G. Hardingā€™s unlikely rise to power. Daugherty was well-known to maintain cozy relations with bootleggers and gamblers like Arnold Rothstein and other scofflaws. When his constant companion and trusted fixer, Jess Smith, is found dead of a gunshot wound in the apartment the two men share, a corruption-busting senator from Wyoming and the incorruptible J. Edgar Hoover go to work.

This book is packed with political intrigue, salacious scandal, and many similarities to our modern era of political discord. Nathan Mastersā€™ thrilling historical narrative shows how this intricate web of inconceivable crookedness set the stage for the next century of American political scandals.
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GARY JENKINS, Nathan Masters

Yeah, so one of the scenes that really got me going when I started writing this book was something that happened on Memorial Day 1923 at the Wardman Park in fashionable Hotel in Washington where the Attorney General lived, there was a gunshot somebody and there was a man dead from a gunshot wound inside the suite that the Attorney General lived in. And the first law enforcement officer in the scene was none other than the head of what became the FBI, a man named William J. Burns, which if you think about it, it’s a pretty unusual circumstance to have the head of the FBI investigating a local homicide. I’ll read it from my book here a little bit inside the bedroom suite 600 E. Burns found the body of a man named Jeff Smith 50 crumpled at the foot of two beds, in his right hand was a 32 caliber revolver, single bullet had plowed through his head. This was clearly a matter for the local authorities burns knew better than to summon the police immediately, the situation called for discretion for a few in Washington had known as much as the man who now lay before him in a bloody heap, then the book just sort of unfolds from there.

Thanks a lot. That’s great. Yeah, guys, welcome. I’ll you work average out there. You just heard a little bit out of a new book out crooked. And it’s going to tell us all more than we ever want to know about a variety of things. If you remember back when you were a kid, you heard about the Teapot Dome scandal. There was this corrupt administration under Warren G. Harding, where the President and the founding of the FBI came out of this and just a lot of other interesting stories. The Attorney General the FBI was investigating their own attorney general and he was crooked as heck, as you can tell, but that was his sweet. So welcome. Nathan masters. Thanks a lot, Nathan, for coming on the show.

Well, thanks for having me, Gary.

So we’re a little bit about your background. You were in public TV, get background Public TV. Tell us a little bit about that.

Yeah, I’ve hosted a public television show called last la that explores Los Angeles history through the archives. I’ve been doing that since 2016. So I have a lot of experience digging through archival materials for compelling stories to share them with readers and viewers.

Now, this is your first nonfiction book, how’d you find this story? Was there some little archive that you were perusing through and said, you know, this is pretty I do this myself? I say, you know, this could be expanded into something. This is interesting. Did you do that? Or had that happen?

Yeah. Yeah. It started out exactly that way. This was about 2018. So I don’t know what was that five years ago. I don’t want to get too much into politics. But I was trying to think of a story that could speak to the present day a little bit like some untold story from the past, I started looking into corrupt presidential administrations, of course, there’s no administration as bigger reputation for corruption than that of Warren G. Harding. I started looking into Hardeen a little bit and I realized there wasn’t a lot there. There’s no real evidence that he personally was culpable in any of the corruption that went on under his regime. Of course, he was probably you could hold him responsible for letting that happen. Right. And he was the buck stop there, right. But I came across the story of a young freshman senator from Montana, who started investigating the attorney general who happened to be warrantee Hardings political mentor, he was the kingmaker of politics in Ohio. Basically, he served as Warren Harding as campaign manager got him the presidency. And then as his reward book, The Office of Attorney General This is a man named Harry Doherty. So the senator started investigating and Doherty discovered that the Department of Justice was being used as a political weapon to silence. Doherty’s and Harding’s political enemies was also maybe getting close to figuring out that door, he was using it to enrich himself. Since the 1920s of the roaring 20s prohibition, the entire nation was rife with graft, and the Attorney General realized there’s an opportunity there, but just as that Senator was getting a little too close to the truth, he found himself indicted on trumped up charges. And when I came across that I thought there’s a good story there.

Yeah, really, I mean, this sounds like Richard Nixon and John Michell John Mitchell was his campaign manager and then got rewarded as being the Attorney General, and then really put a rubber stamp on all those activities of wiretapping and going after political enemies. A lot like that to say what folks, everything old is new, again, cleared up to the threats, whatever, you can accuse Biden of doing bad stuff with the Attorney General’s Office weaponizing, that that’s a new word. You can accuse Trump of doing that. I mean, you can accuse about every president of weaponizing, the Attorney General’s office to greater and lesser extent, but it’s topical today. There’s no doubt about it.

You make a really good point. There’s nothing unusual about a president installing a political cronyism Attorney General. I mean, Bobby Kennedy, right. The brother of the President, nothing unusual in the fate. What was unusual is that Dougherty used the office to enrich himself right, a lot of these attorney generals who got in trouble, they use it to protect the president. They crossed the line legally to do that. Doherty was using it for his own death. But

so is this how the bureau investigation got started? How did that come about? Folks, this is the precursor of the FBI and reading the book, in my own knowledge, I know that the Secret Service was really the only federal policing kind of a function that there ever had been out of really out of the Civil War. They start working counterfeiters and organizations that did counterfeiting and the Secret Service were the early people that went after the old black handlers at the turn of the century. They were the only federal law enforcement there was like that. So how did then the bureau developed out of this?

Yeah, that was the case until 1909, the end of the Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, the Secret Service was being pulled in too many directions. There were more federal statutes on the books that needed to be enforced more federal crimes that needed to be investigated. And as you know, Theodore Roosevelt was a great reformer crusader against corruption, antitrust violations, so he and his attorney general who was actually a relative of Napoleon Bonaparte’s, Charles Bonaparte created what became the Bureau of Investigation and then later the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was around the 1920s it was growing in size it had grown in response to first of all World War One chasing down anti war dissenters. And then, in the Red Scare that followed World War One when J. Edgar Hoover, who was then John Edgar Hoover orchestrated a series of raids against political radicals and led to hundreds of deportations

that was written in your book when they first first started. Hoover was like the man known that had all the secret files and the guy named William J. Burns was the detective. He was a real famous detective had the burns detective agency and then brought back in how did that all work? Yeah. Yeah, Billy

Burns was the most famous detective in all of America. He was called America’s Sherlock Holmes. He had eclipsed Allan Pinkerton, for instance, as America’s most famous detective people. I mean, he was so good at solving a crime with like little scraps of evidence that that people thought he was working magic. And then yeah, on the other hand, John Edgar Hoover was a former library catalog at the Library of Congress, actually, where yeah, he was just really good at organizing information. And as you know, organizing information is you have to do that if you’re gonna want to keep track of crime and solve crime. So he started organizing information on criminals and suspected subversives the same way he organized information about books, the pair worked pretty well together, even if they didn’t really quite get along.

Interesting. Interesting. So now, I guess my question is that the mob get involved in in this, the mafia is always looking at whether it be the Jewish mob or the National Crime Syndicate during those times those years. And they work together, especially in the Northeast. Did they get involved in any of this? They always since there’s an opening where there’s corruption going on? Yeah,

well, the story takes place 1923 1924 That’s really towards the beginning of prohibition. And the prohibition was just this huge opportunity for organized crime. And after more locally, many American cities were cracking down on vise operations, right, prostitution, especially. And then, just a few years later, the Temperance crusaders did organized crime of great favor by banning alcohol. Yeah, so there were some connections here. I don’t really get into it in the book, but Harry Doherty’s son, he had a troubled son, Draper Doherty, who was just a chronic alcoholic seem to court trouble. He moved to New York, and sought out Arnold Rothstein who was I think his reputation is for returning organized crime into like a really big business, right? Fix the 1919 World Series. I mean, he can’t get bigger than that. So you had this situation where the son of the Attorney General was working for Ross Dean’s insurance company, sitting in regularly at Ross Ian’s poker table. Of course, Draper Doherty was blackmailed several times people thought, and rosti. And I’m sure thought, hey, this is a great opportunity. I can use this as leverage over the Attorney General if I ever get in trouble.

Yeah, interesting. Interesting. So back to your story. Tell us a little more. How does this develop?

Yeah, so you mentioned Teapot Dome Teapot Dome was really the genesis of this. My book isn’t about Teapot Dome necessarily, which was an oil scandal, right. It was a scandal over the Interior Department granting drilling rights to private oil companies owned by Harry Sinclair and Eduardo Heaney, the interior secretary accepted hundreds of $1,000 in bribes. That was a great scandal when it started to come out. Where my story comes in this young senator Burton Wheeler from Montana, noticed that, I mean, he wasn’t the only one but he noticed that Harry Doherty as Attorney General wasn’t doing anything in response to these bombshell allegations. I mean, you had a Senate committee uncovering staggering evidence of crime at the highest levels of the federal government and the Attorney General wasn’t getting involved. The Bureau of Investigation didn’t even open a case file. So we other thought, Well, maybe there’s something there. Maybe the Attorney General’s involved. Maybe he’s complicit. And if not, we got to investigate to figure out why he’s not doing anything. So Wheeler figure, there’s got to be something going on here. If the attorney general isn’t personally complicit, there’s got to be some reason why he’s not going to get involved. So he convinced the Senate to convene a committee that would investigate the Department of Justice and the Attorney General personally. And Wheeler called a bunch of colorful witnesses and he called bootleggers he called everybody that nobody had associated with and it turned out Doherty didn’t associate with preachers, it wasn’t a clean punch.

Now, that’s pretty crazy lie that the witness against the Attorney General of the United States could not like quash this what was like the chain of command, what sets it he could just sit on it.

He tried. So he was a political mastermind. Doherty was great at manipulating people. He collected intelligence on anybody on friends and enemies alike, and just stored it ready knowing at some point he might deploy it for his benefit. He tried to shut this down. He couldn’t shut it down in the Senate. So when he realized that the Senate was going to go ahead with this and that Wheeler was going to lead an earnest investigation into the Justice Department Dougherty sent Bureau of Investigation agents out all over the country to find compromising information on the Senator and something to blackmail went to silence him and eventually he did find something

well, we don’t want to give everything away the book. Right right. So I guess the paint a picture of Washington at the time he said it was everybody Correct? Was it in less like local cities at the time out of prohibition is like all public officials are somewhat corrupt is corrupting influence of prohibition of everybody want a drink? But it was illegal to do and it made it okay. To break the law was that the climate in Washington and as well as New York and Chicago and everybody else?

Yeah, the general climate. Yeah, yeah. You might as well break the law. Everybody’s doing it. You might as well get your cut in Washington. Not everybody was corrupt. I mean, in fact, in hardens cabinet, there were some actually the treasury secretary who oversaw prohibition enforcement. Andrew Mellon was really beyond suspicion he was a multimillionaire many times over, didn’t really have any personal reason to get involved in graft. But underneath him, the prohibition unit that enforce prohibition was just rife with corruption. I bet you that 90% of prohibition officers were on the take. Now that wasn’t Doherty’s domain. And in fact, when Doherty first got into office, he started to get involved in prohibition a little bit that helping bootleggers find a loophole through the Volstead Act by withdrawing what was considered legal medicinal whiskey. He and his henchmen, Jeff Smith, the man who in the beginning of the book is found dead. They initially helped bootleggers get permits to withdraw this liquor legally, and then they could sell it on the black market. But Dougherty didn’t control prohibition enforcement as attorney general. And he kind of got scared. He’s like, I can’t really metal and other cabinet officers affairs, because no one was one of the few clean guys in Washington at the time.

I see. I see. I know how that works. In real life.

I’m sure you do. Yeah.

You got a guy that’s real squeaky clean. If you’re the crafter, you better stay away because he’s gonna rat you out. And so now I know how that works. That’s interesting. That’s yeah, but

do you realize that even if I can’t get involved in prohibition, and that’s a lot of money was there, right? Really, he could monetize the powers of his office. Still, at the time, there were like numerous private corporations that were in litigation with the federal government over like wartime fraud. There was a lot of fraud during World War Two where companies had overcharged the federal government. And there’s one notorious case where I think a company charged defense contractor charges half a billion dollars, and never delivered a single war plane to the front and in Europe. And these companies were locked in litigation with the government and Doherty realized, hey, if we can come to some sort of settlement in these companies, they might want to help me grease the wheels, and he ultimately was discovered that he accepted bribes to do that.

Interesting. Is there any other kind of interesting little stories that you remember out of this book? Without giving away? Yeah, without giving

too much away? I mean, there’s definitely the story of J. Edgar Hoover’s rise. I mean, one of the great ironies of this story is that Burton Wheeler, the senator was trying to clean up the Justice Department, he was trying to prevent it from ever being used as a political weapon again, you know, that didn’t work out all that well. But one of the great ironies is the one of the direct results of his crusade was John Edgar Hoover became the head of the Bureau of Investigation. He actually took over for Billy Burns was sort of put in the role on a probationary basis. This and dirty successor as Attorney General, really upstanding lawyer named Harlan Fiske Stone, who later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Hoover somehow convinced stone Attorney General stone that he was on the side of justice and the rule of law and restraint within FBI and appointed him appointed Hoover director on a permanent basis. Of course, he didn’t know how permanent right I mean, him really hanging in office under I don’t know what a dozen presidents or something

interesting, yeah, Hoover, he was a force to be reckoned with when it came to establishing a bureaucracy, a bureaucratic empire, if you will, and then defended against all attackers for the rest of his life. He was a master at that.

He certainly was he probably picked up a few lessons under Harry Dougherty.

They probably did. Yeah. All right. Well, Nathan masters, I really appreciate you coming on the show the name of the book, I’m gonna have to read this crooked, the roaring 20s tale of a corrupt Attorney General, a crusading senator and the birth of the American political scandal. So you guys, you probably ought to check that book out. It’s an interesting book and gives you a different sort of view of this timeframe during Capone and really the birth of the modern law enforcement and the modern mafia and modern government really, from the turn of the century on the end to World War Two that time between World War One and World War Two was a time of great upheaval and change in everything. So it’s a fascinating story. Thanks a lot, guys for listening. And thanks, Nathan for coming on the show. And don’t forget, I ride motorcycles. And if you’re out there in the car, look out for motorcycles because you don’t see us sometimes. And we have a problem with PTSD. If you’ve been in the service, go to the VA website. There’s a hotline there. We have a problem with drugs or alcohol. Our good friend and former boxer Anthony ruggiano has a hotline and he works in treatment down in Florida. So get on reformed gangsters. and you can get that outline and talk to Anthony ruggiano. So thanks a lot guys. And one last time Nathan, thanks so much for coming on. Thank you, Gary.

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