Thomas E. Dewey: America’s Greatest Prosecutor

Although best remembered for his two unsuccessful runs for the presidency, Thomas E. Dewey is arguably the greatest prosecutor in American history. His cases against organized crime figures are legend, and so is his courage.

Thomas E. Dewey (1902-1971)
Thomas E. Dewey (1902-1971)

During his time as Manhattan district attorney, Dewey received a letter and phone call on the same day explaining how he would be murdered on his commute home that very evening. Nevertheless, that night he made a point of leaving work at his regular time, exiting through the same door of the office building he always used, and took his regular route home. The only change to his routine was that he instructed his driver to leave the lights on inside the car as he defiantly traveled up Fifth Avenue.[1]

The intrepid and incorruptible Dewey was born in Owosso, Michigan, over his grandfather’s general store. His father owned and operated a local newspaper, the Owosso Times. Dewey later recalled, “There was nothing interesting about my youth, except that I was working all the time.”[2] His wife, Francis, later said, “If Tom had a grocery store, it would be the first one to open in the morning, and the last one to close at night.”[3]

Dewey earned a degree in choral music in 1923 at the University of Michigan and obtained a law degree at Columbia in 1925. Before settling on a legal career, he seriously considered becoming a professional singer.[4] His baritone voice would serve him well in the courtroom and on the campaign trail.Celebrated Prosecutor

 

Waxey Gordon, BootleggerDutch Schultz, Gangster
Waxey Gordon, BootleggerDutch Schultz, Gangster

After starting in private practice on Wall Street, Dewey was named chief assistant U.S. attorney in 1931, a task for which he first won headlines for successfully prosecuting notorious bootlegger Waxey Gordon and ruthless mob enforcer Legs Diamond. Diamond, known as “the clay pigeon of the underworld,” survived so many attempts on his life that rival mobster Dutch Shultz remarked, “Ain’t there nobody that can shoot this guy so he don’t bounce back?”[5]

In 1935, New York Governor Herbert Lehman appointed Dewey special state prosecutor after the New York City D.A. was reluctant to pursue mobsters and corrupt officials. He was given a staff of 60, and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia assigned him 63 police officers.[6]

Dewey’s initial big target was Dutch Schultz. In response, Schultz devised a detailed plot to assassinate Dewey, but Lucky Luciano, head of the Genovese crime family, and the other mob bosses determined that Dewey’s killing would bring down too much heat. So, they had Schultz gunned down instead. Dewey then relentlessly pursued gangland kingpin Luciano and won a conviction and a 30-to-50-year sentence grounded on Luciano’s wide-scale prostitution racket.

It was upon the Luciano case that the 1937 blockbuster film Marked Woman was based, with Humphrey Bogart in the role of a crusading D.A. based on Dewey and Bette Davis as the star witness for the prosecution. Popular radio dramas were also inspired by Dewey’s prosecutorial feats. The Philadelphia Inquirer proclaimed: “If you don’t think Dewey is Public Hero No. 1, listen to the applause he gets every time he is shown in a newsreel.”[7]

Legs Diamond, Mob EnforcerLucky Luciano, Mob Boss
Legs Diamond,
Mob Enforcer
Lucky Luciano,
Mob Boss

Dewey, who was called “the Gangbuster,” also imprisoned the former president of the New York Stock Exchange for embezzlement and a leader of the American Nazi Party on the same charge. In 1937 he was elected District Attorney in Manhattan in a landslide. A newspaper headline read: “Hoodlums Start Out as Dewey Starts In.”[8] In his new post, he won conviction after conviction of gangsters and crooked politicians. Dewey advised: “There’s no need to bang on the table to prove a point. Facts will do it.”[9] Dewey’s biographer explained:

Dewey learned to enjoy the cat and mouse game of pursuing and trapping wrongdoers. He learned that lethal testimony could be extracted from bank and telephone records, produced on order of the grand jury. He sent agents to tail suspects, relied on the wiretaps and handwriting analysis, and developed graphics that might dramatize an otherwise confusing collection of paper proof.[10]

Republican Politics

In 1938, at the age of 36, Dewey was convinced to run as the Republican nominee against Gov. Lehman, but lost. In 1942, however, he was elected governor and won re-election in 1946 and 1950. As one of the greatest governors in New York history, Dewey drastically cut the state debt while increasing funding for education and improved wages for state employees and teachers. He also streamlined state government and expanded the university and highway systems. Moreover, he achieved enactment of the first state law barring racial and religious discrimination in employment. Speaking of his governorship, Dewey said, “It is our solemn duty … to show that government can have both a head and a heart, that it can be both progressive and solvent, that it can serve the people without becoming their master.”[11]

 

Pres. Truman triumphantly holds a newspaper incorrectly proclaiming Dewey the winner of the 1948 presidential race.
Pres. Truman triumphantly holds a newspaper incorrectly proclaiming Dewey the winner of the 1948 presidential race.

In 1940, at the age of 38, Dewey lost a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, chiefly because of his young age. Yet in 1944 he won the nomination, but lost to President Franklin Roosevelt with 45.9 percent of the vote.[12] In 1948 he was again the GOP nominee, choosing California Gov. Earl Warren as his running mate. Just about everyone thought that Dewey would defeat President Harry Truman. Thus, he ran an overly safe, frontrunner’s campaign vague on issues and suffered a surprising loss with 41.5 percent of the vote.

By 1952 Dewey had abandoned his presidential hopes and helped to secure the nomination for Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.[13] Furthermore, he successfully urged Eisenhower to select young Sen. Richard Nixon of California as the vice-presidential nominee.[14] Later Vice-President Nixon, on behalf of President Eisenhower, offered Dewey the position of chief justice, but he declined because he did not want to live the cloistered life of a justice.[15] Earl Warren was nominated instead.

Dewey was recognized as the leader of the moderate, metropolitan, anti-isolationist wing of his party centered in the East, while at the same time pursuing his lucrative private practice in New York. But by the mid-1960s, with the GOP moving in a much more conservative direction, Dewey had withdrawn from most of his political activities, yet confessed: “They tell me that politics is a disease, and I know that old firehorses never lose their interest in fires.”[16]

 

Dewey convinced Dwight Eisenhower to select Richard Nixon as his vice-presidential nominee in 1952.
Dewey convinced Dwight Eisenhower to select Richard Nixon as his vice-presidential nominee in 1952.

In 1971 members of President Nixon’s cabinet came to believe that presidential aids H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were “poisoning the atmosphere around the President” and isolating Nixon to the danger of his administration.[17] It was concluded that “[s]omeone was needed who was not only genuinely disinterested but who appeared disinterested, and tough enough to tell Nixon that he was risking his presidency out of misguided loyalty.”[18] They settled upon Dewey, a greatly admired confidant of the president, who had turned down a second opportunity offered by Nixon to be chief justice upon Earl Warren’s retirement in 1969.[19] Dewey was seen as the only person with the standing in Nixon’s eyes able to convince him to fire the duo. Hence, he was to be recruited on his return from his Florida vacation.[20]

On March 16, 1971, at the request of the Nixon family, Dewey was preparing to leave Miami to fly to Washington to be at the White House for the announcement of the marriage of Nixon’s daughter. But after calling for his driver to take him to the airport, Dewey was found in his hotel room dead of a heart attack at the age of 68.[21]

Dewey died as one of America’s preeminent lawyers. His funeral was attended by the president and protégé he might have saved from the clutches of Watergate.[22] The keys to his success were integrity, hard work and courage. Dewey observed, “It is a wise man who said, ‘From the alter of the past take not the ashes but the fire.’”[23] Thomas Dewey’s remarkable life was a blazing fire, the fire of justice.

Notes

  1. Richard Norton Smith, Thomas E. Dewey and His Times 30 (1982).
  2. Id. at 53.
  3. Id. at 317.
  4. See Tony L. Hill, “Dewey, Thomas E. (1902-1971)” in 2 Encyclopedia of Politics: The Left and the Right 615 (Rodney P. Carlisle, ed., 2005).
  5. Don Rittner, Legendary Locals of Troy 66 (2011).
  6. See Hill at 615.
  7. Smith at 216.
  8. Lillian B. Miller, ed., “If Elected …” Unsuccessful Candidates for the Presidency 403 (1972).
  9. Smith at 105.
  10. Id. at 126.
  11. Id. at 352.
  12. See Miller at 403-404; 419-421.
  13. Id. at 421.
  14. Richard Nixon, Memoirs 84 (1977).
  15. See Smith at 605.
  16. Id. at 609.
  17. Id. at 633.
  18. Id.
  19. Nixon at 419.
  20. Smith at 633.
  21. Id. at 637-38.
  22. See id. at 640.
  23. Id. at 543.

Russell Fowler RUSSELL FOWLER is director of litigation and advocacy at Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET) and since 1999 has been adjunct professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He served as the law clerk to Chancellor C. Neal Small in Memphis and earned his law degree at the University of Memphis in 1987. Fowler has many publications on law and legal history, including many in this Journal.

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