May 3, 1950 | Kefauver Investigates the Mob

 Senator Kefauver leading a committee hearing [U.S. Senate Historical Office]

“Through the country the crime committee became. . .  a national crusade, a great debating forum, an arouser of public opinion on the state of the nation’s morals.”   
-Senator Estes Kefauver, 1951

Americans were glued to their televisions like never before. In hair salons, movie theaters, schools, and neighborhood parties, they watched, mesmerized. In 1951, when only about half of American households owned a TV, 30 million people tuned in to the Senate hearings of the Special Committee on Organized Crime and Interstate Commerce.

Led by Senator Estes Kefauver, the hearings consisted of five senators who traveled to fourteen cities to investigate the extent of organized crime in America. In other words—they were exposing the mob.

The senators interviewed about 600 people, from small time gamblers and local police officers to mob bosses and J. Edgar Hoover, trying to flesh out what was going on. During one especially vivid moment, the committee grilled New York City Mafia boss Frank Costello. He refused to show his face, so the footage fixed on his hands as he nervously crumpled a handkerchief.

Senator Rudolph Halley: Mr. Costello, what is your net worth?

Frank Costello: I refuse to answer. It might tend to incriminate me.

Senator Herbert R. O’Conor: The committee directs that you do answer. And are we to understand that---

Costello’s lawyer: ---I understand that a direction is made and a refusal is made by the witness. I suppose so? Is that not so, Mr. Costello?”

Frank Costello: Yes.

Senator Herbert R. O’Conor: Alright, next question.

During the Kefauver Committee hearings, a spotlight had landed on organized crime—allowing Americans to consider the extent to which bribery and manipulation had influenced American businesses, police departments, and politics. J. Edgar Hoover acknowledged the findings of the committee, although he resisted using FBI resources to battle organized crime. The highly publicized hearings were a wake-up call to law enforcement and caused a shift in priorities to cracking down on the mob and weeding out corruption within local departments. The next question was how to do it.