The Joseph P. Boyle Story – Part I

Born in 1891 to Patrick and Mary Boyle, Joseph P. Boyle was a rich mix of Irish and German heritage. He attended Christian Brothers College (High School division) on Adams near downtown Memphis. Boyle graduated and then went to work delivering groceries for his father’s store located at Poplar Avenue and High Street. The hours were long, the pay was meager, and young Joe thought he deserved a better life than the wages his job could provide. Was this an early sign of ambition or an instinct to achieve monetary benefits from life?

As a young man, Boyle met and became associated with Edward Hull Crump, a flamboyant local political leader. Joe was a loyal young friend, and as a result, Crump gave him a job as a janitor in the basement of the County Courts Building. In 1912 after Crump became mayor; he assigned Joe the position of Poll Tax Collector. That was “found money” in those days when people had to pay to vote. Boyle was particularly good at the job of collecting money. His next step up the Crump ladder to success was as Commissioner of Institutions and Revenues. He immediately established a city-wide campaign to collect overdue and unpaid city taxes. He was a natural whenever money was involved.

Boyle refused to consider selecting women for any city job as final hiring decisions were his. Even when the job called for the unique skills of a woman, he would not budge. He and fellow Crump appointees consistently voted against anyone who was not a Crump crony and shared the same philosophy. these included Mayors Harry Litty and Frank Monteverde, all Crump appointed commissioners; their loyalty was admirable even when their judgment was questionable.

Now Boyle was too insecure to make essential or even minor decisions without direct approval from Crump. The few times he acted spontaneously were because of his overblown ego and a chance to show the city how powerful he was. When his decision turned out to be poor, Crump usually corrected him publicly to remind him that he was powerless without “the Boss.” The local media delighted in those moments when people like Boyle were publicly humiliated by the inscrutable Crump.

In 1936, Crump appointed Boyle Finance Commissioner. In that position, Boyle reduced the public debt from four million to one million dollars in just a brief time. That success brought Boyle to the next level of power – Public Utilities Commissioner. However, he did not linger long in that role. Just a year later, Crump decided to appoint Joe to the lofty position of Fire and Police Commissioner after the incumbent, Clifford Davis went to Washington as a Crump-sponsored Congressman.

As soon as Boyle took over as Fire and Police Commissioner, he began what is known as the Boyle “reign of terror.” He left the Fire Department alone because he knew Crump loved that department and concentrated his energies on controlling the police. Feeling his oats as Police and Fire Commissioner, Boyle took issue with almost every phase of life in Memphis that touched on the law. For instance, one of the first laws he created was the “Hush” Ordinance, which stated that yelling, whistling, and hooting in public would cease at 11 PM. This ordinance also included blaring radios, phonographs, and musical instruments. By December 1, 1940, car horn blowing in less than an emergency was banned. Local dairies put rubber shoes on the hooves of their horses to avoid breaking sound noises, and trains began using short bursts on their horns at intersections instead of more prolonged blasts as required by state law. The fines ranged from three to fifty dollars, depending on the severity of the offense.

In the first year, three hundred Memphians appeared before the judge for violating the ordinance. The noise ordinance was waived only once in 1945 when V.J. (Victory) Day recognized the end of the second world war. Boyle wanted Memphis to be the cleanest, quietest, safest city in the country, although his methods in achieving that goal were considered radical.

As a result, Memphis won its reputation as the nation’s quietest city. Few cities had noise ordinances, and when out-of-town travelers came to Memphis, they were amazed by how quiet it was here. That seemed like a positive step. If only he had stopped there.

Just a few months before, in October 1940, Boyle took it upon himself to raid and destroy the contents of The El Tivoli Club and the Stockyards Hotel because they were conducting an illegal business and padlocked their doors. He and the “Blue Stooges” (The Nashville Tennessean’s favorite term for the Memphis police) destroyed the place out of sheer meanness. In defense of the police officers who participated in such activities, they had no alternative but to follow orders issued by Crump-backed Boyle. The Nashville press damned them without understanding their position. Boyle seemed to enjoy throwing his weight around, going after decent men and women in Memphis, many of whom had angered Mr. Crump in some manner.

On May 25, 1940, the “Purity Squad,” Veteran Captain Lee Boyles, with 26 years on the job, was told to dismiss two sergeants for allegedly not closing down a house of ill repute. Boyle overrode Captain Boyles’s authority over his sergeants, ignoring the police chain of command. Boyle made up his own rules as he went along.

Moreover, even though Captain Boyles was highly regarded as a top-notch officer, and although Boyle knew little about the case at the time, Boyle exercised his control by micromanaging the police force. He did this repeatedly whenever he felt like it, based on his desire to exhibit power over underlings.

(The Scrantonian, April 1953)                                 

On August 2, 1940, in the black community Dr. J. B. Martin, a black druggist, a man of dignity and high morals amongst his black and white counterparts, was elected to be in charge of the Negro Republican Party in Memphis. Dr. Martin supported Wendell Willkie for President and rallied much black support. Martin’s actions infuriated Crump. Crump, acting through his minions, told Dr. Martin to step down as leader. Martin refused. Enter Joe Boyle, who harassingly accused him of peddling dope out of his drug store at 907 Florida Street.

(The Pittsburgh Courier)

By fall, October 25, 1940, Police Chief Carrol Seabrook, at Boyle’s direction, stationed two uniformed Patrol officers in front of Martin’s drug store for 16 hours a day for a week. They searched every man, woman, and child who entered. The news media knew Boyle, and like everything Boyle touched, his attempt to discredit Dr. Martin came to nothing. The incident disappeared as soon as the surveillance of Martin’s store ended. Nothing was ever found in the city records to prove such an incident occurred. All evidence vanished from the Memphis Police files despite constant demands for them from the local media. Boyle had concocted the whole story about Dr. Martin to avenge on behalf of Crump, as he always did.

NOTE: Boyle certainly violated Dr. Martin’s 4th Amendment rights. Boyle finally ran Dr. Martin out of town. All of this happened because Dr. Martin supported the Republican Party, against the will of E.H. Crump. Dr. Martin and his two brothers owned a Negro baseball league and Martin Baseball stadium. Nevertheless, in the eyes of Crump and Boyle, they were considered second class, subject to arbitrary rules and regulations, and when they did not comply, Boyle decided they had to “pay for their sins.” Joe Boyle was doing what he did best, going after decent men and women in Memphis who angered Crump.

While Boyle was harassing Dr. Martin, another incident occurred.

Without reason, Boyle targeted Mr. Elmer Atkinson, who owned a business at 327 Beale. Boyle stationed officers at that location and told them to search everyone who entered for drugs. No drugs were ever found. Next, the officers on duty even searched Father Bertrand Koch of St. Augustine Catholic Church as he tried to call on one of his parishioners there. Boyle had to make a public apology for this. He danced around it, trying to explain it away. Everyone knew what had happened; it was an example of racial harassment and corruption, both trademarks of the Crump era.

Pittsburgh Courier page 1

On December 12, 1940, Joe Boyle publicly stated,” This is white man’s country.” Always believing white rule was superior to any other, Boyle was defiant even when wrong.

On race: December 1, 1940, in the words of Commissioner Boyle, “We will have no race trouble here. Fanning the hatred must end.” Nineteen Negroes received this warning, and Boyle declined to release their names. Still, the community knew there were five preachers, four doctors, one restaurant owner, two mail carriers, five newspaper writers, one drug store owner, and one undertaker in the “warned” group. Boyle said, “We will not have any trouble with Negroes in Memphis. I say again, this is white man’s country, and it always will be, and any Negro who does not agree better move along.” Boyle cited articles in the Negro press “that incite race hatred.” He singled out two Negro editors, L.O. Swingler of the Memphis World and W.A. Beasley of the Memphis Sentinel and demanded that they cease “publishing inflammatory articles that would incite race hatred.” The editors were summoned to his office and promised their cooperation.

Whatever happened to freedom of the press?

On one of the few times Boyle involved himself in the operations of the Fire Department, Boyle announced on November 21, 1940, that since the Fire Department answered twenty-five grass fire calls on that day for free, the Fire Dept. would burn citizens leaves and trash, just call them. Off-duty men were called in and not compensated for burning grass for four hours for free.

If one was a Police Officer or a Firefighter, none were allowed a side job, or they were fired. A few days later, on November 23, 1940, Police Captain James P. Cross was suspended for standing up for one of his officers for an infraction. Cross was among the best and most fair-minded members of the MPD. He was said to be among the most well-liked of any officer on the force. For fourteen years, he went to local merchants and individuals, where he put up Christmas trees to raise money and provide gifts to some of Memphis’ most needy families. Over the years, he organized and helped more than five hundred of the most disadvantaged families in Memphis to have a great Christmas with toys, clothes, food, and love.

However, when Cross tried to protect one of his senior Sergeants, who had made some minor mistake, Joe Boyle took action. In true Joe Boyle form, he permanently suspended Captain Cross and fired the Sergeant without any interest in the facts or the unfairness to Cross’s sterling reputation. It was clear that Joe Boyle seemed miserable and wanted everyone else to be that way too.

Boyle then turned his attention to neighborhood crap games, slot machines, and poker games in private homes. Neighborhood snitches always looked for Crump’s favor and readily reported any deviance to Boyle or one of his lieutenants. Offenders were hauled into court and fined appropriately or jailed. Lottery tickets dried up, and bookie parlors closed. He shut down the fortune tellers, and the gypsies just loved him for that.

He shut down the Cotton Carnival wheel-spinning games, games of chance, and skin shows ordered to keep it clean. Soon sex-contraband dealers were thrown in jail. One night, a hurried businessman, driving home after a rough day, had his temper pushed to the boiling point by a slow-moving car. He clamped down on the horn, soon to be fined three dollars and, unbeknownst to the driver, Commissioner Boyle was slowly driving the vehicle ahead to provoke the horn blower. Maybe he did have a sense of humor all along with all his more negative traits, or he was counting the fines.

In 1940 J. Boyle and Sheriff Guy Joyner even threatened to send Memphis Police to Mississippi to clean up the gambling. (Historians believe this was the first time since Crump took office that all the laws on the books of Memphis were so thoroughly enforced). The Crump machine was so mad that Memphis gamblers’ money was spent in Mississippi (think revenue), and they proposed to shut the gambling down. If they could not have it, no one else could either. The zealous Boyle would not have cared about these things had Crump not wanted them done.

As Joe goes along, he orders the car dealerships to close on Sundays. Preachers and the churchgoing Memphians loved it. He even went after home-consumption bootleggers. In early 1940, Boyle attempted to stop a raffle of a new car at a football game sponsored by some leading businessmen. Boyle threatened to arrest them, but he backed down when the businessmen said, “Go ahead and arrest us.”

Unfortunately for Joe, the catch was that Boss Crump’s son was one of those businessmen.

The media aggressively busted him once again. Crump had allowed Joe to run wild, stepping in to discipline him only on rare occasions but mostly just observing his self-serving behavior. Boyle dreamed up a way to offend another group. He created a law that Catholics (who conducted numerous Bingo games at their churches) or any other church that practiced such wicked activity as Bingo to help with church expenses had to terminate that activity. The non-Bingo-playing, conservative Christians loved him for that. Catholics, not so much.

Concerning the lucrative Jukebox business, on April 16, 1943, Mr. Crump had a change of mind. He ordered all seven hundred jukeboxes and coin-operated amusement machines in the city shut down. The concessions building at the zoo had a  popular game, the “five ray guns” game, so players could shoot an image of an enemy soldier in his pants and make it spin around. In the past, the Jukebox business, a racket, according to the Memphis newspapers, was alive and well, supplying money to the Crump gang.

These amusement devices were handily taxed at two to three dollars per machine per month and brought in large sums of money, on average, $2,100 a month. In the news on December 5, 1943,  Memphis breaks its Jukebox Law. The City of Memphis owned and operated six of these at Overton Park; all six were within six hundred feet of a playground, a direct violation of the Jukebox Ordinance created by Joe Boyle. Crump was red-faced publicly. It was funny that the Memphis news media had mentioned this to Police/Fire Commissioner Boyle, but any action was delayed as it was before an election, and the Crump machine needed the revenue.

This Jukebox scheme went back to 1939 when Shelby County Sheriff and Crump crony Guy Joyner was the Jukebox director. He and he alone chose which of his friends and Crump’s supporters would have a jukebox. He zoned the county for specific operators and charged $3.00 per box. Many merchants claimed it was payoff money because the syndicated operators were paying independent operators.

Watch for Part II !

Edited by Trish Gully

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