Thomas Dies – Part 3
On December 30th, with court in session, word came that the State Supreme court had arrived at a decision and the original charges would be upheld. All defendants would no longer be able to hold office and the ouster was permanent.
This news fell on the defendants and their attorney’s case with a heavy impact. There was no need for further appeal. The defendants were no longer eligible to serve the new terms beginning at the first of the year, even though they had been duly elected to their offices in April of 1915.
Thomas Dies would move past December 31st and be eligible to take office on January 1, 1916. The question of what would happen at his suspension hearing would happen after he had been sworn in for his new term.
The Court preliminaries were argued back and forth most of the afternoon. As the day ended, the Court allowed Thomas Dies a continuance until Tuesday January 4th.
Between January 1st and the 3rd the situation regarding who would be able to stay in their current position on the Commission was argued. One the questions were if Mayor Love could remain as Mayor. Many other questions arose regarding the status of other interim Commissioners if they could remain or if an election needed to be held.
On Tuesday January 4th, the Commission held its regular meeting. Shortly after the meeting opened, Commissioner Douglas announced he would resign, handing in his resignation effective immediately. Next, Commissioner Thomas Dies announced that he would also resign. There was no surprise, no questions; the resignations were accepted without comment.
First to resign was Commissioner Douglas, Commissioner of Accounts, Finance and Revenue. Mr. Douglas had left the meeting after a short time. He had given his resignation to Commissioner Ashcroft who presented it to the Commissioners.
A roll call was made and the resignation was accepted. Commissioner Ashcroft immediately nominated Dabney H. Crump, who had just come into the room, as the successor of Commissioner Douglas. After a roll call vote he was elected and immediately sworn in. Dabney Crump was a cousin of former Mayor E.H. Crump. All this happened very quickly.
Immediately after Dabney Crump was sworn in, Commissioner Dies stated that he wanted to submit his resignation. Commissioner Ashcroft nominated Leo Goodman to replace Thomas Dies. The nomination was accepted and Mr. Goodman was sent for. Mr. Goodman had recently been a city attorney.
The Commission recessed awaiting the arrival of Mr. Goodman. Once he arrived he was quickly sworn in and took his seat on the Commission.
Thomas Dies’s resignation reads as follows:
Gentlemen of the Board of City Commissioners
I herby offer to you my resignation as a member of your Board and ask its immediate acceptance. My reason for offering my resignation now is that there is a city bond sale advertised for tomorrow and I am advised that in order to effect this sale there must be a certificate from the clerk, that no proceeding questioning the right of any member to hold his office is pending. It would be impossible for him to make this certificate when there is such a proceeding pending against me. While I am also advised that the present proceedings against me will probably not be sustained, yet I am unwilling that any consideration of me or my right to hold office shall throw the slightest cloud over this important bond sale. It is well known that the proceedings against Messers Crump and Utley prevented a former sale of these bonds.
With this Thomas Dies left Memphis politics. According to the Commercial Appeal, Thomas Dies’ attorney Riddick said the resignation would end the ouster suit.
Both resignations came as a surprise. The resignation of Commissioner Douglas was more of a surprise than that of Thomas Dies. Commissioner Douglas had given no indication that he was considering leaving.
The Commercial Appeal, on the 5th of January, stated in an article that an affidavit had been submitted regarding Mr. Douglas and former Mayor Crump. The affidavit states that Mr. Douglas had been seen talking with former Mayor Crump in the former Mayor’s office before the Commission meeting at about 1:30 pm. Mr. Crump was sitting with Mr. Douglas with his back to the door. Mr. Crump was leaning forward speaking with Mr. Douglas. The affiant stated he heard Mr. Crump say, “You have got to re….”. At that point Mr. Douglas saw the affiant, placed his hand on Mr. Crump’s knee and held up his index finger stopping him in mid sentence. The affiant then walked away and heard no more of the conversation.
In a statement to the media, Mr. Douglas stated he had considered resigning for some time and had stated this to his close friends. He denied that there was any politics involved. He stated his resignation came out of deliberate conviction on his part.
The resignation of Thomas Dies was not altogether unexpected. There was speculation that he would resign before facing a trial on the ouster suit. He had given no indication he intended to resign and had stated he would fight the ouster and take the suit to trial. His reason for resigning was questionable. There was no indication that his presence would affect the bond sale and no rule that prevented it due to the pending court issues. The reason seemed to be too easy and lightweight compared to his years of public service where he had argued and fought for what was best for the city. It was more like a convent reason.
According to his attorneys and others, he had a very good chance of being exonerated should he choose to fight the suit.
The media believed that Mr. Crump controlled Thomas Dies and his actions. That may have been true to an extent, but Thomas Dies did not appear to be under duress. He quietly submitted his resignation and accepted the Commission’s actions. The Commercial Appeal stated that they did not believe he would have resigned without Mr. Crump’s approval.
It was all a bit too easy. Apparently, over the weekend some deal was brokered by Mr. Crump and others to maintain at least some control. Things are usually not what they seem in politics at any level. The why and the wherefore can never be relied on to represent the true reasons why things are done. In this case, it was obvious that former Mayor Crump had found a way to continue to have some control and be in the know about what was happening with the Memphis City Commission. Without his direct involvement, the ouster laws could not touch him.
The Commercial Appeal continued its relentless criticism of Thomas Dies even after his resignation. They used terms like his time on the Commission was “unsuccessful” and that he was controlled by Mr. Crump using the term “Fetching and carrying for Mr., Crump”. They brought up the Rock Island Letter accusing him of trying to coerce the Railroad into paying an exorbitant price for land belonging to the Georgia Street investors. The newspaper referred to them as his “Friends”. They brought up the ouster suit and the accusations that he rented property to people for immoral purposes while a member of the Board of Commissioners. All were accusations against Commissioner Dies that had not been proven.
In January 5th, the court took up the question of proceeding with the ouster suit against Thomas Dies. The prosecutor Captain G.T, Fitzhugh wanted to proceed stating that the resignation did not change the original charges and that it was the same as a confession. Fitzhugh asked for a decree against Thomas Dies.
The question they were concerned with was could Mr. Dies run for office again once the term he was ousted in expired.
In answer to the suit, Thomas Dies position was that he had no enforcement powers and was not involved in the business of dealing in any way with alcohol sales. He had not at any time rented or sought to rent property to any person for immoral purposes of any kind and had removed any tenant who became involved in immoral activity of any kind.
The suit against Thomas Dies was never adjudicated. Once he was no longer in office there was no question of suspension and there was no evidence of malfeasance
For several months Thomas Dies continued to go to his former office in the Publics works building and help Leo Gordon understand his job. The Commercial Appeal continued to criticize him publishing a scathing article about his writing a letter on city stationary to a person doing business with the city.
After the article was published, Thomas Dies decided to not continue helping Leo Gordon. He gathered up his belongings and after placing a sealed envelope in the safe, with permission, he walked away.
On July 7, 1916, Thomas Dies, John L. Dies, A.P. Gaither, J.W. Shepherd, M.C. Ketchum incorporated and opened The Eureka Laundry at 672 1/2 S. Main. The business opened on September 1, 1916.
For the next eight months the newspapers left Thomas Dies alone. He was out of the political spotlight and the Eureka Laundry was in the black.
How the people of Memphis reacted to the circumstances of Thomas Dies resignation and the surrounding issues is unknown. Once you are a public figure it becomes part of who you are. It defines you in many ways often for the rest of your life. Once you serve in a public position or a political one it remains with you all the way to your obituary. Until his death, Thomas Dies would be a former City Commissioner and people remember your part in it good or bad.
The problem with that in the early part of the last century was what impression the newspapers gave of your actions. There were two ways of communication in that time, The newspapers or the word on the street. In a time when most people used public transportation news on the street traveled quickly with the street news being subject to individual interpretation.
At some point, it was probably impossible for Thomas Dies to defend his actions and be believed. His loyalty to E.H. Crump restrained him to an extent while the events unfolded. Whatever agenda Mr. Crump wanted to pursue, Thomas Dies apparently felt obligated to go along with. His complaints to friends about the statements he was giving indicated it was being orchestrated and it was not his own words. But he continued to follow Mr. Crump’s agenda, probably more out of loyalty than choice.
I am sure after his resignation his life and that of his family’s changed measurably. People hear what they want and have short and erratic memories. Knowing what I do about human nature, I am sure he was the recipient of negative remarks from time to time. It more than likely also happened to his family members. People can be cruel and there always seems to be those who have the capacity to kick a person when they are down.
Being the wife of a Commissioner meant Elizabeth Dies was often invited to various events around town and asked to join different organizations. The same was probably also true of his daughter, Ellen. More than likely after December 1915, the ouster suit, and the resignation, these invitations stopped coming.
I am sure Thomas Dies tried to defend against the accusations made against him. His explanations probably fell on the deaf ears of those who would not hear the truth.
At some point, with the passage of time, the facts become intertwined and diluted. No matter how you explain or try to correct them they can’t be made right in the eyes of the people. The more time that passes the less likely the chance of ever correcting the bad information.
The allegations against Thomas Dies probably would not have stood up under close scrutiny. A lot of it was made to appear worse than it was in the media, in actuality it was as he once said “business as usual”. Negotiations, agreements and deals were and are a part of politics in the US from Washington to the smallest towns. We saw it happen recently during negotiations over a stimulus package. It is and always will be part of our political system.
The questions raised about why the Mayor and Commissioner Dies were singling out the Georgia Street investors to help could have been easily answered. A truthful explanation might not have eliminated the questions, but it would have created less fuel for media criticism.
The city needed people like the Georgia Street investors to grow its commercial opportunities. With very little warehouse space available and a huge demand, it was the right investment at the right time. Mayor Crump worked with investors and encouraged them to continue to invest in Memphis. The Georgia Street investors had done everything they were supposed to and had the support of Commissioner Dies and the Mayor. The unfortunate timing of their project was not their fault and was potentially a crushing financial loss for them. Commissioner Dies and the Mayor were about to approve their project when they were contacted by the Rock Island Railroad about the Harahan Bridge Project. They secretly held up approval until the bridge project moved forward and was agreed upon.
I believe, Mayor Crump’s intentions, with Commissioner Dies in agreement, were to try to make it up to the investors for holding up approval of their project. Commissioner Dies saw it as a moral obligation. Mayor Crump wanted to encourage the investors to continue to build other projects in Memphis. On the surface, their intentions were good. In the end it was a futile fight that could only end badly.
Their plan did not go well. The Harahan bridge was a huge project that would affect commerce in many areas of the country. They picked the wrong project to get into a fight over. The railroads were rich, powerful and old hands at property negotiations. The Mayor and Commissioner Dies were simply out of their league as far as negotiations were concerned.
The conflict between Attorney L.P. Miles and Commissioner Dies was ongoing. They often clashed in Commission meetings where Miles represented a party who might be trying to gain approval for a project. Neither man liked the other. It seems the difference was in their character. The method by which Attorney Miles obtained the Rock Island Letter was the defining issue.
The ouster suit against Thomas Dies indicated that some of his rental property was used for immoral purposes while he was a Commissioner. Some of these allegations went back several years. He briefly answered them by saying that once he became aware of the activity, he removed the tenant. With the case not going to trial the details never surfaced. There is no indication that Thomas Dies was the type person who would tolerate any activity of this type on his property if he had knowledge of it.
The Commercial Appeal was brutal in its attacks on Commissioner Dies. There is nothing to stop this. When you are a public figure, you are under a magnifying glass and your entire life is fair game. The news media had the right to publish any allegation fact or fiction made against Commissioner Dies or any other public figure. It is up to that public figure to answer. It is part of holding elected office in the U.S.
Reading through the articles from both newspapers there is a marked contrast in how the information was reported. The afternoon newspaper The News Scimitar reported the basic facts and did not take sides or get into the personalities involved.
The Commercial Appeal had the disadvantage of being published in the early morning. It gave the afternoon paper the advantage of reporting the overnight and early morning news in the afternoon. The News Scimitar was conservative in their reporting. The Commercial Appeal was flamboyant and wordy. They were markedly different newspapers. Most Memphians read both papers.
The Commercial Appeal took a different approach to the circumstances surrounding the ouster and the Rock Island Letter. They relentlessly attacked Commissioner Dies, his policies and decisions. At first, I thought it was Commissioner Dies well known loyalty to Mayor Crump they were actually concerned with. The appearance was that the interlocking interests wanted Mayor Crump, “His Machine” as they called it and any person loyal to him out of public office. Initially it didn’t strike me that they were after Thomas Dies as an individual. They constantly referred to Commissioner Dies as “fetching and carrying” for former Mayor Crump and being under his constant control. To them, removing Thomas Dies would take away the former Mayors control factor from the Commission.
Later, once the dust had settled, it was apparent they were critical of him for another reason.
The ongoing conflict between L.P. Miles and Commissioner Dies was more a part of the problem than it initially appeared. Lovick P. Miles was a partner in what was considered to be the best law firm in Memphis, the firm of Wright, Miles, Waring and Walker. Whenever an out of town company needed to deal with the Commission in some way they would ask who was the best law Firm in the city and the firm headed by Luke Wright would be suggested. Lovick P. Miles was the partner in that firm with the most experience dealing with the City Commission. Miles usually received the assignment and this often put him and Thomas Dies head to head.
Lovick P. Miles was the son-in law of Luke Wright, local attorney, part owner of the Commercial Appeal and the president of the Newspaper Company.
On December 30, 1915 Thomas Dies gave a statement to the News Scimitar regarding the Rock Island Letter and the method by which Attorney Miles acquired it from him. It was a response to allegations that he had been tricked by Attorney Miles into writing the Rock Island letter.
In the statement, Commissioner Dies stated that he had heard that L.P. Miles was “A lawyer of ordinary ability” and had associated himself with the firm of Luke E Wright in representing these interests (the interlocking interests). “However I had not fully sized him up as being a creepy, sneaking snake in the grass that would designedly come to City Hall to write a letter that he could, as he thought, make capitol cut of”. This among other statements was in response to the revelation of the Rock Island Letter. After this statement, the Commercial Appeal increased the criticism of Commissioner Dies.
There is no direct information that Commercial Appeal President Luke E. Wright was involved in the attacks in any way, but he apparently did nothing to stop it. Lovick Miles had at one time been a reporter for the Commercial Appeal before he became an attorney.
From what I have found, I don’t believe Thomas Dies was anything but honest and sincere in his actions and statements surrounding the allegations from the Commercial Appeal. By all appearances, he worked hard and fought for what was best for the citizens of Memphis and the city itself. In the turmoil that surrounded the time from the initial ouster of Mayor Crump to Thomas Dies resignation on January 5, 1916, he maintained his composure and answered all allegations openly and without hesitation.
He was an intelligent dignified man who made a success of all he attempted in life. His was unwaveringly loyal to E.H. Crump. A loyalty that probably played a large part in the turmoil he went through. I believe that loyalty, more than anything else, was the ultimate cause of his resignation from the position as Commissioner of Public Utilities. A position he obviously took seriously and was dedicated to.
Mayor E.H. Crump had a way of eliciting loyalty from those around him. People would follow his agenda without question and fall on their sword if asked. It was his source of power in many ways. He was a friend who could help you succeed or an enemy who would destroy you without remorse. Above all he was a survivor. Those he chose to have in his inner circle would be rewarded for loyalty, but he would not hesitate to sacrifice them in order to keep his agenda intact. He did this behind the scenes keeping his involvement just out of reach of any investigation.
Boss Crump was a cool customer, as they say, in the midst of all the turmoil. He watched and waited to see how things developed and made his move as the dust began to settle. When the Commission met for the first time in the new year of 1916, apparently a plan was in place.
Mr. Crump was seen talking to Commissioner Douglas earlier in the day. It was believed that he was asked to resign by Mr. Crump. After his resignation Thomas Dies resigned also. The replacement for Commissioner Dies was Leo Goodman, a local attorney. The replacement for Commissioner Douglas was Dabney Crump III, a first cousin of Former Mayor Crump. This was accepted by the other Commissioners and Dabney Crump was sworn in without any opposition.
Immediately after Dabney Crump was sworn in, Thomas Dies submitted his resignation. A successor was immediately named and sent for. Leo Goodman arrived and was also sworn in.
It all happened quickly as if the resignations had been planned and the successors chosen. The entire episode had the appearance of being orchestrated and expected. Mr. Crump had succeeded in keeping his hand in Memphis politics.
Thomas Dies was in a political situation that would require a hard fight to pull out of. He had a good chance of winning in court with the ouster suit. His attorneys and many others thought so. But, there was another issue where the Rock Island Letter was involved. Both he and Mr. Crump were involved in the events surrounding that part of the suit. The defense of that portion of the ouster suit in court would bring Mr. Crump into the picture.
The Boss did not like attention. He was a person who worked behind the scenes in private conversations and closed rooms. Any scrutiny of anything he was part of he avoided. He was well aware that to defend his actions Thomas Dies would have to bring up Crump’s involvement in the Rock Island/ Harahan Bridge issues and that could lead to other unrelated revelations. Thomas Dies was a humble man and honest. Whatever he was asked under oath I believe he would have answered honestly in accordance with the oath. I believe to Thomas Dies, the oath would override any loyalty to any other than his God and he would have answered accordingly.
The Boss was well aware of this and I believe in the days leading up to the first Commission meeting in 1916 he would have spoken with Thomas Dies and encouraged him to resign and allow the controversy to subside for all involved and the city itself. He probably told him even if he was exonerated in the ouster suit he was compromised as a politician in city government. His effectiveness was lost. I can almost hear him saying it
He probably allowed Commissioner Dies to decide, but encouraged the resignation. Mr. Crump had an instinct for moving people in the direction he wanted them to go and convincing them to follow his lead. In the case of Commissioner Dies, it apparently worked.
On Saturday April 21st, 1917 Thomas Dies went to his former office in the Public Works Building. He retrieved the sealed envelope he left in the safe there a year before. He told the workers he had purchased a safe and wanted to store the envelope in his safe. According to those present, he gave no indication of being depressed or discouraged.
In the days leading up to April 24th, he asked where his handgun was and asked that it be found. He lived at the corner of Rayburn (Third Street today) and Georgia. His place of business was at 672 ½ S. Main. He walked to and from work, about two city blocks.
His concern was having walking through the underpass where the tracks from Union Station crossed Georgia. People had been robbed there and he told his family he needed the gun for protection.
Thomas Dies arrived at his place of business, The Eureka Laundry, at around 7:00 am and probably left late in the afternoon. That area would have been dark for most of the year at the time he passed through. Daylight savings time was not in use until WWII. Most likely the underpass was not lighted in 1917.
The tracks and the overpass portion no longer exist. The depression in the roadway where it was located still exists. Union Station was closed in 1965. It stood where the Post Office building is today.
On Sunday night the April 22nd, Thomas Dies was at his place of business. All businesses were closed on Sunday in Memphis in those days. Two of his tenants who lived near the rear of the laundry, saw him there at his desk around 11:00 pm and asked if they could pay their rent. He was startled by them when they entered the business and reached for his pistol was on the desk near him. He took care of their request and continued what he was doing. The two ladies said he gave no indication of being unhappy or under duress.
On Monday morning he arrived at work before 7:00 AM. He sat on a stool at one of the work tables near his office. He took out an oil can and some rags, unloaded all but one cartridge from his handgun. Sometime after 7:00 AM one of the employees walked into the room and found him lying on the floor. At first he thought Mr. Dies had fainted. He then noticed a pool of blood near his head and the pistol in his hand.
The police were called and made an investigation. The official police report indicated it was an accident and that he shot himself in the side of the head while cleaning his revolver. It was an apparent attempt to protect him and his family from the truth.
The newspapers both indicated it was suicide and he had placed the revolver in his mouth. The bullet lodged in the back of his head. His son Dr. John Dies examined his father’s body and declared that he believed the shot came from the rear of his head and that his father was murdered. The death certificate indicated self inflicted gunshot as the cause of death. Thomas Dies was 54 years old.
Thomas Dies was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Memphis. Conflicting stories appeared in the newspapers. The Evening Scimitar stated that he had been depressed over events surrounding his resignation a year before. There is no proof that it was true. The Commercial Appeal stated he was not depressed and in a good mood the morning of the suicide.
On Sunday the 22nd of April, he attended Church at St Peters and the funeral of a friend later in the day. According to the Commercial Appeal he gave no outward signs of distress. His business, the Eureka Laundry did not appear to be in any financial difficulty. His personal finances were stable and there was no apparent illness in the family.
Family members stated that Mr. Dies had been in good spirits that morning as he left for work. According to the Commercial Appeal, the family stated he had been feeling well lately and had been is a good mood.
This is often true of people who may be depressed who take their life. One of the effects of depression is the difficulty involved in decision making. It can be agony for depressed people to make the simplest choice. They often put it off without taking any action. Once the decision is made their mood changes and they are happy and relaxed.
The problem with that is it usually means that if they might be contemplating taking their life, the decision has been made. It can be a danger sign. When people take their life without leaving a note or indicating in any way what their reason was, it is devastating for their family. It takes away any chance for closure. Questions can haunt families for decades.
Mr. E.H. Crump remained friends with Thomas Dies after he resigned. After Mr. Dies took his life, Mr. Crump took care of any problem Elizabeth Dies had until his death in 1954. The boss could be a powerful friend and an even more powerful enemy. In the case of Thomas Dies and his family, the boss showed compassion and that somewhere deep down he had a conscience.
Elizabeth Livingood Dies passed away on May 7, 1956. She is buried at Calvary Cemetery next to Thomas Dies. Elizabeth Dies obituary stated “She was a former member of the Nineteenth Century Club and active in social and civic affairs during her youth”. She was 85 years old.
My research was limited by the virus. I am high risk with heart disease and diabetes. I was reluctant to go the public library. I made one trip, but it usually takes three trips minimum to get what you need.
I did some research online, but didn’t find a great deal of information. Even the Crump papers were not a good source. Most of the research was from local newspapers. A somewhat conflicting, to say the least, source of facts.
I did form an opinion of Thomas Dies while reading his responses to challenges from political figures and others. He maintained his composure while under attack from the media and the other politicians. He continued to work towards what he believed would best serve the city of Memphis and its citizens. I believe him to have been a dedicated public servant acting in a manner that he believed was right and with determination to serve the people to the best of his ability in an honest way.
I am sure when Commissioner Dies wrote the Rock Island letter, he had no idea of the impact it would have on himself, the political future of Memphis and so many people. It was just a few sentences on a sheet of city of Memphis stationary that shook up the political makeup of Memphis politics.
My thoughts about his decision to take his life are strictly guesswork. There is no way to ever really know. I believe he was an honest man in a political world of under the table deals, closed door negotiations and a take or leave it approach to the truth. He resigned rather than defend himself in court against the accusations contained in the ouster suit. It was widely believed by many that he would be exonerated if he fought the charges.
As I stated earlier, I believe he was talked into resigning by Mr. Crump. Crump did not like public spectacles. He preferred to work quietly behind the scenes. A public trial of the charges against Thomas Dies might have brought out facts the Boss did not want known. Courtroom trials are unpredictable and the Boss was well aware of it. I believe the agreement to resign weighed heavy on the conscience of Thomas Dies. He needed that closure on the charges and I am sure he wanted to clear himself in the public eye. Closure he didn’t get and was lost to him forever once he resigned.
Researched and written by William Novarese.