Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Governor From the Midwest is Convicted.

On August 31, 1923, Warren T. McCray, Republican Governor of Indiana, sat down in the Rainbow Room of the Hotel Severin (Indianapolis) with a group of one hundred and fifty bankers and lawyers. There was some good news and some bad news.

The good news was that the Governor had a little over three million dollars in personal assets and he was the proud owner of almost sixteen thousand acres of land. Most of the people in the room were probably not all that amazed because they were quite familiar with McCray’s amazing life story. At the age of fifteen, he began working at his father's bank and assumed ownership bank when his father died in 1913. McCray also owned several grain elevators and a livestock farm where he bred Hereford cattle and, on occasion, sold single bulls for as much as twenty five thousand dollars. Warren T. McCray became known as the “Hereford King.” But there was some bad news as well.

McCray estimated that, if his all of his assets were appraised at “fair value,” he might have seven hundred thousand dollars to his name. He also admitted that he had a little over two and a half million dollars in debts. The bankers and lawyers were, thus, his creditors and their representatives. McCray had called the meeting in hopes that he might keep “nominal control” of his property until all of his obligations were satisfied. His lawyer presented the gathering with a master plan for gradual repayment.

The New York Times put the exact amount of the Governor’s debt in a headline and observed the “political skies” of Indiana were generally “threatening.” The Times even suggested the situation might “have a bearing” on the upcoming presidential nomination at the Republican convention. Several bankers were considering lawsuits against the Governor and there was also “underground talk” of “forcing” McCray’s resignation.
Soon, there would be so much more chat about.

In October, the family bank (founded in 1872) closed and the Governor was accused of forging the signature on a note worth two thousand five hundred dollars. In November, his records were requested in a bankruptcy hearing and postal inspectors began to distribute surveys to those with whom McCray had conducted business. December featured a special gift from a grand jury.

The Governor of Indiana was named in eight indictments containing almost two hundred counts. The three hundred and ninety-six pages of charges were as ugly as could be: embezzlement, larceny, forgery, issuing a fraudulent check, false pretenses in the use of a promissory note, and attempting to obtain credit via false statements regarding his financial situation. The Governor was informed of the indictment while attending a luncheon and, after a hearty laugh, asked if “arson” had not been accidentally excluded from the list of charges. Taking a more serious tone, McCray confidently asserted his “right as an American citizen” to appear before the grand jury and be “heard” – a notion which the presiding judge had previously declared “against the criminal code.”

The trial took seven days and, on April 28, 1924, the jury returned a verdict of guilty after only thirteen minutes of deliberation and one ballot. McCray had sent a message to his family that he might be late for dinner that evening, but Judge A.B. Anderson had more bad news. The Governor of Indiana was denied bond and ordered to make his way to jail. Anderson observed that he had never seen “so many felonies committed by one individual” and rebuked McCray for violating both “the written law” and the “law of his own conscience.” As the McCray left the courtroom, he could only say, repeatedly, “I am sorry.” The Governor had been convicted, but he was still the Governor and had work to do.

As he sat in the Marshal’s office waiting for a ride to jail, McCray announced that he had decided to grant a pardon to one Fred Wilson. Wilson was an illiterate seventeen year old who committed a murder and was given a life sentence. Now, the young man deserved “another chance.” It was certainly Wilson’s lucky day, because the Governor of Indiana woke up the next morning, ate a “regular” jail breakfast (bypassing the order-out option) and tendered his resignation. There was, of course, already talk of the need to call a special session of the state’s General Assembly in order to start impeachment proceedings.

McCray was sentenced on April 30 and thousands made their way to the event. A new Governor was sworn in just minutes before Judge Anderson entered the courtroom and the Times reported McCray looked “fresh” and “rested” and displaying an “iron nerve.” Judge Anderson was a bit spunky himself. He announced that he could not “mete out enough punishment” if McCray lived to be as Methuselah and scorned state courts for not taking additional actions against the former Governor. He also accused McCray of perjury on the witness stand. McCray stared and a little old lady wept when the sentence was finally pronounced: ten years in prison and a ten thousand dollar fine.

The Times provided another headline as McCray began his term in Atlanta. The former Governor issued a statement which assessed the conviction as a “decree of fate” that could only be faced with “courage, and fortitude and sublime confidence” in his own “integrity of purpose.” Indeed, as he entered his “new situation,” McCray was “fully conscious” of his “innocence.” He also expressed sympathy for the victims of a recent tornado in the South before entering prison and beginning a Sunday school class.

The Department of Justice received an application for a presidential pardon on August 12, 1925. At that point, McCray had served a mere fifteen months of his ten-year sentence. He would not even be eligible for parole for another two years. But George Ade, author, playwright and brother of Mrs. McCray, and a “delegation” presented the application with high hopes. It was “understood” by the Times that seven of the trial jurors and several bankers affected by the former Governor’s fate now supported clemency. It was also “understood” that Governors and Ex-Governors of twenty states, Senators and Representatives, evangelist Billy Sunday and unnumbered “ministers of the gospel” support.

The general strategy of the application was also reported. It argued that McCray’s sentence was too harsh and that he had suffered far too much in prison. For example: his blood pressure was high. It also described the former Governor as a “victim” of bad economic circumstances who, upon release, might very well be able to repay all of his debts.

On the following day, the New York Times made its own assessment of the “nation-wide movement” to release Number 17746 from the penitentiary. An editorial noted McCray’s crimes were “many, large, deliberate, and systematic” and the many signatures on his application meant “little or nothing.” Why? Because any “industrious and tactful collector” could get signatures. The Times also noted that the “sometimes Governor” had “caused great losses to many people.” As to the concern over great suffering inflicted by personal “disgrace,” the Times noted McCray “ought to feel it more, because he did not lack education and training [and] he knew better.” It was also suggested that a pardon would “certainly” be given only because McCray was a “Governor of a great state and a man of important affairs.” A pardon would not “increase respect for the law” but only “justify contempt for it.” Finally, the Times landed hard: “If the ex-Governor serves his full sentence, the effect will be good; if he does not, it will be distinctly bad - a real detriment to the new movement to suppress crime more effectively.” The year ended without a pardon, or commutation.

In July of 1926, members of the Indiana delegation in Congress appealed to President Coolidge to commute the sentence. They particularly stressed McCray’s declining health. Chase S. Osborne, Governor of Michigan, supposedly wrote the following to the President, ''If you will permit, I would like to go to Atlanta and take the place of McCray and serve out the balance of his sentence. I have no family and am use to more hardship than a prison entails, and appeal to you to let me stand in his stead."

McCray was released on parole on August 31, 1927, three years and four months after he entered prison. The Times reported “strong influences” were brought to bear to secure parole” for the former Governor. But, it was also observed that the release coincided with a possible need for testimony in a grand jury investigation of many political leaders back in Indiana. McCray thus enjoyed the chance for “moral recovery” in a state “smelling of corruption.” If he could “tell the whole truth,” he would “do much to wipe out the stain upon his own name.”

Upon his arrival in Indianapolis, McCray announced that investigations and politics did not really interest him that much any more. He wanted to “stay as far away” as he could from all of that. All he wanted, really, was to be left alone. Smell, or no smell, stain, or no stain, the former Governor was “out of politics for good.”

But, in February of 1928, the sixty-three year old McCray was taking the witness stand to testify that Ed Jackson, the former Secretary of State who became Governor of Indiana, had once offered him ten thousand dollars if he arranged for a certain individual to be appointed as a prosecuting attorney. McCray testified that he called the offer “unthinkable.” He just “couldn’t do a thing like that.” He had never “bartered off a single office” and “wasn’t going to start.” The testimony was so compelling Judge Charles M. McCabe ended the trial with a directed verdict, concluding the State had simply failed to make its case.

Six months later, Warren T. McCray was once again in control of the two and a half thousand-acre farm where he once herded Hereford cattle. The presidential pardon that was first formally sought in 1925 finally came in 1930, just before Christmas. Coolidge had left office and was replaced by Warren Harding. As McCray had been on parole for several years, the President’s pardon merely restored civil rights. The Department of Justice noted McCray “enjoyed an enviable reputation” before his crime and, since then, had “made every effort to rehabilitate himself.” There was no mention of the fact the former Governor claimed “innocence” going in and out of prison. Official statements also reported McCray’s most recent application was supported “by a large number of influential citizens” of the State of Indiana, including Senator Watson and Representative Wood.

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