Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Prodigy, Rising Star, That Went to Prison

Edward Fretwell Prichard, Jr. was marked by Central Press as one of the six brightest students in America. As a result, the prodigy was treated to an all-expense paid tour of Europe and got a chance to meet Benito Mussolini.

Prichard entered Princeton University when he was only sixteen years old, but became involved in (and eventually the President of) the school’s Woodrow Wilson Democratic Club. Later, “Prich” worked with the Democratic Party on Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential campaign. He also became an editor for the school’s newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, and made the honor roll. Along the way, he gained a reputation as a formidable debater and orator.

Prichard graduated at the top of his class but made the New York Times his senior year after throwing a three-keg “beer party” in his dorm. He then found himself suspended from Princeton indefinitely. The party was thrown after he had debated the constitutionality of the New Deal with Colonel Henry Breckenridge (candidate for the United States Senate). Prichard was declared the winner of the debate by a vote of ninety-six to seventy-two.

Prichard told reporters from the Princetonian that he was “not conscious of having anything to apologize for.” He said that, by throwing the keg party, he was “merely doing [his] bit for Roosevelt and recovery.” In addition, he observed the Democratic platform explicitly called for “the legalization of beer.” Prichard also argued that suggested that he would only be a victim, “crucified” for “backwardness,” if Princeton were unbelievably “reactionary” and continued to punish him. The remarks of the college senior also made their way into the pages of the New York Times.

On October 12, 1924, the Times reported Prichard was reinstated after the Dean approved of a petition for reinstatement from Prichard’s parents. Prichard and the Democratic Club (seemingly limitless in chutzpah) made the Dean an “honorary” member, an honor that was also extended to the three individuals who reported the party to school officials.

Prichard produced a two hundred and fifty page senior thesis on popular political movements in Kentucky and graduated summa cum laude with a degree in history. Biographer Tracy Campbell notes Prichard's classmates selected him “by an overwhelming margin” as the “best politician” of the class. He was also chosen as the student “who talks the most and says the least.” Interestingly, Prichard finished second in the category “biggest bluffer.”

At twenty years of age, Prichard went to Harvard Law School, where he graced the campus in his white linen suits, panama hat and signature cigar. Campbell notes Prichard also intentionally exaggerated his southern accent. Life magazine found a way to take his picture for a story on the school, but it was actually a very rare thing to catch Prichard studying law on campus of Harvard. One estimate suggests he went to one out of every three classes. When he was in attendance, he may or may not have been prepared. Prichard also had a way of disappearing from the campus for extended periods of time. Some his professors considered him inexplicably arrogant. The Dean considered him an “overgrown” smart alack.

Prichard did manage to distinguish himself as a law school student by phoning one of his professors at three in the morning after a party. But, thanks to a photographic memory, he managed to remain near the top of his class and made law review. He also had the good fortune to room with Phil Graham, future publisher of the Washington Post. Time magazine reported on Prichard’s graduation and placement as a research assistant for professor Felix Frankfurter.

Frankfurter had been interviewed by Prichard back when Prichard was a writer for the Princeton school newspaper. In 1939, the professor was placed on the United States Supreme Court and Prichard was retained as his law clerk. “F.F.” had once joked that Prichard had the proper “judicial temperament” because he did not like to work, but those who suspected the Justice of giving Prichard special treatment soon had cause to laugh. An opinion of the Court had to be withdrawn and corrected because the Harvard graduate failed to check all of the citations properly. Prichard’s sloppiness was said to have “seriously embarrassed Frankfurter and the entire Court.”

Prichard moved on to Washington and his rise through the ranks of the federal government was truly something to behold. In 1940, he worked as a special assistant to the Attorney General Robert H. Jackson, who would later be nominated to the United States Supreme Court. Prichard would also gain experience under Attorney General Francis Biddle. In 1942, he transferred to the Office of Production Management (OPM) and, afterward, the War Production Board (WPB). As 1943 began, Prichard was sitting in the Office of Economic Stabilization and playing the role of legal counsel and advisor to President Roosevelt. At twenty-seven years of age, Prichard was said to have “a startling range of political friendships.” Fortune magazine considered the career of the six-foot two, three hundred pound youngster well worth “watching.” Newsweek marveled at the fact that young “Prich” knew “everyone in town.”

Unfortunately, there was a war going on and Prichard found himself drafted. As he put it, “They’ve scraped the bottom of the manpower barrel and now they’ve drafted the barrel.” The Army may very have agreed by the time of his discharge. Most of Prichard’s short military career (a little over one month) was spent in a hospital bed. By the autumn of 1943, the barrel was back in Washington.
Fred M. Vinson gladly welcomed Prichard back to the Office of Economic Stabilization. Vinson, who would also later be appointed to the United States Supreme Court, had attended Centre College and played baseball with Prichard’s father. Prichard followed Vinson to the Office of War Mobilization and, after two years, to the Treasury Department.

Years later, Katherine Graham, owner of the Washington Post described Prichard as “the most impressive man” of her generation. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. thought Prichard might very well be president one day. But Prichard unexpectedly (and somewhat inexplicably) moved to Lexington, Kentucky, to practice law with fellow Harvard graduate Philip Ardery. As a student, “Prich” boasted he would be Governor of that state one day. The curious Time magazine could only get the “Wonder Boy” to admit that he was going to “run for something.”

On November 2, 1948, Prichard served as an officer in the third precinct of Clintonville. Harry Truman scored an amazing victory in the national election, but the big news in Bourbon County Kentucky was the discovery of two hundred and fifty-four forged ballots (two hundred and forty-three of which were marked for Truman). Prichard and his law partner, Al Funk, Jr., were indicted in a Federal Court in Lexington on May 14, 1949, for conspiracy to violate the civil rights of voters by defrauding them of a fair election.

Funk was the son of the attorney general for the state of Kentucky. Prichard was the rising star of the Roosevelt administration. In a merciless reference to Prichard’s physical and legal circumstance, Newsweek magazine pictured the “Boy Wonder” with “outstanding bulk” and announced that he was in “Rolls of trouble.”

The much-anticipated trial (followed closely by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI) began on July 5, 1949. Funk took the stand and testified that he knew nothing of the fraudulent ballots. The prosecution relied heavily upon something of a ‘confession’ Prichard had made to William B. Ardery, Bourbon County’s senior judge and father of Prichard’s law partner. Time magazine noted no attempt was made to discredit the damning testimony from “perhaps the most respected man” in the County. Prichard himself simply sat, with his eyes close, clutching the arms of his chair. To add insult to injury, prosecutors attempted to also introduce evidence that Prichard stuffed ballot boxes in 1943 and tried to do so again in 1946. Prichard did not testify, but his defense featured a string of character witnesses who piled praise upon praise. In his closing statement, Prichard’s lawyer told the jury that it should not require “all of five minutes” to return a verdict of “not guilty.” The eleven-man, one-woman jury actually took all of three hour and twenty-three minutes.

The clerk of the court announced a verdict of “not guilty” for the attorney general’s son. Funk hugged his father, wept “violently,” and tolerated a burst of enthusiasm from his wife. But, the courtroom fell to silence as a verdict of “guilty” was announced for Prichard.

On July 14, 1949, Judge H. Church Ford sentenced Prichard to two years in federal prison. Time magazine concluded the trial had failed to solve “the real mystery.” Why would anyone, much less the “brilliant” Prichard, even bother to forge a “piddling” two hundred and fifty-four ballots in an “overwhelmingly” Democratic county? Life magazine observed Prichard was “led off ignominiously through a dirty, puddle strewn alley to jail for a crime the stupidest ward heeler would have been too smart to get caught at.”

Prichard’s sentence was affirmed by a unanimous Court of Appeals on April 4, 1950. On June 5, 1950, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the conviction as well. Interestingly, four members of the Court removed themselves from the case (Chief Justice Fred Vinson, Stanely F. Reed, Felix Frankfurter and Tom C. Clark). The unanimous, five-vote order from the Court noted that under federal law, lower court decisions are automatically affirmed when the Court has no quorum. A second series of appeals also failed and the “smiling and affable” Prichard went to prison.

From the day Prichard was convicted, there were serious concerns as to whether he would ever actually serve time for his crime. In a letter to Assistant Attorney General Alexander M. Campbell, J. Edgar Hoover observed that some of the people in Bourbon County felt that Prichard would never "any" time” because he had “too much political influence.” In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling, Prichard’s father began a petition drive to secure a presidential pardon. Ministers of the county voted against supporting a grant of clemency, however, as Prichard had made no confession and exhibited no repentance for his deeds. In June of 1950, the New York Times reported “friends” were writing President Truman and urging him to grant Prichard a pardon. Prichard also wrote a letter to the President himself. But, on June 14, 1950, Prichard entered prison.

Prichard served a mere five months of his two-year term before President Truman commuted his sentence (in December of 1950). Campbell suggests the Office of the Pardon Attorney recommended clemency for Prichard and the recommendation was approved by Attorney General (and Democratic National Chairman) J. Howard McGrath. The trial judge, H. Church Ford was, evidently not consulted in the matter. The president made no public statements. Prichard’s clemency warrant simply noted that it had been “made to appear” to the president that the full term of the sentence “ought not to be imposed.”

Author Tracy Campbell notes Prichard “did not publicly affirm or deny his guilt in the vote fraud until 1976.” At that time Prichard said, “I did it. It was wrong, and I know it was wrong.” In the same interview, the former political Boy Wonder also rationalized his actions in this manner: “I was raised in a county where monkeying with elections was second nature; my father did it, my grandfather did it. I was raised to believe that was just second nature.”

Prichard went on to advise several governors of the state and was considered by many to be the state’s greatest intellect and sharpest legal mind. In the late 1960's he was instrumental in building the state’s higher education system.

On January 16, 1953, just days before he left office, President Truman granted Prichard a full and unconditional pardon. The pardon was not made public and the President gave no explanation for the action. Prichard was simply described in the warrant as a “fit object” of executive clemency. Prichard Biographer Tracy Campbell suggests a letter written by Prichard implied Chief Justice Vinson may have encouraged Truman to grant the pardon.

Weeks late, Herbert Brownell (Attorney General for the Eisenhower administration) learned that the Prichard pardon had not been recommended by the Office of the Pardon Attorney. With a little help from Senator John J. Williams, Brownell learned six others had been pardoned on the same day without the participation of the Pardon Attorney. Brownell called the Prichard pardon a “scandal” and evidence of what a “mess” Washington was. In a private letter to Prichard, Truman wrote that he felt “the right procedure was followed” in his case.

Prichard died having never run for office.

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