ARC Review - Crooked: The Roaring 20s Tale of a Corrupt Attorney General, A Crusading Senator, and the Birth of the American Political Scandal


Crooked: The Roaring 20s Tale of a Corrupt Attorney General, A Crusading Senator, and the Birth of the American Political Scandal by Nathan Masters

Nathan Masters has pulled together a fast paced read that looks back at what was the most notorious political scandal of its day.  With plenty of quotes taken directly from congressional testimony, newspaper reports, and memoirs, the book brings the Roaring 20s and the corrupt Harding administration back to life. 

You might recall from your high school history class something called the “Teapot Dome” scandal. Most Americans likely have some awareness of that 1920s scandal, if only for its colorful name. But most of us, including me, don’t really know much about it. We’ve also mostly forgotten another scandal unfolding at the same time - the corruption in the Department of Justice that ultimately led to the fall of the US Attorney General, Harry Daugherty. That is the story of Crooked.

The Teapot Dome scandal had to do with the corrupt leasing of Naval petroleum reserves on two plots of Western federal land, one each to Sinclair Oil and Pan American Petroleum. One of the reserves in Wyoming was known as the Teapot Dome, named after the Teapot Rock, a sandstone formation nearby.  These leases secretly made then Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall a rich man through payment of bribes. 

As the scandal unfolded Senate investigative hearings began (the first of their kind) led by Sen. Thomas Walsh of Montana. The reluctance of Attorney General Harry Daugherty to pursue prosecution played into a growing concern that Daugherty himself may have been involved in the bribery. Daugherty and Fall were part of the “Ohio Gang”, the nickname given to friends and colleagues of President Harding who had been with him on the campaign trail and now served in various roles in his administration.  

Two special prosecutors were assigned to investigate Daugherty’s role in Teapot Dome and concluded he had not been aware of the deal nor taken bribes.

Shortly after this, Jess Smith died, allegedly committing suicide. Smith was Daugherty’s “close friend”, fellow Ohio Gang member and his off-the-books personal assistant at the DOJ. This was a turning point in the scandal in the DOJ. Another special committee, this time led by the brand new Senator Burton Wheeler of Montana, ultimately led to Daugherty being relieved of his office by President Coolidge.

This scandal has it all. There are bags of money illegally changing hands enabling smuggling of Prohibition booze; an illegally distributed “movie” featuring footage of a prize fight earning money under the table, with a cut of the funds going to Smith and likely the Attorney General; a possible though unproven gay relationship between the Attorney General and his assistant Jess Smith; the offices of US Senators being broken into and ransacked; and, in the aftermath of the scandal, the rise of a new head of the Bureau of Investigation, John Edgar Hoover.

Author Nathan Masters does an excellent job of unfolding this story and leaves no doubt as to the amount of corruption rampant in Daugherty’s DOJ. But, as this is a true story, not everything is black and white. The hero of this book, Senator Burton Wheeler, went on to be an America First booster and suspected anti-Semite in the run-up to WWII. As to the villain Daugherty, though he was forced out of office, he was indicted on only one of the many illegalities highlighted at the Wheeler hearings, and acquitted even of that. Fall on the other hand, was jailed for one year for accepting bribes. He became the first former cabinet officer ever to receive a prison term due to misconduct while in office.

If you like US politics, are a fan of American history, or perhaps listened to and loved Rachel Maddow’s podcasts Bagman or  Ultra, you’ll likely want to read Crooked.

RATING: Four and a Half Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐🌠

NOTE: I read an advanced review copy of this book courtesy of the author, Hachette Books and NetGalley. The book will be available to the public on March 21, 2023.

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Title: Crooked: The Roaring 20s Tale of a Corrupt Attorney General, A Crusading Senator, and the Birth of the American Political Scandal

Author: Nathan Masters

Publisher: Hachette Books

Publish Date: Mar 21, 2023

ISBN-13: 9780306826139

Publisher’s List Price: $30.00 Hardcover (as of 2/2023)