The nation has long had a fascination with organized crime.
The first organized gangs date well before the Civil War, and bands of outlaws became almost synonymous with the Old West in the latter half of the 1800s. Arkansas especially had a serious problem with bands of roving gunmen terrorizing the many dark and lonely trails during Reconstruction, leaving a trail of death and destruction behind them.
With the introduction of Prohibition in the 1920s, the street gangs of major cities shocked Americans with their brazen lawlessness and violence that continued for decades. What finally brought down the mafia was through the efforts of one Arkansan, Sen. John L. McClellan, and his anti-racketeering law that passed in 1970.
McClellan had a long history with the law and combating crime. His father was a respected attorney while the future senator grew up in Sheridan. He came to revere the law and studied it at his father’s law office. At the age of 17 in 1913, McClellan passed the bar exam and became the youngest practicing attorney in the country. He continued with his law career after his service as a pilot in World War I.
In 1927, he became the prosecuting attorney for the Seventh Judicial District, which included Hot Spring and Grant counties in Central Arkansas. He held the position until 1930. He served in Congress from 1935 until 1939, practiced law for a time in Camden, and was elected to the Senate in 1942.
Organized crime had connections across the country and were heavily involved in activities ranging from narcotics to gambling to prostitution. For decades, they were almost untouchable by law enforcement as witnesses were murdered or simply “disappeared” and evidence vanished. All the while, lawmakers and judges were routinely bribed or blackmailed by mobsters to look the other way. Even Arkansas had become a notorious target. In the depths of Prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s, Hot Springs became a well-known vacation spot for mobsters such as Al Capone. Some of the mafia hangouts have since become well-known tourist attractions in the city.
By 1955, McClellan had become chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Investigations. The committee soon turned its attention to investigations of the mafia and alleged collusion with various labor and political leaders in a series of investigations and high-profile hearings that lasted until 1960.
The Valachi Hearings were initiated by McClellan in 1963 when gangster Joseph Valachi discussed in detail the organization of the mafia in New York and other major cities, which was called Cosa Nostra, Italian for “Our Thing,” by gangsters. After several months of testimony, McClellan began crafting a bill to give law enforcement new tools to prosecute organized crime. The anti-racketeering bill was proposed as part of a massive overhaul of federal criminal law debated in Congress in 1968. McClellan worked to create a special piece of legislation aimed at criminal organizations, their conspiracies and the multiple crimes they commit with increased penalties and increased tools for law enforcement.
The anti-racketeering bill went through months of hearings. The vote finally came in January 1970. Fellow Arkansan J. William Fulbright supported McClellan’s bill, which passed easily by a margin of 74-1. It took several more months before the House of Representatives began debate on the bill. When the vote was taken in October, the outcome was never in doubt. It passed the lower chamber by a vote of 341-26, with the entire Arkansas delegation voting in favor of it. The bill was signed into law one week later.
The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly known as the RICO Act, broke the back of organized crime in the United States. The law requires that at least two acts of racketeering activities be committed within a 10-year period, which included money laundering, embezzlement, fraud of any type, witness tampering, obstruction of justice, drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, illegal gambling, bribery, arson, theft, slavery or murder. Penalties included up to 20 years in prison per offense plus stiff fines and forfeiture of any property, business or money that benefited from these acts.
Prosecutors began using the racketeering law to prosecute a variety of crimes beyond the mob. Politicians and corrupt government agencies have been prosecuted under the RICO Act as well as businessmen for insider trading.
McClellan died in 1977, just as the fall of organized crime began accelerating. Between 1981 and 1992, nearly two dozen leading mafia figures were convicted under the RICO legislation. The power of the old New York mafia, often known as the Five Families, was wiped out. Though crime still continues to be a problem for many communities, McClellan’s legislation completely changed how prosecutors approach and combat crime today.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.