Luke Lea and son, 1935. From the author's collection.

Luke Lea and son, 1935. From the author’s collection.

By Ray Hill

By 1929, Luke Lea had reached the apex of his political influence in Tennessee.  Lea was the undisputed power behind the throne and no one had more influence in the administration of Governor Henry Horton.  When Tennessee’s junior United States senator, Lawrence D. Tyson, died unexpectedly in August of 1929, Horton immediately offered to appoint Lea to fill the vacancy.  Lea, enormously powerful already, majestically turned down the appointment.  It proved to be a terrible mistake on Lea’s part.

Henry Horton, with Luke Lea’s encouragement, was again a candidate for governor in 1930.  Once again, there was a fragile alliance between the Horton administration and the Shelby County political machine headed by E. H. Crump.  Horton’s opponent in the 1930 Democratic primary was L. E. Gwinn, who was not a first class candidate.  Gwinn did manage to carry three of the four big urban counties in Tennessee, winning Davidson, Hamilton and Knox Counties, although he lost badly in Crump’s domain of Shelby County.  Still, Henry Horton beat L. W. Gwinn by almost forty-five thousand votes to win renomination.

Just days after his win, an event occurred that changed the nature of Tennessee politics, as well as brought about the ruination of Henry Horton and Luke Lea, both politically and personally.  The finances of the State of Tennessee were tied to that of Caldwell and Company.  Rogers Caldwell was a business partner of Colonel Luke Lea and the banking house failed in 1930, which caused the State of Tennessee to lose almost seven million dollars of taxpayer money.

Naturally, a whirlwind of fury spread across Tennessee and numerous meetings were held to denounce both the administration and Governor Horton.  There were calls for the impeachment of Henry Horton and initially, there was nothing but silence emanating from Memphis.  E. H. Crump had little to say before finally breaking his silence and the tenuous alliance he had forged with Luke Lea.  Crump announced he supported the call for Governor Horton’s impeachment.

Henry Horton only barely avoided the ignominy of being the only governor in Tennessee’s history to be impeached.  Horton ruthlessly used every ounce of power, influence and patronage at his disposal to escape impeachment.  It was a brutal affair and while Governor Horton was not impeached and remained in office, his power was spent and he was a broken man.  He would die shortly after leaving office.

Luke Lea desperately tried to maintain his influence and with Henry Horton unable to run again in 1932, the Colonel plucked former governor Malcolm Rice Patterson from obscurity to sponsor as the administration candidate.  State Treasurer Hill McAlister was once again the preferred candidate of Crump and Senator K. D. McKellar.  Lewis Pope, formerly an official in the administration of the late Governor Austin Peay, joined the race, attempting to place the dead chief executive’s mantle upon his own shoulders.

Patterson, after having been driven from the governor’s office, had attempted to make a political comeback by running against Senator Luke Lea in 1916.  Lea had run behind both former Governor Patterson and Congressman K. D. McKellar.  McKellar had defeated Patterson in the run-off election.  The fact Lea would resort to backing Malcolm Patterson was an admission the statewide machine he had forged was falling apart.  Patterson was hardly a credible candidate in 1932 and the political partnership of Senator K. D. McKellar and E. H. Crump began its decade-long domination of Tennessee politics with Hill McAlister’s nomination for governor in 1932.

Luke Lea had lost his political influence, yet things were to go from bad to worse for the former senator.  The collapse of the House of Caldwell brought financial ruin upon Lea himself.  Lea’s publishing empire was crumbling and he lost ownership of his most prized possession, the Nashville Tennessean.

A complicated legal battle began and charges were filed against Lea and his son in North Carolina related to the failure of his business holdings.  By March of 1933, Lea had been arrested and was in jail.  Having lost the Tennessean, Lea tried to start a new paper, which he intended to call the Free Press, but with the economic devastation brought on by the Great Depression, Lea was unable to sell enough stock and the effort died.  Colonel Lea’s own financial situation became more acute and most everything he owned was mortgaged to pay for his legal defense, as well as his living expenses.  Once wealthy and powerful, Luke Lea was left virtually friendless.

“I owe money – – – yes, but I will pay that,” Lea promised.  “I cannot be imprisoned unless I am imprisoned for debt.”

It was wishful thinking.

An appeal to the United States Supreme Court was rejected and Lea’s attorney, former gubernatorial candidate L. E. Gwinn, did his best to keep Luke Lea and his son, Luke, Jr., from being imprisoned.  The State of North Carolina had hired former Governor A. H. Roberts as its attorney and Roberts insisted the Leas be turned over for incarceration.

Both Luke Lea and his son were taken to Raleigh, North Carolina where they were imprisoned.  Losing his own freedom had been bad enough, but witnessing his son being jailed was almost too much for the elder Lea.  The former senator begged that he and his son share the same cell, a wish that was granted, according to Lea’s daughter and biographer.  Mary Louise Tidwell also recalled there was no toilet in the cell, merely a bucket.

Luke Lea, like any other prisoner, had to endure his share of constant humiliations while in prison.  Lea managed to keep himself busy during his stay in prison, initially holding down a job checking in materials for the institution.  Later, Lea was moved to the facility where the prisoners literally made license plates for automobiles.  Colonel Lea was overjoyed when his son, Luke, Jr., was granted a parole by North Carolina Governor J. B. C. Erhinghaus.  Lea’s joy quickly dissolved into grief when he learned his son Percy had been killed.  Percy had been coming home with a group of friends when the automobile he was riding in was involved in an accident.  Percy was thrown from the car and killed.  Lea was only able to attend his son’s funeral after Governor Erhinghaus consented to allow him to travel to Tennessee while guarded.  The governor also insisted North Carolina not pay any of the Colonel’s traveling expenses.  A dear friend of Lea’s gallantly put up a $10,000 bond to allow Luke Lea to go home for Percy Lea’s funeral.

Eventually, Luke Lea won his release from prison.  The Lea family made a determined bid to secure a pardon for Colonel Lea in 1935 and seemed to be making significant headway.  Additional evidence not available during Lea’s trial caused many to believe the Colonel was innocent of the charges against him.  Yet, Governor J. B. C. Erhinghaus denied Lea a pardon.  It was a crushing blow to both Colonel Lea and his family.

Finally, Governor Erhinghaus agreed to parole Luke Lea.  The Colonel left the prison in 1936.

Lea’s return to Tennessee was nothing less than triumphant.  He was personally greeted in Nashville by Mayor Hilary Howse, a long-time political opponent.  Surrounded by thousands in both Lebanon, Tennessee and Nashville and escorted by a fleet of motorcycle policemen, Lea was all smiles as he and his wife made their way through the throngs of wellwishers.

Luke Lea spent the last decade of his life trying to reclaim the Nashville Tennessean.  His political power was spent and he was no longer a force to be reckoned with.  His financial obligations quite nearly overwhelmed him.  Oddly, Lea found himself allied with his old rival, K. D. McKellar, who had defeated him in his reelection bid to the U. S. Senate.  McKellar loathed Silliman Evans, the new owner of the Tennessean, and while their joint effort pry Evans’ fingers off the newspaper was not successful, they tried repeatedly.

Lea officially made his living by working in the field of “public relations,” which was a polite way of saying he was a lobbyist.  Luke Lea spent much of his final years in Washington, D. C.

By 1945 Luke Lea was seriously ailing.  In early November of that year, he had gone to the hospital after suffering a heart attack.  The following Sunday, November 18, he died.

Luke Lea had an astonishing life; born into a wealthy family, elected U. S. senator at thirty-two, owning a publishing empire that ran the length of Tennessee and exercising the kind of political influence that comes to but few.  Lea’s rise had been meteoric, but his fall had been just as swift and more final.  While life had given Luke Lea just about every gift imaginable, it had been implacable in taking things dear to him.  Lea lost a beloved wife, a son, his publishing empire and his seat in the United States Senate, as well as his wealth and influence.  Then there was imprisonment, made all the more excruciating by the fact his son was sent to prison with him.

Lea had increased his own personal wealth and his publishing empire through his friendship and partnership with Rogers Caldwell.  It was Caldwell and Company that helped Lea acquire the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the Knoxville Journal.  Lea suffered through the special investigating committee ferreting out supposed influence and “political banking” and lost perhaps something he valued most highly of all: his reputation.

Yet Luke Lea never lacked confidence; handsome, able, and charming, Lea was sure of himself.  From his attempt to abduct ex-Kaiser Wilhelm to his election to the U. S. Senate, Lea exhibited perfect confidence.  That same confidence helped him to expand his business empire until brought low by the collapse of Caldwell and Company.  His resilience helped him to cope with life after being released from prison.

Throughout much of his life, controversy swirled around his head.  Loved by thousands, Luke Lea was also hated by thousands.

Luke Lea knew the best and worst life had to offer.