We currently live in interesting times, with political scandals popping up all over the place. By the time this article goes live, we'll probably all be shaking our heads and muttering "I can't believe Ben Carson's Martian sex colony was a front for astro-meth!" So why not remind yourself that politics was always deranged, with a look at some forgotten political scandals as insane as anything the 2020s has managed.
Back in the day, Phenix City, Alabama, was the worst-spelled and most corrupt town in America. Originally literally named "Sodom," the town grew into a center of bootlegging, gambling and prostitution, especially after Fort Benning was build nearby, giving the cutthroat townsfolk a steady supply of earnest young Army recruits to rob. By the 1940s, Phenix City had 1,500 slot machines, most of them rigged, 200 professional gamblers, all of them crooked, and countless hookers, every one with a heart of gold. At one point, the state government tried to seize all the illegal booze, but the townsfolk literally tunneled their way into the lockup and stole it all back. You couldn't stop these people from doing crimes!
Naturally, this was all facilitated by a network of down-home crooked politicians. They had to put a bank teller under every table in town, just to keep track of all the bribes being passed back and forth. But by the 1950s, the uptight '50s squares of Alabama decided that enough was enough. They were inspired by the Russell County Betterment Association (RCBA), a tiny group of Phenix citizens who had been fighting a lonely battle to clean up their town. This made the RCBA very unpopular in Phenix City. They were booed, kicked, shot at, beaten up, spit on, lightly dynamited, banned from all the best brothels -- it was a nightmare! But they persevered and soon the whole state started to rally round.
In 1954, RCBA leader Albert Patterson ran for attorney-general of Alabama, promising to clean up Phenix City. Unsurprisingly, there was massive vote-rigging against him. Every dead person in Phenix City voted twice and all the living ones voted three times. Dogs voted, cats voted, slot machines voted, gangsters wouldn't even take you down by the river and shoot you in the back of the head until you'd filled out an absentee ballot. But the groundswell was so huge that the Phenix mob lost. Patterson was elected attorney-general. Which was very bad news for Alabama's previous attorney-general Si Garrett, who was secretly one of the top dogs in Phenix's organized crime ring.
Shortly before taking office, Albert Patterson was gunned down on the street. The murder of a genuinely brave man shocked Alabama to the point that the governor declared martial law, called out the National Guard and sent them in seize control of Phenix City and clean it up at gunpoint. The crime phenix would never truly rise from the ashez. Meanwhile, the investigation uncovered that Attorney-General Garrett had sent a sheriff's deputy to straight-up murder his successor in broad daylight. The scandal ended his career, but Garrett had one final card to play, avoiding prosecution by having himself confined to a Texas mental hospital, which helpfully declared him mentally unfit to stand trial. Bear in mind, he was still attorney-general. Imagine how weird it would be to open the newspaper and read that your state's top law enforcement official is too crazy for his own murder trial.
One of the wildest political scandals in Louisiana history started when Mrs. Ada LeBoeuf launched a steamy affair with her doctor, Thomas Dreher, and the pair decided to murder Ada's husband by shooting him in a canoe, cutting his stomach open so the gasses wouldn't make him float, and dumping him in the murky water (that old love story). The couple were sentenced to death in 1928, but Lieutenant-Governor Paul Cyr was an old friend of Deher and was determined to get the sentence commuted. This was so controversial that the state supreme court literally came to blows over it (at one point the chief justice picked up the phone to confirm the sentence, but a dissenting justice tackled him, wrestled the phone away, and screamed a stay of execution down the line).
Governor Huey "Kingfish" Long eventually confirmed the sentence, turning his running mate Cyr into his sworn enemy. From that moment on, Long couldn't leave the state because that would make Cyr acting governor and he would immediately seize power for himself. One time, Cyr learned that Long had secretly slipped across the border into Mississippi, because no man can resist the lure of Mississippi forever. Cyr, a dentist by trade, bolted out of his office and immediately led a convoy toward Baton Rouge to take office. But Long got wind of his surprise dental appointment and raced back. As soon as his foot hit Louisiana soil he fired off a telegram ordering the National Guard to surround the capitol with machine-gun emplacements and ward off the lieutenant-governor.
Things came to a head in 1930, when Long won a seat in the US senate, but refused to leave the governorship until the 1932 election to stop Cyr from taking office, leaving the senate seat vacant. The gun-toting Cyr declared this was illegal, took the oath of governor, and tried to force his way into the governor's mansion. But Long stuck a gun in his own belt, leaped into his custom Cadillac, and drove from New Orleans to Baton Rouge at 100 miles an hour, with a terrified reporter along for the ride. Once in the state capital, Huey had the governor's mansion surrounded by the National Guard, state police, highway patrol, and a squad of musclebound LSU football players, all with orders to throw Cyr out on his ass if he tried to gain entry.
The two sides engaged in a heavily armed standoff, until Long came up with a brilliant legal ruse. He was still in the governor's mansion, so obviously he was still the governor. But Cyr had vacated the office of lieutenant-governor when he took the oath of office as governor, so he was now just some dentist. He couldn't become governor even if Long did leave the state. He then simply appointed a new lieutenant and continued to dominate Louisiana politics until he was assassinated by an enraged doctor a few years later. Let that be a lesson to you all: doctor beats dentist.
Victor Grayson was a firebrand young socialist who became internationally famous in 1907, when he won a seat in the British parliament aged just 25. Unfortunately, the success went to his head, or possibly his liver, since he soon developed a drinking problem and ended up losing his seat at the next election. But he regained the public's love by joining up to fight during World War I and resumed his speaking career when he returned. He was particularly popular with female audiences, due to his twin platforms of "you should be allowed to vote" and "I'm really hot." (He used to literally interrupt speeches to go "Ladies, what do you think of my hair today?")
But after returning from the front, Grayson's speeches took a dark turn, hinting at a sinister conspiracy. Specifically, he suggested that Prime Minister David Lloyd-George was secretly selling knighthood and lordships to all sorts of dodgy characters. Which was true -- Lloyd-George raked in over 100 million pounds in today's money selling titles to any random war profiteer with a suitcase full of cash. They literally came up with whole new honors just so they'd have something to auction off at a discount. In one speech, Grayson declared "this sale of honors is a national scandal. It can be traced right down from Downing Street to a monocled dandy with offices in Whitehall." And that's when things got nasty.
That "monocled dandy" was Maundy Gregory, the prime minister's personal fixer, a weirdo creep whose soul is almost certainly haunting a creepy marionette somewhere. Shortly after hinting at Gregory's role as the mastermind of the honors scam, Grayson was beaten up in the street. A few weeks later, he was seen leaving his apartment accompanied by two men. He never returned. Was Gregory capable of murder? Well, let's put it this way, when he found himself in need of money, a wealthy friend mysteriously dropped dead, leaving a new will scrawled on a menu giving everything to good ol' Maundy. He then buried the body in an unsealed coffin on a riverbank, meaning that the remains were too rotten to tell anything by the time her family got the courts to order an autopsy.
But there's a twist! Gregory, who always carried a huge wad of cash around, had been a regular visitor to Grayson's apartment, which was really too nice for Grayson to afford on his own. Was he blackmailing Gregory? Some have even suggested that he could have been paid to leave the country by a nervous Gregory, who would eventually be arrested for his corrupt dealings. All we know is that the last confirmed sighting of Victor Grayson was on a motorboat being taken out to Gregory's home, on an island in the middle of the Thames.
In 1964, Britain was ruled by the Conservative Party, a collection of stuffy old coots who communicated entirely via outraged harumphs and passive-aggressive stamp collecting. Three separate Foreign Secretaries died of fright after being startled by a geranium, while one MP gave his wife a brisk handshake on her birthday and was promptly arrested for public indecency. Meanwhile, London's gangland was ruled by the Kray Twins, a pair of right rotten geezers who enjoyed nothing more than a pint and a punchup with their dear ol' mum. Which is why you might have been surprised to see the hulking Krays enjoying a lovely cup of tea in the private Parliamentary tea rooms.
As it turned out, the Krays were great buddies with the senior Conservative politician Lord Robert Boothby. Ronnie Kray had hit it off with Boothby after bumping into him on London's underground gay scene (they were both bisexual). Ronnie was soon arranging orgies for Lord Boothby in return for political favors, like tea in parliament. When the twins were arrested, Boothby made a protest in the House of Lords, while the Krays even introduced Boothby to a cat burglar friend of theirs, who became his live-in boyfriend (he was officially Boothby's "chauffeur").
But then disaster struck! The Labour-supporting Daily Mirror published a front-page story exposing the links between Ronnie Kray and Boothby, strongly implying they were having an affair. That probably wasn't true, but the official explanation ("we just go to sex parties together") wasn't cutting much ice in 1960s Britain, especially considering one of the people involved was a notorious murderer and the other was a widely disliked politician. Imagine Mitch McConnell standing at a podium trying to make "look, El Chapo and I just like to get jerked off together" fly and you'll have some idea of how bad this was. In fact, it was even worse for the Conservatives, since Boothby was also sleeping with Prime Minister Harold MacMillan's wife. MacMillan had never minded, but any investigation into Boothby's personal life could create a second weird sex scandal.
But the day was saved by the Labour Party, who forced the Mirror to retract the story and even pay damages. Why would Labour do that for the other party? Well, senior Labour MP Tom Driberg also enjoyed the occasional party with Ronnie Kray. And Driberg's own personal life needed to stay private, since he was widely rumored to have been blackmailed into becoming a Soviet spy after an unwise encounter in a Moscow men's toilet (was everyone in Parliament just plowing 24 hours a day?). As a result of the retraction, Boothby's career was saved, while the Kray twins remained at large until they were convicted of murder in 1969.
Back in the '60s, Alain Delon was the biggest star in France and a famous playboy, known for living the high life with his two street-fighting Serbian bodyguards: Stevan Markovic and Milos Milosevic. A tabloid frenzy ensued when Milosevic was found shot dead along with former child star Mickey Rooney's wife, with whom he'd been having an affair. Investigators determined that Milosevic, an aspiring actor who played the monster in William Shatner's Esperanto-language horror movie Incubus, had murdered his lover before turning the gun on himself. That sold a lot of papers, so the press were very interested when Markovic also turned up dead a couple years later. And then that story took a really weird turn.
It turned out that Markovic, who was found dumped in a landfill with a bullet in his head, had been using Delon's Paris apartment to host wild sex parties attended by some of France's most influential people. Rumors spread that Markovic had been supporting his lavish lifestyle by secretly filming his parties and using the tapes to blackmail some of his new friends. But France isn't exactly the most uptight country about weird rich people orgies, so who could be so susceptible to blackmail? Well, Prime Minister Georges Pompidou had just sensationally broken with President Charles de Gaulle, and planned to run against de Gaulle's candidate in the upcoming presidential election. Suddenly unsubstantiated rumors sprang up that Pompidou's glamorous wife Claude was a regular at the orgies and probably a blackmail victim.
At this point, things somehow got crazier. A Corsican gangster was charged (but acquitted) with involvement in the murder, only for his defense lawyer's car to be stolen. When the cops retrieved the car, they found a bunch of photos inside, apparently showing Claude Pompidou up to all sorts of sexy shenanigans. Except that the photos were fairly bad fakes, apparently using a Claude Pompidou lookalike. And not a very good one, most likely because "find me a porn model who looks exactly like the former prime minister's old-ass wife" is a hard request to fill on short notice. Even when the person filling it is the goddamn police commissioner.
Seriously, years later a retired French police commissioner said he had personally tracked down a prostitute who looked kind of like Madame Pompidou at the request of his friends in France's SDECE spy agency. At this point, the French people looked at the story of rogue spies, murdered blackmailers, fake orgy photos and celebrity-adjacent murder, puffed on a Gauloise and said "eh, such is life." Pompidou was elected president anyway (and promptly fired a bunch of spies) and everyone moved on to the next insane French scandal.
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