The story of Parnell Thomas

One of the most powerful New Jerseyans to ever serve in the U.S. House of Representatives was J. Parnell Thomas, a Bergen County Republican who was elected to Congress in 1936. When the GOP took control of the House after the 1946 elections, Thomas became the Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee — where his investigation into the Hollywood motion picture industry made him well-known across the nation. Thomas was one of the architects of Hollywood’s so-called “Black List.”

Thomas was a World War I veteran and investment banker when he ran for Allendale Borough Council in 1924. He was Mayor from 1926 to 1930 and a State Assemblyman from 1935 to 1937. When eight-term Congressman Randolph Perkins died after the 1936 primary, Republicans picked Thomas to run for his Bergen County-based House seat.

The HUAC interviewed more than forty people from the movie industry and named nineteen as having “leftist” views. Ten others subpoenaed by Thomas’ committee refused to answer questions. Known as the “Hollywood Ten,” these individuals were eventually found to be in contempt of Congress and served time in a federal prison.

In 1948, syndicated columnist Drew Pearson accused Thomas of putting friends and family on his congressional payroll in no-show jobs and then having their checks deposited into his personal checking account. Thomas won re-election to his own seat in 1948, but lost his chairmanship when Democrats regained control of the House. He was convicted of fraud in 1950 and resigned his seat in Congress. After completing a nine-month sentence in a federal prison, Thomas returned to Bergen County where he became publisher of three weekly newspapers. He sought a return to Congress in 1954, but lost a primary to his successor, William Widnall. He eventually moved to Florida, where he died in 1970.

From Drew Pearson’s nationally syndicated “Washington Merry-Go-Round,” August 4, 1948

One Congressman who has sadly ignored the old adage that those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones is bouncing Rep. J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey, Chairman of the UnAmerican Activities Committee.

If some of his own personal operations were scrutinized on the witness stand as carefully as he cross-examines witnesses, they would make headlines of a kind the Congressman doesn’t like.

It is not, for instance, considered good “Americanism” to hire a stenographer and have her pay a “kickback.” This kind of operation is also likely to get an ordinary American in income tax trouble. However, this hasn’t seemed to worry the Chairman of the UnAmerican Activities Committee.

On Jan. 1, 1940, Rep. Thomas placed on his payroll Myra Midkiff as a clerk at $1,200 a year with the arrangement that she would then kick back all her salary to the Congressman. This gave Mr. Thomas a neat annual addition to his own $10,000 salary, and presumably he did not have to worry about paying income taxes in this higher bracket, because he paid Miss Midkiff’s taxes for her in the much lower bracket.

The arrangement was quite simple and lasted for four years. Miss Midkiff’s salary was merely deposited in the First National Bank of Allendale, N.J., to the Congressman’s account. Meanwhile she never came anywhere near his office and did not work for him except addressing envelopes at home for which she got paid $2 per hundred.

This kickback plan worked so well that four years later. Miss Midkiff having got married and left his phantom employ, the Congressman decided to extend it. On Nov. 16, 1944, the House Disbursing Officer was notified to place on Thomas’s payroll the name of Arnette Minor at $1,800 a year.

Actually Miss Minor was a day worker who made beds and cleaned the room of Thomas’s secretary, Miss Helen Campbell. Miss Minor’s salary was remitted to the Congressman. She never got it.

This arrangement lasted only a month and a half, for on Jan. 1, 1945, the name of Grace Wilson appeared on the Congressman’s payroll for $2,900.

Miss Wilson turned out to be Mrs. Thomas’s aged aunt, and during the year 1945 she drew checks totaling $3,467.45, though she did not come near the office, in fact remained quietly in Allendale, N.J., where she was supported by Mrs. Thomas and her sisters, Mrs. Lawrence Wellington and Mrs. William Quaintance.

In the summer of 1946, however, the Congressman decided to let the county support his wife’s aunt, since his son had recently married and he wanted to put his daughter-in-law on the payroll. Thereafter, his daughter-in-law, Lillian, drew Miss Wilson’s salary, and the Congressman demanded that his wife’s aunt be put on relief.

From Jack Anderson’s Confessions of a Muckracker, 1979

The leader of the committee was J. Parnell Thomas. In appearance, he was improbable either as hero or villain. He was old – I thought sixty-three was old then and fat, with a bald head and a round face that glowed perpetually in a pink flush. But as it turned out, his flat idiom and disarming corpulence concealed an unsuspected capacity to cultivate unreality, or rather, to parody reality. This was to be his passport to power and fame.

Thomas was moved principally by caricatures. Confronting a world that abounded in real Communist threats, he was obsessed with phantom, even ludicrous slapstick ones. One was his notion that the saccharine movies of that day, produced and monitored as they were by the most conformist capitalists, represented a New Deal conspiracy to Communize the free world.

The motion picture industry was almost totally intimidated by the rising power of J. Parnell Thomas, and to appease him, instituted the blacklist that would spread to broadcasting and degrade the entertainment world for a decade to come. Under the pressure of the Thomas committee’s probe into disloyalty among government employees, President Harry Truman issued a far-reaching Loyalty Order designed to circumvent legal forms in rooting out those suspected of disloyalty.

The story of Parnell Thomas