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Weekly 150: McNairy County

From Pusser to Blanton (Part VI)

By Jason Martin
Posted 1/10/23

Ray Blanton’s term as governor ranks as one of the most controversial in Tennessee’s history. Despite the corruption that surrounded his administration, there were also numerous accomplishments. He created the Department of Tourism, the first in the nation. Blanton traveled extensively for the state, making numerous trips to Washington, D.C., and three overseas trips to recruit foreign investment.

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Weekly 150: McNairy County

From Pusser to Blanton (Part VI)

Ray Blanton’s term as governor ranks as one of the most controversial in Tennessee’s history. Despite the corruption that surrounded his administration, there were also numerous accomplishments. He created the Department of Tourism, the first in the nation. Blanton traveled extensively for the state, making numerous trips to Washington, D.C., and three overseas trips to recruit foreign investment.
Although critics questioned his large travel expenses, the explosion of interest in Tennessee by British, Japanese, and German investors paid enormous dividends. Further, Blanton joined the legislature in upgrading the state’s retirement system into one of the most actuarially sound systems in the country. He also emphasized programs promoting equality for women and African Americans and tax relief for senior citizens.
According to Knoxville journalist Ray Hill, “Governor Blanton presided in office as an old-time Democrat, making no effort whatsoever to hide the importance of his patronage committee, which existed in every county in Tennessee. Democrats were eager to put out Republicans hired by the administration of Winfield Dunn. The contrast between the former governor and his successor would become more deeply etched in the minds of thousands of Tennesseans as Blanton presided over state government. The courtly and gentlemanly Dunn, scrupulously honest, was the antithesis of Ray Blanton. Modishly and well-dressed, Blanton was frequently coarse, vulgar, petulant, and imperious.
“Governor Blanton could still show the folksy side of his nature, besting country music singer Lynn Anderson (I Never Promised You A Rose Garden) in a milking contest. Blanton also kept another country music star, Faron Young, from being extradited to Oklahoma to face charges in the Sooner State. Ray Blanton led a crowd in a rousing rendition of ‘Gimme That Old-Time Religion’ while attending a Governor’s Conference on Aging.
“Yet there was the unpleasant side of Ray Blanton that came out as time passed. The governor had racked up a $300 telephone bill from Tokyo to a woman in Washington, D. C. Married and the father of three children, the governor adamantly refused to answer questions about the nature of his relationship with that particular woman. Later, Blanton and several aides reimbursed the State of Tennessee $21,000 for personal telephone calls, rentals for limousine service, and liquor bills.”
Problems over pardons and paroles arose early in the Blanton administration. Marie Ragghianti, a Blanton appointee and chairwoman of the Tennessee Board of Pardons and Paroles, was abruptly fired in August 1977, when she refused to release certain prisoners who, as later events proved, had bribed members of the Blanton administration. Ragghianti retained Fred Thompson, later a U.S. Senator from Tennessee, as her lawyer and won a $38,000 settlement against the state. 
Peter Maas brought her story to national attention in the book ‘Marie’, which became a 1985 movie of the same name, starring actress Sissy Spacek in the title role. On December 15, 1978, the FBI swarmed over Tennessee’s capitol and seized the office of Blanton’s legal advisor, T. Edward Sisk, on suspicion of a cash-for-clemency scandal. They arrested three state employees, including Sisk, and Blanton appeared before a federal grand jury on December 23, 1978, denying any wrongdoing.
On January 15, 1979, Blanton pardoned fifty-two prisoners, claiming the need to do so under a court order to reduce the prison population. One pardon went to Roger Humphreys, the son of a Blanton patronage leader in East Tennessee who had been convicted of murdering his ex-wife and a male companion. Even before the pardon, Blanton had allowed Humphreys to live outside the prison and serve as a state photographer.
Fearing further parolees, the FBI approached U.S. Attorney Hal Hardin, Lieutenant Governor John Wilder, and State House Speaker Ned Ray McWherter, and they agreed to Lamar Alexander’s early inauguration. Wilder and McWherter found a loophole in the state constitution, which is vague on when a newly elected governor must be sworn in. It was eventually decided to swear in Lamar Alexander, who had won the 1978 gubernatorial election, three days before the traditional inauguration day. Wilder later referred to Blanton’s ouster as “impeachment Tennessee-style.” Blanton later claimed to be the only recent Tennessee governor who left office poor, and he was never convicted of receiving payments for pardons.
In June 1981 Blanton was convicted of mail fraud, conspiracy, and extortion for selling liquor licenses and served twenty-two months in a federal penitentiary. He was implicated in a scheme to corner the highly competitive Nashville liquor store market by controlling the stores directly or by forcing owners to kick back 30 percent of the stores’ profits. Blanton spent the next ten years, from 1986 until his death on November 22, 1996, trying to restore his reputation. Nine of the charges were overturned in January 1988 by federal court action.
In June 2021, Tennessee officials linked the 1979 murder of Chattanooga businessman Samuel Pettyjohn (a close friend of Jimmy Hoffa), who was working with the FBI, to the Blanton administration. On February 1st, 1979, Sam Pettyjohn, owner of the Beverage Center at the corner of 20th and Market Streets, was found shot to death inside his business. Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston says the Cold Case Unit learned that William Edward Alley was the man responsible for Pettyjohn’s death.
Pinkston claimed, “it was clear Alley was a hired killer, because no money was taken from the register, nor was jewelry taken from Pettyjohn’s body. It was a contract murder without question.”
Cooperating investigators said some of the murder money came from the office of former Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton. Many parolees who received pardons from the Blanton were from the Chattanooga area. That’s how Pettyjohn became involved. The grand jury’s findings say Pettyjohn visited Tennessee inmates to let them know money could secure their early release from prison.
Later, Pettyjohn cooperated with federal investigators about the scheme and the actions of Blanton’s office. He was to testify to a grand jury but was murdered before he could take the stand.
“Essentially, Mr. Pettyjohn cooperated with authorities and knew too much about what was going on locally as well as at the state level, and individuals didn’t like that,” Pinkston said.
Blanton spent the last decade of his life trying to clear his name. In 1988, he ran for the retiring Ed Jones’ 8th district congressional seat. He finished behind John Tanner, winning just over 10% of the vote. He later became employed at a Ford dealership in Henderson.
Blanton died on November 22, 1996, at the Jackson-Madison County Hospital in Jackson awaiting a liver transplant. He is buried in the churchyard of Shiloh Church, within Shiloh National Military Park. His grave is marked by a large obelisk.
I’m taking just a second to thank all those that have reached out to me in the last month or so about the Pusser/Blanton series. It means a lot to hear from readers all over the state and country. I’d also like to thank the folks down in McNairy County for being patient and understanding with these stories. I never set out with an agenda other than to tell a story about the legends from that neck of the woods. It’s obvious a few toes may have been stepped on and a few feelings may have been hurt but that’s the nature of quality journalism. Once again, thank you for your continued support.


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