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William Frederick "Billy" Klair (1875-1937) was the undisputed czar of Lexington, Kentucky, for decades. As political boss in a mid-sized, southern city, he faced problems strikingly similar to those of large cities in the North. As he watched the city grow from a sleepy market town of 16,000 residents to a bustling, active urban center of over 50,000, Klair saw changes that altered not just Lexington but the nation and the world: urbanization, industrialization, and immigration. But Klair did not merely watch these changes; like other political bosses and social reformers, he actively participated in the transformation of his city.

As a political boss and a practitioner of what George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall referred to as "honest graft," Klair applied lessons of organization, innovation, manipulation, power, and control from the machine age to bring together diverse groups of Lexingtonians and Kentuckians as supporters of a powerful political machine. James Duane Bolin also examines the underside of the city, once known as the Athens of the West. He balances the postcard view of Bluegrass mansions and horse farms with the city's well-known vice district, housing problems, racial tensions, and corrupt politics. With the reality of life in Lexington as a backdrop, the career of Billy Klair provides as a valuable and engaging case study of the inner workings of a southern political machine.

"Well researched, and it should prove interesting and useful to anyone focused on American politics, southern history, or the history of Lexington."—Ace Magazine

"An important book. . . . Well written and sheds light on the conundrum of political reform and the power of urban bosses."—American Historical Review

"An excellent study of the rise and decline of a classic machine politician."—Choice

"Bolin’s book of Lexington under Klair is more than a local history. It is a case study in the decline and disappearance of urban ‘bossism’ that dominated American cities during the century between Civil War days and Civil Rights days."—Greenwood (SC) Index-Journal, Orangeburg (SC) Times and Democrat

"Bolin’s well-organized and easy-to-read book, based on extensive research in primary sources, is an important contribution to the study of bossism and to Kentucky history."—H-Net Reviews

"It is surprising, given its traditions and history, that the staid Bluegrass city of Lexington should have become the stronghold of one of Kentucky’s most influential political bosses. In that age of political bosses, Bolin clearly reveals the techniques and devices used by a masterful politician to achieve his ends. This book is eminently readable and a significant addition to the study of bossism in America."—John D. Wright Jr.

"A richly detailed picture of an urban politician defending his interests and exercising power beyond municipal boundaries. The discussion of state-level politics provides the reader with the context often missing from studies of urban politics."—Journal of American History

"Figures such as Klair and histories of cities like Lexington have much to offer political and social historians."—Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"Makes an excellent contribution to the study of American city machines and political reform, as well as the urban South."—Journal of Southern History

"The story of Billy Klair, the political boss who wielded major influence in the growth and changes that took place in Lexington."—Kentucky Libraries

"For those who love politics and political history, especially Kentucky’s rough and tumble variety, the story of Billy Klair of Lexington is a must."—Louisville Courier-Journal

"This latest addition to the extensive literature on bosses and machines is on of the most welcome."—North Carolina Historical Review

"Anyone interested in Kentucky politics and history will find the book a significant addition to the literature."—Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky history, Bossism, Billy Klair


United States History

Bossism and Reform in a Southern City: Lexington, Kentucky, 1880-1940
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