The Corrupting of New York City

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“My constituents don’t know how to read,” said Tweed, “but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.”

To an extent that ought not to be underestimated, Tammany’s power was based on performance: it gave people what they wanted. For the immigrants who poured into New York in the last decades of the nineteenth century, what was wanted, often, was help of the most basic kind—help in finding a first job or a first place to live, help in finding food, help in filling out citizenship papers. Tammany delivered. All it asked in exchange was a vote.

From another perspective, Tammany did not deliver. As the current Democratic senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, pointed out in an article written in his days as a professor of government, the bosses “never thought of politics as an instrument of social change.” They had acquired power, and their goal was to keep it. Why change anything? Certainly they were not interested in creating an independent citizenry. The dependence of the city’s masses played into their hands.

Tweed was of Scottish ancestry and a Protestant, but his fall introduced half a century of Irish dominance in Tammany, under John Kelly (1872–86), Richard Croker (1886–1902), and Charles Murphy (1902–24). Croker spoke eloquently about Tammany’s services on behalf of immigrants. “Think,” he said, “what New York is and what the people of New York are. One half, more than one half, are of foreign birth.… [Tammany] looks after them for the sake of their vote, grafts them upon the Republic, makes citizens of them,, in short; and although you may not like our motives or our methods, what other agency is there by which so long a row could have been hoed so quickly or so well?”

If it had served only immigrants and the native poor, Tammany might have been more vulnerable than it was. But in the same way that it could hand out jobs or Christmas turkeys to win the support of the middle and lower classes, so the machine could hand out rarer goodies—contracts and exclusive franchises—to win the support of powerful business interests.

For instance, the city controlled valuable water grants—rights to construct piers and storage facilities along the East River. During Tweed’s regime, members of some of the most prominent families in New York—families with names like Astor, Goelet, and Delano—received water grants at prices far below their market value. As the pressure upon Tweed mounted, a special committee headed by John Jacob Astor III was appointed to examine the books of Comptroller Connolly. On the day before the 1871 elections, the committee published its report, complimenting the comptroller on his “faithful and correct” administration of the city’s finances.

Water grants were not the only prize that Tammany could dangle before the city’s businessmen. Franchises to build street railways also were available—for a price. In the middle 188Os the Broadway Railroad Company offered the Board of Aldermen $750,000, half in cash and half in bonds, for the franchise to build a surface railway on Broadway. A competing company offered $500,000—all in cash—and got the contract. The Board of Aldermen that approved this transaction came to be known as the “Boodle Board.” In the end, three members of the board turned State’s evidence, six fled to Canada, and ten were indicted, though never brought to trial.

In general Tammany could laugh off little scandals. Like any good service organization, it aimed to please, and it had something to offer to almost every customer—a helping hand for immigrants, jobs for party loyalists, contracts and franchises for business. Only the gaudiest outrages could stir the public against it.

Such outrages were exactly what provoked the Reverend Charles H. Parkhurst, minister of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church and president of the Society for Prevention of Crime, when he launched a sensational crusade against Tammany in 1892. The link between the machine and vice was his theme. Tammany made immense profits, he charged, from blackmail extorted by the police from prostitutes, saloonkeepers, and gambling establishments. New York was “rotten with a rottenness which is unspeakable and indescribable.” The politicians were a “lying, perjured, rumsoaked, libidinous lot”; they were “polluted harpies who, under the pretense of governing this city, are feeding day and night on its quivering vitals.”

 

Challenged to prove his charges, the reverend donned black-and-white checked trousers and a flashy red tie and embarked on a personal tour of brothels, flophouses, and saloons around the city. At one establishment naked girls played leapfrog in his presence. “Anyone,” Parkhurst declared, “who, with all the easily ascertainable facts in view, denies that drunkenness, gambling, and licentiousness in this town are municipally protected, is either a knave or a fool.”