The Corrupting of New York City


In March 1894, spurred by Parkhurst’s accusations, a committee chaired by the state senator Clarence Lexow, of Nyack, began hearings to investigate police corruption in New York City. There was plenty to investigate. The average cost of obtaining an appointment in the department, the committee learned, was three hundred dollars. Promotions also had to be purchased. A captaincy in an area known for its expensive brothels went for fifteen thousand dollars. Once a man had joined the force, he could extort payments from prostitutes and madams, gamblers, and saloonkeepers who wanted to operate illegally on Sundays—anyone who needed police “protection.”


Alexander Williams, a police captain, was an especially colorful witness. Williams did not complain about the price he had paid for his transfer to the vice-ridden 19th precinct in the West Thirties of Manhattan. Fancy brothels meant high protection fees. “I’ve had nothin’ but chuck steak for a long time,” the captain had told a reporter when he was transferred, “and now I’m going to get a little of the tenderloin” (the phrase gave his precinct an enduring nickname). Later, when the Lexow Committee asked him how he could afford his estate in Connecticut and his yacht, Williams declared that he had done well speculating in Japanese building lots.

The hearings of the Lexow Committee aroused enough public indignation for the anti-Tammany candidate, William L. Strong, to be elected mayor in 1894. To head the Board of Police Commissioners, Strong appointed thirty-six-year-old Theodore Roosevelt. A little more than a decade earlier, as a boy wonder in the state legislature, Roosevelt had chaired a special committee that investigated municipal corruption in New York City. The committee had painted the usual picture: “blackmail and extortion” in the surrogate’s office, “gross abuses” in the sheriffs office, “no system whatever” in the Tax and Assessments Department, “hush money” paid to policemen—in short, a government “absolutely appalling.” Laws to correct the abuses had been passed, and life had gone on.

Now Roosevelt plunged into the job of cleaning up the Police Department. The police must enforce the laws, he said, including the law that forbade the sale of alcohol on Sundays. The politicians of Tammany Hall, more tolerant of human frailty, watched with interest. They knew that, in Cincinnati, people had come close to rioting when reformers closed the saloons on Sundays.

In New York in the summer of 1895, the public’s enthusiasm for reform waned as the temperature climbed. “Viewed from below,” Justin Kaplan observes in his biography of Lincoln Steffens, who covered Roosevelt’s efforts for the New York Evening Post and who would win fame with the publication of the muck-raking classic The Shame of the Cities in 1904, “reform was mostly stick and hardly any carrot.”

As usual, two years of reform were about all that people could stand. The election of 1897 brought Tammany back to power. Boss Croker returned in triumph from his exile in England. He had a theory about the reformers: “They tried to stand so straight that they fell over backward.”

Tammany’s leaders were not generally known for being talkative. Once a reporter wondered why Richard Croker’s successor, Charles Murphy, had failed to join in the singing of the national anthem at a Fourth of July celebration. “Perhaps he didn’t want to commit himself,” one of Silent Charlie’s aides suggested.

One politician who did not mind talking was George Washington Plunkitt (1842–1924), the ward boss of the Fifteenth Assembly District under Murphy. William L. Riordon of the New York Evening Post interviewed Plunkitt at what the boss called his office: Graziano’s bootblack stand in the Tweed Courthouse. The results were published in various newspapers and then, in 1905, in a book, A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics . The book is a distillation of forty-five years of practical political experience and a vigorous defense of politics as practiced by Tammany. It gives us Tammany’s philosophy in Tammany’s own voice.

Why do reform movements fizzle? “A reformer can’t last in politics,” Plunkitt says. “He can make a show for a while, but he always comes down like a rocket. … Suppose a man who knew nothing about the grocery trade suddenly went into the business and tried to conduct it according to his own ideas. Wouldn’t he make a mess of it? … It’s just the same with a reformer. He hasn’t been brought up in the difficult business of politics and he makes a mess of it every time.”