The Corrupting of New York City

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Every decade or so waves of discontent swept Tammany out of office. But it always came back. “Tammany is not a wave,” a police chief explained, “it’s the sea itself.”

“I invented the low blow,” La Guardia had boasted during an earlier campaign, and on another occasion he had said, “I can outdemagogue the best of demagogues.” Walker offered an inviting target. “The present administration,” La Guardia charged, “is the most wasteful and extravagant in the history of New York, and the slimy trail of waste, recklessness and corruption is unparalleled since the days of Boss Tweed.”

This kind of talk might have qualified as a low blow if it had been mere rhetoric. But La Guardia had facts. Tammany’s district attorney, Joab H. Banton, was responsible for the investigation into the 1928 murder of the underworld figure Arnold Rothstein, best known as the man who helped fix the 1919 World Series. La Guardia charged that the main purpose of Banton’s investigation was not to solve the case but to prevent the disclosure of Tammany’s ties with the underworld.

“Did you ascertain,” La Guardia asked Banton publicly, “whether any public officials now in office had ‘borrowed’ money from Rothstein? With what public officials and prominent men in Tammany politics had Rothstein conferred just prior to the time he was murdered?” When Banton replied that Rothstein’s records showed no evidence of loans to men in public life, La Guardia pounced, producing a copy of a letter that had accompanied a loan of nearly twenty thousand dollars that Rothstein had made, at an absurdly low rate of interest, to the city magistrate, Albert Vitale.

Despite La Guardia’s zest, the machine prevailed on election day. A month later an interesting incident took place at a testimonial dinner held by the Tepecano Democratic Club in honor of Judge Vitale. Six masked men with pistols broke into the private dining room, lined the guests against a wall, and departed with thousands of dollars’ worth of cash and jewelry. Vitale had denied having any connections with the underworld, but now he made a few phone calls, and the loot mysteriously reappeared.

Boss Richard Croker said the reformers “tried to stand so straight that they fell over backyard.”

These were dark days for New York’s judiciary. Magistrate Vitale was removed from the bench after an independent investigation conducted by the Bar Association confirmed La Guardia’s charges. Vitale’s successor, George F. Ewald, was accused of paying ten thousand dollars to purchase his seat on the bench. He resigned. Then a state supreme court justice, Joseph Force Crater, stepped into a taxicab in front of a restaurant on West Forty-fifth Street and was never seen again. The investigation into his disappearance suggested that he, too, had purchased his judgeship.

The governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt, called upon the appellate division of the state supreme court to investigate the magistrates’ court of the city. On August 26,1930, the appellate division voted to comply with his request. To lead the investigation, it chose an urbane and high-minded Democrat, Samuel Seabury.

Born in 1873, Seabury was a direct descendant of the Mayflower couple John and Priscilla Alden. One of his ancestors, Samuel Jones, was a founder of the New York Bar. Another, his great-great-grandfather Samuel Seabury, was the first bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America.

Seabury was a consummate aristocrat—”I will not be exceeded in courtesy,” he said—with a streak of radicalism in him. He had campaigned enthusiastically for Henry George in the mayoral contest of 1897, when the author of Progress and Poverty ran a vigorous race that ended with his death a few weeks before the election. Seabury also had supported the successful reform candidacies of William L. Strong in 1895, Seth Low in 1901, and John Purroy Mitchel in 1913. Then, after an unsuccessful campaign for the governorship of New York in 1916, he had dropped out of public life, made millions as a lawyer, purchased a six-story, twelve-bedroom town house on East Sixty-third Street in Manhattan, built a country estate with a Tudor-style library on Long Island, and generally lived a life that prompted observers to pronounce him the closest thing to an English gentleman in the United States. He was on vacation in England, where he had just purchased a rare first edition of a book entitled The Just Lawyer , when he received a cable that invited him to return to New York City and immerse himself in the city’s muck.

The old reformer leaped to the challenge as if he had been born with a muckrake in hand. Seabury’s three investigations—of the magistrates’ court, of the New York City district attorney, and the climactic one of citywide corruption—showed clearly that neither time nor periodic scandal had curbed Tammany’s appetite for boodle.