- Historic Sites
The Corrupting of New York City
It began early. It’s not going away. It’s about a lot more than payoffs and ward politics. And it’s about a lot more than New York.
December 1986 | Volume 38, Issue 1
La Guardia had charged that “there is not a Tammany politician with the exception of Alfred E. Smith who can risk examination of his private bank account.” Now Seabury examined those bank accounts. Charles W. Culkin, co-leader of Manhattan’s Third Assembly District, had built a nest egg of $1,929,759 in seven years. James A. McQuade, co-leader of Brooklyn’s Fifteenth Assembly District, had amassed $520,000 in six years. The deputy city clerk in charge of marriage ceremonies, James J. McCormick, claimed that he had received $150,000 in “tips” from bridegrooms between 1925 and 1931, but even with that explanation, he fell far short of accounting for the $384,788 he had deposited during those six years.
Thomas M. Parley, leader of Manhattan’s Fourteenth Assembly District and sheriff of New York County, told Seabury in public hearings that he had deposited nearly $400,000 in six and a half years on a total salary of $90,000. “It represented moneys 1 had saved,” he explained. “I took the money out of a safe-deposit box at home.” Was this a tin box or a wooden box, a skeptical Seabury inquired. “A tin box,” Parley answered, and added in response to Seabury’s prodding, “It was a wonderful box.” After that exchange Seabury’s hearings were known as the Tin Box Parade.
On May 25, 1932, wearing a double-breasted blue suit with a blue tie, blue shirt, blue pocket handkerchief, and a ring that flashed a blue stone, Mayor Walker took the stand to answer the questions of Judge Seabury in a jammed courtroom. The fifty-one-year-old mayor remained merry despite the exposure of what Seabury described as the “hideous caricature which parades as justice” in New York City, and even managed a wisecrack—“Life is just a bowl of Seaburys”—when his two days on the stand were over.
Despite this show of insouciance, Walker did not emerge unscathed. Why had the city awarded a bus franchise to the Equitable Coach Co., Seabury asked, despite lower bids from competitors and despite the fact that Equitable owned no buses? How did the mayor explain the brokerage account that he shared with the publisher Paul Block, from which he had received $246,692 and to which he had contributed nothing? How did he explain the deposits of nearly one million dollars (including $750,000 in cash) found in a secret safe-deposit box that he owned jointly with Russell T. Sherwood, his financial agent? And how did he explain the recent decision of Mr. Sherwood to take up permanent residence in Mexico?
A group of women threw roses at Walker’s feet as he walked out of the courthouse after giving his testimony. But roses could not ward off the forces that threatened him. On August 11, 1932, in the Executive Chamber of the Hall of Governors in the State Capitol at Albany, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the governor of New York and nominee of the Democratic party for President, began hearings to determine whether the mayor of New York City should be removed from office.
On September 1, 1932, Walker resigned. Not long afterward he sailed to join his mistress in Europe.
Just a few minutes past midnight on January 1, 1934, in the library of Judge Samuel Seabury’s town house at 154 East Sixty-third Street in Manhattan, Fiorello H. La Guardia was sworn in as the ninety-ninth mayor of New York City. “To the victor belongs the responsibility for good government,” the new mayor declared, and he gave the people of New York twelve years of it. He was the first reform mayor in the history of the city to serve more than one term.
These were terrible times for Tammany. Membership in its clubs fell 70 percent in La Guardia’s first term. In 1929, when La Guardia lost every one of the city’s sixty-two assembly districts in the mayoral race against Jimmy Walker, Tammany had built itself a handsome four-story brick hall with an eleven-hundred-seat auditorium on Union Square in Lower Manhattan. In 1943, with money running out fast, Tammany’s leaders sold the $950,000 building and its $205,000 mortgage to the children’s dress unit of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union for $250,000.
The lean years ended with the decision of La Guardia in 1945 not to seek a fourth term. The new mayor, William O’Dwyer, made an effort to maintain an appearance of honest independence. But from the start there were hints of a suspicious association with Francisco Costiglia, better known as Frank Costello, ruler of the Eastern underworld.
In 1950 a Brooklyn bookmaker named Harry Gross announced that his business expenses included regular payments to three hundred New York City policemen. By August a grand jury in Brooklyn had begun to investigate racketeering in that borough, and a committee of the United States Senate chaired by Tennessee’s Estes Kefauver was preparing to hold hearings in New York City—hearings that would focus the cameras of that powerful new medium, television, on the fingers of Frank Costello as they twitched with nervous agitation. On the eve of a Police Department trial for bribery, more than one hundred of New York’s finest resigned, along with the police commissioner and two top aides.