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The Political Machine Ii: A Case History “i Am The Law”
June 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 4
The almost incredible solidarity Hague had created in Hudson County was partly based on his reformer’s war with the corporations. It injected a priceless element of drama into the humdrum lives of those nondescript thousands on Jersey City’s downtown streets. On their behalf, Hague thundered defiance of the once all-powerful railroads, Public Service, and Standard Oil. He created a kind of inverted arrogance in his followers, the feeling that John L. Sullivan excited with his famous shout, “I can lick any man in the house.” With Hague at their head, each election day they marched, like an army with banners, into the heart of the state, flattening those arrogant Protestant Republicans who had for so long looked down their aristocratic noses at the Irish and their fellow immigrants.
Taxes were only one weapon used by Hague in his continual war with the corporations. During the winter of 1926, a coal strike caused severe hardship among Jersey City’s poor. Cries for help poured into City Hall. Hague knew, without even bothering to check, that there were thousands of railroad cars full of coal standing in Jersey City’s railyards, waiting for shipment across the Hudson River to Manhattan. The denizens of the Horseshoe had stolen their fuel from these cars for decades. The Mayor called the chief of police and ordered: “Don’t allow a scuttle of coal to go out of this city.”
The coal company screamed that the Mayor was interfering with interstate commerce. The Mayor said he had the authority “by virtue of my office as Mayor.”
“That is not enough,” shouted the manager of the coal company.
“By the law at the end of a night stick,” roared the Mayor. “How do you like that one?”
The coal company capitulated and sent ten tons of coal to each police and fire station, where city residents were able to get it for little or nothing.
Hague’s antibusiness stance was a distinct break in the boss tradition in the United States. Most bosses made their money through seemingly legitimate business fronts, co-operating behind the scenes with the powerful corporations. Not Frank Hague: his money came from other sources.
Each year, every officeholder in Hudson County had to contribute three per cent of his salary to City Hall, supposedly to finance the organization’s political battles. A third or half of every raise a man received went to City Hall. So did perhaps half the salary a man was paid for nominal work on a state board or commission. No accounting was made of this river of cash—which swelled to at least $500,ooo and probably $ 1,000,000 a year.
Then there were the real-estate deals. Dummy corporations headed by shadowy figures in New York bought land shortly before Jersey City or Hudson County condemned it, and resold it at fabulous prices. One of these operations cleared a profit of $628,145 between 1919 and 1924.
Most lucrative of all was the gambling take. Among the sports columnists and betting fraternity, Hague’s Jersey City quickly became known as “the Horse Bourse.” In the downtown tenements, under Hague’s careful control, major bookmakers set up a system of telephone and telegraph connections that handled the enormous quantities of off-track betting on races all over America and Canada. Beside this golden stream flowed the by no means inconsiderable pay-offs of the numbers racketeers. These too were carefully controlled by the organization. Finally, each ward was given the O.K. for a carefully regulated number of card and dice games, each of which paid a monthly slice of its “handle.”
Inevitably, Hague’s personal habits began to change. He moved out of the Horseshoe into a fourteen-room apartment on fashionable Hudson County Boulevard, bought a mansion in even swankier Deal, on the New Jersey shore, and acquired other property in Jersey City. In seven years he laid out a grand total of $392,910.50 for real estate, a remarkable performance for a man supposedly living on a salary of $7,500.
This, of course, was only the tip of the iceberg, the portion visible in New Jersey. In New York and elsewhere, vastly larger sums of cash were being invested in stocks or stored in savings banks. A still-active Jersey City politician recalls how, as a young man just out of the Army, he got a job in the city finance department. On one of his first assignments he was given an old suitcase and told to make a series of stops at brokerage houses and banks in New York, where the suitcase was taken into back rooms and then politely returned to him, considerably lightened.
“What the hell is in that thing?” he finally asked. “Money,” he was told.
But Hague’s ostentatious display of wealth was to be his Achilles heel. Each winter he was a familiar figure at Florida’s racetracks, where he displayed an almost childish fondness for flashing thousand-dollar bills. Summer cruises to Europe became part of his routine. At World Series games and other major sporting events, the Mayor always entertained a contingent in the more expensive seats. In 1929, a committee from the New Jersey legislature, convened to investigate election irregularities in Hudson County, asked Hague some questions about his personal finances. He declined to answer. He defied not only the committee but both houses of the New Jersey legislature, assembled in righteous panoply.