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Tammany Picked An Honest Man
The 1910 race for the mayoralty of New York looked like a tough one.
February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
The new mayor made appointments for the good of the city, choosing men whom he deemed capable of carrying out their duties, and then seeing that they did. Some of these appointees came up to his expectations, others did not. He booted leeches and drones off the municipal payroll with the efficiency of a patented eviction machine. His eye penetrated nearly everywhere; no detail escaped his scrutiny and if necessary his personal attention. For the display, trappings, and pomp of office he cared nothing. Every day he walked to work, three and one-half miles across Brooklyn Bridge from his home to City Hall, spotless and trig in frock coat and top hat. Along the way he noticed whether the streets were clean—swept in summer, cleared of snow in winter. On the job at City Hall, he abolished or curtailed abuses of authority to the best of his ability. He curbed the tendency of the police to “throw their weight around,” and put a stop to the arresting of boys for trivial offenses. He personally ordered removed from the rogues-gallery files the photograph of a guiltless man that had been there for years, labelled “general thief.” He stopped leaks in the city treasury, saw to it as best he could that contracts were negotiated honestly, and in rapid order won the admiration of most of the forces who had denounced him hardest during the campaign, Hearst excepted. Hearst never forgave Gaynor.
The Mayor’s almost obsessive concern with civic responsibility he had outlined clearly during the election campaign. In a revealing letter to his brother, he recalled that years before he had noticed a line of people stretching for a block outside Brooklyn’s City Hall, and upon inquiring why they were standing there, had been told that they were waiting to pay their taxes, due that day.
“I walked along the line on the opposite side and looked at them,” he related. “There they were … good, intelligent people, whose lives are a continuous struggle to bring up their children and make both ends meet from month to month. Their bony hands and bent bodies gave evidence of their life of toil, and most of their faces were anxious. As I looked at them, my mind became filled with the awful baseness of men, who, having got into office by the votes of these people, turn around and betray and rob them of their hard-earned money paid in as taxes. I made a covenant then and there that from that time onward … I should … work against low, base, and corrupt officials and government.”
In August, 1911, after seven months of prodigious (and, for Tammany, shattering) labors, Mayor Gaynor achieved a unique place in history by becoming the subject of one of the most widely published photographs ever made. This was snapped by a cameraman who chanced to be on hand an instant after a dismissed jobholder stepped up behind the Mayor on the deck of the liner he had just boarded to sail for Europe, and shot him in the neck.
The wound was grave but not fatal; the bullet could not be extracted, and months passed before the Mayor regained even comparative health; he never fully recovered. His voice was reduced permanently to a rasping whisper, and he was bothered by a spasmodic cough. How it feels to be shot from ambush he described in a letter to his sister that included some characteristic remarks: “They wanted me to lie down on the deck, but I said no, I would walk to my stateroom. … Finding my wound not immediately mortal, I had determined to make a fight for it.…”
His character seemed changed by the injury: his eccentricity and irascibility turned sometimes to venom and unreasonableness, and the bright hopes he had inspired at the outset of his term were imperfectly fulfilled. He was under much attack by self-constituted reformers, for whom he had no use whatsoever: to his mind, “prying” and “minding other people’s business,” whether done by government or by private agencies, were the capital sins against human dignity. Men and women are not perfect, he would point out, and there was no prospect that they ever would be; and he resented attempts to legislate them into purity.
One critic, the stridulous Doctor Charles Henry Parkhurst, from whose pulpit on Madison Square emanated a continuous clamor against real and supposed municipal wrongdoing, Gaynor accepted as his hairshirt, to be borne as patiently as possible. “Some people are altogether too good for this world; the sooner they are translated the better,” was his rejoinder. And again, “Doctor Parkhurst thinks he is pious when he is only bilious.”
An idiosyncrasy to which Mayor Gaynor gave full rein was letter-writing. He made a point of answering most of the letters that came to City Hall, and they poured in from all over the country. Who the writer was, or what the subject might be, made little difference; the answer came in Gaynor’s crisp style, terse, quaint, and always to the point. He handed out advice forthrightly, and discussed with chatty freedom public and private questions, views, tastes, facts, fads, delusions, and experiences that embraced a seemingly inexhaustible range of topics.
For example, he sided with small boys who wrote to him complaining that the police broke up their games in the streets. To five such youngsters—addressing each one of them punctiliously by name—the Mayor replied: