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American Characters: Lincoln Steffens

July 2024
3min read


Lincoln Steffens was a young reporter for the Commercial Advertiser during the late 1890’s, and he always remembered it as a grand time for a New York City newspaperman: “There was the Cuban war, the Boer war, and best of all—Tammany was back in power.” Tammany Hall, “which has voters but no friends,” had just had its hold on City Hall briefly shaken by a reform administration; now, “hungry and irritated,” it was back in business, “providing us with a world of public enemies to hate and unconcealed schemes to expose.” And no public enemy should have been more hate-worthy than William S. Devery; certainly no Tammany man hatched more transparent schemes. Bulky, blatant, and insatiable, Big Bill Devery was a sort of human parade float advertising civic corruption. But Steffens and his fellow reporters discovered that they could not overcome a steady fondness for the man; in his way, he was perfect: “as a character, as a work of art, he was a masterpiece.”

Devery was born in New York in the mid-1850’s. “I carried my father’s dinner pail,” he said, “when he was laying the bricks of Tammany Hall.” As he grew to the formidable proportions that gave him his nickname, he worked as a bartender on the Bowery and then paid the going bribe to become a policeman in 1878. He was quiet enough while he learned the ropes; he rarely got called up on charges, and then only ones of the magnitude of “conversation while on duty.” He made sergeant in 1884 and seven years later moved into a profitable captaincy in the First Precinct. By this time he was seasoned enough to wangle one of the fattest police jobs in the city, running the Eldridge Street Station in a notorious red-light district. “They tell me there’s a lot of graf tin’ goin’ on in this precinct,” he is said to have told his men during his inaugural address. “They tell me you fellers are the fiercest ever on graft. Now—” he pounded his fist on the desk ”—that’s goin’ to stop! If there’s any graftin’ to be done, I’ll do it. Leave it to me!” He ran things in a straightforward way: “Captain wants this game closed up until after election time his aides would say. “If the Tammany Hall ticket is elected, we willprotect you for anything from a poker game to a whorehouse.” Devery began to get rich.

In 1898, having stolidly ridden out a few reform squalls, he became chief of police. He conducted his business every night leaning on a large fireplug in front of an Eighth Avenue saloon known as the Pump. There, from nine until about two in the morning, pimps, policemen, and gamblers could be sure of getting his ear. And so could the poor of the neighborhood, to whom every good Tammany man perforce made himself available for a few dollars’ loan, intervention with a threatening landlord, or a job for a cousin newly over from Ireland. During the day, Devery liked to preside over police disciplinary hearings, which Steffens and the other reporters regularly attended. Devery loved to parody the solemnities of courtroom protocol. He would begin every pronouncement with “touchin’ on an’ appertainin’ to,” and he got enough press to make the phrase a catchword to a generation of New Yorkers. The chief was always eager to make clear his credo: “Hear, say, and do nothing. Eat, drink, and pay nothing.” He never fined a policeman for breach of duty, only for getting caught at it.

Steffens and the others wrote up his sins. Devery didn’t care. “It’s the fashion in my set,” he said, “when you’re getting rich, to show it forth and not be hiding your light under no bushels, whatever in th’ hell they are.” Once, after Steffens had stepped up his drumfire, Devery approached him on the street. Uncharacteristically grave, he mentioned Steffens’ broad working knowledge of the underworld, and, holding him by both shoulders, begged permission to ask a question: “What I want to know is, have you noticed any stray grafts runnin’ around loose that I have overlooked?” Then he laughed in Steffens’ face, gave him a shove, and walked away.

In the end, they got him. Despite the dazzlingly corrupt Mayor Robert Van Wyck’s staunch declaration that Devery was “the best chief of police New York ever had,” reformers legislated his office out of existence in 1901.

Devery didn’t starve. In February of 1902, New York’s best ex-police chief bought a parcel of land valued at $377,800; next month he paid off a $261,000 mortgage. That summer he ran for district leader of Chelsea, the home of his beloved fireplug. Declaring that “I’m exercising my money,” he hired a fleet of nine boats, loaded aboard eighteen thousand constituents, and took them up the Hudson to a picnic presided over by Frank Merkel, “the only professional ox-roaster in New York City.”

Devery won, but the next year, to his fury, his sometime Tammany supporters turned against him: he was now simply too gaudy an item. He ran against the Tammany candidate for mayor in 1903 and, out of one thousand election districts, got a grand total of twenty-two hundred votes. He was still a rich man—he divided his time between a mansion on West End Avenue and a profitable real estate operation in Rockaway—but he was bitter. “I bought a reserved seat in the political game,” he complained, “and Tammany Hall made me sit in the gallery.”

He died in 1919, still trying to puzzle out what his cordial old adversary Steffens called “the queer mix-up of disloyal friends and loyal enemies. ” One evening, when his political days were far behind him, he stood leaning against his fireplug, working his way through it all with the reporter. “You, f’rinstance,” he said, “you been a good friend o’ mine, and you ain’t my friend at all. I mean—oh, hell, I don’t know what I mean. Do you?”

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