Skip to main content

The Corrupting of New York City

July 2024
34min read

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.

On January 10, 1986, an unusual story greeted New Yorkers when they opened their newspapers. One of the city’s most powerful politicians, Donald Manes, president of the borough of Queens, had been found bleeding, his wrist and ankle slit, in a car stopped by police the night before. Manes claimed that he had come to consciousness at the wheel of the weaving car after being attacked by strangers.

By April, Manes had admitted that his wounds were self-inflicted, resigned his post, and succeeded in a second attempt at suicide. Reports that Manes had actually been at the heart of an unraveling skein of corruption dominated New York’s newspapers and television newscasts. According to indictments and criminal complaints filed in various courts, nearly $3.8 million in bribes had been promised or paid to city officials, business executives, and Democratic party officials in exchange for contracts at the city’s Parking Violations Bureau. The mayor himself, the best-selling author Ed Koch, admitted that the city faced an “enormous scandal, something that we know is going to go way beyond the bribery and extortion in the Parking Violations Bureau.”

If the 1986 scandals surprised New Yorkers at all, it was only mild surprise.

Historians of the twenty-first century may marvel at the serenity with which New Yorkers contemplated these revelations that rocked the Koch administration in the early months of 1986. There were expressions of outrage, to be sure, but most of them came from people who make a business of expressing outrage. Newspaper columnists raged; television commentators looked grave; politicians eager to distance themselves from the scandal struck the appropriate poses. The public gave a great shrug. That shrug seemed to say payoffs are no big deal. If the scandal of ’86 caused any surprise at all, it was the mild surprise of seeing the headlines confirm that local government was no more honest than most New Yorkers had supposed.

The history of the government of New York City is also, in large measure, the history of the misgovernment of New York City. It is an entertaining history, full of thieves, rascals, and knaves, full of bold schemes and brazen misconduct. Now and then, as if in some ancient legend, a hero emerges to fight the bad guys. Always, below the surface, serious questions press for attention—questions that strike at the heart of our faith that “we, the people” possess the qualities that are needed to make self-government work. The story of municipal corruption in New York City is the story of the bosses who have organized and profited from that corruption, but it is more than that. It is the story of the contractors who have gotten rich from their arrangements with the bosses, but it is more than that. In the end it is the story of the people of New York City, shrugging their shoulders, selling their votes, going about their business. It is the story of democracy in America.

The Society of Saint Tammany, founded by a furniture dealer named William Mooney, was organized in New York City on May 12, 1789. A history of political corruption in New York is not quite the same thing as a history of Tammany, but Tammany plays such a large role that we might as well start with it.

Tammany, or Tamanend, was a legendary chief of the Delaware Indians whose benevolence and love of liberty led to the establishment of patriotic societies named after him in the early 1770s. The society that was organized in 1789 drew much of its support from “Liberty boys” of the middle and working classes who were opposed to the aristocratic ideas of Alexander Hamilton.

The Tammany Society was divided into thirteen “tribes,” with a sachem at the head of each tribe and a grand sachem at the head of the whole organization. In later years, once the identification of Tammany and the New York City Democratic party had become complete, the sachems were usually Democratic ward leaders in Manhattan.

The best known of Tammany’s early leaders was Aaron Burr. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, state officials in Albany appointed many of the city’s key officials. From 1822 until 1838 Tammany was a tool of the state machine, which Martin Van Buren had organized in the decade before his election to the Senate in 1821, and which he controlled so efficiently from Washington that it came to be called the Albany Regency.

Between 1840 and 1856 more than three million immigrants entered the United States through the port of New York. The population of the city itself rose from 312,710 in 1840 to 515,547 in 1850. The immigrants needed food, shelter, and jobs, and Tammany made a special effort to help.

With the decline of the Albany Regency, the power of city politicans grew. After a period of internal squabbling, Tammany took command in 1851 with the election of a City Council that soon won the nickname of the Forty Thieves. The aldermen were known to be men of large appetite, yet suspicion stirred when, to judge by a bill submitted to the city’s comptroller, each member of the council consumed at a single meeting eight pounds of beef, one and a half chickens, 225 oysters, one pound of sausage, two pounds of ham, and three loaves of bread—then topped off the meal by smoking one hundred cigars.

Padded bills, bribery, and kickbacks from contractors were routine. A bid of $300,000 was offered for a piece of city-owned waterfront property, but the city sold the land for $160,000. Was it cynical to ask whether the buyer might have made an additional payment to the officials who approved the sale? The city had the opportunity to buy land cheap for a paupers’ cemetery, but it paid three times the asking price. Was it cynical to ask where the extra cash had gone? At one point twenty-nine aldermen had been cited for contempt of court—and many of them also indicted for bribery—yet the law allowed them to continue to serve as judges in the criminal courts.


Then, in 1857, the Republican-dominated state legislature passed a series of laws that set the stage for the rise of the most notorious band of rascals in the city’s history. Many jobs previously controlled by city politicians were now to be controlled by the Republican governor and the state senate. A metropolitan police district, fire district, and health district were created, to be run by boards whose members mostly were appointed by the governor. A state board was established to administer Central Park, in the heart of the city. A Board of Supervisors for the county of New York was established—a board that served as the main link between the city and the state and that soon was captured by a Democrat, the rising young Tammany politician named William Marcy Tweed.

Tweed was born in New York City in 1823 and left school at eleven to go to work for his father, a chairmaker. In his teens he led a local gang and earned the nickname Big Bill. (Eventually he weighed nearly three hundred pounds.) He was a fun-loving youth who walked with a swagger, made friends easily, and loved any kind of fight.

In New York City at the time, young men with a taste for politics gravitated to the engine rooms of volunteer fire, companies. Tweed joined the Americus Vespucci company and, after two years, at twenty-seven, became the foreman of the red-shirted men of Americus Engine Company Number Six, known as the Big Six. The emblem of the Big Six, painted on the engine, was the head of a snarling Bengal tiger. Later the tiger would become the emblem of Tammany.

After two years of service on the New York City Council, Tweed was elected to Congress, in 1852. Washington seems not to have offered the kind of opportunities that he expected from a political career, and, complaining that he was “lonesome,” he returned to New York. There he obtained an appointment as a commissioner on the Board of Education. In addition, in 1857 he became a member of the newly formed Board of Supervisors.


One function of the board was to audit bills presented to the city for payment. Soon Tweed had organized a “ring” of supervisors who voted together on these bills. Contractors who wanted to do business with the city found themselves obliged to pad their invoices and, when the city paid, to kick back a part of the padding to the ring. Tweed later apologized for the simplicity of the scheme: “It was just for making money,” he said, “not for controlling politics.”

By the end of 1863 Tweed had become both the grand sachem of Tammany and the chairman of the central committee of the New York County Democratic party. That unusual double honor left little doubt who ruled as the “boss” in New York City politics. Over the next few years, the Supervisors’ Ring gave way to the more formidable and more famous Tweed Ring, which existed both to make money and to control politics.

With the election of the Tammany candidate John T. Hoffman as governor in 1868—an election “secured,” one contemporary said, “by the grossest and most extensive frauds ever perpetrated in the city, e.g. illegal naturalization of foreigners, false registration, repeating of votes, and unfair counting”—the Tweed Ring came into full power. Its members were A. Oakey Hall (“Elegant Oakey”), the city’s mayor; Richard B. Connolly (“Slippery Dick”), the comptroller; Peter B. Sweeny (“Sly Sweeny,” “Spider Sweeny,” “Brains Sweeny”), the commissioner of the Parks Department; and Tweed himself, the commissioner of the Department of Public Works.

The elections of 1868 gave the Democratic party a majority in both houses of the New York State Legislature. Tweed was in the state senate, and in 1870 he steered through the legislature a new charter for his city. The charter returned to New York much of the power that the charter of 1857 had taken away, and it placed the entire control of the city’s finances in the hands of a new Board of Apportionment consisting of the mayor, the comptroller, the commissioner of the Parks Department, and the commissioner of the Department of Public Works —that is, Hall, Connolly, Sweeny, and Tweed. “You can’t get anything in Albany without paying for it,” Tweed said at about this time, and he seems to have paid approximately one million dollars in bribes to get the new charter.

A single building, the old New York County Courthouse at 52 Chambers Street in Lower Manhattan, still stands as a monument to the spirit of the Tweed era. The plans for the courthouse were approved by Tweed’s Board of Supervisors in 1858, with the cost of the building and all furnishings budgeted at $250,000. That estimate turned out to be optimistic, not by 50 percent, not by 500 percent, but by 5,000 percent. Completed in 1872, Tweed’s “Palace of Plunder” cost approximately $12.5 million. That made it sixteen times as expensive as a slightly smaller courthouse built in Brooklyn in the same period.

Where did the money go? About 65 percent went to the members of the Ring, in the form of kickbacks from contractors who shamelessly padded the bills submitted to the city. And $460,000 went for lumber later estimated to be worth $48,000. Then $350,000 went for carpeting—an overcharge, The New York Times estimated, of $336,821. Cuspidors cost the city $190 each. For a building whose total cost was supposed to be $250,000, “Brooms, etc.” cost $41,190. Plastering cost $2.87 million, including nearly $1.3 million for “repairs” before the building even opened.

Marble for the courthouse came from a quarry owned by Tweed himself. From the firm of James Ingersoll, a boyhood friend of the Boss, came furniture, carpeting, and shades that cost the city nearly $5.7 million. Roscoe Conkling, the Republican senator from New York, noted that the amount that Tweed and his cohorts spent on furnishings alone was nearly three times the amount that the Grant administration required to run the entire United States diplomatic corps for two years.

Honest citizens watched with amazement. “To be a citizen of New York is a disgrace,” the attorney George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary in 1868. “A domicile on Manhattan Island is a thing to be confessed with apologies and humiliation. The New Yorker belongs to a community worse governed by lower and baser blackguard scum than any city in Western Christendom.”

In 1871 the Ring made an error that led to its downfall. Through a clerk in the comptroller’s office, the city’s former sheriff, James O’Brien, obtained copies of secret records about the courthouse. O’Brien threatened to go public unless the Ring paid him $300,000 ($350,000 according to a second source) to satisfy a baseless claim for fees related to his tenure as sheriff. It seemed a reasonable request, and Tweed and Connolly would have paid, but Peter “Brains” Sweeny refused. Contempt for the former sheriff appears to have clouded his judgment.

Rebuffed, O’Brien took his documents to The New York Times , and on July 8, 1871, New Yorkers were treated to the first in a series of articles that presented “reliable and incontrovertible evidence of numerous gigantic frauds on the part of the rulers of the city.” To the daily revelations in the Times and other newspapers were added the pitiless caricatures of a bloated Tweed drawn by the great cartoonist Thomas Nast and published in Harper’s Weekly . The cartoons bothered the Boss: “My constituents don’t know how to read,” he said, “but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.”

Tweed later apologized for his first ing’s simplicity: “It was just for making money, not for controlling politics.”

The election of November 1871 swept the Ring out of power. Not long afterward a number of Tweed’s associates were moved by a sudden desire to visit distant lands. Peter Sweeny and Richard Connolly went to Paris, where they soon were joined by Tweed’s old friend James Ingersoll and by Andrew Garvey, whose company had handled the plastering of the courthouse.

A. Oakey Hall completed his term as mayor and managed to persuade a jury that he had been guilty of nothing more than an “ineradicable aversion to details.” Tweed himself spent the rest of his life in and out of jail. On April 12, 1878, at age fifty-five, while awaiting trial in a suit to recover six million dollars he was said to have stolen, he died in the Ludlow Street Jail in Manhattan.

The corruption of the Tweed era is so uninhibited that the splendor of the story may obscure an important point. For all their flamboyance, Tweed and the Tweed Ring did not matter much in the long run. The forces that contributed to Tweed’s rise did not cease to exist when he fell. The forces that put an end to his power did not put an end to the power of Tammany.

During the approximately eighty years between the founding of modern Tammany in the early 1850s and the inauguration of Fiorello H. La Guardia as mayor in 1934, anti-Tammany reformers held power in New York City for only ten years. Every decade or so, little waves of discontent built to a big wave that swept Tammany out of office. But always the big wave spent its force, and always Tammany returned. “Tammany is not a wave,” a chief of police explained during one period of reform, “it’s the sea itself.”

“My constituents don’t know how to read,” said Tweed, “but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.”

To an extent that ought not to be underestimated, Tammany’s power was based on performance: it gave people what they wanted. For the immigrants who poured into New York in the last decades of the nineteenth century, what was wanted, often, was help of the most basic kind—help in finding a first job or a first place to live, help in finding food, help in filling out citizenship papers. Tammany delivered. All it asked in exchange was a vote.

From another perspective, Tammany did not deliver. As the current Democratic senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, pointed out in an article written in his days as a professor of government, the bosses “never thought of politics as an instrument of social change.” They had acquired power, and their goal was to keep it. Why change anything? Certainly they were not interested in creating an independent citizenry. The dependence of the city’s masses played into their hands.

Tweed was of Scottish ancestry and a Protestant, but his fall introduced half a century of Irish dominance in Tammany, under John Kelly (1872–86), Richard Croker (1886–1902), and Charles Murphy (1902–24). Croker spoke eloquently about Tammany’s services on behalf of immigrants. “Think,” he said, “what New York is and what the people of New York are. One half, more than one half, are of foreign birth.… [Tammany] looks after them for the sake of their vote, grafts them upon the Republic, makes citizens of them,, in short; and although you may not like our motives or our methods, what other agency is there by which so long a row could have been hoed so quickly or so well?”

If it had served only immigrants and the native poor, Tammany might have been more vulnerable than it was. But in the same way that it could hand out jobs or Christmas turkeys to win the support of the middle and lower classes, so the machine could hand out rarer goodies—contracts and exclusive franchises—to win the support of powerful business interests.

For instance, the city controlled valuable water grants—rights to construct piers and storage facilities along the East River. During Tweed’s regime, members of some of the most prominent families in New York—families with names like Astor, Goelet, and Delano—received water grants at prices far below their market value. As the pressure upon Tweed mounted, a special committee headed by John Jacob Astor III was appointed to examine the books of Comptroller Connolly. On the day before the 1871 elections, the committee published its report, complimenting the comptroller on his “faithful and correct” administration of the city’s finances.

Water grants were not the only prize that Tammany could dangle before the city’s businessmen. Franchises to build street railways also were available—for a price. In the middle 188Os the Broadway Railroad Company offered the Board of Aldermen $750,000, half in cash and half in bonds, for the franchise to build a surface railway on Broadway. A competing company offered $500,000—all in cash—and got the contract. The Board of Aldermen that approved this transaction came to be known as the “Boodle Board.” In the end, three members of the board turned State’s evidence, six fled to Canada, and ten were indicted, though never brought to trial.

In general Tammany could laugh off little scandals. Like any good service organization, it aimed to please, and it had something to offer to almost every customer—a helping hand for immigrants, jobs for party loyalists, contracts and franchises for business. Only the gaudiest outrages could stir the public against it.

Such outrages were exactly what provoked the Reverend Charles H. Parkhurst, minister of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church and president of the Society for Prevention of Crime, when he launched a sensational crusade against Tammany in 1892. The link between the machine and vice was his theme. Tammany made immense profits, he charged, from blackmail extorted by the police from prostitutes, saloonkeepers, and gambling establishments. New York was “rotten with a rottenness which is unspeakable and indescribable.” The politicians were a “lying, perjured, rumsoaked, libidinous lot”; they were “polluted harpies who, under the pretense of governing this city, are feeding day and night on its quivering vitals.”


Challenged to prove his charges, the reverend donned black-and-white checked trousers and a flashy red tie and embarked on a personal tour of brothels, flophouses, and saloons around the city. At one establishment naked girls played leapfrog in his presence. “Anyone,” Parkhurst declared, “who, with all the easily ascertainable facts in view, denies that drunkenness, gambling, and licentiousness in this town are municipally protected, is either a knave or a fool.”

In March 1894, spurred by Parkhurst’s accusations, a committee chaired by the state senator Clarence Lexow, of Nyack, began hearings to investigate police corruption in New York City. There was plenty to investigate. The average cost of obtaining an appointment in the department, the committee learned, was three hundred dollars. Promotions also had to be purchased. A captaincy in an area known for its expensive brothels went for fifteen thousand dollars. Once a man had joined the force, he could extort payments from prostitutes and madams, gamblers, and saloonkeepers who wanted to operate illegally on Sundays—anyone who needed police “protection.”


Alexander Williams, a police captain, was an especially colorful witness. Williams did not complain about the price he had paid for his transfer to the vice-ridden 19th precinct in the West Thirties of Manhattan. Fancy brothels meant high protection fees. “I’ve had nothin’ but chuck steak for a long time,” the captain had told a reporter when he was transferred, “and now I’m going to get a little of the tenderloin” (the phrase gave his precinct an enduring nickname). Later, when the Lexow Committee asked him how he could afford his estate in Connecticut and his yacht, Williams declared that he had done well speculating in Japanese building lots.

The hearings of the Lexow Committee aroused enough public indignation for the anti-Tammany candidate, William L. Strong, to be elected mayor in 1894. To head the Board of Police Commissioners, Strong appointed thirty-six-year-old Theodore Roosevelt. A little more than a decade earlier, as a boy wonder in the state legislature, Roosevelt had chaired a special committee that investigated municipal corruption in New York City. The committee had painted the usual picture: “blackmail and extortion” in the surrogate’s office, “gross abuses” in the sheriffs office, “no system whatever” in the Tax and Assessments Department, “hush money” paid to policemen—in short, a government “absolutely appalling.” Laws to correct the abuses had been passed, and life had gone on.

Now Roosevelt plunged into the job of cleaning up the Police Department. The police must enforce the laws, he said, including the law that forbade the sale of alcohol on Sundays. The politicians of Tammany Hall, more tolerant of human frailty, watched with interest. They knew that, in Cincinnati, people had come close to rioting when reformers closed the saloons on Sundays.

In New York in the summer of 1895, the public’s enthusiasm for reform waned as the temperature climbed. “Viewed from below,” Justin Kaplan observes in his biography of Lincoln Steffens, who covered Roosevelt’s efforts for the New York Evening Post and who would win fame with the publication of the muck-raking classic The Shame of the Cities in 1904, “reform was mostly stick and hardly any carrot.”

As usual, two years of reform were about all that people could stand. The election of 1897 brought Tammany back to power. Boss Croker returned in triumph from his exile in England. He had a theory about the reformers: “They tried to stand so straight that they fell over backward.”

Tammany’s leaders were not generally known for being talkative. Once a reporter wondered why Richard Croker’s successor, Charles Murphy, had failed to join in the singing of the national anthem at a Fourth of July celebration. “Perhaps he didn’t want to commit himself,” one of Silent Charlie’s aides suggested.

One politician who did not mind talking was George Washington Plunkitt (1842–1924), the ward boss of the Fifteenth Assembly District under Murphy. William L. Riordon of the New York Evening Post interviewed Plunkitt at what the boss called his office: Graziano’s bootblack stand in the Tweed Courthouse. The results were published in various newspapers and then, in 1905, in a book, A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics . The book is a distillation of forty-five years of practical political experience and a vigorous defense of politics as practiced by Tammany. It gives us Tammany’s philosophy in Tammany’s own voice.

Why do reform movements fizzle? “A reformer can’t last in politics,” Plunkitt says. “He can make a show for a while, but he always comes down like a rocket. … Suppose a man who knew nothing about the grocery trade suddenly went into the business and tried to conduct it according to his own ideas. Wouldn’t he make a mess of it? … It’s just the same with a reformer. He hasn’t been brought up in the difficult business of politics and he makes a mess of it every time.”

The reformers fail to respect the fundamental rule that leads to success in politics: they fail to “study human nature and act accordin’.” The professional politician never makes that mistake. “If there’s a fire in Ninth, Tenth, or Eleventh Avenue, for example, any hour of the day or night, I’m usually there with some of my election district captains as soon as the fire-engines. If a family is burned out I don’t ask whether they are Republicans or Democrats, and I don’t refer them to the Charity Organization Society, which would investigate their case in a month or two and decide they were worthy of help about the time they are dead from starvation. I just get quarters for them, buy clothes for them if their clothes were burned up, and fix them up till they get things runnin’ again. It’s philanthropy, but it’s politics, too.… Who can tell how many votes one of these fires bring me?”

His own study of human nature, Plunkitt says, has taught him that “you can’t keep an organization together without patronage. Men ain’t in politics for nothin’. They want to get sofnethin’ out of it.”

If patronage holds an organization together, how can Tammany come back after it loses an election? People forget that “Tammany has an immense private patronage that keeps things goin’ when it gets a setback at the polls.” After the reform candidate Seth Low was elected mayor in 1901, “some of my men lost public jobs, but I fixed them all right. I don’t know how many jobs I got for them on the surface and elevated railroads—several hundred.”

In addition, the professional politician can rely upon reciprocity in patronage. “When Tammany’s on top I do good turns for the Republicans. When they’re on top they don’t forget me.… The politicians have got to stand together this way or there wouldn’t be any political parties in a short time.”

Plunkitt’s subtlest moment as a philosopher comes when he confronts the charge that politicians grow rich on graft. This accusation fails to draw the line, Plunkitt says, “between honest graft and dishonest graft.” Yes, he concedes, “many of our men have grown rich in politics. I have myself. I’ve made a big fortune out of the game … but I’ve not gone in for dishonest graft—blackmailin’ gamblers, saloon-keepers, disorderly people, etc.—and neither has any of the men who have made big fortunes in politics.”

What is honest graft? Suppose Plunkitt learns that a park or a bridge is going to be built. “I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board … makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before. Ain’t it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight?”

Honest graft makes for honest politicians, Plunkitt argues. “The politician who steals is worse than a thief. He is a fool. With the grand opportunities all around for the man with a political pull, there’s no excuse for stealin’ a cent.”

By Plunkitt’s definition, New York City’s next great scandal was a parade of fools. Not since the Reverend Parkhurst and the Lexow Committee exposed the corruption at the heart of the Police Department had New Yorkers heard anything like the revelations that emerged in the series of investigations conducted by Judge Samuel Seabury in the early 1930s—revelations that led to the resignation of the city’s jaunty mayor, James J. Walker, in 1932.

A protégé of Boss Murphy, Walker had been elected mayor in 1925 after a career chiefly distinguished by his composition, in 1908, of the hit song “Will You Love Me in December as You Do in May?” With the possible exception of Oakey Hall, no mayor in New York’s history has shown more interest in the city’s glamorous night life. Walker’s spats, his derbies, and his tailored double-breasted jackets earned him the nicknames of “Beau James” and “Gentleman Jim.” With his showgirl mistress, Betty Compton, at his side, he may have spent more time sipping champagne in the swanky Central Park Casino than he spent in City Hall. The public loved his breezy irreverence and his wisecracks. A reformer, he once said, is “a guy who rides through a sewer in a glass-bottomed boat.” In a long career, there is no evidence that he ever opposed Tammany in any way.

Thinking that it could not win, and wishing to obtain a few jobs after the votes were counted (remember Plunkitt on reciprocity in patronage), the Republican party often mounted no more than a token challenge in the mayoral elections. But the election of 1929 was different. A brash progressive, Fiorello H. La Guardia, captured the Republican nomination and launched a fierce campaign against the playboy mayor.

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.

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.

Eight separate times in 1950 the mayor denied rumors that he was considering resignation. Then Ed Flynn, boss of the Bronx, paid a quiet visit to Harry Truman. On August 31,1950, Mexico welcomed the new United States ambassador, William O’Dwyer. To concentrate upon O’Dwyer, however, is to miss the real story of New York City in this period. Mayors come and go. For much of this century, the story of New York City was the story of Robert Moses.

Moses never was elected to public office, yet in New York State from 1924 to 1968, and in New York City from 1934 to 1968, he wielded more power than any of the six governors and five mayors whom he ostensibly served, with the possible exception of Nelson Rockefeller.

Born in 1888, Moses was a graduate of Yale and Oxford who began his career as a reformer. At thirty, after the defeat of a comprehensive plan of civil service reform that he had drafted during the administration of the reform mayor John Purroy Mitchel, he was unemployed. His chances of ever gaining real power in New York seemed tiny.

Then he met Al Smith, and Al Smith liked him. On August 9,1924, Moses became president of the Long Island State Park Commission.

Over the years, he would hold twelve key city and state positions, many of them simultaneously: president, Long Island State Park Commission; chairman, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority; chairman, State Power Authority; chairman, State Council of Parks; chairman, Jones Beach State Park Authority; chairman, Bethpage State Park Authority; New York City Construction Coordinator; New York City Parks Commissioner; chairman, New York City Emergency Housing Committee; chairman, Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance; member, New York City Planning Commission; and president, 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Highways, housing, bridges, tunnels, parks, a fair—it all sounds innocent enough. It is only when you add up all the pieces, it is only when you look at a map that shows all the bridges, roads, parks, playgrounds, and housing projects that Robert Moses built in New York City and State, and throw in for good measure Lincoln Center, Shea Stadium, the New York Coliseum, the United Nations, Co-op City, and the immense power dams at Massena and Niagara and along the St. Lawrence River—it is only when you consider that one man controlled all the contracts that were required for all this construction (public works costing $27 billion in 1968 dollars), that you begin to understand the power that Robert Moses wielded.

Moses did not use graft—even “honest graft”—to enrich himself. He used graft to acquire what interested him, and what interested him was not wealth but power and achievement. Moses was a “political boss with a difference,” writes his biographer Robert Caro. “His constituency was not the public but some of the most powerful men in the city and state, and he kept these men in line by doling out to them, as Tammany ward bosses once handed out turkeys to the poor at Thanksgiving, the goodies in which such men were interested. …” Those goodies included not only the contracts that made the fortunes of dozens of builders and engineers but also millions of dollars’ worth of public relations retainers, insurance commissions, and legal fees: “In the post-La Guardia era, there was no more ‘Tin Box’ Brigade. It was the Retainer Regiment now.”

Moses possessed one source of power that was unprecedented. Each of the public authorities that he chaired had been conceived as a means of financing a single public work, and each was supposed to go out of existence when the bondholders for that one project had been paid off. Through a series of subtle amendments to the laws that created the authorities, and through provisions that he built into the contracts with the purchasers of the enormous bond issues that financed the work of the authorities, Moses escaped this limitation and, in effect, made the authorities permanent bodies that could build one huge work after another.

In postwar New York anyone who drove into or out of Manhattan over the Triborough Bridge, the Throgs Neck Bridge, or the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, or anyone who drove into or out of Manhattan through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, paid a toll not to the city itself but to Robert Moses in his capacity as chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. In the first fifteen years after the end of World War II, agencies controlled by Moses spent on public works in New York City nearly $4.5 billion—three-quarters of a billion more than the city itself spent on public works in the same period.

Moses’s control of the revenues that poured into the coffers of the public authorities was secured by nothing less than the Constitution of the United States. Article I, Section 10, of the Constitution says that no state shall pass any law that impairs the “obligation of contracts.” The bonds that the authorities issued were contracts, protected by the Constitution. The provisions that Moses wrote into the bond covenants could not be amended or repealed except by consent of the parties to the contracts. “From the moment the bonds were sold … ,” Robert Caro explains, “the powers [Moses] had been given in the legislation could be revoked only by the mutual consent of both Moses and the bondholders. They could not be revoked by the state that had created the Authority or by the city whose mere instrumentality it was supposed to be.”

If, for instance, the bond covenants contained provisions that gave Moses the right to charge whatever tolls he wished for as long as he wished, then that power “could never be revoked without his consent. … The elected representatives of the state and city might have given Robert Moses those powers. But the elected representatives of the state and city would never be able to take them back.”

A remarkable episode in the winter of 1934–35 provides a vivid demonstration of Moses’s position in New York. An old enemy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, decided to use his control of federal funds to force Moses off the board of the Triborough Authority. Roosevelt was an immensely popular President with all the resources of the federal government at his command. Moses was an unelected official whom the New York State voters had rejected overwhelmingly in the gubernatorial election of 1934. In the showdown between Roosevelt near the highest point of his popularity and Moses at one of the low points in his career, Moses prevailed.

Through most of his career Moses enjoyed a reputation as an incorruptible public servant. The first serious cracks in his image occurred in the 1950s, in connection with his activities as the man in charge of the gigantic urban renewal program that was funded in New York City by the federal government under Title I of the 1949 Federal Housing Act. In all, Moses’s Slum Clearance Committee evicted and relocated an estimated 170,000 people from eleven major urban renewal sites. Each site presented its individual “developer” with rich opportunities for milking funds from the city.

A single scheme at a single site, Manhattantown, may stand as a symbol of all the rest. According to Robert Caro (using as his source the published record of hearings conducted by the Banking and Currency Committee of the United States Senate), Moses’s developer for the site set up a separate corporation run by his own son-in-law. “Manhattantown sold the son-in-law’s corporation all the gas stoves and refrigerators in the tenements for $33,000—and then rented them right back from the corporation, paying it in effect for the privilege of using what had been its own appliances. And Manhattantown paid so well… that in less than a year the so-nin-law’s corporation earned, after all expenses, $115,326.37. At the end of the year, Manhattantown bought back the stoves and refrigerators for the same amount it had sold them: $33,000. Financially, Manhattantown had wound up right where it had started—but the son-in-law’s firm had pocketed $115,326.37.”

It was not until 1968, at age eighty, that Moses lost the last of his power. More than any of the bosses of Tammany, more than any mayor, he shaped the city that we see if we visit New York today. The power that he wielded did not pass to any one man. It passed to dozens of less formidable men, and with it passed, as always, the potential for its abuse.

Thomas M. Parley, sheriff of New York County, explained at the Seabury hearings that he had deposited some $400,000 in six and a half years on a total salary of $90,000.

What became of Tammany Hall in the postwar years? In a sense Robert Moses’s success was the measure of Tammany’s decline. In 1949 a second-generation Italian-American, Carmine DeSapio, emerged as the new boss of Tammany. Rumors that he took orders from Frank Costello did not prevent DeSapio, who proclaimed as his goal the creation of a modern, spotless Tammany, from being widely portrayed as a “new kind of Tammany tiger.” “If it were my ambition to seek the Democratic presidential nomination,” Adlai Stevenson said, “I would welcome the support of Carmine DeSapio and Tammany Hall.”

At this stage in the city’s history, however, to be a boss of Tammany was to occupy a precarious throne. In an amazing mayoral race in 1961, Robert F. Wagner, Jr., twice elected with the support of Carmine DeSapio and the “New Tammany,” ran against his own record, promising to purge City Hall of the “secret battalion of corruption” that had helped to elect him both in 1953 and in 1957.

Tammany rule, said the muckraker Lincoln Steffens, is nothing more than “corruption with consent.” New Yorkers had sold their sovereignty for “kindness and petty privileges.”

The election of 1961 ended DeSapio’s twelve-year reign. No single successor emerged. The sputtering machine survived, but instead of one big chief, there were lots of little ones. Even if one chief had emerged, the resources that he controlled would not have rivaled the resources that Robert Moses controlled, and hence his power would not have rivaled Moses’s. DeSapio himself eventually served two years in prison after being convicted of bribery charges in connection with a scheme that also led to the conviction of James Marcus, commissioner of Water Supply, Gas and Electricity in the administration of the reform mayor John Lindsay.

The Marcus scandal was not the only one to shake the Lindsay administration. In April 1967, in a secret meeting with Lindsay’s staff liaison with the Police Department, a police sergeant named David Durk and a plainclothes cop named Frank Serpico leveled charges of widespread corruption in the department. There was no serious follow-up, however, until 1970, after Serpico, Durk, and a police inspector, Paul Delise, began to meet with reporters and editors of The New York Times . At this point, knowing that the Times was about to break the story, Lindsay rushed to appoint a special committee to investigate police corruption.

The 264-page report of the Knapp Commission, released in December 1972, concluded that corruption was an “extensive, department-wide phenomenon” and that the Lindsay administration had failed to respond appropriately to the charges made by Serpico and Durk in 1967. Policemen selling heroin, policemen selling information in return for heroin, policemen protecting dealers by registering them as informants, policemen financing heroin transactions—all these activities were “typical,” the Knapp Commission reported. Five weeks after the report was published, New Yorkers learned that between March 1969 and late 1972, as much as 398 pounds of pure heroin and cocaine, worth $73 million, had been stolen by members of the police force from the office of the department’s own property clerk.

(The big story in New York in the 1970s was the fiscal crisis that brought the city to the edge of bankruptcy in the middle of the decade. Though graft plays a part in it, it is a story that transcends graft, transcends corruption. It is a story that would have to be told in any history of the government of New York City, but it need not be told in a history of municipal corruption in New York.)

Should you find yourself with a free morning in New York, you might want to pay a visit to the dingily impressive ltalianate building at 52 Chambers Street, near City Hall. City Hall Park, with its view of the Tweed Courthouse, is a nice place to sit and think about democracy. I spent a pleasant hour there in the spring of 1986, when each day seemed to bring fresh revelations in the current scandal. Nearly a century had gone by since the English political scientist James Bryce described the government of America’s cities as the “one conspicuous failure” of democracy in the United States. “The faults of the State governments are insignificant,” Bryce wrote in The American Commonwealth in 1888, “compared with the extravagance, corruption, and mismanagement which have marked the administrations of most of the great cities.”

In those cities, Bryce went on, “we find able citizens absorbed in their private businesses, cultivated citizens unusually sensitive to the vulgarities of practical politics, and both sets therefore specially unwilling to sacrifice their time and tastes and comfort in the struggle with sordid wire-pullers and noisy demagogues. In great cities the forces that attack and pervert democratic government are exceptionally numerous, the defensive forces that protect it exceptionally ill-placed for resistance.”

The newspaper that I was carrying did not suggest that much had changed. As a citizen with an interest in history, I could not help remembering the response of Boss Tweed in the midst of an earlier scandal: “Well,” Tweed growled, “what are you going to do about it?”

In truth, I thought, as I watched the sun brighten the facade of Tweed’s courthouse, I did not intend to do anything about it. If the opportunity came, I might cast my vote to throw out the rascals, but that was all. Let someone else fight the good fight against thieves in government. Let someone else worry about making democracy work. I recognized myself as one of those well-meaning citizens whose “fitful and clumsy labours” are described in the 1876 report of a commission of the New York State legislature—citizens who would like government to be honest but who are “averse to engaging in what they deem the ‘low business’ of politics … hopeless of accomplishing any substantial good in the face of such powerful opposing interests. …”


I also recognized myself as the typical “good” citizen whom Lincoln Steffens described in The Shame of the Cities —the honest, harried businessman who has “no use and therefore no time for politics.” When the neglect of this citizen “has permitted bad government to go so far that he can be stirred to action, he is unhappy, and he looks around for a cure that shall be quick, so that he may hurry back to the shop.”

Such an attitude leads to the “standard course of municipal reform,” in which politicians “are permitted to organize a party … take over the government, corrupt and deceive the people, and run things for the private profit of the boss and his ring, till the corruption becomes rampant and a scandal.” Then good citizens unite, “make a ‘hot campaign’ against the government with ‘Stop, thief!’ for the cry, and make a ‘clean sweep.’ ” In the end this clean sweep accomplishes nothing more than the “disciplining of the reckless grafters and the improvement of the graft system of corrupt government.”

The people of New York City, Steffens said, had sold their sovereignty for “kindness and petty privileges.” They had allowed their sovereignty to be “gathered up … cheaply, like garbage. …” The rule of Tammany means “corruption with consent.” The machine governs “by right of the votes of the people of New York. Tammany corruption is democratic corruption.”


Steffens dedicated The Shame of the Cities “to the accused—to all the citizens of all the cities in the United States.” “Do we Americans really want good government?” he asked. Would we know it if we saw it? Once the latest scandal has run its course, when we are left “with nothing but mild approval and dull duty to impel us,” are we willing to shoulder the “unwelcome duties” of our citizenship?

Municipal corruption raises, of course, the grand question of governance in a democracy. We claim to cherish self-government. Except in a crisis of rare magnitude, however, wouldn’t we prefer not to be bothered? Aren’t we content to leave politics to the professionals? Isn’t corruption in government the price that we pay—and pay gladly—for the privilege of washing our hands of the whole difficult and discouraging affair?

No one has put the problem in sharper perspective than Lincoln Steffens. Reform movements that concentrate on “turning the rascals out” miss the point, he said. “The misgovernment of the American people is misgovernment by the American people. … The boss is not a political, he is an American institution, the product of a freed people that have not the spirit to be free.”

After more than eighty years, that taunt still stings.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.