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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Island of Vice’

- - Monday, April 16, 2012

ISLAND OF VICE: THEODORE ROOSEVELT'S DOOMED QUEST TO CLEAN UP SIN-LOVING NEW YORK
By Richard Zacks
Doubleday, $27.95, 431 pages

In his long career, Theodore Roosevelt enjoyed almost uninterrupted success. Scion of one of New York's wealthiest families, he was a hero of the Spanish-American War. He was a popular president, was renowned as a trustbuster and produced a stream of books - including a 541-page work on the War of l812 worthy of a full-time historian. And then, of course, there was his fame as a hunter and explorer.

But years before Roosevelt became president (in 1901), what happened when he took on the happily corrupt city of New York? Sin won. For one of the few times in his storied life, Roosevelt retired from battle less than victorious.

To be sure, he faced a collection of adversaries. New York politics were dominated by a corrupt Tammany Hall Democratic machine. The funding of modern politics might be dominated by PACs, but Tammany kept the process simple: Graft was the financial lubricant that won elections. Brigands of all stripes - illicit saloonkeepers and operators of uncountable bawdy houses and gambling joints - paid police what was tantamount to a licensing fee to do their nefarious deeds. Bribes went through many hands, beginning with the policeman on the beat, with a portion eventually reaching ward bosses.

For decades, New Yorkers turned a blind (perhaps approving?) eye to corruption. The public indifference infuriated the Rev. Charles H. Parkhurst, pastor of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church, in whose pews sat the city's ruling class. In an 1892 sermon, he called the Tammany men running New York - the mayor, the district attorney, the police captains - "a lying, perjured rum-soaked and libidinous lot." Based on his own incognito roaming through vice dens, Parkhurst detailed a sordid picture of girls in their early teens being forced into sexual slavery and anything-goes saloons that paid no heed to the state's Sunday-closing laws. (A cautionary note: You might wish to keep some of these spicy pages away from Aunt Tillie.)

The ensuing public outrage - chiefly among churchmen, "reformers" and the city's nascent Republican Party - forced the mayor to appoint a four-member police board, with Roosevelt as chairman, supposedly to be "non-partisan, to banish politics and to make decisions for the good of the city," as Richard Zacks writes. Roosevelt had spent the previous six years in relative obscurity with the Civil Service Commission in Washington, interrupted by an unsuccessful campaign for mayor.

The commission's initial targets were corrupt police captains such as a 29-year veteran found guilty of neglect of duty for failing to shut numerous brothels. Numerous cops also drew punishment.

The police had a deserved reputation for rough treatment of people, especially the foreign-born. Inspector Alexander Williams proudly bore the nickname "Thumper" for his enthusiastic wielding of the nightstick, a weapon that "measured twenty-four inches long and three-eighths an inch in diameter; it was carved of hard locust wood and carried in a socket outside the coat." He racked up an estimated 358 complaints for brutality, making him the "most venomously hated, frequently tried and most valuable of police officers," according to a profile in Harper's magazine. "Thumper" was one of several officers forced into retirement.

Then Roosevelt made a major stumble. In his zeal to stamp out scofflaws at every turn, he moved to enforce the state ban on alcohol sales on Sundays, targeting about 8,000 saloons. Roosevelt, who eschewed alcohol, save a token sip of wine at public functions, had a strong personal reason for hating drink: His younger brother Elliott, after a promising early life, became an alcoholic, impregnated a maid, left his wife and died in 1894.

Roosevelt also had an unspoken motive. As Mr. Zacks writes, he "knew many saloons acted as unofficial political clubhouses for Tammany Hall, therefore he ... knew it would be a fringe benefit for the Republican and reform parties if hundreds of saloons went out of business due to lost Sunday sales."

But the blue law had conspicuous loopholes: It did not apply to hotel restaurants or private clubs. Thus, the privileged enjoyed their Sunday booze while those who worked six-day weeks could not spend their sole day of leisure sipping beer. Previously, Roosevelt had been the darling of the press. Now admiration turned to scorn. The Brooklyn Eagle estimated that 95 percent of residents favored opening saloons for at last part of the day. A "leading brewer" said bars were selling 3.6 million fewer of glasses a year and estimated 2,000 saloons would be forced to close, putting 4,000 bartenders out of work. Cartoons and editorials berated Roosevelt.

An unrepentant Roosevelt braved a mass meeting of German-Americans to defend his enforcement, bellowing, "You people want me to enforce the law only a ... little teeny bit. I do not know how to do such a thing, and I shall not begin to learn now." The Republican-controlled state legislature, happy to see Tammany suffering a voter backlash, refused to repeal the Sunday ban.

In the end, the police board fell into disarray and Roosevelt and other reformers left. A new Tammany-dominated board named the oft-investigated, never-convicted William "Big Bill" Devery as the chief. Although he vowed "fair and impartial enforcement of all laws," New York reverted to its old ways.

Roosevelt, of course, soon was in the White House. Devery, along with a bookie pal, bought a struggling baseball team in Baltimore and moved it to Manhattan. The team eventually became the New York Yankees. New York continues to be a rather lively town.

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of "The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English" (Dover Publications, 2012).